Art Galleries: Etiquette For The Curious & Daunted – Getting in the Door

"The Art Galleries: Etiquette for the Curious & Daunted" series aims to clear up misconceptions about galleries, demystify what's going on behind those white walls, and maybe even get you collecting.

Sarra Scherb
Posted on February 01, 2017, 2:30 pm
11 mins

No matter how many evenings they throw their doors open for an art walk, or how many tiny cheeses they give out, galleries have an enduringly bad rep. They’re perceived by many as elitist, daunting or ultra-expensive. Despite the fact that they’re free to enter, there seems to be an invisible barrier many folks won’t cross.

So let’s start with the basics and clarify what a commercial art gallery is and does.

What is an art gallery? Is it the same as a museum?

Quick, while the other gallerists aren’t looking: I have a dark secret to confess.

An art gallery is a store. (Gasp!)

At the end of the day, an art gallery is a store that sells art. You don’t need to whisper. Or dress up. Or pull out your art history post-doctorate.

And, really, galleries are better than stores. They’re places of learning, of community engagement, and of rearranging your headspace. Most galleries change their exhibits every month, so you’ll see something different every time. (Ever been to a shoe store? It’s shoes all the way down.)

Like museums, art galleries show amazing things—objects that make you scratch your head, make you reconsider your perspectives, make you dumbfounded by what human hands can create. We’re surrounded by utilitarian, mass-produced objects all day, every day. Use your lunch break to see something that is fundamentally about waking your brain up out of that fug.

The key difference between an art museum and an art gallery is that, with few exceptions, everything in a gallery can be purchased. Pretty cool, huh?

What does it cost to visit?

Nothing.

N-o-t-h-i-n-g.

It is free to walk into almost any commercial art gallery. That alone should convince you that this is just an elegant store of visions, and a place you are welcome to explore.

Who owns the art gallery?

We’ll get more in depth about how galleries operate in the next installment of this series, but we’ll start with some basics.

In most cases, a commercial art gallery is owned and run by a gallerist or gallerists. A gallerist represents a roster of artists as an agent, advocate and dealer. Choosing to represent an artist is a big decision for gallerists, so they have to be serious about the work. Most artists want to be represented by a gallery. It’s a huge validation and a major step in an artist’s career.

Usually the work in the gallery is in on consignment: Neither artist nor gallerist see money until a work sells, and they share the profits if it does.

Some art galleries are cooperatives run by artists themselves. There is no gallerist working for them. In these galleries, the person behind the desk is often an artist, and typically a member of the co-op. Others will hire staff who have never touched a paintbrush, and have skills in arts administration, design or advertising.

Galleries don’t want me if I’m not buying, right?

Not at all. Even if the person behind the desk isn’t jumping out of their seat to greet you (it’s hard to jump in heels) you are welcome to browse and enjoy. In Europe, you may need to wear a suit in a high-end gallery to be taken seriously, but in America (especially in Seattle) this is not the case. Bring your scruffy jeans, your lidded beverage, and your well-behaved child, and take a look.

And moreover… ask questions. What is this made of? What inspired the artist? How was it made? Is this new or old? How long did it take to make? What does the title mean?

That person behind the desk has the answers—so ask them! They’ve just spent a month preparing for the show that you’re looking at with your eyeballs, and they should be prepared and willing to discuss the artwork.

But, hey, if you want to buy a catalog? A poster? Something small and un-bank-breaking? That would be great. Galleries aren’t museums, and they’re looking to sell to keep the lights on.

If you really enjoy what a gallery shows—if you’re there every week on lunch break—consider supporting them. Even small purchases can help them make that BIG rent they’re paying.

All these places look the same. Is there a difference?

Hit the downtown Art Walk and you’ll see a wide range of artwork: photography, performance, ceramics, textiles, totem poles, video, room-sized installations, old stuff, new stuff, and everything in between. Go back month after month and you’ll find that certain galleries keep showing work you love, and others just don’t fit your taste

That’s because all galleries have a focus of some kind. It could be a specific medium, like the Traver Gallery, which shows almost exclusively glass, or Davidson Galleries, which specializes in prints and works on paper. It might be a genre—like Push/Pull’s focus on underground and comics art. Others specialize in a region or a time period.

Find a few galleries that consistently show work that speaks to you. Maybe you can’t get enough of weird textures, or a certain shade of blue, or artists inspired by the desert, or human faces. You might begin to pinpoint similarities across different works that really turn you on, learning more about your personal taste as you go.

But seriously… I’m not an arts person. You’re going to judge me, aren’t you?

What is an “arts person”? Seriously, I don’t know what that means. Are you saying that you don’t have a degree in art history? Can’t tell Chihuly from Courbet? Can’t swirl a glass of wine while expounding on post-modernism?

Don’t worry about it.

Art is about eliciting a response from you, from love you can’t explain all the way to hatred you can’t contain.

See something you like? It’s good! Enjoy it! Buy it! And congratulations, you’re an arts person!

See something you hate? Don’t buy it. But, you’ve had an opinion, and that makes you—wait for it—an arts person!

The more you begin to think and talk about art—how it makes you feel, the comparisons and connections you make between one artist’s work and another, etc—the comfier you’ll become. The more you see, the more you’ll want to see. Sign up for a gallery’s newsletter, attend a lecture by the artist or gallerist, and it’ll keep getting easier.

The person behind the desk is too busy to spend time judging you, or sussing out your level of art knowledge. Don’t let discomfort get in the way of enjoying and experiencing art that is free to look at in galleries across your city.

Okay. Where and when do I go?

In Seattle the largest concentration of art galleries are the venerable ones clustered in downtown, particularly Pioneer Square. Funkier and younger-skewing galleries are scattered liberally across Capitol Hill, while some of the most audacious and experimental work is being shown in Georgetown.

Galleries can have odd hours. They often have tiny staffs to run them—some are even solo operations—so many aren’t open daily. You should check before you head out.

This is why many cities have an Art Walk, when galleries in a given neighborhood stay open into the evening and people can come in after work. Art walks generally coincide with the launch of new exhibitions, and the gallerists and artists want your help celebrating. The artist is usually present (and sometimes refreshments are, too) and there’s a party atmosphere that changes from venue to venue. It makes a perfect date or group activity.

Seattle’s largest Art Walk is First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square, which began in the late 1970s. Though the epicenter is Pioneer Square, most downtown galleries participate, too. Some artist studios are also open for the evening, particularly in the Tashiro Kaplan Lofts. Hundreds of people of all ages visit First Thursday Art Walk each month, especially in summer, when there are open air art booths and street food to munch. Seattle Art Museum even gets in on the action, with free admission and late hours on First Thursday evenings.

And it’s not just downtown: almost every neighborhood in Seattle has its own monthly art walk. From Capitol Hill (second Thursdays), to West Seattle (also second Thursdays), to Georgetown (second Saturday), to Greenwood (second Fridays) and more. Most of the Walks have a website with info about what is showing that month. You can also use resources like Art Access, the Seattle Art Dealers Association Guide or Art Guide (nationally) to see what’s going on.

Next Up: Part II: Deeper Into The Land Of Tiny Cheeses…

Sarra Scherb
Sarra Scherb an arts writer, gallerist, curator and graphic designer in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine and Weave Magazine. She has worked with five Washington museums and four Seattle art galleries, and none of them have caught fire or flickered into a different dimension, so she must be doing something right.She runs around town as Brass Archer: https://brassarcher.wordpress.com/