Posted on February 17, 2017, 12:57 pm
10 mins

There you are in a gallery, enjoying the artwork, but if you are new to galleries, you might be mystified by how they work. Who owns the work? How are things priced? What happens when a piece sells? Why should you buy from a gallery and not directly from the artists they show? In this installment of Art Galleries: Etiquette for the Curious & Daunted, we discuss these basics and more.

How Do Galleries Operate?

Most galleries mount monthly, rotating exhibitions. These can be solo shows of one artist, or a thematic exhibit of artworks from multiple artists. Exhibits of art by a deceased artist may look over that artist’s career, or provide a new perspective on their work.

In most commercial galleries, the art is still the property of the artist and the work is there on consignment. In some cases, the gallery may invest in the production of the artwork, or front funds against the artwork’s sale. Other galleries specialize in the resale of artwork (called the secondary market), and the gallery may own the artwork or have it on consignment from a collector.

When a gallery show ends, what isn’t sold yet moves to another room in the gallery, goes into storage or returns to the artist (or their estate). Just because a show is over doesn’t mean the gallery is done trying to sell the artwork. Buyers may take time to decide, or may come in to see the artwork long after a show ends. Insuring and storing artwork in a back room is an expense of its own, so smaller galleries won’t keep a large stock on hand.

A gallerist’s work is never done. The selling process entails a lot of planning, study, marketing and outreach. For example:

  • Photographing the artwork and designing a catalogue around the show.
  • Hosting swanky receptions with food and drinks, often staying open late (with all staff on hand).
  • Promoting artists and shows on their website, on social media, and in honest-to-god print advertising.
  • Talking about the art with anyone who comes in, emails or calls.
  • Contacting museum curators, civic curators and corporate collections in an effort to sell the work.
  • Applying to residencies or awards on the artist’s behalf.
  • Taking clients or curators out to lunch or dinner, or to the artist’s studio.
  • Renting a booth at a high-end art fair in another city. (Plus transporting staff to install/uninstall and man the booth.)

If a work sells, the gallery typically handles the shipping, taxes, customs and paperwork. As compensation for all of these efforts and expenses, the gallery receives a percentage when the piece sells. There’s also the rent to pay, of course. Many galleries choose high-traffic (read: expensive) areas where you, the viewing public, can find them easily and discover new artists. Take that as further evidence that they really do want you to come in, whether or not you are going to buy work from the artist(s) they are showing. Review part 1 of this series for more specific reason why you should take a look.

Why Should I Buy From A Gallery And Not The Artist?

I sometimes encounter the assumption that art galleries are stealing from their artists, or don’t fairly compensate them. Don’t think this, pretty please.

Galleries and artists mutually agree on a price for the work that they consider fair for both sides after the split. This increases the overall value of that artist’s body of work in the long-term. And, there’s a huge amount of work and expense going in on both sides (see above).

Would you find a book you wanted to read in a bookstore, and then track down the author and buy a galley proof directly from them in hopes of a deal? Or because you think the bookstore wasn’t paying them enough? Nope. (Plus, that author is gonna get a restraining order.)

Going around the gallery to buy work directly from an artist weakens the gallery, and weakens the relationship between the artist and the gallery. If the gallery loses enough sales, it closes its doors. There goes another venue where artists can show their work to a broad audience, and that’s another strike against the larger arts scene of your region.

Many artists choose to represent themselves, or cannot find a gallery to represent them. In those cases, you should certainly work directly with them. But, any artist who is honoring their gallery contract should direct your inquiry to their gallery, who will handle the sale. If an artist has gallery representation, they should not have to spend time selling and shipping their work. That is the gallery’s job. The artist should be spending time doing, y’know, art.

But What of Work Seen Outside the Gallery?

You might say, “But wait! I saw this artist’s work in an airport exhibit, not in your gallery! So, I should go straight to them and buy it, because you didn’t do anything.”

Actually, sometimes it is the gallery’s doing. Gallerists often find non-traditional venues to exhibit work: aquaria, salons, city halls, convention centers, condominium leasing centers, hotel lobbies. (All real venues from personal experience.) Even work at art museums can sometimes be for sale through a gallery. If a gallery’s name is mentioned in the exhibit, contact them. And if the artist directs you to their gallery, respect that they’re honoring the process.

Why Is Art Expensive? (An Incomplete List)

First: Sometimes, it’s not! Art comes in every price range. Just because the gallery looks fancy doesn’t mean the art is automatically out of your budget. In all but the highest-end gallery, you should find a range. I have seen works priced from $45 to $65,000 in a single space.

Second: That one sculpture you’re holding in your hand? It’s the culmination of the time, effort, knowledge and trial-and-error by the artist who made it. For an artist deeper into their career, we might be talking about years of expensive formal or informal education, decades of learning technique and process. This artist likely began their career selling at a lower price, but their work is now in enough demand to be considered worth more.

Consider: If you’re a senior employee at a company, you’re getting paid well because your years of experience, intuition and savvy are worthwhile. The same is true with an artist who is at the pinnacle of their craft. They are seeing complex projects to their conclusion. They are making things that no one else could.

Third: The object itself may be very expensive to produce. For example, glass art tends to be expensive because it has huge upfront costs. To produce one or two large pieces can involve renting studio time and post-production tools, hiring assistants for the blow, and paying a mount-maker. Or, the size and many steps of a project may necessitate multiple studios or companies working on it. In many cases, the price tag is only just covering the artist’s expenses to make the piece.

And, don’t forget: Artists aren’t paid salary. They are paid when art sells, so there’s no guaranteed paycheck at the end of the month. (A reason why so few artists are full-time, and those who are have to hustle so hard.) Imagine putting dozens of hours and thousands of dollars into something that may never, ever make you profit. For higher priced artwork, selling one piece might cover studio rent, the heating bill, or fund the next project. (And all this isn’t even mentioning factors like rarity, market values, popularity and perceived worth.)


In Part 3, we discuss taking the leap and buying art. Read Part 1 for a refresh on why walking into a gallery in the first place isn’t scary!

Featured Image: Installation of works by Juventino Aranda at Greg Kucera Gallery.

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/