|Portfolio--present all one genre (remove the portrait.)|
The long-planned day has arrived. Today is the day you approach your first gallery. You’ve painted those six excellent pieces, had your mentor critique them, and have them nicely framed. You’ve shopped the galleries to find the top four in your target market and found the one you most want to show in, as well as determining how it reviews work. You have business cards, a brochure with some details about you and your art, a résumé listing the few shows you’ve been in, and an artist’s statement, all organized in your portfolio alongside excellent photos of your artwork. Now all you need to do is show the work and pray like crazy it’s accepted.
If some of these suggestions seem daunting, I suggest you take some time to study information devoted to marketing your work. There are some excellent resources in print and online explaining the ins and outs of making cards, brochures, portfolios and prints, not to mention articles in arts magazines with handy tips and cost-cutting information. Be sure that whatever you do fits your personality and artwork. Try to think things through from the point of view of the gallery owner or director before entering the door.
I suggest framing five paintings in three sizes, two small, two medium and one large. Show paintings that have a cohesive look, presenting a nice show hanging together on a wall.
- Choose paintings that show consistent style. (Yes, you do have a style, even if you can’t identify it. Ask someone else to help you select the work if you can’t be objective yourself).
- Select work that overlaps certain colors or themes, but isn’t all identical (not six sunset paintings). Even if it’s your favorite painting ever and won a prize at the fair, if it sticks out as being too different it won’t complement the showing.
- Stick with one genre: all figures in the landscape, all still life, all portraits. This gives the gallery an identifier they can use to sell your work. Later you may add other subject matter.
- Be sure that your paintings are framed in a style that suits the area. Look around at what’s selling before you frame your work and take mat color and style of frame into consideration. Frame all of the work in similar frames and mat colors. You want a consistent, professional look, not a garage sale look.
- Have reasonable prices in mind for each piece, taking into consideration the 50 percent commission fee you’ll likely give the gallery. Once accepted, don’t hesitate to ask the gallery director or owner whether these prices are in line with what she expects to get, or whether they want you to go higher or lower. Be flexible -- you’re getting valuable advice from a professional you plan to do business with, so such questions show you respect them.
ON THE DAY
If you are given a review date, ask what to prepare and arrive on time with everything they request. If you decide to walk in and discuss the possibility of showing with a gallery director, qualify the galleries you’ve chosen before going there. Make sure it’s the right place, or at least in your top four choices.
Prepare to go into the gallery at a very quiet time of day, with a relatively small portfolio. Dress professionally, relative to the market you’re entering. Don’t go in your paint spattered, ripped jeans or lug in a large framed painting. You should be able to carry your portfolio in one hand or on a strap over your shoulder. The sales clerk or director will spot you as an artist a mile off, so don’t try to pretend to be a shopper. Ask if it’s possible to speak to the director or owner. As soon as she approaches, tell her your name and identify yourself as an artist looking for representation. Smile, look her in the eye and be prepared to hear that they are not accepting work at this time. Ask when and how she reviews work. Have a business card ready to hand her with a smile, and offer to leave photographs, if she seems interested. Prepare a small photograph album containing your ten best paintings in a cohesive style, labeled with title, size, and medium. List your contact information inside and offer to leave it with the director if she isn’t open to reviewing work.
If she’s open to discussion, take the time to talk. Ask questions about the work or the gallery. A little schmoozing is acceptable as long as it doesn’t take too much time and doesn’t draw the director away from clients. Ask if you can show the photos of your work, but have a small framed painting inside your portfolio, too. When you open the zipper to retrieve your photo album, make sure your painting is visible. If she is interested in seeing your artwork, do not spread paintings around the gallery floor unless the director tells you to, and never, ever interrupt anyone working with clients. You’re there to support the work of the gallery. Your spouse or a friend should help you retrieve paintings, and hold back all but the two you carry in—your two best, of course.
As you show the work, talk about what you do. If this idea is hard for you, discuss with your mentor or a friend two things you can point out about each painting. You want to give the gallery a sales pitch they can give to a client, something like the location of the subject matter, a special color you used, or an experience you had painting it.
The director just asked you to consign work. Now what? Be prepared to read over any consignment contract the gallery may want signed, which is for your protection as well as theirs. Don’t quibble over details unless you feel that what they’re suggesting is outside the norm. Read sample contracts so that you’re clear on what’s standard. There are many showing online that you can peruse ahead of time.
Carry two copies of a short, simple consignment form in your portfolio, left blank so that you can fill in the gallery name and address, as well as the titles, sizes and prices of your paintings, should the owner want to take the work immediately. Most often a gallery will offer you a form, since paperwork is part of what you’re paying them to do. Don’t be afraid to ask about policies such as how often the gallery pays its artists and whether it sends notice when nothing has sold. (Most don’t.) This is professional and expected.
They want to accept all your paintings today and ask if you can deliver a few more in a week or two. Many galleries prefer to have some back stock so that they can rotate work or show interested customers more paintings. Be prepared ahead of time. Have three or four additional paintings stored at home ready to frame. If you don’t have the work, be honest and let them know when you can deliver it. Do not run home to paint four more and try to deliver them in a week. It won’t work, trust me. If you have work available, show photographs or agree to send digital shots via e-mail as soon as you can. It’s best to develop a good working relationship with the gallery by asking which paintings the owners want to show. You can always slip in a couple of your other painting subjects when you consign, if you don’t mind framing them at the risk of having them turned down. Determine some standard sizes you will use so that you can replace one painting with another.
It’s always a good idea to ask when the gallery would prefer to accept deliveries of your paintings. Some busy galleries won’t consign on Saturday afternoon, for instance, so be sure to let them know when to expect you, and arrive on time. Whenever you show up at the gallery, carry framed work in with cardboard corners in place. (I carried my framed work in homemade canvas bags for years, sized to accommodate three or more paintings that I could easily transport myself. This allowed me to come in quietly and unobtrusively, without making too many trips, and I could quickly corral corners to carry away when finished.) Ask where they would like you to place the paintings. Stack your consigned paintings in one spot and request that the sales clerk or director sign your already-filled-out consignment form as you count and read the titles of the paintings to her. You can always line out anything that isn’t consigned, and initial beside the title, if she doesn’t want it. Even if the gallery has paperwork it wants filled out, I suggest you have a neat little consignment form of your own. If nothing else, they can copy titles and sizes from your typed copy. Save them time, trouble and hassle!
Once your business is transacted, clear out anything taking up space, and if you have time return to the gallery to look at the work. Notice the prices, review the framing styles, look at the lighting, the displays, etc. You’re in partnership with the gallery to sell work, so take note of the business. Ask what’s selling, and admire the work you see. Keep a consignment list in your pocket and check your inventory to see that it’s displayed, that the price is correct, and that it’s clean and well-lighted. If needed, problems with any of these issues can be taken up later, over the phone or via e-mail. Take a photograph of the wall holding your work for future reference, if the gallery doesn’t object.
There’s far more to dealing with galleries than I can detail here, of course. Some have likened a gallery-artist relationship to marriage, and there’s some truth to that -- aside from “‘til death do us part.” Your job is to provide good work, ready to display, in a timely fashion. Their job is to represent you well and show and sell your work. Each partner must do the job well to make the relationship flourish.
When you encounter problems, think through how you want to solve things and approach the gallery personnel with respect. Remember that you’re one of many artists they deal with, so try to maintain a strong working relationship that’s built on mutual benefits. Determine that above all, as much as it depends on you, you’ll keep your word and try to consider things from the other’s point of view.
When you find a trusted gallery owner who can market your work well, you may develop a longtime working relationship that benefits both of you. The bottom line is to always seek out how you can support the gallery. Be sure to express your appreciation for the hard work the owners do. Thank them for sales -- send an e-mail or write a little note once in a while. You are in this together.