There are few industries as heart-wrenching as the fine art business. It’s a six-car pileup at the intersection of art and commerce and the amount of opinion and hyperbole that is somehow labeled as “fact” is just terrifying. The gallery business is an entire industry based on getting people to part with money in exchange for an undefinable emotional response (best case scenario) or under the impossible-to-keep promise of long-term investment (worst case scenario). Then you pile on the general pressure of running a business selling a luxury good during an economic downturn and you’ve got a lot of really miserable art being shown by really miserable gallery owners.
Assuming that didn’t discourage you and send you running back to shooting car shows and weddings, here are a few things that you should know about showing in galleries that most gallery owners probably won’t think to mention.
That sounds really awful, doesn’t it? It’s true. Those droves and droves of people who picked up a Nikon D40 kit on clearance at Target and suddenly think they’re photographers? Those people know how much a cheap frame costs and they know how much photo paper costs and they think that if you add those two things together, that is how much a photograph is worth. So when your beautifully framed photo triptych of landscape details from your trip to Joshua Tree, complete with acid-free archival mattes and UV-resistant museum glass is hanging on that pristine white wall, here is what a casual art buyer sees:
Total acceptable price: $45
Now at this point, the gallery owner should step in and save the day. The gallery owner’s duty is to assist informed collectors in furthering and expanding their collections, to represent their artists with total professionalism, and to inform inexperienced art buyers in the value of what they are seeing. If someone looks at your magnificently framed collection and shrugs, insisting they could take a picture of a tree and frame it for $45, the gallery owner has an obligation to at least try to inform this person better about what they are looking at…right?
Well, they do. But most gallery owners don’t actually know any better themselves. If hard pressed to justify the cost of a painting, anyone can speak eloquently (or at least convincingly) about master technique and the near invisibility of the brush strokes and the layering that allows for this and that etc etc etc but when you start talking about photography…most gallery owners are just as clueless as the guy staring at your photos and scratching his head. They acknowledge photography as fine art, but only because a few photographers distinguished themselves enough already to prove it…not because they fully understand it.
So as the artist, you have to pull double-duty here; you need to inform the public about why your work has value AND you need to inform the gallery so they can understand and sell it better. Every photographer is telling a story with every single photograph…the story of the old Leica you used that was your grandfather’s or the history of that ravine where you took pictures of all those glass bottles in the water and how they got there or the name of the little girl sobbing and holding scissors in one hand and beheaded paper dolls in the other. Just because a picture is worth a thousand words doesn’t mean that the words aren’t important…as an artist you need to be able to speak confidently about your work and make sure that anyone involved in selling it can do the same.
So much effort goes into the photography…the location, the subject, the lighting, the angles, the shadows, the white balance, the colors…the litany of technical details that need to be dealt with on the way to getting a great photograph seems never ending. Then you have to deal with processing and developing/printing and making sure that the physical output looks every bit as amazing as it should. And if you get into any of those nifty processing tricks for developing film, you can end up throwing away dozens of prints before you get a single one that you like. Then, finally, the image is exactly as it should be and you can pat yourself on the back and move on to the next one!
Just as you didn’t want to show up for the prom in your finest formal wear and your mom’s battered ‘86 station wagon, you can’t just throw that photo into any frame and call it a day. Framing is one of the most overlooked aspects of fine art, and can be the difference between a piece that sells and a piece that gets wrapped in brown paper and stuffed in the back of a warehouse to die a slow, lonely death.
Oh, and since most of us simply buy frames to insert our standard-sized photographs, here’s something you might not know:
Good quality fine-art framing is really expensive.
Some photographers are totally fine with simply offering their prints unframed and leaving the framing up to the end buyer. Usually, that’s just fine…but not if you’re planning to hang your work in a proper show at a gallery. First impressions are everything, and if the first impression of your work is a loose photograph hanging from padded binder clips, then that lack of interest in presentation will end up being mirrored by collectors’ lack of interest in buying your work.
Avoid chain store framing at all costs. Yes, there are some great framers and handlers working at some of these places but they are far and few between, and mostly it’s just people who can use a hammer, glass cutter, and a screwdriver. I worked briefly for a framing shop in my 20s and with most places there is a total and complete lack of interest in whatever is being framed. The goal is to turn things over as quickly as possible while using as little glass and frame stock as you can. Turn it over quick, and don’t cut yourself. And since your work is going in to a frame, a lot of these places don’t really care what it’s going to look like when it comes out. I saw family heirloom photographs get taped to foam board with packing tape, I saw the edges of paintings on wood panels actually get sanded to fit in a frame that was measured incorrectly before it was cut, and I saw other crimes against art that still make my blood boil to this day. If you want to preserve the physical integrity of your work in any way, avoid chain store framing at all costs.
Many local galleries will offer framing as an additional service. In these instances, the quality of the work they show will often bear a glimpse into the quality of the framing you can expect. If you see a lot of bad photography and warped still-life paintings of pears and dolls heads, keep walking. If you see a lot of high-ticket work by artists of note, chances are good their framing team will consist of people with years of handling and framing experience…people who won’t damage your work just to stuff it into a cheap frame and then charge you triple.
Call your local museum and ask to talk to their preparator. This is someone who knows more about framing and art conservation than probably every gallery in your city. They’ve likely got a degree (or several) in this, and if anyone is clued in to where to get the best framing done in your city…that’s the person who would know.
There are a ton of options with framing, so keep in mind that you still need to frame and price this piece appropriately. Don’t opt for the 1,000 year archival triple-thick matte board and museum glass for a photograph that you plan to put in the gallery for $100….the framing alone will cost at least 3 times that much. At least. Figure out the appropriate pricing for your pieces, and then go with the best quality framing you can manage that will keep it in that price range. And no matter the price & quality of the framing materials you’re using, make sure the actual framing is being done by someone who knows what they’re doing.
For every gallery that treats their artists with respect, pays on time, handles the art properly, and promotes their shows well, there are at least a hundred that do none of these things. The horror stories come fast and easy as soon as you dip your toe into these waters, and you’ll hear them all. Sculptures being knocked off the wall by an intern and destroyed 10 minutes before the opening reception, artists getting paid for a show so late that they forgot the show happened, artists being told their show sold out only to have half the pieces returned, postage due, a year later; the list goes on and on. Artwork stolen, rude gallery staff, artists being denied entry to their own show…it’s absolutely insane the kind of things that you’ll hear once you start asking around about galleries.
If you’re looking to begin showing in galleries, start local. Go to openings, talk to the artists and the patrons and the staff and get a feel for what kind of buyers attend which galleries. Make note of which galleries are selling a lot of work and which ones aren’t. Lots of sold artwork denotes several things…the talent of the artist and the quality of the work for sure, but more importantly it shows that the gallery has a solid buyer network and contacts and knows how to close a deal. If you really want to see how a gallery treats people, go to a packed opening and buy a small piece of inexpensive art. That transaction will tell you a lot about the gallery and their staff and give you a pretty good indicator of whether or not you want to deal with them. It’s similar to the old adage “Someone who is nice to you but not to the waiter isn’t a nice person.” If they’re really busy and still handle a very small dollar transaction with someone they don’t know and they do it with ease, grace, and appreciation….THAT is a gallery you want to be in business with.
And beyond the type of gallery you show with, you also need to be very careful about the kind of show where you allow your artwork to be displayed. Be very wary of group shows of any kind, and avoid them if at all possible. A group show is a gallery’s way of trying to get as many people through the doors or to their website as possible by essentially hedging their bets. If you host a show with two artists, you are depending on the market for two artists. If you are hosting a show with 40 artists, you’re dipping into a much larger buyer pool and have a far greater chance of selling the majority of the show. As a gallery owner, a group show is a great way to add new buyers to your list, try out working with artists you haven’t made up your mind about yet, and generally increase the profile of your gallery.
To an artist, they are 99 percent worthless.
Being one small name on a 4″ × 6″ postcard with 40 other artist names doesn’t increase your profile. Neither does having one piece (likely a small one) hanging in a gallery with 40+ other pieces of art really showcase your work. You will barely (if at all) be mentioned in any press for the show, and if any media or bloggers show up to photograph the show the chances of your piece being pictured in any post-show coverage is incredibly slim, at best.
Even worse are “theme shows”, which have become all the rage among lazy gallery owners. For these shows, the owner usually cuts a deal with some entity…like whoever owns the copyright to “The A-Team”. The copyright owner says “Yeah, we’ve got a new DVD box set coming out that we want to promote” and they pay the gallery a lot of money to host a special “The A-Team” themed art show. The gallery calls a ton of artists, woos them with promises of all the press coverage that will be there along with a special appearance by Mr. T, and a bunch of really great artists do a largely forgettable pieces that are specific references to The A-Team.
The end result is that you’ve done a piece of work that has nothing to do with your usual subject matter, the gallery got paid before a single piece of art was hung and they got all the press already so they don’t care if your piece sells nor will they make any effort to place it, and no one remembers or cares who was in the show because hey, Mr. T was there. So you’ve essentially “sold out” for less than nothing, since you paid for time and materials to create the piece, frame it, and ship it out or deliver it. And when that unsold piece is eventually returned to you, good luck finding someone else who wants that brilliant photograph that you staged of your neighbor’s topiary garden from an angle that makes it look exactly like Mr. T’s haircut.
Every once in a while a group show can be a great opportunity to work with a gallery you’re curious about or show with artists that you might feel are a notch or two above you. But approach any gallery and especially any offer of being in a group show with a heavily critical eye, and don’t waste your time and talent if it looks like anything other than a slam dunk for your career.
As with everything, there is a lot more to selling your photography as fine art than just these few things…but they’re the most common problems that I’ve encountered and things that can really make-or-break a fledgling artist as they try to break in to the gallery scene.
Remember to dress nice at your openings, smile at the critics even when they tear you apart, and never have more than two drinks if there are buyers there.
Original text ©2012 Steve Brown.
Original text ©2012 Steve Brown.