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Art & Culture
Auld Lang Syne
lessons learned from this profession
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|Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 29
Hallowe'en FrightOn Hallowe'en eleven years ago I did the scariest thing that I could think of: I went and incorporated Legacy Art, and commenced with my business partner and my wife to opening a gallery. For eight years I worked between 60 and 80 hours a week, usually drawing no salary. And it is a matter of public record just how well everything turned out.
But that experience (and that failure) taught me a lot, and qualified me to give advice to others thinking of opening a gallery, or becoming a professional artist. Or at least so thought Mike Sleadd when he asked me to come talk to his class at Columbia College last week. I thought I would share some of the discussion we had over the course of an hour or so, since many of the questions asked of me were ones I come across in one form or another on a regular basis. A caution: this is harsh reality, not sugar-coated.
If you were opening a gallery now, what would you do differently?
I wouldn't do it. (Laughter) No, seriously, I wouldn't do it.
Because there are many people in Columbia who say they support the arts, but when it comes time to open their wallets, that support evaporates. Ostensibly, with our population size, education level, and disposable income, this town should be able to support several professional galleries. But many galleries have tried, and many galleries have failed, all taking different approaches to solving the problem. At best, a gallery can survive a couple of years on hope and initial novelty, then that wears off.
But you lasted 8 years, yes?
That's a tribute to how slow a learner I am, I guess. Or how stubborn I am. Or how much hope I had. I'm not sure which.
So, what would you advise an artist here?
You mean someone who wants to earn a living solely on the sale of their art? Get used to travel. You'll need to do the art fair circuit to get established, and to travel to other cities in order to find a gallery you can work with. Or move.
How do I approach a gallery to get them to show my work?
Every gallery has a 'protocol sheet' that outlines how they want submissions. Get it, follow it to the letter. Don't follow it, and your submission will be tossed without consideration.
Yes, but every gallery out there gets swamped with people wanting to show their work. They streamline procedures as much as possible. If you don't want to play by their rules, that flags you as being a "problem case," and that's grief that they just don't need. So if they say they want slides, get slides. They want digital-format images, give them digital-format images. And get the best images you can afford - it makes a huge difference in how your work comes across not just for galleries, but also for shows and competitions.
Say they want to show my work, what then?
They'll probably offer you a trial contract, for 3 to 6 months. Get it, look it over. It should specify who owns what, how long the trial period is, when payments are made, what the commission rate is, et cetera. Look it over. If you like it, sign it.
What if you don't like it, can you negotiate, say a better commission rate?
Not likely. Certainly not until you've established yourself as a good seller and easy to work with. Try it before then, and you'll find yourself out on the sidewalk with your artwork piled around you.
That's not fair.
Fair has nothing to do with it. A gallery offers a service, on their terms. They will try to sell your work, for a specified commission. If you don't like the service, the terms, or their performance, you are free to go elsewhere. Look at it from a gallery's point-of-view: they're the ones, not you, who have invested probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in building costs, overhead, employees, and advertising, and they need to recoup that money in the form of commissions.
Well, yeah. Even here in Columbia. Costs of operating a decent-sized gallery downtown will likely run in excess of ten grand a month. At a 50% commission, that means that they have to sell $20,000 per month, or more, depending on their situation. That's a lot of artwork.
I had no idea.
Most people don't. Most artists don't. But that's why a gallery needs sales, not "moral support," not artists whose work is interesting but unsalable. So, don't take it personally if a gallery rejects your submission or gives your work a try but concludes that you're not right for their market. Just go and find a market, or another gallery, where your art is well received.
Sounds like a lot of work.
You bet it is. With no guarantee of success. Which is why many artists conclude that it isn't worth it, or just isn't possible, to try and earn a living solely from the sale of their artwork. Of the hundreds of artists we represented while at Legacy, only a few were making a go of it from their artwork. Frightening, eh?
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-present
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-present
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