Did you know that in an average week, I may be approached by as many as 20 artists looking for gallery representation? Most of them are ineffective, making several easily avoided mistakes. Are you making the same missteps they are?
I’m Jason Horejs, and I own Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. I established the gallery in 2001, and since then I’ve been fortunate to build a successful business. I represent several dozen artists in my gallery. I specialize in working with artists who are early in their careers, and I represent some well-established artists. My gallery has sold millions of dollars worth of art to collectors from all over the world. I love working with our collectors, and I find great satisfaction in helping my artists achieve their dreams as they pursue their art careers.
Several years ago, I began to wonder why many artists struggle so much when talking to gallery owners. I quickly realized that most were unsuccessful because they didn’t know the right way to approach galleries – after all, there is very little information available explaining the best strategies for approaching galleries, and what steps are necessary to prepare to do so.
This lack of information leads to several common errors. As you read on, you may be surprised to find you’ve made one or two of these mistakes yourself!
Mistake #1: Presenting an inconsistent body of work.
Artists generally love their freedom. They want to experiment. They love a challenge. They crave variety. All good things, except when you are presenting your work to a gallery.
The work you present to a gallery needs to be unified. It doesn’t have to be repetitive or formulaic, but it must present you as a consistent artist with a clear vision.
Often I feel I am looking at the work of multiple artists as I review a single portfolio. To avoid this problem, you need to find focus in your work.
If you work in several mediums and incorporate a variety of styles, try to focus on just one for the next 6-12 months. Create a body of work that feels like a “series”. Once you have 20-25 gallery-ready pieces in this series, you will be ready to approach a gallery.
You can further create consistency by presenting your work in a harmonious way. Use similar frames for paintings and photographs, the same one or two bases for sculpture, and unified settings for artistic jewelry. Make it very clear all of the work is by the same artist.
If you simply can’t rein your style in, consider creating multiple portfolios, one for each style. Don’t confuse the galleries you approach by presenting multiple styles in one portfolio!
Mistake #2: Producing insufficient work to sustain gallery sales.
Many artists create marketable work, but in quantities too low to make a gallery relationship viable. Successful artists are consistently in the studio creating new works of art. You may be surprised to learn the results of a recent survey I conducted:
I asked artists how many new works they created in the last twelve months. Painters responded that on average they were creating 53 pieces every twelve months. Sculptors 31.
A gallery owner needs to feel confident you can replace sold art quickly and maintain a high standard of quality. They want to know that if you are successful, you can replenish their inventory without delay.
Don’t despair if you are far from reaching this goal. Rather, look at your creative production for the last year and set a goal to increase the production by 25% in the next 12 months.
Here are several suggestions to increase productivity:
1. Dedicate time daily to your art. Maybe your schedule will only allow for two hours each day, but you will produce more by working for those two hours than you will by waiting for big blocks of time.
Treat your studio time as sacred. Train your family and friends to respect that time. You don’t interrupt them when they are at work; ask them the same courtesy when you are in the studio.
2. Set a production goal. If I could tell you the secret to producing 50 to 100 pieces per year, would you listen? Here it is: just create 1 or 2 pieces of work per week! I know it seems overly simplified, yet few artists work in a concerted and disciplined way to achieve this goal.
(A common objection I hear to this suggestion is that quality will suffer if an artist works this quickly. In my experience, the opposite is true. A certain level of quality may only be obtained by putting miles on the paintbrush, spending hours in the darkroom, or moving tons of clay or stone.)
3. Remove distractions from the studio. Relocate your computer to another room. Unplug the telephone. Nothing kills an artist’s focus faster than the constant interruption of technology. Your inbox and voicemail will keep your messages safe while you work.
Mistake #3: Delivering a portfolio in a format inconvenient for gallery review.
Your portfolio is usually your one chance to show your work to a gallery owner. Poorly formatted portfolios are rarely viewed. Your portfolio should be concise, simple, informative, and accessible.
25 years ago, formatting a portfolio was simple. A portfolio was either a literal portfolio with sheet protectors and photos, or a slide sheet.
The choices have since multiplied. CD? Digitally printed photo-book? PDF file? iPad? Which format is the most effective? A perfect portfolio is easy to maintain, easy to share. At the bottom of this email I’ll include a link to more info on how to create a successful, modern portfolio, but here are a few things to keep in mind about portfolios:
1. Your portfolio should contain no more than 20-25 of your most recent works. You should not create an all-inclusive portfolio. A gallery owner does not want to see your life’s work – they want to see your best, most current, most relevant work.
2. Include pertinent, relevant information about the art on every page. The title, the medium, the size, and the price should be easy to locate. Do not include the date of artwork creation.
3. Place a bio, artist statement, and resume at the end of the portfolio instead of at the beginning. Your artwork is the most important feature of your portfolio – don’t bury it behind personal information. Limit press clippings and magazine articles to between 2-3 pages.
4. Include 2-3 images of sold artwork. You should try to include at least one photograph of an installed piece. These images will establish your credibility more rapidly than any resume ever could.
Mistake #4: Lacking confidence and consistency in pricing.
Is your work priced correctly?
One of the greatest challenges you will face as an artist is knowing how to correctly value your work. Many artists price their work emotionally and inconsistently. Galleries can’t sell wrongly priced art.
Worse yet, nothing will betray an unprepared artist like not knowing how to price his or her work.
Many artists mistakenly under-price their work. They do this because they feel they are not established. They do it because their local art market won’t sustain higher prices. They do it because they lack confidence in their work.
Your artwork should be priced competitively but appropriately. You should price your art to be in line with artists whose work is similar to yours and showing in the kinds of galleries where you would like to show your art.
Mistake #5: Approaching the wrong galleries.
My gallery is located in an art market dominated by Southwest and Western subject matter. My gallery stands apart from most of the galleries in Arizona because I have chosen art outside the norm. Yet I am constantly contacted by Western and Southwestern artists. They seem surprised and hurt when I turn them away. They could have saved us both some discomfort by researching my gallery before approaching me.
I suggest researching galleries carefully before contacting them. A gallery will be a good potential match if they are carrying art that is complementary to your work, or work that might appeal to a similar clientele. You want to approach a wide range of galleries, but eliminate the ones that are presenting work in dramatically different styles or price points from yours.
Mistake #6: Submitting art through the wrong channels.
Conventional wisdom and even some highly respected art marketing books will advise you to send your portfolio with a cover letter to a gallery. You may also hear it’s best to call a gallery and try to make an appointment to meet the owner. You might visit a gallery’s website to learn of their submission guidelines.
In my experience, these methods are typically unsuccessful. I recommend approaching galleries directly, either in person, or by email, with a well-organized portfolio of strong, consistent artwork. It’s important to contact a large number of compatible galleries (see #5).
Ready to learn more? Check out my video on how to create a modern portfolio