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The art gallery business is first of all a business, art is the product sold and the dealers goal is to make a profit. The dealers job is to manipulate the media, curators and collectors to achieve that goal. The greater the skill at this manipulation, the greater the ability to make a profit. An artists life is the antithesis of this. The artists life is about self expression, beauty, psychological exploration, the enhancement of the human experience. To live as an artist requires self sacrifice, thus the being of the artist is in conflict with the dealers materialist, profit seeking mentality.
Part of the psychological manipulation of the dealer is to create an aura of importance around his/her person and the artwork in possession. The more important the artwork seems, the greater it's monetary value, the easier it is to sell and the greater the dealers profit. The dealer achieves this by creating a monumental, vault like atmosphere in the gallery. The gallery is a vacant white cube, people entering it are compelled to speak in hushed tones. The artwork cannot be touched, it is presented as a sacred object. Likewise the dealer is inaccessible, hidden behind a barricade of receptionists and walls. To speak with the dealer you must request an audience and only the most important will be entertained. This combination of atmosphere and inaccessibility greatly intimidates many artists. They meekly ask for their works to be viewed and are crushed when the receptionist looks up at them coldly and delivers the standard reply, "We are not looking at new artists". This whole arrangement is designed with the intent of intimidation. Like a scene created for the set of a play or film, it creates an illusion, in this case a very intimidating one.
In the quest for exhibition and representation the artist will encounter many different types of galleries. Some of these galleries may greatly benefit the artist, some may provide little benefit and others may even be destructive.
The first type of gallery and by far the most desirable is the strictly commercial gallery. By commercial I mean a gallery that engages in sales as it's primary means of income. In this type of gallery the artist is taken on and represented by a dealer. The dealer takes a commission on the sale of the artist's work. The commission rate is arbitrarily set by the gallery. In general a commission is at least 50%. In the top New York City galleries the commissions for a new artist can be as much as 90%. A 90% commission rate is nefarious, but most unknown artists will agree to any rate when offered the possibility of exhibition in such a gallery. The difficulty with getting an exhibition in a quality commercial gallery is that it is basically a closed system. The majority of the galleries are inaccessible to the artist.
Most of the top commission galleries in the major cities like New York, Chicago and LA select artists from within a closed circle of associates and friends. At this level the fine art business has a club-like mentality. A very small group of individuals, dealers, critics, curators and collectors control the business. Unless you are connected with these individuals socially and accepted into their sphere you will not be able to exhibit in any of the top galleries. You will not even be allowed to approach the dealer with your work. The dealer selects new artists from within the tightly knit group. This is the reason it is so difficult to get an exhibit in a gallery of this type. It has nothing to do with the quality of your work.
Of course before you pursue other types of galleries you should try to get into a commercial gallery. Even a lower level, not-so-famous commercial gallery is better than the others because you will not have to pay to exhibit there. Also do not get stuck on the idea that the gallery must be in Manhattan or LA. There are a lot of good commercial galleries in small cities and resort towns across America. It is better to be in one of these than in a lower level gallery in a major city where you will be paying thousands of dollars for exhibition space.
Due to the exclusive nature of the commercial galleries, many other alternative type galleries have arisen. Alternative type galleries include non-for profit galleries, cooperative galleries, artist-owned galleries and privately owned rental galleries.
As a rule the non for profit gallery is accepted in the art community as a decent place to show. It takes considerable effort and bureaucratic skill to open and maintain a non-profit corporation. Providing the organization is adequately funded and is not requesting money from the artists who show, the non-profit can be a decent alternative to the mainstream. The problem with many non-profits is that the larger, better funded organizations are operated by individuals who emulate the commercial galleries. Therefore their policy is to be just as exclusive and to exhibit the same type of art that you see in commercial galleries.
The artist owned gallery runs the gamut from good to bad. An artist owned gallery is a gallery owned and operated by one or a few artists. It can be anything from a tiny hole in the wall storefront on a street where no one will ever see your work, to a room in the basement of a church, to a huge gallery that may even rival the commercial gallery at first impression. In general artists are not running a gallery to rip off other artists. The gallery may charge fees of some kind to exhibit, but usually these are to cover costs and are not excessive. An artist owned gallery can be a fair place to exhibit, the determination has to be made on the individual operation, it's location, the quality of the space and the professionalism of the organization.
The Co-Op is a gallery jointly owned by the exhibiting artists, or owned by a manager with artist members. Usually artists pay a fee to join and pay monthly dues. Artists contribute free labor to run the gallery and usually have a solo show once every two to five years. The sales made at this show are usually a result of the business brought by the artist as most co-op's are not very good sales venues. The co-op provides social activity and can be fun thing for artists looking to get involved with a group of peers.
By far the lowest level gallery is the Show for Fee Gallery. Many of these galleries could fall into the category of scams and are run by individuals who are using the desperation of naive artists as the engine for their business. These galleries promise promotion, sales, exhibits, fame and glory for a price, generally a very stiff one. They fee can be several thousand dollars for a spot in a group show, solo shows can run over ten thousand. These galleries make their money by selling the wall space, not by selling art work. There may be exceptions to the rule, but most of them should be avoided (in my opinion).
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