Visual Artist’s Challenge: Should I Work with Galleries, Go Direct to Collectors or Both?

There is a term called coopetition where companies compete on some fronts and cooperate on others. I believe this is the future for artists and galleries.
Art Marketing Conversation with Lori McNee & Barney Davey
 In the art business, if you hang out online with your kind or tribe as Seth Godin calls them, it does not take long to find lots of interesting folks whose work you admire. Such is the case with fine artist and prolific blogger Lori McNee and me.

Through mutual requests, we decided instead of guest blogging for each other that it would be a fun experiment to collaborate conversation style keeping to a single art marketing topic. It was an easy choice to first tackle whether visual artists should work on getting into galleries, seek to build their own direct-to-collector distribution, or do both.

Barney:  Although it arguably is contradictory, I am in the “do both” camp. While I believe artists will enjoy many benefits by working with galleries, working exclusively makes artists too reliant on things out of their control. In year’s past, there were no options and the gallery system was stronger.

I do not advocate abandoning art galleries. However, in today’s art market, well established art galleries can get blindly buzz sawed by circumstances beyond their control and wreak havoc to the detriment of its artists in the process. And, now visual artists have tools to sell direct as never before. In their own interest, I believe they should pursue them alongside galleries.  As entrepreneurs, artists must tend their art careers and art businesses. That means being aware of changes and making the most of them for their own sake.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Lori:  This is one of the most heated topics being debated by artists right now. In fact, this very subject has been the focus of conversation during the past two weekends on my visits and paint-outs with some very influential professional artists. This is what I learned:
•    Surprisingly, some nationally recognized artists have begun to abandon the gallery route in favor of studio shows, self promoted exhibitions and direct marketing sales.
•    The majority of artists, including myself, believe in a healthy combination of gallery representation and self promotional sales.
•    The minority believe in relying on galleries for their sole promotion and sales.

Here is the synopsis: Direct marketing is the trend for 2010-2011. Gone are the days when galleries could hang art and easily sell it off the walls.  In light of the challenging economic times, the art market has suffered and galleries have been struggling. Most prospective collectors do not have the disposable income they once enjoyed. Now when a buyer does decide to invest their hard earned money in art, the collector wants a personal connection or better understanding of the artist. Galleries and artists can now tap into the ‘direct marketing’ approach with the use of Social Media, blogs, websites, YouTube as well as artists’ receptions, arts/crafts fairs, etc. This new form of direct marketing is the wave of the future.

Barney:  Today, society’s quick acceptance of change affects every business large and small. For example, could Google have imagined a closed social network platform launched to find the best looking freshmen on campus would evolve into the most serious threat it has known?

Facebook, other social media and ecommerce have changed consumer habits affecting the business model of brick & mortar galleries. Another factor is the Darwinian effects caused by the collapsing housing market that pummeled all businesses providing anything for homes, including art galleries.

Changing times require artists learn to be self-reliant. Fortunately with the available tools, this is the best time ever for visual artists to control their destiny and to sell direct. That said, I believe galleries serve an important role, are here to stay and should be treated with respect.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

There is a term called coopetition where companies compete on some fronts and cooperate on others. I believe this is the future for artists and galleries. On one side galleries need to recognize and accept artists will compete with them without accepting suicidal head on direct sales battles. On the other, artists have to bring more to the table than art that sells, i.e., a personal brand, a loyal following, a killer mailing list, media contacts and so forth. Creative concerned coopetition should be the key to growth and survival for artists and galleries.

Lori:  I really like the idea of coopetition.  Some galleries might be hesitant to warm up to this mutually beneficial new idea.  Therefore, artists need to be proactive in building trust with their galleries through open communication.  I see this as the natural evolution of the artist/gallery relationship.

Barney: Despite that we both agree a combination of working with galleries and direct sales is the best. I believe we also agree there is no perfect answer. Artists can still be very successful being exclusively with galleries only program, or vice-versa handling all sales direct to collectors. Obviously, social media can play a huge part in marketing an art career no matter what path an artist chooses to follow.

Stay tuned. This conversation will get into social media and art marketing in our next installment, to be announced.

You can find the second installment, Visual Artist’s Challenge II – Balancing Self Promotion & Gallery Representation, on Lori’s Fine Art Tips blog.

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use

Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use
Download List of 7 Essential Tools Artists Use


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  1. Barney, I really enjoyed working on this article with you. This is an important subject and I can’t wait to read what your readers have to say. I look foward to our follow up post!

    Lori 🙂

  2. Most of our original art sales are generated online, which surprises me. Just last week we sold a $2,600 painting to someone who never saw the original until it was delivered. We’ve sent $10,000 paintings over to England, purchased over the internet. It’s surprising and wonderful!

    However, I do see the value in having pieces in a gallery as well. Often I’ll have potential collectors ask “Where can I see the originals in a gallery?” Some people want to have a place to go (besides our little studio). It impresses people if you have your paintings hanging on a gallery wall.

    So I agree that a good balance between the 2 is important. However, I have a few rules that I follow with this plan:

    1.) Don’t do exclusives with the gallery, except in the actual town the gallery is in
    2.) Give your gallery a % if one of their customers buys from you directly or found you through them
    3.) Send customers to the gallery when possible – you want them to make money from your art so that you are valuable to them
    4.) Keep your prices the same, regardless of where the art is sold
    5.) Get the contact information from the gallery of all collectors of your art – this information is crucial for all artists to keep on hand.

  3. PS: I forgot to mention – thank you for writing this – it’s a great article! I’ve Tweeted it and Facebooked it because I think it’s important information for artists to consider. Looking forward to the next one!

  4. I really like this collaborative conversation style that you have done on this post. It’s great.

    I do agree that at this point in time there needs to be a more collaborative style of doing business between galleries and artists – more of a partnership if you will.

    I have a question – what is your opinion on how gallery owners view this new paradigm?

  5. Hi Fiona,
    Thank you for the comment and kind words. The answer to your question is I don’t know. That’s because there will be as many different reactions to the suggestion as there are galleries. Certainly, some will bristle at the idea and others will see it as a way to grow their business or maybe even save their business.

    This I know, businesses large and small have to keep reinventing themselves. Whether it is Google battling Facebook, or Coke battling bottled water and energy drinks, or Amazon’s Kindle versus iPad. Will Rogers said, “Even when you are on the right track, you will get run over if you don’t keep moving.

    Whether galleries accept this idea of coopetition or do something else, most are going to have to overhaul their traditional business model as things inexorably evolve around them.

  6. Barney, This is great conversation! I too believe in the combination of both as long as there is balance. I think that if we get too dependent on one source or another then it all could go down the drain. Marketing through social media, direct marketing, galleries and building personal relationships is the key. Thanks again to you, Jason and Lori for the dialogue.

  7. Maria,

    Thanks for commenting on or post. These are key points that you’ve made and important for the artist’s reputation and business success.

    I personally implement the first 4 points, but #5 is a difficult one for me to achieve because my galleries do not want to share their contact lists with their artists. Do you have any thoughts?

    Thanks for your comment to this important conversation.

    PS. Thanks again for your comment on our follow-up article “Balancing Self Promotion and Gallery Representation”

  8. Hi Fiona –

    I agree Barney’s answer. There is not easy way to answer this question as it totally depends on each individual gallery.

    I have found that the more computer savvy the gallery, the less threatened and more flexable they seem to be.

    Please check out our latest post in this series where gallery owner Jason Horejs joins it the conversation.

  9. Lori,

    The galleries that are afraid to share collectors contact information with the artist are missing the big picture.

    My experience with galleries is that once you explain why you need that information, they will share it with you. In our contracts with galleries, we include a section in the contract that states that the gallery will provide the artist the name, address, phone number and e-mail of the collector.

    The reasons artists must keep the contact information of their collectors:
    1. So that you can build up your collector data base for future shows (this benefits all the galleries you work with, in my opinion)
    2. So that the artist can send a personal thank you card
    3. So that years later, when a museum or similar venue wants to have an exhibit of your earlier works, you can easily track down the location of key pieces of artwork and get them on loan for the exhibit.
    4. If the gallery shuts down, or drops the artist, the artist is able to keep in touch with their collectors and maintain the relationship.

    We have a spreadsheet of hundreds of Drew Brophy’s collectors, going back the mid-90’s. We have a museum exhibit coming up next summer, and there are a few key pieces we will ask to borrow from owners of his earlier works. It will help with creating a time-line from his earliest works leading to the present.

    Most gallery owners will understand this concept. Those that don’t are going to eventually lose the opportunity to work with savvy, successful artists.

  10. Maria,

    I just noticed your follow-up reply to my comment. Those are great points you have made!

    Armed with that advice I will plan to have a conversation with my galleries about retrieving my collectors’ data. This is a conversation that should have taken place years ago, but better late than never!

    Many thanks to you for sharing your knowledge. It has been great working with Barney on this project.

  11. Maria,
    I have not heard about laws requiring galleries to share contact information. In the spirit of coopetition, I think it is a great idea. You can find legit grievances from galleries and artists on both sides of this equation with stories that make cooperating more closely harder to achieve.

    As an artist, I want to know who is collecting my work. As a gallery, I don’t want collectors and artists cutting me out of the deal. Trust is a huge issue. I suppose Ronald Reagan’s famous line when dealing with the Russians applies here, “Trust but verify.” And, even that is easier said than done.

    If anyone has facts about the laws Maria mentions, please do share your information.

  12. Galleries for people and business are now starting to be common to everyone. I really like the word coopetition because it really brings everyone the change to bring out their own creativity by sharing and making some comments on it.

    I need to learn more about this but these interaction had really help me get more ideas to this.

    Thank you!

  13. My experience as a fine art photographer has been that small local galleries have been receptive, but larger galleries in major cities were closed to me. The direct sales route was my only option. Now that I have an established sales record and a more visible body of work, including placement in films and TV, galleries are beginning to seek me out. I am a firm believer in using all channels to market your work, including the gallery AND direct sales mix.

    Great posting!

  14. Hi Keith, Your reply is a testament to all the things I teach and preach. These include believing in yourself, staying the course when you know there is a market for your work, and continually looking for new ways to get your work to market. While I believe “starving artists” is a myth, I do believe “overnight success” is one. All the best to you for continued deserved success!

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