Art Gallery Types: Which Is Right For You?
by Daric Gill
Choosing the right gallery is much like picking a relationship partner. And as such, finding a compatible match that complements your existing assets is paramount. Also like other life-relationships, there’s no one-type-fits-all answer. Each artist has their own needs. While this article is admittedly a broad generalization of gallery types, I’m using years of personal experience, professional interpretations, and colloquially agreed on terms regarding the most common gallery types. The goal of this article is to provide a diving off point for those whom need a little clarification into the major types of physical gallery models. This also happens to be Part One in a 2-part companion article. Its sister article, “Advice For Approaching Galleries” can be found here. Or you can read on below for more.
These days, artists have plenty of platforms regarding the sales of their work. In this article, I will outline the basic differences between gallery types as well as include some pros and cons of each option. As with much of the art world, trying to nail down a totally rigid definition proves elusive. You should expect that there are plenty of overlaps among the many gallery types in the real world. Hopefully, the following explanation and its corresponding infographic will aid in grounding a few of the more elusive definitions. And of course, you and I should both welcome the liquid nature of these terms.
Commercial, Consignment, & Blue Chip Galleries
-A professionally run business with income generated exclusively by the exhibition and sales of artwork. Geared to a range of expertise from emerging, mid-career, and late-career artists (with a few exceptions).
Typically, this type of gallery is fairly choosy when it comes to their artists. In many cases, a partnership is created between the artists and the gallery where the gallery offers to carefully market the artist to the public; and more specifically to their collectors. Called “artist representation”, this agreement may require that the artist sells exclusively through the gallery in a set mile radius, city-wide, state-wide, or nationally.
In the past, the commercial gallery carefully selected only a handful of artists to include in their ‘stable’ (a term I sincerely wish to retire). This is a strategy that is decreasing as the potential of internet sales an interest pertaining to group exhibitions grows. They generally have agents who dedicate business time to pursue and secure clients, promote shows in quality exhibition spaces, become knowledgable about the artist’s work, curate cohesive exhibitions, are trained in sales practices, carry gallery insurance, and handle the exchange of artwork/money. A gallery commission is paid for these services and can be 20%-60% the retail price of sold items. It’s not uncommon for a reputable gallery to carry a 50% commission rate.
Their commission rates, sales prices, clientele lists, exhibition partnerships, guest curators, and in-house artists reflect this premier title.
While a high-end commercial gallery may include a select handful of artists, the consignment gallery has many.
Examples of this: frame shop/gallery, galleries who have rotating or invitational exhibitions, galleries that include many in-house artists, or spaces that sell large production runs of artwork like prints, jewelry, and/or pottery. Most galleries fall into this category.
Co-Op, Artist-Run Initiatives, Rental, & Vanity Galleries
Co-Op Gallery & Artist-Run Initiatives
-Group of artists who help run, exhibit, and operate a gallery from within. Many times these galleries offer community-involved workshops and rent studio spaces in conjunction with the gallery.
Often there is a membership fee, studio rental fee, and/or commission fee for respective opportunities. Artists actively participate in the communal growth of the gallery.
-Like a co-op, this is a gallery that has internal support from artists to help setup gallery spaces. The main difference is that rental galleries may charge a rental fee for a duration of time to exhibit in their space and isn’t necessarily a place where the art is also made.
The gallery may operate on the artist’s behalf regarding sales, but the artist is in charge of the setup and content of their space. Flat rental rates and sales commission rates may apply. This gallery doesn’t have the same sort of prestige as a traditional commercial gallery but still may have a similar appearance to the public. Upfront costs are something to think about. The rental costs need to be really weighed against the sales potential. It can be a fairly risky venture for new artists.
-Most controversial of the gallery types, vanity galleries (possibly also called artist-run initiatives) are a derivative of the co-operative gallery in that they often charge artists fees to exhibit with them. It’s common to charge the artist membership fees, exhibiting space rental fees, hanging fees, and/or other expenses related to marketing.
Some of these galleries profit exclusively from the call for entry fees. Others charge several thousands of dollars just to exist in their space and are generally ask for payment upfront. Usually situated in heavy tourist areas, the vanity gallery has a tendency to pursue emerging artists from out-of-town with hopes of exposure in a premier location.
Unlike the co-op gallery, artists aren’t usually invested in the running of their gallery space and therefore have little say in business areas. Also diverging from the typical commercial gallery, a vanity gallery has already gained profit from the artist in advance. Constant relationships between the gallery and their clientele may not be fostered with the same intensity as a commercial gallery. In my opinion, it’s wise to avoid these places as they exploit artists for profit upfront with little incentive for future sales. But if they suit your needs, go for it.
Non-Art Exclusive & Auxiliary Exhibition Space
Examples of such a space are restaurants, coffee shops, retail stores, city ambassador centers, community art centers, airports, hotels, etc. Typically, your work is on display in an area that shares space with its main source of income. This is the most accessible space for emerging artists as they don’t typically rely heavily on a previous exhibition record and artist contracts.
As it is a flex-space, they often rotate artist’s work out monthly and shouldn’t require a restriction on regional representation. Naturally, their actual business is their main source of income and therefore its needs are prioritized over that of the artist. It should also be understood that they may not have employees that are specifically trained to sell your artwork. As a result, it’s not uncommon for the space to encourage the artist to pursue his/her sales personally through posted contact information. They may or may not have commission rates.
Things to keep in mind: Typically these spaces are the most plentiful. However, they make their actual income by other means, may not have insurance that covers your art, don’t necessarily have trained art sales agents, and may rely on you to sell/distribute the art. If there is a commission rate, consider if it reflects those needs. Many times, these types of spaces are earnest in their art appreciation and look for business examples to follow–the commercial gallery model. They might not fully understand the intricacies of that model. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and if you can without being a jerk, try to educate the lenders of the space during negotiations.
Some art simply isn’t meant for the white-walled gallery. Much of today’s aesthetic incorporates environmental and situational aspects into the artwork. It’s also completely up to an artist’s individual desires to make work that is or is not for commercial gain.
Examples: Installation or site-specific artworks, earthworks sculptors, out-door/public works, temporary or transitional works, and guerrilla-based artwork.
Generally, these spaces aren’t as concerned with commercial success as they are utilizing an environment that is picked for its suitability to the artwork. Commercial galleries, arts organizations, or city/state/national art councils often offer grants or project awards for public communal spaces. Naturally, the auxiliary exhibition space can also be utilized with no commercial gain or loss whatsoever. There are also plenty of opportunities that don’t include high profiled or bureaucratic procedures. Auxiliary spaces are rich in potential, but can also be the most at risk from physical damage due to weather or the public. It’s pretty obvious to say that they also don’t necessarily come with insurance.
As I mentioned before, this is ideally a basic guideline that one could use to learn more about their own needs. Feel free to use what information pertains to you. And always remember, the art world is ever-changing… which is a good thing.
You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!