Types of Galleries: Commercial

A few years ago a freelance galleries critic for the Washington Post reviewed a show at a particular DC gallery, and while reading the paper during breakfast with an artist friend, I couldn’t help myself.

“Can you believe that she reviewed this show?” I said to my friend, “that’s a vanity gallery!”

My friend looked at me puzzled. “What’s a vanity gallery?”

Now I looked at him puzzled. “You, know… a gallery that an artist has to pay and rent in order to have a show.”

While that particular space - the only one of its kind in DC at the time - has long ceased to exist, vanity galleries flourish in most American cities (most often in NYC) and constitute a significant number of European galleries, where the model seems to prosper more readily than the US.

There are several “models” of art galleries. I will discuss them all, but will start with the commercial art gallery, and eventually we’ll get to discuss the vanity gallery model.

First among equals is the independently owned fine arts commercial art gallery, which is usually either a heroic labor of love from someone who (a) loves the visual arts or (b) is a collector who decides to become a dealer, or (c) someone grabbing a chance to dance at the leading edge of the fine arts — in my experience by someone who is on the upper end of the well-to-do financial scale.

“If you want to make a million dollars in art,” goes a well-known industry saying, “start with five.”

Starting an art gallery is a risky, usually money-losing situation, often driven by nothing but idealism and love for the arts.  I was once lectured by a US Chamber of Commerce expert on the subject with the statistic that after restaurants, art galleries are the second most likely business in the US to fail - usually within six months.

Commercial art galleries survive by selling artwork in order to pay for their rent, utilities, advertising, shipping, opening expenses, staff salaries, etc. If they don’t sell, they close. They generally collect 50% commissions on the sale of the artwork that they showcase - on consignment in business terms - from artists that they “represent.” Some galleries, especially in NYC, may charge more, and I know of quite a few that go as high as 70%, but 50% is the “standard.”

Or, as was the case rather recently with a “power” art gallery, you can lose money consistently and indifferently if you are an owner who is independently wealthy (she got tired after a few years and abruptly closed the gallery).

Or, as was the case with a very trendy gallery that got all the reviews, and whose openings were always packed, you can have “investors.” The problem is that at some point the investors - say five years - will start asking questions and a return on their “investment,” and suddenly the gallery closes.

Those asterisks aside, reputable commercial art galleries also promote their artists and help them to grow alongside the gallery, and have no “hidden” monetary charges in their dealer-artist contracts, other than the commission of art sold - either by the gallery or through referral.

Other gallery models include artists cooperative galleries, or “co-ops,” vanity galleries, non-profit galleries, embassy galleries, alternative art spaces, restaurant galleries, library galleries and “moving” galleries… more on all those later.

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  1. August 7, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    Marc Said,

    I understand that vanity galleries are usually ignored by critics, for fairly obvious reasons. But shouldn’t the freelance critic review a show that she finds compelling, even if it is in a vanity gallery? I don’t think gallerists are really the ultimate authority on what is worth looking at - should they have that absolute power? They do have an enormous amount of say in what gets looked at in the press, but. . .

    An artist should know the taint that they will put on their work by renting their own space, but if they’ve put together a very compelling show, and can’t find a taker in a commercial gallery, and are convinced of the merits of the work despite that, rent a space, and manage to get the show reviewed, shouldn’t that be applauded? Of course, there is a vast amount of crap out there that is in vanity galleries, but on the other hand, “Leaves of Grass” was self-published - it’s a risk, but sometimes it’s a rish worth taking.

  2. August 7, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    Lenny Said,

    Good points… the only issue is that by paying critical attention to them, it encourages the development of a model where artists are left to pay for walls to exhibit their work - that would leave those who can afford that as the ones who show work…

    But you do raise an interesting polemic!

  3. August 13, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    jiimiona Said,

    +100. Respect. ;)

  4. April 3, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Jess Said,

    Well I live in a small city in Australia. I do art at uni and it’s starting to become tradition that one senior takes over a small space in their final year. Then it is usually a student or other local artists to pay to show their work for a month. There’s no commissions only the rent is paid. For us its the only means of having a show at our age and no one here really looks down upon it and I haven’t hearc the term vanity space used before. I doubt it will taint us if we move on to Sydney or Melbourne.

  5. July 26, 2009 @ 4:11 am

    harley Said,

    …shut up jess!

  6. October 21, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    Anonymous Said,

    yea shutup

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