Types of Galleries: Vanity

Yesterday I discussed (at a very high level) the model for commercial art galleries; today we will look at vanity galleries.

A vanity gallery is an art space that “rents” or sells its space to artists in order for the artist to have a show. Thus, the main driver in having a show at a vanity gallery is not necessarily the quality of the artwork, but the artist’s ability to pay the gallery to host his/her artwork.

New York is crawling with vanity galleries, and a large number of European galleries are vanity galleries. In the US however, vanity galleries are often looked down upon by everyone who knows that they’re a “pay-as-you-show” space, since they are essentially a “rental” gallery.

A knowledgeable art critic or curator knows which galleries in his/her town are vanity galleries, and often ignore them, much like book critics ignore most self-published writers, who use “vanity publishers.”

An interesting fact in my experiences as a gallerist, is the fact that I have seen “reputable” galleries which sometimes cross the line and become “charge the artist” galleries or vanity galleries once in a while, as the mighty dollar (or lack thereof) calls.

Sometimes, when I was co-owner of the Fraser Gallery in Washington, DC and Bethesda, Maryland, we’d get a phone call from an embassy, or from the agent of a Hollywood actor who’s also a “painter” or “photographer,” or from an individual “artist,” and they would ask us how much would we charge to host a show by their “artist.”

When we’d inform them that we do not rent the gallery for artists to have shows, they’d thank us and hang up. Then a few months later I’d see that “Hollywood artist” or “embassy artist” exhibiting in one of the area’s “reputable” art galleries, and immediately recognize that - at least for that month - that gallery is making ends meet by renting the space to someone.

While I understand that most galleries are labors of love, and often run by the skin of one’s teeth, I still find it somewhat distasteful, and dishonest - to appear (on the surface) to be a gallery that shows work based on merit, while at the same time showing work based on an artist, or a corporation’s ability to pay.

And it’s not just commercial art spaces. Several years ago, a local Washington, DC newspaper profiled a local non-profit, which inadvertently - in the text of their profile - admitted charging a multinational corporation a hefty fee to put up an art show at their “reputable” non-profit art spaces.

One can even make the case that even some museums sometimes cross the line and become “vanity museums.”

A few years ago I was astounded when a Culture Minister from one of the embassies in DC told me that they had finished a deal with a local museum to host the first ever retrospective of one of that country’s artists for a fee of four million dollars! To him, it was “business as usual,” while to me it was distasteful and dishonest and left a bad taste in my mouth about that museum for the longest time.

Next: Cooperative Art Galleries

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  1. August 7, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    Joyce Owens Said,

    Great to hear this testimony from a former gallery owner.

    I have been blogging about isues and not sure who cares besides me and a very few others.

    Google me to visit again: Joyce Owens Artist on Art.

  2. February 10, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    karen Said,

    I am starting a new project… I am looking to create a spiritual/artist community. In this community I see a gallery that can also be used as a yoga studio or classroom if necessary. It is in its infancy stage… and I have so many questions about the gallery.

    Is it crazy to think I can make it work? I’ve been an artist my whole life… became a graphic artist for steady income, and really feel the need for fine art again.

    If you were just starting, what concerns would you have about the building?
    Size, location, amenities, acquiring fixtures.

    How do you find your artists?
    How do you select them?
    Where can I find info about running a vanity gallery?
    How long do they show their work before it is changed?
    Do you cycle artists so there is always a change? Or require new pieces?
    What contracts do you have with the artists?
    What services are promised from you?
    Do you receive a commission from the sales? Or just rent from the space… or both?
    What advice would you give to a new owner?
    How to find artists? How to find companies to sponsor the gallery?

    Thank you for sharing your incredible knowledge from years of experience. And thank you for your blog.

    Karen Borga

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