In a perfect world, nothing sounds more desirable and gratifying than to be making a living from selling art.
Think about it: you will be surrounded by art all day that will nurture your soul and creativity; you will be supporting these genius creators of art – art being the most intimate form of communication of certain concepts that cannot be described by words alone. You’d be supporting art history itself, contributing your little grain of sand to the history of mankind; you would be traveling to far away places like Istanbul, Hong Kong and Venice on a yearly basis to attend art fairs, exhibitions and biennales where you would interact with like-minded, cultured, curious individuals like yourself who are constantly exchanging ideas. Lastly, you would be enriching people’s lives in turn by selling them incredible, unique artworks whilst making very good money that will allow you to live like a king or queen.
Luckily for all of us, dreaming is free, as my father would say, and a successful gallery is a dream come true for a few visionaries and lucky ducks; but let me tell you why it’s not exactly the biz you should be jumping into just like that, today.
1- A gallery’s only source of income is sales
Galleries normally change exhibitions every six weeks, and generally, they charge 50% commission on the sale of each work. The high commission (which sounds fantastic) is well deserved as gallerists make the exhibition happen from their own pocket: the gallery gets prepped for the show (sometimes walls are torn down and others painted entirely), they publish a catalogue of the exhibition, reach out to collectors, press, museum curators and art critics, they pay at least one art handler to install the exhibition, etc. So if for some reason the gallery doesn’t sell enough works or any at all, that’s it, you have to wait for the next show to catch up or hope to God you’re selling other works simultaneously to make ends meet because the loss is real.
2- It is difficult to sign big artists to your gallery whose work is more expensive (meaning higher commission for you)
Naturally you’d think that if you sell more expensive artworks the commissions you’re getting will be bigger. Yes, 1 + 1 =2 BUT in order to get these artists that everyone wants to collect in your gallery’s roster you have to be prepared to offer them a lot in return. This might mean more commission for them and less for you, a promise of a museum exhibition, placement of their work in a museum collection or highly regarded private collection, publishing a hefty catalogue of their work, covering the expenses to produce one of their series… the list is endless. And as you know, artists have become like rockstars so the more their work is desired by collectors, the less they’ll budge on negotiations as a dozen other galleries are also after them.
3- An art gallery is not a one person job
My friend, unless you’re Superman or Wonder Woman, unless you’re wiling to give up any sort of private/social life you had before, when you have a gallery you need at least one other person on a permanent or temporary basis to work with or for you. That means paying a salary and/or a commission fee if they sell. To run a gallery you need to manage your client database, keep track of every single move that your inventory makes, you need to fill out countless art fair applications (every single year no matter how many times you have done the same fair), follow up on everything communications and press related to get coverage, keep up with your social media, PR, travel to support your artists when they have shows elsewhere, travel to see clients, have the gallery open even when you’re not there (painfully also on Saturdays), write artists dossiers, liase with your artists, handle shipping, taxes, gallery website and above all – sell, sell sell! You get the picture.
4- An art gallery has lots of fixed costs
It doesn’t matter how much of a Superman you really, there are still many costs you can’t get around. The biggest one is the rent of your space and with that comes all the utility bills. Another one that people seem to always forget is the cost of crates – that special wooden box made specifically for each artwork. Even though this is covered by the buyer eventually, keep in mind that according to the price of the artwork this can mean a hefty addition to the total price which might make a sale collapse. You also need to purchase a good system to keep track of your database and inventory, and it is pretty much an art world requirement to get a subscription to the BearFaxt & ArtNet if you want to be in the know and do proper secondary market research.
5- Art fairs are very expensive and not easy to get accepted into
In this day and age, I hate to break it to you, but not that many people go to galleries. Sure, some people do, lots go to the opening but in terms of walk-ins, the numbers don’t look too good. Plus if you have clients that don’t live in the same city as you, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will only see one of your shows. Maybe two. Maybe none.
As a result, you and all the thousands of art galleries around the world have to apply every single year to art fairs. You have to apply to those who suit the kind of artists that you represent and you have to start from the bottom, honey. You need to build up your track record of great exhibitions (because art fairs looks at that) and you have to create kick-ass proposals for every fair. And damnnnn son, fairs are expensive.
The smallest Zona MACO booth costs $15,000 USD and the largest costs $45,000 USD. That’s excluding shipping the works, your plane ticket, accomodation, food, lighting changes, paying a someone local who knows at least who Picasso was to work the booth with you, etc. In Art Basel the booth alone costs between $15,000 – $50,000. On the bright side, almost 80,000 people attend fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach. So after you get accepted (and only IF you get accepted), crunch the numbers and figure out how much you have to sell from your emerging artist inventory to actually make a profit.
There’s nothing better than having a dream as not many people are lucky enough to know what theirs is. And you if you should decide that your dream is to be have a gallery, then Godspeed my friend. Forgive the post, I was just trying to play devil’s advocate 🙂
Travel changes lives & Art prolongs it.
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