What’s a Gallery Exhibition Worth to You?

paying
What’s it worth to you to get a gallery exhibition of your artwork? Sure, galleries are in business to sell art, earning a commission of between 40 and 60 percent for every sale of work consigned to them contemporary artists, so their profit margin should cover the costs of promoting and advertising exhibits, requiring artists to just pay for the materials they need to make their work. That would make plenty of sense if most or all of the artwork the galleries display actually sold – that doesn’t happen too often, especially in those galleries showing contemporary art by artists who aren’t famous. Those gallery owners also need to pay rent, which ranges from thousands of dollars to tens or thousands of dollars per month, depending on the city and what neighborhood in the city in which they are located.
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For quite a few artists, exhibitions are only peripherally about selling; rather, they need to show their work somewhere periodically in order to prove to the chairman of a college’s art department that their careers are “active.”
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Artists and dealers aren’t adversaries, but they both need money and when collectors aren’t in abundance they tend to look to each other for it. Increasingly, artists are being asked to pay for more and more of the expenses that galleries used to cover automatically, such as the cost of advertising, postage (for mailers), producing a catalogue, food and drink at an opening reception, framing and repainting the walls after the exhibition has concluded. Often, artists and gallery owners split these costs on the same percentage as the sales commission. Just as often, artists and dealers decide to cut back on certain expenditures, such as doing without a paid essay for the catalogue or doing without a catalogue at all. Advertising and promotional brochures are jettisoned, replaced by emails to the regular mailing list. Less expensive wine at the opening, or no beverages at all.
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It is unclear – that is to say, no one has done a proper survey – if spending less on and for an exhibition has affected sales. Perhaps, it matters more to the exhibiting artist than to gallery visitors that a catalogue has been produced, for instance. Who needs pricey Chablis to look at art? Just a lot of falderal. Still, my guess is that some of it may help: An email announcement, especially one that goes into one’s spam filter, is quickly deleted, while a colorful mailer may hang around longer, perhaps making it to the refrigerator door to remind people of something interesting to do. The catalogue, too, reminds visitors of what they had seen at the exhibit, and an essay might give that first impression some lasting resonance. Maybe. Some wine at the gallery makes an opening a bit less Spartan, more fun, more indicative of prosperity – presumably, other collectors have bought this artist’s work.
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So, if a gallery asks you to contribute to the costs of exhibiting your work, do you say yes or no, and where do you draw the line?
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A few artists have contributed their two cents to the online sculpture community page, which links to the International Sculpture Center’s Web site, on the subject of paying to exhibit. Sculptors Andrew Werby in Oakland, California and Matt E. Johnson in Easthampton, Massachusetts responded to a third artist who had been contacted by a New York art gallery, offering to represent his work, “and all I have to do is give them a $2,300 ‘representation fee’ for the privilege of being shown in their gallery.”
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Both Werby and Johnson strongly advised him to reject the offer, condemning it as a scam and the exhibition site as a “vanity gallery.”
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I don’t disagree at all with Werby and Johnson, however, I contacted them, asking if they ever had contributed to the costs of exhibiting their work. Werby wrote back to me that “I have paid money to arrange exhibitions of my work, but that was in the context of a cooperative effort (to break into the China market, for one thing).” For his part, Johnson stated that “I have not shared any costs” with a dealer, but he did not reject the idea completely, claiming that “[i]f it turns out that an artist can spend some money to make some (more) money, fine.”
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All of this brings us back to where we started: What are you willing to pay for in order to have your artwork exhibited, perchance sold? Considering the limited likelihood of sales taking place, when does an art show become a vanity exhibition?
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A generation or so ago, there was more of a boundary line between commercial art venues and what are sometimes called “vanity” galleries. Nowadays, there appears to be more of a continuum in which artists expect less and pay more. A strong sense of right and wrong has been replaced increasingly by a belief in being pragmatic, doing whatever works. Certainly, the stigma attached to paying to show has lessened, following the experience in other art forms, such as musicians who produce their own audiotapes and CDs to sell at performances (concertgoers don’t seem to mind), dramatists and actors who rent out theaters to stage a theatrical production (audiences don’t care as long as the show is good), filmmakers who bankroll their own movies (Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” made them both famous) and writers who publish their own books (readers are more likely to blame publishers for rejecting new talent).
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The more established art world does not have an easy relationship with this realm. In general, art critics look down on for-rent art galleries, cooperative art galleries, artist-curated exhibitions and much else that is removed from high-end traditional commercial galleries and museums: “When an artist has gallery representation, it suggests the beginning of a commitment to the work by someone other than the artist him- or herself,” said Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. “Because art evolves as informed dialogue and conversation, it is significant when another person – a gallerist – has begun the conversation by saying, ‘I believe in your work.’ A vanity gallery cannot offer that; it cannot offer more than the sound of one hand clapping.” That view was seconded by Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski, who stated that “I do not have a formal bias against vanity spaces, because the primary concern for me is always the quality of the work being shown and whether it might be of interest to readers. That said, I usually consider such shows of lesser interest, simply because I prefer to spend my time on shows that have been vetted by someone, even if only a gallery dealer. Experience has taught me that self-curated shows are usually disappointing.”
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One man’s meat is another’s poison, the saying goes, for the difference between what is questionable and acceptable in the art world is sometimes a matter of perspective. Cooperative galleries, in which artists pay to become voting members, sometimes charge hefty sums, amounts not that different than the galleries of the “vanity” sort. The Manhattan-based Phoenix Gallery, for instance, which is viewed as a vanity venue, charges a membership initiation fee of $300, as well as quarterly membership dues of $600 (or $2,400 per year). With approximately 30 artists represented by the gallery, an individual is likely to get a one-person show once every two-and-a-half years. Between joining and exhibiting, an artist may expect to pay $6,300. However, those charges are not so out-of-line with New York City’s oldest cooperative gallery, A.I.R. Gallery, which requires a $500 initiation fee and $200 per month dues (or $2,400 per year) for its 20 New York-area members ($1,200 per year for the 20 out-of-town members) with opportunities to have a solo exhibition once every two years. As a result, the price of exhibiting for new A.I.R. members ranges from $2,900 to $5,300, less than at Phoenix but still a considerable amount.
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“The amount of money is not an issue to me,” said St. Paul sculptor and art gallery owner Joseph Brown, adding that his one show at Phoenix Gallery did not result in any sales. “My work doesn’t sell there or here, but I think it’s still worth it. I relate more to New York than to Minnesota.”
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