Part of an exhibition in a Public Art Gallery, 2004
Galleries can be intimidating for artists to approach. Knowledge is power, so it is important to understand a bit about galleries before you approach them. Most galleries have websites so you don’t have to go pummel the person working there with questions, and you can research many different galleries from the comfort of your computer-screen. I do recommend walking into your chosen gallery a few times before submitting your portfolio, if possible. On-line, a gallery (like any other business or organisation) will present themselves in their best light. Get to know the reputation of the gallery and staff who work there. It’s good, too, to get a feel for the “fit” of your work with the work they currently show.
There are a few different types of galleries. Please note that I am located in Canada, and other countries have slightly different legal and practical models for galleries. These Canadian types of galleries are Public Galleries (in the USA these are closest to Art Museums), Artist-Run Centres, Co-Ops, and Commercial Galleries.
There are many sizes of Public Gallery. Often a larger city will have a larger Public art Gallery, but this isn’t always the case. A lot of towns and cities have a very minor art gallery, while others have several types of Public art galleries. A lot depends on the funding situation in a given city or province. Some cities and towns have colleges and universities; these tend to have good and better-funded (due to better attendance) art galleries. Many of the smaller art galleries have “submission” sections in their websites. However, as is often the case with other sorts of galleries, sometimes the “submissions” section isn’t exactly in bold type. Check out the “contact” and “information” pages, and if you still don’t see anything, don’t be shy to send a polite, short email to see if they accept artist submissions, and if there are any specifications for them. Larger institutions normally do not accept submissions from artists, however, it can’t hurt to acquaint their curators with your work.
Another type of gallery whose purpose is to advance art and culture, and not to make money, is the Artist Run Centre. It is important to note that a lot of Co-Op style galleries call themselves this, even though they do not really fit in this category. In Canada, an Artist-Run Centre is one that pays artists to show. This is similar to the Public Galleries, in that they adhere to the CARFAC fee schedule. These galleries have a mandate, a board of governors, and are distinctly non-profit. There are many hoops that a gallery must fit through before they are a true Artist-Run-Centre in Canada, and thus they are highly respected galleries, much like the Public galleries. Normally they have a range of cultural services and events outside of exhibitions, like publications, installation and integration into the larger community, and public events. This is a good link to lists of these galleries, as well as other nifty Canadian things.
Co-Op style galleries usually are run by artists, but they do not adhere to the “artist-run” rules. These galleries offer a range of exhibition and other opportunities. In my experience, they are great for local artists to obtain studio space, socialize with one another, and to have more informal exhibitions. As a self-supporting artist I am turned off by many of these galleries, though, because not only do they not pay artists to show, but ask for artists to pay for their exhibition space. Personally, I do not want to be a part of that. Other artists claim some success with this, though, if they have highly marketable work that just needs to be seen to be purchased. Galleries-For-Hire are good for commercially successful artists who want to circumvent the Commercial Gallery system.
Commercial Galleries are there to sell art. There are, indeed, Commercial Galleries that have a mandate to advance art and propose to support culture with events, concerts, publications, and other goodies. A really good Commercial Gallery will integrate itself into the world, and not just pander to the lowest common denominator. These galleries, generally, take about 40-50% of the retail price of works. In my experience, this can be a good way to reach an audience who would otherwise never see your work. A good gallerist works hard, and is worth every cent of their commission. A bad gallerist can do any number of bad things, from not being friendly and professional to people entering the gallery, to not paying the artists in good time, to not promoting well… to outright theft of artworks. It can get ugly. Listen to the rumour-mill about galleries’ reputations in your town before submitting your portfolio.
Most application packages (with many exceptions) require some basic stuff: A dvd of between 10 and 20 works, a co-responding Image List, an Artist Statement, and a CV. Sometimes the gallery requires a Project Proposal (especially the Artist-Run and Public Galleries) to know what specifically you would like to exhibit there, and what is your academic or theoretical bent. From time to time, you will find a gallery that accepts submissions on-line. This can be a challenge because normally they only want a scant few images of your work. However, it costs nothing to email. Sometimes the gallery lists a request for a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to return your materials. I would suggest doing so, as it appears that you care about your work, and your information is precious to you. Personally, I need to take my own advice in this regard. Normally I don’t supply the SASE, as I know that in the three to six months that it will take for them to get back to me, my portfolio and CV will have changed. But… I will try to take my own advice from now on.
A Final Word of Support: As with any venture, as long as you cross your ‘”t”s and dot your “i”s, you should expect about a 10% (or less) success rate. Keep those packages flying out the door. When they are sent back with a polite (or not-so polite, or non-existent) rejection letter, do not fret. We all go through this, it is part of the game. If you are an organised-type, take notes of when submission packages are called for by galleries. Note it in your calendar, and you can produce a few submission packages at a time. This saves you time and effort. I usually settle into this about three times a year, and get out about a dozen within a day or two. That being said, it’s a good idea to keep checking in case special calls to artists should come up. Also, try not to re-submit the same proposal to a gallery. Gallery Committees and Curators have good memories.
Best of luck, and see you in the galleries!
Natasha Henderson, Montreal