I am a visual artist as well as a freelance writer, and I recently received an email which piqued my curiosity. Entitled “Gallery Representation,” the message was an unsolicited invitation to show my work at a “well established gallery” in New York City’s “art community in the Chelsea art district.” This gallery “assistant” who contacted me commented that she had recently visited my website and felt that my “work may be well suited for representation and for inclusion in one of our many internationally publicized exhibitions.” Of course, while the gallery promised to “provide promotional services to talented artists such as” myself, “for these services we charge an annual promotional fee.”
At this point I had to laugh and a quick web search confirmed what I suspected: I was being solicited by a vanity gallery. And I also knew far better than to take the bait and do anything other than quickly file this email in my trash.
A vanity gallery differs from a traditional art gallery in that artists have to pay – either in rent of wall space, advertising and show expenses, or both – for the “privilege” of being exhibited. Sales commissions are still charged as well, but at much lower percentages than traditional galleries which often take anywhere from 40 to 70% as their fee. To be represented or shown by a traditional gallery, an artist usually must work very hard, sometimes for years, submitting portfolios to different galleries for which he believes his work is suited. The process can be long, frustrating and not always successful, much like a writer trying to get accepted by a traditional publishing house. As such, the idea of getting shown for a fee by a vanity gallery can be tempting as typically these galleries will accept any artist to show on their walls, as long as he can pay the fee.
Therein lies the problem.
Art critics and savvy art consumers know to avoid vanity galleries, for the simple fact that there is no vetting control over whose work is shown and its quality. Managers of traditional art galleries typically are well educated in art history, criticism and technique, and have long-standing relationships within the art world which help them sell their artists’ work. Since a traditional gallery gets no money from an artist until a work is actually sold, they have tremendous incentive and drive to advertise their current exhibits and bring potential customers to their gallery. A vanity gallery has no such incentive as they’ve already gotten the bulk of the payment they will get from an artist upfront. A vanity gallery may be located in the “heart” of a big city’s “artistic district,” but that will make it only more likely that serious art buyers and critics already know well to avoid it, and the only potential customers you are likely to have for your work are clueless tourists.
A vanity gallery should not be confused with an artists’ cooperative, which can be a legitimate market for an artist’s work. Cooperatives are usually run by a group of artists who share in coop expenses and work together in selling their artwork. Cooperatives will not accept simply anyone who wants to pay to get in, because it is in the coop’s best interests to have a pool of artists whose work as a whole will draw in buyers.
For an artist frustrated by the traditional gallery system and looking for other ways to market her work, there are many legitimate avenues for doing so today. However, these methods do involve the artist putting her own time into marketing and sales, not just creating art. Many artists exhibit at art fairs and shows, which can be juried but not always (the best ones typically are.) At such fairs, artists will need to have invested in their own display set-ups but they can be good venues for directly connecting with buyers and not having to pay any commissions on sales – only the fees for entering the fair. Other artists do well selling their work online, either through a website of their own or through arts and crafts markets such as etsy. Artists should also join local art leagues and groups, which often host regular exhibits and will get their work seen by members of the community. In addition, many restaurants, coffee shops, and business offices today are interested in decorating their walls with original artwork for sale, and getting work shown there can be easier than in a traditional gallery – and at no fee to the artist unless a work sells.
A vanity gallery is the artistic equivalent of a literary vanity press, and equally disdained by the traditional community of creative individuals. Most writers are taught early on that “money flows to the writer” and not the other way around. Artists would do well to take this advice to heart and avoid vanity galleries at all costs. As both an artist and an individual who ran an art gallery for many years, I can assure you that showing at a vanity gallery can do more harm than good to both an artist’s reputation and bank account, and will do nothing to get an artist’s foot in the door with the professional art community.
* “Suspect & Faux Art Venues.” Art Alarm.
* “Vanity Galleries.” ArtEmerging.com.
* “Vanity gallery.” Wikipedia.
* Personal experience