The Seductiveness of White Walls: On Gallery Representation

One of the advantages of living in a major metropolitan area is the opportunity for viewing art. There are museums, street shows, galleries. Recently I experienced what was essentially an “open gallery day.” A friend and I managed to get to just over 20 galleries in a single day, and we were not rushing through them. Admittedly some were tiny, but others were not. And not only was the range of art extreme, but the galleries themselves were very different in nature.

The range was from the very posh with classical music playing softly in the background to the tiny brick and corrugated metal walled section of an old warehouse building, and everything in between. Although most featured the ubiquitous white wall, the arrangements were very different from each other, as were features such as windows, lighting, personality of staff, methods of display. Even the labels on the art were different.

The only thing that the 20+ galleries had in common were red dots by sold pieces, and even these were different space to space.

Some galleries were retail spaces that had been converted into art spaces with a very clean, new look. Some conversions traded on the antiquity of the buildings in which they were housed. Some were obviously built as galleries. Of those, some offered a very restrained interior personality; others were pretentious “art spaces.”

Seeing so many different spaces in one day caused me to wonder about how the nature of the gallery impacted the sales of art, since the gallery and its adjacent pieces functioned as a “wrapper” for the art on sale. Obviously the art presented was what was important, but given equivalent work, did I want to buy art from the gallery with classical music, bartender, varied choices of hors d’oeuvres, or did I want to buy from the pour-it-yourself-red-wine-only-accompanied-by-indie-rock gallery?

More to the point, which gallery did I want to sell my art work? Certainly the more sophisticated gallery might command higher prices, but that did not necessarily mean that they would sell more art.

Some artists, Hazel Dooney being foremost among them, would advise artists to avoid the gallery system entirely and sell their art directly to patrons. Some of the smaller galleries we visited were artists doing just that. Most of the galleries, however, were not artist galleries, but representatives taking a significant percentage of the sales price for the effort of displaying and doing the sales pitch.

Except for that percentage part, the appeal is very seductive. It is very easy to imagine one’s work hanging on a wall on a flawless white wall while music plays softly in the background and patrons sip wine and listen to a professional, persuasive salesperson—while you are in your studio creating more, doing the work that you really want to do.

The part that’s left out, of course, is that it is just as difficult to obtain competent gallery representation as it is to sell art directly. The difference is that you have to sell at a different level—and then depend on your representative to retail your work to the actual collector.

The truth is the gallery influences what the patron thinks of the art, just as a boutique influences what you think of a particular piece of clothing. Who do you want representing you? So the question is not just representation, but which representation, and what that will that do for your art sales.

When you walk in the door, sometimes before you walk in the door, you are forming an opinion of the place and, by extension, the art contained therein. And while it’s easy to envision your work hanging in this or that gallery, you must choose carefully. After all, it’s your livelihood we’re talking about here.


Date: Monday, 18. July 2011 0:34
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Marketing

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  1. 1

    I’ve often mulled over the same issues, only plug in theatre for gallery, publishing house or agent for representation. As you say, it all has its effect on the work. A theatre space can influence audience expectations of a play. And, weighing the advantage of script representation (broader marketing) against the disadvantage (the agent’s percentage) can feel like a coin toss. When you get all this figured out, I hope you’ll share. 🙂

  2. 2

    If I ever get it figured out, I will definitely share. Unfortunately, I think this is one of those each answer is unique to the individual issues, so there will probably never be consensus. And that’s all right, if each one of us can somehow figure out what works for his/her situation.

  3. 3

    Unique is right. I’m presently shifting directions myself. Sometimes it’s surprising to find out just what’s most effective.

  4. 4

    It really is, isn’t it?

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