Galleries and artists can form a working relationship that, when it works, can be profitable for both parties. When it works well its worth doing. My experience has rarely been that. Okay, never. So maybe I’m a wee bit sensitive. In any event, call me cautious.
I just received an inquiry from a gallery manager who had seen my work in a show, and the invitation was to possibly do business together. I’m not opposed to it, despite being repeatedly burned in the past, but I do want to know what qualifications this gallery has for representing my work. I think too often we hear from a gallery and are so honored by their interest that we sign the contract without looking deeper. They are not automatically doing us a favor by showing an interest or even taking our work.
My unfortunate experience is that occasionally galleries are looking for ‘window dressing’ that makes their shop look full while they get to the real business of selling the ‘important’ work. Sometimes some work is just there for decoration while other work is more actively promoted and sold. Not everything that takes up space in a gallery earns its place by selling, and the stuff that does sell is often more actively promoted. And maybe that’s fair to them, but is it fair to you?
So of course I want to know why my work belongs in a particular space. Why are the people running the gallery qualified to work with me? Do they have my best interests at heart or are they simply looking for a cheap way to fill out the space? The work is good enough, but are the people whose business it is to sell it good enough? Can I trust them to represent it to customers? Do they know anything about pots? Do they know anything about the sort of pots that I make? Do they even like pots?
Unless they can answer these questions in a way that gives me confidence, why would I entrust my work to their safekeeping? I did my job making the pots, what does their job look like in selling them? If it requires no experience, no interest, no investment on their part, then clearly you are taking an enormous risk that the work will simply sell itself. And some work really does sell itself. But does yours? Always? Displayed in even unfavorable settings? Collecting dust in the back storage rooms?
If you are a professional potter you have the right to demand professional representation. If you have a long history of making pots you have the right to demand a long history of at least understanding pots if not just selling them. Why would you trust your pots to someone who doesn’t really know pots? Why would you trust your pots to someone who does not have the background to speak intelligently about what you are doing? Think how easy it would be to misrepresent what we are doing……
In the end the gallery must answer why they feel your work in particular belongs in their space. There is a lot riding on the quality of their answer, and if they can respond in a way that satisfies you, at least that’s a start. Never accept that they are the ones doing you a favor. Its your work, and unless they have artists to represent their shops would be empty. YOU are providing the value that they become responsible for. Their JOB is mediating our work out into the world. You have already sweated and put in the labor. Its their job not just to get your work seen, but to get it sold. Don’t let them tell you that putting work in their gallery is ‘good exposure’. That’s code for “We won’t actually lift a finger to sell it”……
Once upon a time artists had few other means of making a living besides going through reputable galleries. We NEEDED them. Obviously they still need artists to populate their spaces, but the truth is that these days we have many other means for getting our work out in the world. They CAN still do us a favor, but the truth is also that they owe us for committing our work to their space. It is WE who are really doing the favors….. How can they prove that they are worthy of our investment in their display area?
So here is my response to that inquiring gallery. I hope that it demonstrates that I am looking out for myself, and that I expect something in return for letting my pots sit in their space. Here’s what I wrote:
Thank you for your kind words and your interest in my pottery. I don’t often work with galleries but I am always interested to hear what they are offering. If the timing is right and the terms suit my needs I would be willing to do something with your venue.
I noticed in some of the images on your website that you do have potters’ work in your space and I am curious who has shown there and what their experiences have been. Some spaces do well with pottery and some do well with specific types of pots. I agree, my pots are among the best work being made in Georgia, but that doesn’t mean it will sell itself. Unfortunately the general audience is rarely educated enough about pottery to understand and appreciate what most potters are really doing. Some things have ‘curb appeal’ and are fairly obvious to even folks with no experience of handmade pots, but quite often its a bit more subtle than that…..
What is your own background experience with pots? Educating the audience is difficult, and in a selling situation requires both familiarity with the medium and affection for what is being expressed. I’d love to hear what pots you are most fond of and why. Who are some of the contemporary clay artists whose work moves you? What do you see them expressing that makes a real difference in adding beauty and value to the world? I’d love to know more about why my work in particular appeals to you, and why you think its a good fit for your gallery space. What things would you tell customers looking at my work? How will you represent my pots to inquiring customers?
Thanks again for your interest. I look forward to hearing from you 🙂
Stuff to think about, at least…..
Let me leave with a link to a Don Pilcher guest post essay on Michael Kline’s blog from a few years ago. Don describes his experience of walking into a museum where he was told a piece of his was on display, only to find that it was hard to find. A museum may be a different sort of beast from what we were talking about, but the point I am after is how being included is not always enough, and it seems fairly easy to relate Don’s experience here to what often happens in other venues.
“So out of the galleries, down the hall, past the restrooms, past the office spaces, past the janitorial closet and, finally, we reached the intensity cases. Still in the museum, but just barely. These are glass front cases, about chest high, the size of a huge office aquarium. Inside were about sixty pots – as tightly packed as any bisque kiln you ever saw, tighter than white on rice.”
Read the rest here:
Make beauty real!