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!
Bravo! I think this is a really useful, and uncommon, perspective on trying to sell pots via galleries. The desperate, ‘just happy to be asked’, undiscerning potter usually gets burned — like you, I’ve learned that lesson a few times.
I expect you’ll know a lot more about this particular gallery after they answer your questions, even if they don’t answer them to your complete satisfaction. And it seems to me that because it’s a ton easier to send out a solicitation (perhaps the same one to lots of people) than to reply in kind, any kind of answer will tell you lot. I hope they pass muster! (If you can, give us a follow up of how this turns out.)
“…as tightly packed as any bisque kiln you ever saw” — so sad, yet so true. I wish we could convince Pilcher to start a blog.
“Just happy to be asked” sums it up perfectly for most of us. This is far too naive in a marketplace that is not necessarily out to look after our best interests…..
Looking forward to hearing their reply! I am a professional kitchen designer who does pottery as a serious hobby with my husband. We have gallery aspirations someday but we’re not there yet. The insight you have shared here is very welcome! I have experienced the same kind of response with some clients who consider themselves special enough that I should take their kitchen design job at a reduced rate or even gratis because it is ‘good exposure’. I generally reply politely with something along the lines of “I have been doing kitchens professionally for over 15 years and no longer need to take a job just for the practice”. Hopefully that gets the point across that I am a professional and my services are worth paying for and if another designer agrees to their deal, they may just get what they are not paying for. 😉
Good anecdote! Thanks for sharing!
I think a lot of potters want to be accepted in venues that just don’t bode well for functional pottery and if a fine art gallery wants some mugs and bowls then their motive is probably suspect since selling sub $100 (really sub $1000 items) is not really their thing. This means the actual reason is probably not to enrich either one of you.
You didn’t really make it clear but I am assuming you are not talking about handmade gift shops. Most of these place call their shops galleries as well and I think a lot of potters get approached by them at shows for both buying and consignment. Not knocking them at all and think they are great places to sell some pots if you can afford the 50% split but I think ‘gallery’ is a bit of a stretch although they are often stocked with wonderful pots and I assume you’re fine with these. Personally I think consignment in handmade shops is a mistake.
I wasn’t really differentiating between types of selling environments as much as I was trying to recognize the burden on us, the makers, for screening our potential business partners. Like gazooza said above, I think most of us are just happy to be asked most of the time, and that level of vetting is just asking for trouble.
Its possible that some markets are like convenience stores where shoppers don’t need to be told anything about what they are buying, and the staff don’t need to be knowledgeable. That doesn’t always work for businesses and customers alike when a product needs to be explained or demonstrated if its not entirely self-evident. My shopping experiences at hardware stores is much better at the local version than the big box where employees may be able to tell you what aisle its on but nothing about how it works or which one to use in what situations….. Maybe a gift shop like you are talking about is just a place to pick something up, a souvenir, in the same way that a convenience store is a bit of everything for everyone. Customers either need it or they don’t. They don’t require a salesperson selling it to them….. Personally, I’d never put my pots in that context…..
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