Dr. Art on Paying to Exhibit Your WorkMatthew Deleget, Visual Artist Information Hotline, with special guestRenee Phillips, Manhattan Arts International
Each year the Hotline receives hundreds of calls from artists who are desperate to exhibit their work. They are sometimes willing to do literally anything, which includes paying huge sums of money. Vanity galleries, national competitions, and unscrupulous dealers profit handsomely from this desperation. For this issue, Dr. Art has invited author and artist advisor Renee Phillips of Manhattan Arts International to discuss her views on artists paying to exhibit their work.Paying to Show
“Artist shall contribute $6,500 upon the signing of this agreement as his/her share of financial responsibility. . . .”
“Exhibition: One group show. 10′ high x 10′ wide wall space. The non-refundable fee is $1,250.”
—Excerpts from New York gallery contracts
On a regular basis I receive calls and letters from artists on the subject of New York City galleries that charge artists fees to exhibit their work. These fees can be as high as several thousands dollars, simply for the privilege of hanging their work on a wall. This is a subject I have discussed, repeatedly and passionately, in my seminars, articles, and private consultations with artists. I am sure that I will be responding to these questions for as long as there are artists in need of exposure and galleries that operate in this manner.
In this regard, I am not referring to cooperative galleries, also known as artist-run galleries, which are operated by, and for, artists, and charge membership fees. Nor do I consider galleries that are under the auspices of non-profit organizations to be included in this category, even if they ask for a financial contribution. For example, New York Artists Equity Association operates Broome Street Gallery on the premises of their office space in SoHo, which they rent to individual artists and organizations to defray their costs.
My objection is to the opportunistic gallery owner whose intention is to profit from the artists’ fees rather than the sales of art, and who pretends to have the same distinction as a legitimate gallery. Legitimate galleries focus on producing buyers and recognition for their artists, not preying on the vulnerability of artists who desire a gallery exhibition at practically any cost.
In the least desirable instances, the fees the artists pay simply cover the rental of wall space (the artist is actually sub-leasing space, in my opinion), and the artist may be expected to pay for other exhibition-related expenses. Some of the galleries justify their fees by including advertisements in national magazines and color brochures and by sending out postcards, but they usually exaggerate their costs.
I have seen a number of fee-paid galleries come and go over the last two decades. In fact, I have been called upon more than once to intervene on behalf of the artist in order to retrieve money or art work.
I have looked at every angle of this scenario in order to be a fair judge, especially when I know that so many artists have chosen to exhibit in fee-paid galleries. I wish I could say that of the dozens of artists I know who have taken this route, I have heard positive responses, but I have not.
Most artists have complained that their fees far outweighed the benefits. Furthermore, many individuals who operate these galleries lack the necessary skills to be effective agents for the artists. They often behave in a condescending manner toward the artists, acting as though they were doing them a favor, instead of giving them the respect they deserve. It amazes me that artists tolerate more abuse from galleries than they would ever accept in their personal relationships. My opinion on this issue remains firm. They do more harm than good to an artist’s self-esteem and career.
Consider this: If you pay a dealer a sizable fee, which covers a substantial part of the overhead expenses, how much incentive is there for the dealer to sell the work? Why do these types of galleries need to regularly advertise “Call for Artists” in art magazines? Good news travels fast through word of mouth. If the gallery was generating good will for the artists who paid to show with them, they wouldn’t need to advertise aggressively.
Whether or not you pay for a show is your choice. An artist’s expectations from this kind of exhibition are often very different from the reality. Make decisions with your head, not your emotions. Examine the pitfalls as well as the advantages of exhibiting your work in this manner. Remember, the gallery’s commitment to you lives only until the next group of paying artists arrive.
Galleries that charge fees for exhibitions seem to have multiplied in recent years. My file containing copies of their contracts has grown. Many of them have become very adept at luring the unsuspecting artist into the palm of their hand with the right buzzwords and sales psychology. Their letters include such statements as, “We are located near the Guggenheim Museum . . . ,” when they are actually located in a 12-story building down the block and are undoubtedly never visited by the same people who visit the museum. Their advertisements appear where artists are likely to look for legitimate opportunities. Always seeking new artist clients to fill their walls, they often buy artist mailing lists, so chances are they have approached you.
When faced with the temptation to pay, consider these questions: What do you hope to achieve from this venture? What role will this exhibition play in your overall career objectives? What do the leading critics, gallery owners, artists’ organizations, and fellow artists say about the gallery? How many legitimate reviews has the gallery received? That’s just the beginning.
Get out your calculator. Does your fee (combined with other exhibiting artists) cover a large portion of the gallery’s operating expenses? What are your risks for the investment you are making? How much do you have to sell in order to cover your expenses? Don’t forget to add up all of your expenses, including shipping, insurance, framing, and traveling.
Many of you will be tempted to take the risk. If you should acquiesce to a fee-paid gallery, before paying a penny, get everything that was promised to you in writing. Hire a lawyer to write up a contract that includes your entitlements, such as a partial or full refund if the gallery fails to live up to its end of the agreement.
Surprised? Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, you are entitled to services rendered. You are entitled to ask questions and receive professional respect. If you don’t get it, place your checkbook back in your pocket and run! Then write to me about your experience and include the name of the gallery and director. You will not only be doing yourself a favor, but helping other artists.
Artists should refuse to pay galleries to exhibit their work, and devote more time and energy to self-promotion. By eliminating the profits earned at the expense of artists, these dealers would have to either improve their gallery operating skills or find other means of support.
If your work has merit and you are an ambitious self-promoter you could invest your money in other ways, such as printing a brochure to cultivate direct sales, hiring an administrative assistant, or consulting a publicist to build your media exposure. Join a cooperative gallery, hold “Open Studio” events, and make use of the myriad of alternative exhibition spaces in the United States and abroad.
If you want autonomy you may consider one of the New York City cooperative galleries or rent an exhibition space in which you either “sit” your own show or hire a sales attendant. In this situation you have the freedom to establish your own prices, do not have to pay a commission to the gallery, and you may have a one-person exhibition or share the rental with other artists who will also devote time and money to attract visitors and prospective buyers. 2/20 Gallery, which is owned by Miguel Herrera, an artist, has been a low-cost exhibition venue for many artist-curated shows.Questions to Ask before Taking the Plunge
After you have checked the Better Business Bureau, Attorney General’s office, and artists’ organizations for any possible complaints, the following questions should be answered to your satisfaction before exhibiting in any gallery—fees or no fees.
Is the gallery genuinely impressed with your work and why? Does the gallery offer you a contract, which obligates them to perform specific services for you or does the contract serve only to protect them?
Do they offer tangible promotional and marketing services? When you ask for specific proof of past performance, do they respond with concrete evidence?
Do they treat you in a condescending manner, as if you should be grateful to them for the opportunity to have a show?
Is the gallery easy to find? What is the appearance and attitude of the gallery and staff? Is the quality of the artwork consistent? Are the sales people courteous and knowledgeable? Is the hanging and lighting properly arranged?
Visit the gallery routinely over a period of at least two seasons, at different times of the day. Attend their receptions. Compare their style of doing business with successful galleries that are known for building their artists’ reputations. Over this period of time, have you observed many qualified buyers visiting the gallery? How would you categorize the attendance at the receptions? Are they predominantly exhibiting artists and their friends and relatives? Or does the gallery have a respected following of art consultants, interior designers, architects, collectors, and members of the press?
Does the gallery consistently advertise in art publications for “Call For Artists” and
If the gallery is offering you extended representation, how many exhibitions are they offering in one year? What are the costs? What month(s) are they offering you? (In New York City, January, February, July, and August are the kiss of death.)
What effort will they make to sell the work? Successful galleries don’t just sit back after they hang the artwork, relying on walk-in traffic or sales; they generate sales through phone calls, press releases, advertising, mailings, and a range of networking activities.
What portion of your fee goes for advertising? What kinds of advertising vehicles—radio, TV, print—do they buy?
Do they permit you to have a role in the decision-making process about where and how they spend your money? Are they overstating their costs? Will you have to pay for invitations, receptions, advertising?
Have most of their artists remained with them for more than five years? Do you know any artists in the gallery who have had work sold through the gallery? Do they have any complaints?Further Questions?
For additional information about paying to exhibit your work, please contact NYFA Source at our toll-free number (800) 232-2789, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Renee Phillips
Renee Phillips is the author of the books Success Now! For Artists: A Motivational Guide for the Artrepreneur, New York Contemporary Art Galleries: The Complete Annual Guide, and Presentation Power Tools For Fine Artists. She has been a private counselor to artists and artists’ agents for 20 years. Her workshop titled Artists: Learn How to Break Into New York Galleries is held monthly. For further information, contact Renee Phillips at Manhattan Arts International, 200 East 72nd Street, New York, NY 10021; by phone (212) 472-1660; by email at ManArts@aol.com; or online at www.ManhattanArts .com. The above essay was mostly excerpted from Chapter 3 of the book Success Now! For Artists: A Motivational Guide for the Artrepreneur and was reprinted with the permission of Renee Phillips, © 2000 Renee Phillips, Manhattan Arts International.