How and why an artist comes to be represented by a gallery is a seemingly mysterious process, one of many parts of the industry that exist behind a veil of secrecy. Yet for an artist who has committed to making a living from their art, it is naturally a topic of some interest, one we wanted to look into a bit further. While our exploration hardly threw the entire process open—if anything it highlighted what an individual and idiosyncratic process establishing gallery representation is—we did manage to identify a few significant points and trends along the way, ones that may well undermine the very form and function of this exercise. Read on.
The investigation consisted of three strands: the first was to interview several gallerists ; the second was to launch a brief survey on the ArtSlant network asking galleries about the nature of their relationship with the artists they represent; and the third was to trawl the demi-monde of advice for artists existing on the internet. The good news first: a solid 85 percent of the galleries who responded to our survey answered that they are always on the lookout for new artists to represent. However, what they’re looking for, and how they find these artists varies considerably. The decision is largely an individual one, made collaboratively by the gallery director and artist, and it seems there is no single methodology or best practice.
The good news: 85% of galleries said they're always on the lookout for new artists.
Step Away from the Internet
The first point worth making is that the majority of what is written on the internet is, perhaps unsurprisingly, complete garbage. My personal favorite was the advice that an artist should identify a gallery whose work was similar to their own, and:
“If you're really a fan of a gallery, you might think about offering to work there, even on a volunteer basis [...] Maybe offer to help hang shows, do basic office work or pour wine at their openings.”
This oh-so-modern “interning as the panacea and key to all network and privilege” is from the professionally titled artbusiness dot com. The promise of the site’s name is somewhat diminished by the low scan quality clip-art-ish corporate logo and tone of the articles I read, which took the voice of a small-town career adviser and elevated platitude to as yet unseen levels.
Most of the advice offered can essentially be distilled into a few sentences:
• Find galleries that show work like your work.
• Do everything you can over the course of months to ingratiate yourself with the director.
• Show them your art, and hope.
What exactly do we mean by “work that is like your work”? As a man who is fairly interested in how we categorize things, this is a fascinating question: do we mean by discipline, style, conceptual preoccupations etc.? Of course for most galleries it’s important that they have a certain kind of profile as to the work they display—indeed, of the galleries we surveyed, the majority rated it “extremely important” that an artist’s work fit the gallery’s aesthetic—but what are the limits of contrast and similarity?
“the majority of what is written on the internet is complete garbage”
Also, coming back to the idea that this process is individual, what we’re then talking about is measuring another person’s taste and judgment via the artists they represent, and having sufficient self-reflexive distance on your work to understand if you’d fit into it. Not an easy thing.
So even the first phase—picking a gallery, reaching out and making contact—is riven with difficulties, which is to say nothing of the fact that perhaps the drive to be an artist doesn’t necessarily make one the ideal person for the slick kind of political maneuvering advocated by this kind of advice.
Indeed, one thing that is axiomatic within this essay, perhaps reflecting on the people I spoke to, is that we aren’t here talking about a certain kind of naked self-interest, and the fiercely commercial desire for rapid success and fame that goes with it. In the current finance mentality-saturated art market, unbridled self-promotion and hyper-professionalization are quite prevalent in certain areas (and called out recently by Daniel S. Palmer and Andrew Berardini in two separate and great articles). If this is the type of artist you are or want to be, there is another playbook for you somewhere else.
When Do Artists Become “Professional”?
Moving away from internet advice, something that many young or unrepresented artists might not immediately consider is: what does representation actually mean? At least for the medium-sized galleries with whom I spoke, representation is a massive and crucial investment of time and energy. For gallerist and artist alike it’s a stake in the continued existence of an institution the gallery director has normally sweated blood and tears to establish (and likely comprises a large part in their continued livelihood). The cliché of the uber-privileged or cynically commercial gallerist—while it might hold true in certain echelons on the gallery ladder—often masks the fact that most of these people are hard-working, passionate, and deeply invested in what they’re doing, not living a life of private jets to Monaco.
Which brings me to the question of what they’re looking for: simply, an artist whose work they love and whose practice they can believe in, essentially someone they think is worth the investment they stand to make. If you as an artist meet these criteria then your similarity to the other work they represent is relatively unimportant. But how does a director know you’re the right artist for their gallery?
What this translates to, in terms of the results of our survey, is quite interesting. We learned that some gallerists will monitor artists for a long time before coming to represent them, the majority for over six months, with more than a third watching artists for over a year. The implication here is that it isn’t enough simply to show a couple of pieces of work and it’s all done: galleries want to see your practice, the way you work, and ideally some development over time.
Related questions concern the age of an artist when they come to be represented, and at what stage of their career it happens: the majority, per our survey, being between the ages of 30 and 40 (with none over age 61, sorry) and 60 percent having worked for five or more years after an MFA. This is quite a long time in the wilderness, and, if you consider that most artists begin training in their late teenage years, it’s an absurdly long period before turning “professional.”
This is a side of the equation completely overlooked by the internet, and it makes me think that a large caveat should be added to all the internet advice pages saying, “If you’re looking at this, you’re not ready.” Because, as we learned, it’s through going out in the real world and developing networks and connections that the actual work of connecting with a gallery takes place.
“...if you consider that most artists begin training in their late teenage years, it’s an absurdly long period before turning “professional.”
Peers Are Paramount
When an artist finds representation wasn’t the only area of focus I was interested in; this is largely known and incorporated into the education most artists receive throughout their various degrees—from certificates and post-baccs to BFA and MFAs. I was particularly interested in where this happens: what is the context of that first point of contact between artist and gallery director? Where was the director they when they had that “wow” moment and decided this was someone worth following or possibly representing?
Survey responses suggest three clear points of contact: recommendations, group shows, and shows in artist-run or alternative, non-commercial gallery spaces.
This information was confirmed by most people I spoke to, and corroborates perhaps the best webpage I found on the subject, where artists who were represented spoke about how they came to be so.
The advice from these artists emphasizes two points:
• Have a strong body of work and set up studio visits.
• Involve yourself in a community of artists and colleagues.
The first point reflects the fact a director will be looking at both your work and your practice and needs to know you’re not just a flash in the pan or dilettante; the second covers the place of contact between artist and gallery. From my interviews with people working in galleries it became clear that they will actively seek recommendations, particularly from artists they know or represent, and the data bears out that being part of a self-supporting network is the best way to get noticed.
And there is an important distinction to be made here between social media in its various forms and an actual IRL network, and not only in terms of receiving recognition of your work by a gallery. While it’s true that our survey did identify the internet as a key place where galleries found recommendations and noticed artists’ work, it’s worth restating the limitations of social media both as a form of communication and a network: while it’s very good at casting a broad net, its interaction can be shallow, require a lot of energy to maintain, and you’re shouting against literally millions of other voices.
“Every gallerist I know has a pretty acute bullshit-o-meter.”
The slightly depressing thing about these observations—make good art, have a network—is the fact that neither is exactly revelatory, although they do, by way of a conclusion, allow me to state a few not exactly original and yet perhaps perversely uplifting messages for artists (to add to our finding that yes, galleries are actually looking for talented artists).
The first is that there is no faking it. Every gallerist I know has a pretty acute bullshit-o-meter, and to be a successful artist requires a level of commitment that is tantamount to placing a massively substantial portion of your life down on the table, and putting years of work into the hope that one day the gamble is all going to pay off.
The second is that your peers are your life raft, your savior, and the best chance you have of making it to the next stage of your career. Not only that, but also the people most likely to improve, test, and develop your practice to the point where you’re ready.
Finally, as I mentioned from the start, there is actually no sure-fire path to getting gallery representation. While, from one perspective, this means you’re wandering blindly ahead with little to no certainty, on the other this means you have no idea when, or how, it might happen. There are, in fact, many more opportunities and ways than you might imagine, and all you can do is genuinely engage with your peers and networks and keep trying to make great artwork.
h/t to Art F City for the excellent It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia gif at top.
Correction: In the original publication of this article, a quote from Art Business dot com was incorrectly reprinted. This article has seen been updated.
 This is equivalent to, and sometimes surpassing, the 16 years of training it takes to be a surgeon, and for a surgeon, 10 of these 16 years are normally paid, although surgeons do save lives. While I have had the discussion as to the relative merits of each profession, it’s perhaps best saved until after you’ve drunk too much wine.
 Studies tell us that only about half the people with a studio arts degree will go on to work as artists, and the median wage of these is $35,000 a year, less than a New York City bus driver and enough for you to keep working, but probably not a lot more.