A couple of days ago I found myself in the middle of a debate about commercial art galleries. Are they glorified dealers, selecting only art that fits a narrow, profit-oriented, white-cube ideal? Or are they operators in cultural cohesion, inviting community and collectors to share in the owner's artistic vision over a free beer at openings?

Abstract gallery photo

Well, the truth is they're probably both to an extent that varies from gallery to gallery. But it made me realise I don't really know how the gallery scene works, and it gave me the impetus to do a little bit of investigation. I've summarised it in this article, and discussed commercial galleries more below.

See the links at the bottom for the sources. And let me know if you have a different idea about how things work.

Four Types
Below are the four types I found that stood out. People usually rank these in levels of desirability for the artist, due to the potential for profit and prestige. Starting with the lowest:

1. Vanity gallery
In this category the artist pays a fee to the gallery in order to show their work. Vanity galleries are particularly prevalent in big cities, and particularly in New York, because of it's status in the art world. It can cost between $2-10k depending on whether you use the space exclusively or not. These galleries often make a profit while the artist is making a loss, because a lot of aspiring artists want New York shows on their CV no matter how they have to get there. In reality it can damage the artist's career as these galleries are looked down on by people in the 'higher levels'.

2. Co-operative / artist run
A nice middle ground which will cost you less as an artist, is to buy into a cooperative. In doing so, you get a say in how the co-op is run (if you want), and you get a guaranteed slot for a show every 1-2 years when your turn comes up. It costs much less than a vanity show but the costs are ongoing rather than one-off, so it requires commitment - and you also need to convince the other artists in the collective that your work is worthy of joining the mix. It's also tougher to make a sale, since the real money is in the commercial galleries, but you get to be a part of something which is real and happening, and you can work with your peers, and network and share facilities.

3. Non-profit galleries
These look to me to be a good target for artists, though difficult to run for the owners. The non-profit is funded by donations and grants and it takes a lot of skill to establish and navigate. Sales of the artist's work usually include commissions for the institution, but the percentage is lower than with commercial galleries. If you are accepted you get to show and network in an environment that doesn't need to make sales to survive, which gives you and the gallery the freedom to take risks. However, particularly larger institutions may rely on funding from public sector sources, and need to emulate commercial galleries to appear to deserve it. A nice plus with non-profits is that you actually have a chance to get accepted based on merit alone, unlike any of the other models - because it's common for non-profits to put out open calls and accept unknown artists based on the proposal and portfolio alone.

4. Independently owned / Commercial gallery
The benefit of working with a commercial gallery is relative stability and an improved financial situation - you have a dealer working on your behalf who stands to make just as much money from each sale as you (circa 50% commission). This is a plus and a minus though, as it means ensuring your output fits within known market limitations - you can push the edges sometimes but it's harder to take risks because the gallery relies exclusively on sales of your work to survive. If you don't sell, they can't pay the rent, the staff, or the bills.

Abstract gallery photo

The gallery may well have been started off by an artist or enthusiastic collector, and there will usually be some kind of 'house style' they are keen to nurture - which will be why they chose you in the first place. So in many respects they are on 'your side'. But they must always wear the hat of the dealer too.

At the higher end of the commercial gallery scene (where the serious money is made) the community becomes more tight-knit, and has a 'club-like mentality'. Collectors, artists and dealers are more generally known to each other, and artists are selected from this pool. You won't get to display in any of these galleries from the outside - to even approach any of these people you need to find a way into the social group first. From there it seems you keep networking until you are noticed by a gallery that likes you.

What effect will working for commercial galleries have on your art?
Here I'm starting to descend more into opinion. It seems to be that one of the first things that makes an item saleable is it's relationship to other art. In particular the placement of the object in accordance with a lineage of art - art history and art future. So the gallery will play up that angle by making references to prominent art movements, critics, practitioners or establishments - a form of value by association. In the modern, pluralistic art market, I think this criterion alone can be satisfied with almost art object. Doing so may obscure it's essence to some extent, but that's just part of the sales process.

A more problematic one though, is that you need to have at least a certain percentage of saleable artifacts. And they have to have a certain level of workmanship or material quality about them so that they would look 'right' hung on a wall or existing in a contemporary-looking space, which may often be a high-end living space. This is a problem in my field, new media, as well as fields like performance art or video art. They are just too ephemeral and documentation of an event or instance just don't have the same aura as the event itself. So this will place size, aesthetic and material constraints on at least some of your work, to an extent that depends on the gallery.

And then there's the 'sales environment' constraints - the gallery space itself. The work needs to have a 'sacred' aura around it, which adds to the sense of value. (This is because of the 'cult of art genius' which has continued strongly to resonate with buyers since it's inception during the Renaissance.) This is the reason for the white walls, the hushed tone, and the general sense of awkwardness for people who aren't used to that environment. Making them feel awkward is a side-effect of making collectors feel at ease - this is 'high' culture, more suitable for 'refined' taste. It also explains why there are no prices on the walls - after all, there could be - the items are fixed price after all. But this refined aura would be broken by any overt sense of commerciality on the gallerist's part.

Is this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
You might think of these things as 'restrictions', and think that restrictions on art can only be a 'Bad Thing'. But in a way, it's kind of inevitable. You can think of this as a cultural reflection on how we view art, mixed with growing, insistent global market forces. The cultural perspective is a hand-me-down from the Western tradition of the last 400 years - the notion of artistic genius, the masters of form. Interestingly, it seems that whatever new art movements come along to overthrow any existing establishment, what comes out at the end is a new establishment. In contemporary academic circles, distinctions such as 'high' art are now frowned on as elitist and monocultural, and academically speaking this notion died with the rise of Post-Modernism. But in reality high art now means high price rather than high culture - it's a huge international market now, and artistic prestige is affirmed as much by the ticket price as by academic criticism.

On the other hand, it's a market that artists can tap into and make money from - it's an option, not a compulsion. Therefore these aren't 'restrictions' but choices, and for many types of artist, these choices fit in well enough with their practice. I'm sure some artists might produce work purely to satisfy the market, without any sense of personal interjection, but i'd suspect these are in the minority. To illustrate, note the assumption running through this article so far that artists are only interested in selling to collectors. If you wanted to sell to the public at large, there would be even more 'restrictions' on what you could do - considerably more. Experimental, and 'cutting edge' work is a niche thing that appeals to a thin slaver of academics and wealthy people. That's the context that all of this sits in.

So on reflection, I don't want to attack the commercial gallery - I just think there are other ways to make money. Due to the nature of my activity, I don't think commercial galleries are going to work for me. I'll look into non-profits, co-ops, and 'other' - more in another post.