Friday Tips: One Gallery Writes…

A gallery owner/artist from New York wrote me last month, seeking advice.  He was having a very hard time staying open, and wanted to know if I could provide a little guidance.  Not long after I sent him my suggestions, he wrote back saying that things were improving, and that he saw a way out.  I hardly believe that came from my suggestions, but maybe I was a bit of a catalyst.  Anyway, here are the emails.  I post them so that you’ll understand yet more about the art business, and the challenges inherent in it.

Dear Paul:
i’m hoping that if i spill a bit, you might be able to offer some sage advice without becoming altogether aggitated with my semi-sob story, and the fact that I feel compelled to share it with you.

over the course of this last two years (20 months since the gallery doors were first opened) i have seen my marriage fall apart, had to move out, have to fight tooth and nail to see my kids regularly, seen my credit go from nearly perfect to a perfect bankruptcy candidate, lost weight, (there’s a reason they call us “starving artists”, eh?), and paint Every day.

creating new work, evading bill collectors to pay for my personal exhibition submission fees, working crazy hours in the gallery while continuing to renovate it, juggling artists and schedules for the galleries exhibitions, applying for grants that i’m never granted, yada yada and barely scraping by financially is how i spend my days. in some ways, i’m so desperatly happy to be who i am each day….. in some ways i’m so desperate for relief from this tight rope walk.

how did you manage when things got tough?

i haven’t become bitter, i have no regrets for having lived my passion this little piece of time and if it all falls apart tomorrow i will be happy that i had today. -but- i don’t want to see it end. i can’t imagine losing my studio. i wouldn’t breathe without art. i don’t want to think of the disappointment for the more than 80 local artists whose work i present (and sell), many of whom don’t exhibit anywhere else. and i can’t fathom the thought of living outside of myself again.

i know that there’s no secret code but perhaps you might share with me how you managed to come through your gallery’s early years? how you managed to dig out of debt? how i might keep ahold of my sanity amidst a public that constantly tells me i’m crazy for believing so strongly?

I thank you for any response you might offer.

Dear ________:

Glad you wrote.  Your situation is certainly salvageable, but not without making some significant changes.  What you went through with your marriage is unfortunate, but fairly common.  I just hope you two can keep love and understanding in the forefront, and bitterness–if it arises–out of the picture.  You’ll both be more content, as will your kids.  If there is strife, you might try to moderate.  That will make things easier.

Firstly, since you’re an artist, unless you have a sound business mind, you probably should not be running the gallery alone.  You should certainly be the director, but you’ll need at least one person with retail training and business experience to help you successfully run what really is, bottom line, a retail business.  I don’t hire artists to run the business end; only business people with aesthetic sense and art history background.  Artists, I learned long ago, are rarely made for gallery management.

Since you probably can’t afford to hire anyone, you might consider putting together a board of 3-5 people who can advise you, in exchange for art at cost.  I’ve had to do this, and it went well, but only if we met regularly, and only if I acted on their advice.  I also used them for networking.

Networking is essential, whether through The Chamber of Commerce or on your own–probably both.  Then comes direct mail marketing, magazine ads, maintaining a strong web presence, ensuring your website attracts hits and business, constantly getting your art in front of vast hordes through whatever means necessary.  Just remember to be original in the way in which you do it, whether at a restaurant or chamber of commerce function.

It’s a long list.  But I didn’t achieve my success alone.  My wife always backed my play, handling much of the domestic stuff while I managed the gallery and wrote my books; she gave me a sane home to return to each night.  That helped enormously.  I always worked 70-hour weeks to achieve my goals, since I couldn’t afford a large staff in those days.  And I always tried to keep my head when the creditors grew shrill.

If it hadn’t been for consulting on large sculpture projects, we’d have gone under.  Most galleries fall back on framing for profit; I fell back on consulting.  You’ll have to find your bread-and-butter gig too, or cut your losses and take a job you like while still painting.  But I’d begin by realistically assessing your debt, what you need to make each month to turn a profit, and what you must do in getting there.

Whatever you do, please don’t let the current situation continue as it is.  Your fate is yelling at you to make a change.  You’ll probably have to do this to stay in the biz, or else quietly get out.  I mean at the end of it all, what is more important: your art or the gallery?  You’ve given it a good run; if you can turn things around in six months and maintain a profitable business, then stay in.  If you can’t, there are far worse things than closing with honor before the debt eats you alive.

I advise you discuss this with someone in business, and formulate a business plan.  All things are possible, if you just line up your ducks.  But please don’t try to do it alone.

I certainly send you light.  You’ll make the right choices.  Just remember, you’re in the wealthiest country in the world.  All things are possible, including starting over. 



Note: He later emailed, saying my advice proved worthwhile.  Either way, I hope this exchange proves illuminating.  And if you’re thinking of opening a gallery, please line up those ducks first.

4 thoughts on “Friday Tips: One Gallery Writes…

  1. Sounds like good advice; I would be interested to hear how things are going for the gallery owner in 6 months time.

  2. If he gives me permission, I’ll keep everyone posted. His honesty is admirable. Took real guts. I mean, that’s how you truly face situations like this, and devise a way to change them. Otherwise, they’ll destroy you.

  3. This artist has to be admired simply for not giving up in the face of extreme odds. I would think she/he could obtain a grant by presenting what she/he presented to you in his letter. And there are plenty of grants lying around! Just keep applying and you will land one!

    On your side,

  4. Ra: A good suggestion, although I don’t know if there are grants for commercial galleries anymore than there are for other businesses. More I think they’re for struggling artists–although sometimes they’re given to flush artists, for reasons I don’t quite understand, but that’s another subject. Either way, this artist likely qualifies where the work is concerned.

    I admire the grant system when it’s applied to people from impoverished beginnings, since it levels the playing field a little. I’m more dubious about it when applied to people from the middle and upper classes, having seen it abused by freeloaders for too many years. But in the end, when applied to the deserving, it certainly pushes the frontiers of art farther out. Would Van Gogh have applied for one? I wonder.

Leave a Reply