Text version: Vanity Galleries and Pay-For-Play Shows: Are They A Rip Off?
I was sitting next to an emerging photography artist from New York City on my latest trip to Europe and the conversation came back to the topic of where to exhibit and vanity galleries a couple of times. Is it worth my time and money to exhibit at at a venue where it costs $$$ to show your work? Let's take a look from a few angles at the pros and cons.
Vanity galleries are usually for profit businesses that basically cover their operating costs and generate their profits by charging artists to exhibit in the gallery's space. The galleries are usually located in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo and other important art market centers. It is every artist's dream to be picked up by a gallery in one of these cities but realistically 99.9% of them never will. Thus, these types of galleries keep popping up and have been around for as long as I have been in the art world. The vanity gallery will divide up the space in the gallery and charge a cost for the display space, so an 8 foot section will cost you a certain amount, a 20 foot wall will have it's own price and so on. Charges can range from a few hundred to many thousands of Dollars. In other words be careful before you ever commit to anything, it can get pricey really, really quickly.
What bugs me about these venues is that they often approach artists in a less than honest manner. You may get these emails already, but they will almost always approach YOU and often tell you that you have been chosen to exhibit at their gallery because your work is so outstanding or that your work was selected by a curator (you often will never find out who the curator is), or that they found your work on the internet and that they want you to exhibit with them. They will always tell you how great their exhibition space is, how close it is to other art venues and that it will get a lot of great traffic and exposure, you get the point.
Sounds great, right? You think, wow - I can have a show in Paris. It's my chance to finally show my work abroad or in Barcelona Spain right near the Museu d'Art de Sabadell. This is my big break. But unfortunately it's not so once you find out how much it is going to cost you! Like I said costs can range from a few hundred to many thousands. Imagine the costs involved when showing in an exhibition in some fancy villa in Italy or Rome.
According to a multitude of artists many of these types of venues have a bad reputation and artists tend to reject the idea of having to pay to play. Ok, I am going to say something that probably infuriates many readers but there is the reputation that artists don't want to pay for anything. There is this ever present attitude or expectation (not sure they realize it) in many artist circles that others should do the work for them and not charge anything for doing it. Unrealistic and naive at best! You cannot expect anyone else to do it all for you --- you won't get far if that's your mantra. And if it doesn't work out then it's going to be everyone else's mistake, of course. Not so!
I get the artists' viewpoints, whether I agree or not is not important, but there are a few circumstances and reasons why you should try one of these shows once in your artistic career. Hear me out! If you are an unexperienced artist living in let's say Fargo North Dakota and you get an offer to show in a New York Gallery, you are going to be excited. What will hit you like a brick is how much it's going to cost you. So, what can you potentially get out of it?
- Do you have experience and knowledge of how gallery exhibitions work?
- Do you know how to ship a body of work across the country or internationally?
- Do you have an idea of what an opening in a large metropolitan city is like?
- Have you ever had to talk to many, many people at an art opening that is showing YOUR work?
- Have you ever dealt contractually with any gallery?
- Have you ever been the most important person in the room at an opening?
- Have you ever tried to sell a work to a potential client in a gallery setting?
- Have you ever prepared marketing materials for a gallery show?
If you are just starting out and have not had these learning experiences, you need learn it. It may not be at a pay-for-play venue in London it could also be at a local exhibition space or artist cooperative space. The latter would be preferable versus a big vanity gallery, but if you have no other way of learning these important lessons that can teach you a lot about becoming a professional artist then I would say go for it once. But, make sure you don't do one that costs thousands of Dollars. Go through the entire process with learning in mind. Don't think that you can re-coop your costs because the gallery promises you how great their sales are; you probably won't sell much. Vanity galleries usually structure their exhibiting costs so that they don't have to rely on artwork sales themselves like traditional commercial galleries. Yes a sale is extra icing on the cake; is there really going to be a lot of push by the staff to sell your work, maybe not! Read the contract very carefully and consider any other fees they may throw at you.
You can learn a lot at these shows and some say that they will hurt your artistic career, but I don't agree with them. First of all you don't have to include them in your exhibition history and there is that ever small chance that a client will see your work and buy it. Beware of frame shop / gallery that will offer you a free exhibition at their venue if you pay for and frame all your work using their frames. Clearly they are making money through the framing and then exhibit your work for free.
There are exhibitions, juried exhibitions, competitions, etc. that offer prizes or certificates like 'best of show', 'best of audience vote', etc., etc., etc. They often follow the same concept and are just another offshoot of the vanity gallery. It can cost you a lot of money to get that 'best of show' and that may not lead to anything.
There are also the art publications that act just like a vanity gallery. They will email or contact you with offers: you can get 1/2 a page of full page in an art coffee book publication but you have to pay hundreds to thousands for it. Do you research and find out if it's really a legitimate publication. Some are, some are not. But art they so different than a reputable art magazine offering you space in their publication to advertise your artwork? Make sure you really get the distribution and exposure that they promise. Always remember, nobody honestly can promise you or guarantee you sales!
So, what other kind of exhibition opportunities should you explore? How about artist cooperatives or art leagues and art associations. Yes, those will cost you membership and other shared costs as well but they are most likely non-profits and thus it doesn't seem like they are exploiting you for their own paycheck. Artist coops and art leagues / associations will offer you many of the same experiences as vanity galleries and often are curated versus just renting a space on the wall for a lot of money.
So, before you make any decision you need to accept that fact that exposure will cost you money - one way or another you will have to pay for it. If you decide to do it all yourself it will cost you time and effort. If you decide to go with vanity type approach it will cost you money. Always do your research, be well informed before you choose to go ahead or not; always consider what it will do for you and run the pros and cons past some of your other artist friends and find out what others have experienced. Think carefully how any of this will further your artistic career and what kind of impact it will have on your career. Just google any venue and if it feels like pressure walk away from them. Don't believe the promises of thousands of dollars in sales, or 1/2 of New York is going to show up to the opening, or you will be in a publication that will be on 1,000,000 coffee tables, or here is your chance to break into the European market...
If you decide to go for pay-for-play really make sure it gets you closer to your goals, not their's.
Please share your experiences with others in the comment section. Was it worth your time? What do you think about vanity galleries?
About Markus Kruse - BFA, MA, PhD
Markus, founder & owner of absolutearts.com started his art career at a gallery in the early 1980's in Berlin, Germany. Since then he has actively participated in the art world: worked with thousands of contemporary artists all over the world; curated exhibitions for years; directed several art galleries; organized many artshows; sold thousands of artworks; taught college for a while and has applied his in depth knowledge and expertise to further the online art world. He has always shared his expertise and helped artists further their artistic careers. Interested in getting ahead - take advantage of our private consulting sessions?