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12 Steps to Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries

by Clint Watson on 12/14/2007 12:56:04 PM

This Post is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/salesperson/director and founder of FineArtViews. 



Here at FineArtViews, one of the most common questions artists ask is "How do I go about getting gallery representation?"
Today we're going to tell you how to go about it in a way that will get a gallery's attention...and get your artwork noticed.

About Art Galleries
First some background:  having formerly owned an art gallery, let us give you a bit of insight regarding running a gallery.
Our gallery advertised quite a bit and had a good reputation for treating artists fairly and for paying promptly, so, naturally we received quite a lot of portfolio submissions. While we have no hard numbers for you, there were times that it could have been as many as 20 per week. That may not sound like much, but trust me, running a gallery is a LOT of work. There are paintings to unpack, shows to hang, paperwork to do, artist biography information to organize (and usually to write for the artist), phone calls to make, frames to order, advertisements to design, employee problems to deal with....and when you're not doing all of those tasks - you're either with customers or on the phone trying to get more customers.  So at 20 a week, they pile up pretty fast...that would be over 100 after just one month!

Why Portfolios Get Ignored
So what happens? New artist portfolios are thrown aside into stacks - while they are important, they're not URGENT. And if something is not urgent, then other tasks tend to take priority.

By the way, a lot of commentators will tell you the answer to getting noticed is sending in very professionally prepared portfolios. It's not. Being professional is always a good thing, but, frankly, we didn't care what the portfolio looked like. An envelope full of snapshots was fine (slides were even better) because the determining factor for acceptance was the artwork itself....not the presentation of the portfolio. The nicely prepared portfolios got ignored just as much as the sloppy ones.

And here's what makes the situation even worse - if you call ahead about your portfolio, you're just interrupting someone with all those other tasks to do - so that's not really a good idea. If you just "walk in" with your paintings.....well you are taking a real risk if you don't have an appointment. Most gallery owners are not just sitting around waiting for you to walk in with your art. Think about it. Let's say you had a deadline to finish several paintings for a show by the end of this week. So you're painting, painting, perhaps dealing with a few other issues, but, for the most part, you have your entire week's agenda already set. Now let's say right when you were finishing the most important've just gotten into the "zone", when into your studio, unannounced, walks your framer. He has a stack of 20 new frame designs and wants to spend the next 3 hours showing them to you, discussing them with you, he even offers to take you to lunch.

You're likely to be a bit miffed - why didn't he call ahead and make an appointment? You're busy! That's exactly what it was like when we saw an unannounced artist coming into the gallery loaded down with artwork to show us.  We're certainly not advocating rudeness, there's no call ever to be rude . . . but perhaps you can see why it sometimes happens.....and why you shouldn't just walk in unannounced.

Summarizing the Problem
So, let's sum up:

1. If you simply send in a portfolio, it may get ignored, at least for a long time.

2. If you call ahead, you likely will be seen as a time waster...after all you're not buying art and the gallery has never seen your work.

3. If you just walk in - you're risking interrupting or upsetting the very least, you'll put the person in the wrong frame of mind to look at your work!

4. Email is unlikely to upset anyone, but it's really super easy to ignore and hit "delete."

Hmmm. The situation looks pretty what should you do?

Referrals are King
Looking back, however, there were a few times when a new artist got our full attention right off the bat. In fact, we were even looking forward to seeing the artist's work.

Here's what happened. First, we would receive a call from one of the artists we already worked with. Often, this would be just your standard business type call, updates on new artwork, reviewing sales figures, discussing clients etc. But sometime during that call the artist would say, "You know, Clint, I'm not sure why I haven't thought of it before, but there's another artist I know who I really think you should look at. She's extremely talented and I think you would sell her work well."

Now that gets a gallery owners attention. Talented and sells well...what more could we ask for? So, of course, we would ask for more details and usually end up expecting a portfolio in the mail. You can bet when that portfolio arrived that it was opened and reviewed immediately. Not only were we excited about it and expecting it, but we had made a commitment to our existing artist that we would review it and, no doubt word would get back to him if we didn't act upon the portfolio promptly.

We certainly didn't accept every artist who was referred in this way....but we did accept a very high percentage of them....much, much higher than "general" portfolio submissions.

It seems that the answer to "marketing" to galleries is just like marketing to customers - word-of-mouth and referrals are king.

12 Steps To Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries
So, having thought this through, as a former gallery owner, here are our recommendations for getting your work noticed by galleries:

1. Identify your target galleries.  Do NOT just send your portfolio to every gallery you see advertised. Look in magazines, look online and identify several galleries that might be possibilities. Each gallery you decide to target should meet the following criteria

a) sell the medium(s) that you work in (photographers should not approach galleries that sell only paintings)

b) represent artworks styles that will draw buyers who would also be interested in your style (abstract artists should not approach realism galleries)

c) Must be reputable - you may have to ask artist friends and do some digging to determine this.

d) Should promote themselves and have obvious strategies for generating leads. This may be magazine advertising but could also be having a high-traffic location, a targeted direct mail campaign, or even email campaigns. This may be difficult to determine in advance, but you will see advertisements and other artists may know how a given gallery generates leads.

After you've identified your target galleries, you.....

2. Honestly assess the level and quality of your artwork and the artwork carried by your target galleries. Is you goal realistic? Are you targeting a gallery who represents master painters and you've been painting for a total of six months? This is a difficult step, but you definitely need to target galleries who are at the same "level" as you. We're not saying not to be ambitious, but at our gallery we represented very fine and respected artists and regularly turned away artists who hadn't yet mastered drawing, perspective, color mixing, etc.

Once you're comfortable that you're ready to show in your target galleries....

3. Go through each gallery's roster of artists looking for artists whom you personally know. If you really are at the same "level" as the artists in your target galleries, chances are you will have at least met some of them.

4. If you don't know anyone represented by any of the galleries, you probably need to do some networking and meet more people. You could also try sending a letter to some of the artists you respect and ask them if they would critique your work - (you should probably offer to pay for the critique). You might be able to take workshops with some of them (that's a great way to meet master artists and get your work noticed). You might know someone who knows them. You'll do better by giving something first, perhaps a collector of your work would like one of the other artists works. Call the artist and tell him you have a collector who might be intersted in his work and make a artist will remember someone who sends him a possible sale!

5. Ask your artist friend about the target gallery. Once you've identified some artists whom you know and/or have developed relationships with you're ready to continue your quest. Ask your friend what it is like to work with such and such gallery. Do they pay promptly? If you start hearing positive things then . . . .

6. Ask your artist friend if the gallery would like your work. Just ask. This is someone who knows you and the gallery....they'll give you an honest answer. It will be easier to accept hear the truth from your friend than it will be to get a rejection letter from the gallery. (You can still approach the gallery even if your friend doesn't think you should, you just won't have the advantage of the referral).

7. Ask your friend if they would tell the gallery about your work. (Only if they were positive in step 6). If your friend agrees . . .

8. Check the gallery's exhibition calendar. Identify a time when they are not overwhelmed with some huge show. Your friend will probably know what timing is best. When the time arrives. . .

9. Have the friend call the gallery and casually mention you and your work. This will peak the gallery owner's interest about you. The goal of this call should be for your friend to let the gallery owner know that you'll be sending a portfolio and following up with a phone call.

10. If possible, have your friend send the portfolio. Simply give the portfolio to your friend, ask him to write on a post-it note "this is the artist I told you about" and send it. (Make sure you pay for postage). This way the portfolio will have your friend's name on the outside, and will get opened more promptly....this step is optional because the gallery should be expecting your portfolio at this point, so just send it yourself if it will be an imposition to ask your friend.

11. After the portfolio arrives at the gallery you will probably get a phone call. You've "primed the pump" and the gallery will likely feel obligated to at least give you call. If you don't get a call after about a week, then you need to call them and make sure they actually received the portfolio, let them know that you are the artist that "so-and-so told you about...."

12. At this point a dialog should open with the gallery. They may still turn down your work, but your discussions will be relaxed, casual and friendly. If they do turn you down, ask them if they know of any other galleries where your work might be a better fit. (We often provided other gallery names because it is difficult to "reject" someone and we did truly want to be helpful. We've had many artists thank us for pointing them to other galleries who accepted their work....and that is gratifying).

Is this too much work? No. Every career is a lot of work and being an artist is no different. If your career is worth it, then the work is worth it.


Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic

PS - Here are two alternative methods that also work for getting a gallery's attention:

1. Enter a juried show that will be hosted by one of your target galleries. You will get your work seen by the gallery owners and get to meet them at the reception. (Of course, this only works if you get into the show).

2. If the gallery has a frame shop, then go get one of your paintings framed. This is a "sneaky" way to get them to see your would be very natural at that point to casaully say something like, "This is my you guys think it might fit in with your gallery? If so, I would be happy to send you a portfolio." (Of course, you'll have to be willing to pay for a frame for this tactic).

PPS - If you absolutely don't know any of the artists in your target galleries, there are no juried shows in your galleries, and framing is not an all means feel free to send unsolicited least now you know what the downside is....but artists do sometimes get discovered this way!


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Related Posts:

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Well-Meaning Art Galleries Come to Wrong Conclusion

Into the Art Gallery Owner's Mind

Will Your Galleries Balk at Your Web Site?

Artist Experiences Art Gallery Rudeness

Topics: Art Business | art marketing | Best | Gallery/Artist Relationship | Marketing 

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deb pero
via web
Hey Clint,
How timely was this? I just today had a friend tell me I should contact a gallery in the area (she is not, unfortunately, connected with them), and I was wondering how to go about it, or if I even should try. Your article answered every single question I had, and was very helpful especially in seeing the gallery's point of view for "cold turkey" portfolio submissions. I think this might prevent more than a few artists from wasting time, both their own and the galleries'.
Thanks for all the great info!

Ray Lamb
via web
Dear Clint, Thank you for that great information about approaching galleries. I'm curious about one additional approach. I have a website through FASO, would it be appropriate to send a gallery an e-mail and refere to my web site if the gallery is interested in new artists? Looking forward to your response. Ray Lamb

Betty Ann Morris
via web
Dear Clint,
Thanks you for all the information on approaching galleries. I have started a folder with your emails and I refer to them regularly.
Thanks for all you do.
Betty Ann

marie lynch
via web
Indeed, it seems so much more efficient to solicit galleries initially by asking them to look at your website -- efficient for the gallery and the artist. Is this not a good practice? Would gallery owners disregard this approach or welcome it. Thank you, the article is very informative. Marie Lynch

Diane Shields Spears
via web
I am interested in the answer to Marie Lynch's question - is it OK to contact galleries to ask them to look at your web site? Your article is worth saving for reference. Thanks.

Clint Watson
via web
Maria, Diane:

It is more *efficient* but may not be effective.

It will just depend on the timing. If the gallery owner is bored and has time when you contact them, then he/she might look at your site.

But, if you contact them during a busy show week, it might go ignored.

It is fine to try it, but it may or may not work . . . and don't get upset with them if they don't drop everything to check out your site.

Lori Woodward Simons
via web
When I first began approaching galleries, I selected ones I could drive to within 2 hours. First I visited them, but didn't let the staff know I was an artist.

I wanted to see how the gallery treated folks who came in and how knowledgeable they were about the artists they represented.

I've found that gallery owners want you to be familiar with their space - and not just from ads but in person. You should determine how well your work will fit into the type of art they sell.

I still believe in a mailed submission - now with a CD and printed photos. You'll want to knock their socks off with visuals. If they like the work, they'll read more and possibly visit your website.

And remember always, they are looking for quality - it may sound selfish, but gallery owners look at your work and ask themselves: Will my clients buy this?

Kathy Swift
via web

While I think you make some great points here, there is one that I respectfully disagree with. I do think a professional looking portfolio is essential to being taken seriously by a gallery. As a gallery owner myself, when I 'm reviewing potential artists' work, first impressions are everything. A professional looking portfolio gives me the message that this is an artist who is good with presentation, especially the fine details. As you talked about in a recent post, how can an artist be successful putting their high quality work in a cheesy, poorly made frame? I feel the same way about portfolios. How can I possibly take work seriously if the portfolio has poorly printed images and includes non-interesting details?

Clint Watson
via web
@Kathy Swift - I understand what you're saying, however, I often accepted artists with unprofessional portfolios (and cheesy frames for that matter) because they ART was so fantastic.

I agree portfolios SHOULD be professional and frames SHOULD be good quality, but I would NEVER turn down a great painter because of those reasons.

Several of my top-selling artists originally approached me with pretty unprofessional presentation and went on to be huge sellers for the gallery.

Frankly, the GALLERY can easily project a professional image and order frames so that the artist can focus on painting.

Just my "two cents."

Thank you for your feedback.

Tom Quinn
via web
Hi, Clint,
You hit the nail on the head when you wrote about the disadvantages of walking in, calling, writing, and e-mailing. The trouble is that there's no good way to make first contact with galleries.
If I walk into a gallery and try to promote my work, I'm a door-to-door salesman.
If I call the gallery, I'm a telemarketer.
If I send materials through the mail, I'm a junk mailer.
If I contact them by e-mail, I'm a spammer.
In other words, I have to become one of the four kinds of people I despise the most. Now you know why gallery owners hate artists.

Lori Woodward Simons
This may seem like a backdoor approach to getting into galleries, but it's worked for me...

While I was learning how to become an excellent painter, I noticed that some of my friends who were already excellent at art didn't have a national reputation. So.. I suggested their art to the editor of American Artist (watercolor magazine), and that's how I got started writing.

I've also gotten to know many gallery dealers. They know I'm a writer and respect my taste in art. Again, I point the dealer to artists whose work I think would go well at their gallery. If the artist gets in, I've made a friend and later when my work is good enough to show there, I ask if they might consider representing me.

One caution: I never asked until I was sure my work deserved to be in the gallery... which means it had to be as good as or better than the artists they already carried.

Sharon Weaver
WOW! This is a lot of great information but after all is said and done, referrals are the key to opening those gallery doors. Networking is crucial to success. Painting in a studio day and night may improve my skills but I need to get out there and promote my work too.

Lori Woodward Simons
Sharon, it costs money, but I network by going to workshops, plein air painting events, conventions - such as Weekend with the Masters sponsored by American Artist, etc.

Yep, I've spent a lot of money over the years going to workshops, but I've met artists who've been able to help me promote my work - as well as learn some great stuff to improve my paintings.

I go to other artists openings, but that's not the right place or time to show your work. Email me if you want to ask me a specific question about networking.

Barbara Lemley
Ive been painting for well over 30 years and Ive just started selling. Needless to say, I have plenty of inventory.

MY problem is where to start.

Is there a book to steer me in the right direction. Ive made a website, now what. Ive tried the galleries, but, "they arent accepting new artists". Its hard for me to toot my own horn, so marketing myself is difficult.

Would my next step be to join an art group?

Leona Pleasant
I certainly agree with the resonses about approaching galleries with examples of my work. I have sold a lot of my art thru shows, exhibits and having the art in some unusual places. My husband says that my art is seen by only one person when it is in my get the works out and in the public eye. Also it is helpful to hire the local art curator to evaluate your works..Also exhibit works that are a common demonator to the area you live in...I live on the Gulf Coast and as much as Ilove the snow and mountains, those types of art do not sell where we have beaches and marine life..Join up and coming art groups and get exhibited..

Leona Pleasant
I enjoy group exhibitions and have formed what I refer to as my stable of artists- there are 5 of us and we all do a different medium- acrylic, watercolor, art, sculpture, collage..and to be a part everyone must contribute to the group in one way or another. One artist does all the graphic design works-posters-cards-invitations, etc. Another artist is the strong one in installing the art. I aquire the exhibit opportunities,do the press releases and marketing. Another member does the patch and repair to the venues walls when the show comes down. We all do the invitation and contact marketing of our client base. This system works for me...

Leona Pleasant
Join all the acredited art groups in your areas and pay the fee to get at least one painting on their web you can add the gallery or studio to your email signature so that when ever you send out an email..the receiver knows you are a artists. Art buyers are everywhere and I have found that the art collector likes to tell their friends that they know the artists...

Spencer Meagher
Galleries are an arena that is pretty well foreign to me. Living where I do in southern Illinois there isn't a "gallery" for probably 75 miles. How far out should one reach?

Spencer Meagher
I haven't received any responses to my question above. I would greatly appreciate the wisdom of someone experienced with galleries.

Diane Overmyer

In answer to your question about how far to travel: It all depends on how far you are willing to travel to transport work, or if you or your gallery are willing to pay for the shippment of work to and from the gallery.

The furthest gallery I ever had was Georgia, a 12 hour drive for me. The gallery ended up closing and I haven't yet expored other long distance partnerships with out of state galleries.

I live in Northern Indiana and my current furthest gallery is Cincinnati. That is a 6 hour drive for me. Even though that is a long way, I have found it is worth spreading out, so I don't have galleries getting upset at me for showing work in close proximity to another gallery.

I currently have two galleries in another large city, but that is because my work is only at one of them at a time. I don't know how this situation will pan out, so I may end up having to go with just one of the two.

My theory is if you can find at least one gallery that really fits with your work and they are excited about having your work and able to sell your work, that is worth more than having 5 or 6 other galleries, no matter how far you have to transport the work.

Spencr Meagher
Thanks Diane. Seems like we may be in similar situations geographically. For me St. Louis is 2 hours west. Louisville three hours east. Cincinnati 4 hours east. Chicago 5 hours north. Its a long drive to anywhere and you have to get into a gallery first. You can at up a lot of time and expense on the road.

What is a good approach when you find a gallery that seems to be a good fit. Email? Unsolicited portfolio? Phone call? Or just keeping trying to build a reputation and wait for one to contact me?

Jo Allebach
Is it a bad idea to hang your work in places other than galleries such as corporate offices or eating establishments? I do not know how much attention they would get and it would be just a benefit for the establishment or corporation and not me.

I think this is why many artists are brushing off galleries all together. You painted a picture of a gallery owner that is pompous and only cares about someone if you know the right people.. Of course not every gallery owner is like this, but I've met a few who do remind me more of a used car salesman than someone who appreciates the creative process. Yea, it's a business, I get it...
... Which is why so many artists are focusing on selling their own art and not about getting into a gallery who will take 50 percent of their profit. Personally, since I began focusing my efforts on my own online marketing and selling at local events and art festivals in the area I've been MUCH more successful. My art is finally making me some money!
... I think in another few years you'll be writing about how gallery owners are beating down artists' studio doors! Not the other way around, HA! :P

Clint Watson
Christina, I know it can seem pompous to the artist, but you have to understand, some galleries get simply deluged with portfolios. We used to take 10-15 minutes per portfolio and regularly received 50 a month. We always reviewed them all but usually saved them up and did them in one long session.

It's not that gallery owners only care about someone if they know the right people....but it's human nature that if you have a personal introduction you'll pay a bit more attention.

I agree with you about how times have changed and not all artists need galleries, and, indeed many galleries are shutting their doors. However, some artists WANT to be in galleries and this article was written for them.

Also - it was written 3 1/2 years ago, and galleries were more still prominent then.

Thank you for your comments.

Reading this article makes budding artists feel terrible. All I learned from this advice was that I would never want to put a piece of my art in a gallery. And I probably wouldn't be able to, having no network to cater to the gallery's extremely limited time and patience.

Lori Woodward

When I first started working with galleries, I did so with those that were near my home in New England. These galleries love to take on artists who live nearby and are much easier to get into. It's also helpful to live close enough to the gallery that they know you may walk in at any time.

Always check out a gallery's reputation with artists who show there.

Today, there are many ways to begin to sell artwork. Most of the artists I've interviewed recently that work with galleries do not depend on them exclusively for sales anymore - these artists are selling through multiple streams of income. Galleries are having a very difficult time right now.

I am so happy that I've discovered this thread. Last April, I was accepted into an internationally-known gallery whose focus is wildlife. Because I have a relative who knows the gallery owner/artist, my relative talked with the people there, who were thrilled to bring my art in. This was such a great opportunity because I haven't been doing art for quite a while due to my job status.However, I've known the owner and have been to his gallery for the last 10 years.

This was a great opportunity for me, but now I must focus on other galleries. I do think that the internet has changed a lot for artists in these last few years.

Thank you so much for your comments that have opened my eyes.

Now, being a marketing professional, I know how to design and generate professional pieces, but I would like to get an idea of what elements are considered in a "professional" portfolio. Would appreciate your input!

Donna Hayes
Wow, all of this information is inspiring and extremely helpful. I look forward to the day I am able to display my paintings in a suitable gallery. We artists paint and store as our dreams collect dust... It's time to get out there and let the world see our talent... Thank you Clint for this blog feed, you've helped answer questions I never even thought to ask :).

Suzette McIntyre
VERY well put, Clint! Thanks.

Thank you all for this very interesting thread!
Now my eyes opened. I've been struggling to get noticed by some gallery for the last half year - no luck.

I understood that my biggest problem is that I just cannot find gallery which exhibits something similar to what I do. I do sculptors and they are realistic (and perhaps a bit of grotesque). I live in London UK and it surprises me that I cannot find a gallery with realistic sculpture. Most of the sculpture is abstract or some post-post modern, mix of materials or includes brutal ugliness.

The second problem is that I am really bad in networking :(

What I don't understand in this world is why everyone is not doing the job that suits his or her profession. Painter must paint and seller must sell. Why does the painter need to sell?

Why should I break my head in learning a profession that contradicts with all my character and all my skills?

If you have a flat you want to sell, you do not sell it by yourself, you go to an agent. Is there a possibility to hire an agent who will sell/exhibit my work?

Were Picasso, Rodin, Leonardo Da Vinci - all traders?

For me the profession of a trader/dealer is something that does not go together with art. Art work brings your attention by its own existence. Trade brings your attention forcedly by advertisement etc.

Wow!!wow!!and wow!!what you just wrote is absolutely Brilliant,however its really frustrating as well...come to think of it some of us(Artists)just dont have what it takes to make it to the Galleries...i reckon we'll have to hang our works in our homes for the rest of our lives.

I have joined FASO and hope what is promoted is true. My art before thousands! Wow! I live in outback Queensland, Australia and have turned to the internet as my marketing machine. My closest gallery is 4.5 hours away and I am looking for gallery representation for my artworks and will apply your teachings and hopefully this will all work out.

Your information is very helpful but I am stuck with all of your tips.
I am a relative newcomer to this country (USA)therefore I don't have any contacts or artist friends whom I can call on for help to get my works 'out there'.
I found one art gallery near to me and paid for several months to display my paintings but sold nothing. When I queried the lack of sales the owner simply replied that "nothing sells at this time of the year". I wish he had told me that when I enquired about hanging my work

Matt Rees
I haven't got a name for myself at all yet, and i think being 21 is too ambitious for me to start going for a gallery. when i was in high school my teachers helped me get art into my community bank and a small building; is this a good way to start getting my artwork noticed? what other small places would be recommended (if any) to boost my art works popularity? if allowed, should i be price tagging my work at these places or is that not recommended?

Evan Stallone
Hi everyone, Ive been showing my work for 9 years and have shown in over 50 exhibitions ans STILL I dont know how to become solicited. Please help me with some guidence on how an artist can become a "solicited" artist? I live and work in Philadelphia, Pa.

Gallery Rouge
Firstly, thanks for the interesting post and you have certainly raised some good points. As an Art Gallery we can definitely relate to this article and how we think an artist should approach us (or get their work noticed by us). There is no precise advice as each individual's circumstances could be different, e.g. a recognised artist will have a different approach to another who is not known. The latter will have to work much harder in getting noticed (all of the above principles apply) and network. Unsolicited emails might not do the trick - how about going personally to the gallery and speaking honestly with the right personnel?


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