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Vanity Galleries: Can they be harmful to your reputation and art marketing strategy?

by Brian Sherwin on 1/1/2011 7:14:16 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


Having written about art for half a decade, there are a few issues that readers-- and followers on various sites-- frequently contact me about. One of the main topics I’ve faced happens to concern vanity galleries. Artists often contact me to find out if vanity galleries are worth pursuing-- if they are strategic for art marketing and so on. My answer has always been a very firm “N0”-- and my thoughts on vanity galleries are warranted by years of observing the disbelief of artists when they discover that exhibiting at a vanity gallery had little to no positive outcome in regards to their art marketing growth. My opinion on the matter has not changed-- I feel that exhibiting at vanity galleries can be harmful to an artist's career.

Before exploring this issue, I want to clearly define what a vanity gallery is-- I‘ve noticed that there is some confusion. For example, some individuals have suggested that cooperative galleries run by artists are nothing more than vanity galleries-- in my opinion, that is simply not the case.  A vanity gallery does not involve the mutually beneficial aspects of an artist co-op-- instead, vanity galleries benefit from the desperation of artists who want their artwork seen in a physical exhibit, no matter what the cost. Thus, vanity galleries are art galleries that charge artists fees in exchange for exhibiting their artwork. Point blank-- vanity galleries have no incentive to sell art because they have already cashed in on the artist, so to speak.

Part of the confusion is spurred by the fact that some vanity galleries try to pass themselves off as a legitimate artist cooperative gallery. That said, it is important to remember that a key point of vanity galleries-- no matter what form they take-- is that they make the blunt of their profit from artists instead of from sales to the public-- which is very different when compared to artists banding together in the form of a cooperative gallery that strives for mutual exposure and a steady flow of sold art. Another key difference between artist cooperative galleries and vanity galleries is that artist co-op galleries tend to be exclusive rather than inclusive. In other words, artist run galleries tend to have strict guidelines as to who is accepted into the co-op gallery while vanity galleries accept anyone who can afford the 'privilege' of exhibiting.

There is a famous example of how most vanity galleries work involving a Village Voice reporter, Lisa Gubernick, who posed as an artist contacting a gallery with hopes of being exhibited. The gallery, which was obviously a vanity gallery, offered Gubernick an exhibit within 20 minutes-- along with a contract that requested Gubernick to pay $720 for 16 feet of wall space. From the research I’ve conducted on the story it appears that the vanity gallery did not bother to view Gubernick’s artwork before offering her an exhibit.

Lisa Gubernick’s exploration of the exploitation of vanity galleries took place in 1981-- yet vanity gallery owners regularly exploit artists today. Some vanity galleries today are charging artists well over $1,000-- plus additional fees-- for the 'privilege' of exhibiting at their space! I’ve known artists who have paid thousands per year after falling into this career trap. Reckless? Yes. Yet some artists continue to fall for these mock-success schemes year after year-- and the only person profiting from it are the vanity gallery owners! 

With all of this in mind you might still be asking yourself, “Why is it harmful to pay to play with vanity galleries? How can it hurt an artist?”. The answer to that is simple. The money an artist wastes on these lackluster vanity gallery ventures could be used to fund other methods of art marketing that will have real impact on their art marketing growth. For example, an artist should use that money for further art education, time-tested promotional efforts, maintaining a personal website, or registering copyright of their popular works of art. Those five suggestions alone are enough reason not to waste money on vanity galleries. Any waste of money on efforts that do little to help your presence as an artist is harmful to your career goals! Unfortunately, some artists appear to get addicted to making others wealthier out of desperation-- desperation is the heart and soul of vanity galleries.

In my opinion, exhibiting at a vanity gallery can be harmful to an artist's career in other ways. Point blank-- by exhibiting at a vanity gallery there is a huge chance that your artwork will be exhibited alongside a roster of artists who are not on the same level of artistic skill as you. The end result being that you had an art exhibit that is of little to no relevance-- and will certainly not help you to gain the reputation that you are seeking from established galleries nor gain the credibility that you want to convey to potential buyers and art collectors in general. An artist can easily become the 'art star' of a vanity gallery simply by being the artist who pays the most-- but I promise you that if you take your paper-tiger accomplishments to a legitimate art gallery you will most likely be laughed at behind closed doors-- if not in person.

As an art writer and critic I can tell you firsthand that a short legitimate exhibit history is worth more toward sparking my interest than page after page of paid for accomplishments in the form of vanity galleries. A string of vanity gallery exhibits fails to tell me anything about the artist other than the fact that he or she had enough money on hand to pay. Sadly, some artists have these lackluster accomplishments thrown between legitimate accomplishments-- they promote themselves as if both are equal! It boils down to this-- do you want to be known for marketing your art well or do you want to be known as a fool for the marketing strategy of vanity galleries?


My negative opinions of vanity galleries often provoke artists to ask me how one can tell if a gallery is a vanity gallery-- especially if the art gallery in question is a relatively new establishment. My answer to that is always the same-- do research. If you have not heard of the gallery-- especially if the gallery contacts you-- do as much research as you can to find out if the gallery is legitimate. Find out and learn as much as you can about the artists who have shown with the gallery-- don’t be afraid to ask them about their experience exhibiting with the gallery.  Your goal is to find out if it is worth being accepted by the gallery-- it is not a time to get blinded by the excitement of a potential exhibit. If you let your guard down for just a second you may end up signing a contract involving a hefty fee that does nothing to help your career.

In closing, if you want to wear the golden dunce-hat for Most Desperate Artist of the Year or to be the winner of the Lifetime Accomplishment of Nothing award go ahead and exhibit at vanity galleries-- make a career out of it if you wish. I’ll be more than happy to hand out these 'privileged' awards to you in order to use you as a warning to other artists who are at risk of falling into the same career trap. That said, if you want to be respected by your peers and considered by legitimate gallery owners, art collectors, and art critics I strongly advise that you focus your time in the studio and on productive forms of self-promotion. Don’t hurt your reputation or art marketing strategy out of desperation or due to the silver-tongue of some vanity art gallery promoter.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin

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Related Posts:

Evaluating Your Galleries

Look Where You Are Going Because You Will Go Where You Are Looking

Too Simple or Dead Wrong

Topics: art marketing | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews | Think Tank 

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Maria Brophy
Thank you for this informative post on vanity galleries!

I've only had one experience with such a gallery, who asked for $1,000 up front to exhibit! I realized immediately that this was a scam and said no thank you. Since then, I've noticed that the artwork in this particular gallery is of low quality. It's a shame, because we have so many talented artists in this area...

In my younger years of going to nightclubs on Hollywood Blvd - my friends and I would steer clear of the "pay to play" clubs because the bands were usually really bad (but had the money to pay to play).

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
Thanks for the good advice. I can relate to what it feels like to want my stuff to be exhibited, but at least for me the vanity gallery trap is not likely to happen because I am such a cheapskate.

I do appreciate your candid views however.

Barb Stachow
A vanity gallery owner is exactly that "a scammer" why would a person pay to exhibit their art? When there are so many other choices in today's society to exhibit. I can think of several ways without even having to think about it. Be wise, be smart, don't let these gallery owners get away with this way of business!If we don't support them, they can't stay in business!

Stede Barber
Transparency is so important in the whole marketing process. Thank you for an honest, straight-shooting article.

How does this relate to the "art catalogs" that are made available free to the public which consist solely of ads paid for by artists and galleries?

I continue to discover also that in order to receive editorial coverage in some publications, you need to be an advertiser.

These are a bit more subtle, but are along the same line that the work that gets seen is by those who have the money to pay for coverage.

Your thoughts? I'm just beginning to hash this out for myself...


Betty Pieper
Brian's article on vanity galleries covers a lot of ground and should be helpful to lots of artists. Somehow...possibly from lack of money...
I've never been tempted, but 1.)I admit to jaw drop at color photos in a well known art magazine by a painter who gets in less juried shows than I and being IMPRESSED, and 2.) I admit to having no idea how I'd know a vanity gallery from any other. Now I'd have a clue thanks to this piece.

Teresa Tromp
Thank you for this very informative article.
I did not know vanity galleries existed.

Brian Sherwin
Stede-- thanks for mentioning the connection between art publications and ads. That is an issue that has concerned me for years. Insiders will often tell you behind closed doors that ads do play a role in what is covered.

Art publications, in general, rely on galleries to buy ad spots-- they earn huge profit from galleries as well as international art fairs that purchase ads regularly. Without those resources the paper publications would certainly go under. Thus, the last thing they want to do is offend top ad buyers with reviews that are counter-productive to their promotional efforts. I have to stress that this is my personal opinion on the issue.

I'm not suggesting that the above is always the case-- but I've known enough people in the business to know that it does indeed happen and that many writers are faced with pressure when writing about a gallery or art fair that happens to pay often for ads. This can takes two forms-- overly positive reviews that are not warranted or negative reviews that are toned down to the point of having little significance.

What concerns me most about this issue is that there are key art publications that influence the history of art as we know it. To think that ads may influence how the art of today is documented tomorrow makes me a tad wary.

Ed Shott
I agree--they can ruin an artists reputation---I also think that they are only a small step below a consignment shop gallery. Serious gallerists buy the art up front or presell the works that are to be in a show. Maybe you could write an article on what your thoughts are on this In this day and age a lot of consignment shops are slow pay or no pay. Serious collectors often respect gallerys that own title to the work that they are offering for sale--it means that they are committed to the artists work.

Nancy Riedell
Thank you, Brian, for this timely article. I was contacted Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery a couple of years ago. They claimed to be located in the Chelsea art district in New York city. I was really flattered. But they wanted me to pay $1200 up front. When I put the word out to FASO, I got a response from Lori Woodward Simmons who warned me against such galleries. She told me they were called "vanity" galleries and that they preyed on unwitting new artists. So I ignored their request. Many thanks to FASO for providing such an informative forum!

Mary Pickett
As a beginner, I am perusing local galleries to see whether in the future I might be able to put my work there. Recently I've been observing a co-op gallery in a town nearby. I spoke to an artist who was doing her "shift," and she said that for a wall space, maybe 12 x 12?, I could display my art for $25 a month once I joined the co-op. I'm assuming I would also take a shift at the gallery. She invited me to put my work there never having seen it, since there was wall space.

There seems to be some effort to promote the co-op, with quarterly "openings" or "special exhibits" for one or more members. And around the annual Art Walk there are posters and calls for artists. But twice I went into town on a Saturday, close to noon, and the gallery was closed. The sign on the door said it was supposed to be open, but there was no one there and no note on the door. I did some errands and then came back, and still no one there. This sent up a red flag to me. Having had a small business myself, I know how easy it is for people to get frustrated when business hours are unreliable. This is also a town where tourists come for a weekend visit, often on the their way to the national park nearby. I'm telling you my heart went out to those artists with work hanging in a darkened room.

Carlos Thága
Brian Sherwin! I fully agree with his revelation, many artists are being exploited by greedy people, in my opinion and experience of some virtual galleries are also doing the same,

JT Harding
I get these offer by email all the time and just hit "delete" Thanks for educating the base here at FASO about the potential pitfalls from these scams.

Barbara J Carter
It's easy to tell if a gallery is a vanity gallery. Just ask them if there's a fee for exhibiting.

Kim VanDerHoek
When I began painting, a couple of vanity galleries approached me but, I didn't think it was in my best interests to show in any of them. Now, I wouldn't consider it because I know there are many other options for exposure that are less expensive, like juried art shows, although you have to be careful with those too. It's sad that vanity galleries prey on artists that are just starting out.

Donna Robillard
I learned about vanity galleries when I first started painting, and it has been very worthwhile to know this information. I'm like the previous contact who just pushes the 'delete' key; because I, too, would rather spend my money elsewhere.

Jo Allebach
Several years ago I had some work in an established art gallery (no fee). I have not anything there for a while. One day recently I got an email saying they wanted to display my work. Of course I was excited. Then the truth comes out ... they wanted me to pay $750 a month plus the commission. Of course I said absolutely NO! I feel good I made that decision especially after reading this post.

Michael Slattery
Last year I joined a local art league which has a 37 dollar annual membership fee and charges $25 to display three pieces a month. They charge this $25 if you have volunteered for at least 6 hours in the last quarter, if not then the charge is $50. They keep 20 percent of the sale and then send a check to the artist for the remainder. They have a nice gallery on a very busy street in the heart of the tourist district. I have not considered them a vanity gallery because the costs were so low. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but this has been a boost to my short artists' life. So far, I've had enough sales to cover my costs, and I also have met numerous contacts. I know they have some issues with getting volunteers to sit the gallery. But sitting the gallery is something I enjoy, I get almost six hours straight of un-interrupted painting, and it gives me an opportunity to discuss my art with prospective contacts. Additionally the town has an Art Walk every six weeks, during that night we will have 1000-1300 people walk in the door to view the artwork, numerous sales happen that night alone. If your work sells, you are allowed and encouraged to replace the piece with a new one at no extra charge. They have 9 member's shows and 3 juried shows per year. The juried shows are open to non-members also.

I have to say that I have been encouraged with this gallery and in no way have I felt exploited. The artwork that is displayed is for the most part very good indeed, many of the patrons are very impressed with the quality of the artwork.

Charlotte Herczfeld
Interesting, thank you. So, will it be a problem to the career to exhibit in libraries, coffee shops, hotel lobbies and the like?

Roderik Mayne
Thanks Brian,
I have always been a firm believer in what you have said in your article and the trend seems to be increasing. I suppose that it is much easier to collect money from the artists thazn to sell the art.

Tom Weinkle
Thanks Brian. Your point of view is very helpful in confirming what my gut has been saying. Your experience has probably saved many artists a lot of time, money and energy which could be put to better use.

Happy New Year.

rich nelson
I am hearing from these types of operations more often lately. Too bad!

Carol McIntyre
Thank you for the affirmation. I was contacted by a NYC vanity gallery a few weeks ago - my first - and my ego got caught up in the idea. But then I started really looking at the artwork and the artists and saw real inconsistency. The website was very impressive, but they had a "testimonial" page with several artists. I noticed that none of the artists talked about sales. Hmmmm

Then I asked about them in another FASO newsletter and Lori - as noted in a previous post here - and other told me to RUN! I did and I am thankful to FASO and everyone else!

PS I just "investigated" over 25 galleries in Santa Fe and few gallery folks seems to know how to sell!! Do they ever take any sales training courses?

Stede Barber
Your comment about gallery sales people made me chuckle,'s truly a good question.

This whole topic is part of pulling a veil away from the mysterious world of selling art. Galleries used to hold the key to this mystery, somehow able to find and connect with those who buy art. They also used to build an artist's career and their prices. Some still do.

But more and more, something new seems called for. Rather than focus directly on marketing, I see an important factor is education. Art has been essentially eliminated from schools for several generations, and money and electronics sit high on the throne of what's valued.

We've discussed this in other conversations, but I think all of this comes back to our individual integrity as artists and gallerists, and to sharing our passion for art, for how invaluable making and having art is.

Forever in history, there have been those who take advantage of others, and those who support their fellow men and women.

I'm thinking that every one of us who use our resources to support our best art and communication skills, is adding to the solution.

And turning things around so that we are the ones hiring those who earn money from us by selling our work is going to be important.

Jeanne Guerin-Daley
Thanks for spreading the education about this subject. We need to spread the word to all aspiring artists out there.

Carol McIntyre
Stede, I was a sales trainer in a previous life - many years ago - it seems it is time for me to share that information in my blog and other places.

Selling is about sharing and educating. Too many of us - artists and gallery staff - are afraid of it.

I will start pulling out my old files on sales training.

Brian Sherwin
Answering several of you at once”¦

Mary, you have to be careful with artist co-op galleries because more often than not they are started by business-minded individuals who are not artists themselves. They are not necessarily 'bad'-- but they often don't hold the strong standards that a 'true' artist run co-op gallery would have. In other words, they often will take in any artist who can pay the monthly fee regardless of how skilled the artist is compared to others in the co-op.

Charlotte, I don't think that exhibiting at libraries, coffee shops, or hotel lobbies will hurt your career. That also depends on the direction you are taking with your art career-wise. If your goal is to gain representation by a mainstream gallery you probably won't want to list those displays on your resume if the gallery owner asks for one-- unless, for example, the library is a major library or the hotel is very notable.

The problem with exhibiting at vanity galleries is that it conveys a sense of desperation”¦ And there is normally enough PR for your exhibit online from the vanity gallery that the decision can follow you, so to speak. The alternative spaces you mentioned are less likely to do much promotion for your display-- in a sense, it is off the radar.

Carol, a NYC vanity gallery contacted you? Was it by any chance AGORA? NYC vanity galleries use the lure of New York to catch artist. They know that most artists dream of exhibiting there-- for every artist who looks past the cloud of excitement there is always another who takes it hook, line, and sinker. Needless to say, from a business stand point many NYC based vanity galleries do exceptionally well financially. There is nothing groundbreaking about exhibiting at a vanity gallery just because it is in New York City. You made a good choice.

Marilyn Gillis
I was approached by several galleries that wanted to display my art for a fee. I googled them and did a lot of research. That's how I found out about vanity galleries. Many of them have the reputation of losing the artwork or the art getting destroyed or just never returned.Coop galleries aren't considered generally to be vanity galleries. They have to find some way to pay the expenses of the coop to keep it open. I'd rank them as similar as food coops but with a different product.

Jo Allebach
Marilyn,you are right about co-ops for art being similar to food co-ops. The minimal fee where I have shown work includes open studio space and you get to have your work go through a jury process to get into the monthly shows. When a piece of art is sold there is a commission the artist pays to the co-op which goes back into the co-op to keep it running. It is definitely not a vanity gallery because you are not paying to show your work.

Carol McIntyre
Brian, Yes it was Agora. I admit that my head was kind of big for a couple of days, which was fun, but the practical side of me entered the picture as well as the info I mentioned before.

Marilyn Gillis
Agora nwas probably the first one to approach me too. The good feeling didn't last long because I googled them right away. But at least I already had a legit gallery contact me.

Brian Sherwin
Figured as much... I can tell you first hand that Agora is not respected by the Chelsea galleries. True, Agora happens to be located in the heart of New York's art scene-- but I've been to enough openings in that area to know that Agora is often the butt of inside jokes. They once contacted me about promoting them and I did not bother to reply.

Also-- do look out for art galleries that don't exist. I used to run into that situation often back in the days when Myspace was the social network to be on. Artists would tell me about they were contact by a gallery on Myspace and it would not take long to discover that the gallery did not exist-- it was basically someone, or a group, trying to trick artists by having them send art for an exhibit. In reality it was someone, or a group, just wanting free art. If a gallery does not have a website or does not list their address... be very, very wary.

Carol McIntyre
Brian, thank you for the inside scoop. It is good to hear from someone who knows NYC. Fortunately, NYC has not been my highest goal, but would be nice. For now I need to stay within my region - the SW.


It is a very seductive offer...ten linear foot run of wall space for a a leading New York Gallery...for just $3,000[US]...factor in shipping costs, about £500 [$800 US], from the UK...a further $800 to get them home at the end of the
I tactfully decline this exciting invitation...they were not listed in the NY Gallery Association...

Chrys Roboras
I have been a victim of vanity galleries. The pay to play didn't seem that bad as an emerging artist who knows you? Ofcourse I didn't know what a vanity gallery was until I started looking deeper into it. However i was lucky to sell at these gallerie in NY. I had participated in 2 in NYC. The last gallery closed down and declared bankruptcy. After speaking with other artist of this gallery, most people lost money and paintings. I will never pay to play again, even though the exposure did attract buyers to my site. I sold alot of paintings in NYC. I have been in juried shows which I also sold at. I have been in "NORMAL" galleris, no fees, no fuss and sold or not sold. I believe that I have a great body of work, I wasn't desperate to get noticed, I just wanted to exhibit as much as I could. Thankfully now I can choose where I want to exhibit and turn down offers from NON-VANITY galleries. I am persistent and hope to find a gallery that I can have a good relationship with long term. I love to paint and that is the most important thing to me. Regards Chrys

Carlos Thága
Not always losing, not always winning, but learning to play!

Chrys Roboras
Exactly Carlos, learning the system!

I have a FASO website. I'm just getting started in marketing my art, have read several books on the subject. Everyone says do not use vanity art galleries. But I want to share my experience. I went to a gallery near the beaches, very attractive, inside and out. I inquired about exhibiting, was told $75 per month for a small wall. That was 3 months ago. I've sold one for $450.00,$135.00 and $160.00, so I am in an attractive gallery in a tourist area, and selling more than paying. I've paid $225.00 to be there, if it had been the 40 percent split it would have been $292.00. This gallery will not probably be going out of business due to lack of sales, since the artists are paying. So, what is wrong with that? Customers don't know the deal, and I'm getting "out there".

Brian Sherwin
Jane -- is the gallery a vanity gallery or a co-op artist gallery? There is a difference. Often a vanity gallery will do little to actually sell art because their focus is on the income they draw in from charging artist fees.

Thanks for your comment, Brian, I also happen to love your articles, also Jack White's. I am one of those conservative artists you spoke of, but I paint costal subjects. I think perhaps that in this poor economy more galleries may be selling space to keep afloat when paintings aren't selling all that much. I'm running into a lot of them at the beaches and locally. It's a real vanity gallery, two artists own it, they have their work displayed there, and most of the space is rented out. I do think they take some care in who is allowed in there though.

Carlos thága
Not always losing, not always winning, but learning to play!

Sheila Psaledas
Wonderful article, Brian. I have had both good and bad experiences with vanity galleries and the bad have outweighed the good. Some are thoughtful caring artists who want to make a business out of it and are very happy to promote the other artists who support the gallery with monthly fees and sales. They take in only quality work and are ethical business people. Others have 'taken me to the cleaners' with excessive monthly fees and commissions on sales. One even tried to promote her own work during the purchase of one of my pieces by a client of mine who dropped into the gallery!The customer was really put off by the gallery owner and told me some days later she would avoid that gallery-she'd rather buy directly from me next time.

Brian, your advice is golden. The fewer artists vanity galleries can suck in, the stronger all artists will be for it. There's one distinguishing characteristic of vanity galleries I didn't see mentioned here: Who makes the final decisions as to how the gallery is run? If it's the artists themselves who decide, it's more likely to be a co-op. If it's an "owner" who decides -- whether an advisory board comprised of the artists exists or not -- it's probably a vanity gallery.

Brian, your advice is golden. The fewer artists vanity galleries can suck in, the stronger all artists will be for it. There's one distinguishing characteristic of vanity galleries I didn't see mentioned here: Who makes the final decisions as to how the gallery is run? If it's the artists themselves who decide, it's more likely to be a co-op. If it's an "owner" who decides -- whether an advisory board comprised of the artists exists or not -- it's probably a vanity gallery.

Professor Peter Bagnolo
Good article Brian, and on target. I have several websites including a FASO site designed expressly for Galleries to view, while my other sites sell non-show committed art and commissioned art through an agent who books commissions with architectural entities like churches, hospitals and corporate clients for portraits.

There is however, a related subject you may wish to write about and that is the equally fraudulent "Art contest, which charges heavy fees for entry and which often winners, like some boards of directors of Corporations, sleep in the same bed. Often these shows by all but unknown galleries and organizations through their frequent "Competitions" make the vast percent of their income. I told three of these frauds, that the only way I would enter there all but unheard of shows, is if the "Judges" consisted of members, my family and/or my employees. (I was sarcastically joking, of course).

agree with brian sherwin's comments about Agora Gallery.


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