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,