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  • Vancouver Artist Gallery, via Tourism Vancouver artist
  • The Brickhouse Art Gallery - Image via breegraciacom
  • Artwork on Display - Image via semipermanentcom

How to Start an Art Gallery - Between Passion and Business

October 27, 2017
Behind the pseudonym of Lor Dethal lies Nemanja Torlak, a writer for Widewalls intrigued and moved by diversity in art and in the lives of those who create it. It is often the unexpected that come forth and surprise us, and art is a world that allows it and makes it possible. David beats the Goliath daily, and writing about it is a pleasure.

It would be a challenge to find a more gratifying and fulfilling way to make a living than to open an art gallery, spend days sitting in a roomful of beauty, have people walk in and then pay you to help upgrade and enrich the cultural quality of their lives. To dedicate your professional life to perhaps the highest form of creative expression human beings can muster is a dream many of us share, but the road to getting there begins with a single, deceivingly simple question: how to start an art gallery?

There are numerous reasons as to why you might want to start running a gallery. To those in love with art, which we presume a vast majority of you are, running a gallery might be comparable to making art itself. Like breathing life into a painting of some sort, opening an art gallery is a process and there are certain ways of getting it done – for example, just like you are not able to apply finishing touches to a sketch of a painting, you also can not start by, let’s say, setting prices before you even find a proper location for your gallery.

So, keeping in line with our metaphor, before your life’s greatest piece is complete, you’ll need to buy the canvas, the brushes and the paint. In the next few paragraphs, we’ll go over what it takes to stay afloat in this expensive, yet lucrative business[1], sort out a few tips for any ambitious future owners out there and see what it costs to run an art gallery in today’s environment.

Saatchi Gallery, 2016 - opening a small business and getting people to see work on view to open lots of possibilities
Installation view of Future Island at START Art Fair, Saatchi Gallery, 2016, via pinterest.com

How to Start an Art Gallery

Before you even begin considering tackling the question of how to open an art gallery, you must be aware of a cold truth that must not, under any circumstance, stay a mystery to you. Although it is a lot more dreamy than running restaurants or shops, launching an art gallery is a business at its core and, as such, there are some fundamental costs that’ll hit your budget with an impeccable force. Not only are these expenses mandatory, but over the past few years the price of these essential costs has been constantly increasing, making the art gallery business a riskier investment regardless of the boom the market for contemporary art has had in the past few years.

According to surveys, the biggest “boogie man“ to a newbie gallery owner is the price of rent that can often represent a third of a monthly budget! “Well, that’s not too surprising,“ we hear some of you whispering to your screens – however, allow us to put this into the right perspective by telling you that “average” art gallery’s monthly costs can range from $80,000 to $100,000 dollars. Both rent and storage fees can be atrociously pricey, so be sure that you are ready to spend if you plan to be the sole investor[2].

Running an art gallery is a business and, as always, money coming in and money coming out are the two sole pillars of surviving in such an environment. If this seems too pricey for your taste, perhaps you should consider launching an online gallery or even hosting a pop-up show.

An Artist Fair
An Art Fair, via hotelroomsearch.net

The Problem With the Business of Art Fairs

Another necessary evil of gallery expenses is art fairs[3]. Although their effect on the art market as a whole has been at least partially positive and there are obvious advantages to such a model, art fairs became a must for anyone wishing to enter the universe of contemporary art and sales. As the organizers became aware that their events cannot be avoided, fairs became a financial nightmare to upcoming gallery owners. In some cases, the application fees alone can easily reach the $1,000 mark – and that does not even guaranty you will be approved to participate!

Yet, most art fairs are earning almost $1 million just from processing applications. If you pass the application process, you will then be forced to face the booth fees ($60,000 – $80,000 for some of the larger, more prestigious fairs), costs of art transportation, paperwork, insurance, lodging, food expenses for your gallery staff, etc. The costs just continue to line up and the total number you will have to pay quickly begins to look like a small country’s GDP. And that’s just for one fair.

Unfortunately, not participating in art fairs is simply not a viable choice for any ambitious new gallery owner as the current rules do a lot to make sure newcomers must dance to the whistled tune. There’s not a way of going around it – art fairs are a financial bloodbath that the current market insists on, so be prepared to spend a lot of cash as the future of the art market does not look like it will bring changes in this department any time soon.

Ahem Artist Collective
Ahem Art Collective, via pixelsmithstudios.com

A Reassuring Fact

If you’re fine with investing large amounts of money, then we congratulate you on your resolve as we reveal the biggest factor of successful gallery owners – great artists. If you are able to gather quality art-makers under your banner, there’s a valid chance you’ll make it in this world.

Furthermore, the key component of having great artists who you believe in and are willing to fight for in the context of selling their work will also make this a much more enjoyable experience for you personally.

Big collectors are also important, but artists are the lifeblood of the gallery realm. With that being said, there’s no reason why you should not conceive building an army of artists even while your launching plans are still in development – hunt for talent, take risks, commission artwork, explore and enjoy the adventure. Money may be important, but never forget why you entered the gallery business and do not forgo your love for art.

Start-Saatchi Gallery
Start-Saatchi Gallery, via kalmanmaklary.com

Balancing the Scales for Galleries

We’ve mentioned all these bills, all these expenses, yet contemporary art market is known to make tens of billions of dollars in profit each year. The natural question that follows is a simple three-letter word – how? Well, it’s fairly simple. The market works in a much different way when it comes to art than it does for most other industries.

Galleries have the leading role in not only setting the prices of art, but practically manipulating them. The very nature of art is such that constructing efficient, comparing prices is impossible, leading the whole art industry to follow the concepts of what’s more “beautiful” and more “worthy” based on the approval of a handful of galleries, collectors and museums.

The simple fact that perception and value are subjective, and one painting can be seen as good by one person, yet horrifying by the next, makes this whole “value game” possible – given the intrinsic value of a painting is paint and canvas, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to tiptoe your way past the bills and easily earn money.

With that being said, it’s not very efficient nor fashionable to skyrocket the prices of paintings in a gallery just to be able to cover the bills. Exquisite art collectors are well-educated consumers and forcing a price of a young artist’s work will do the gallery more harm than good.

The idea is to keep the scales balanced and to follow the pulse of the market as you place reasonable price tags on the artwork you possess.

Bronze sculpture by Robert I. Russin on display at the Nicolaysen Art Museum
Bronze sculpture by Robert I. Russin on display at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, via wp.com

Five Tips For a Head Start

Since we’ve established that starting the art gallery business is a nerve-wrecking, grey-hair inducing marathon of stress and sleepless nights that takes a huge toll on your wallet, we’ve prepared five tips to help you get a good head start. Combine them with what you learned earlier in this article and you should be able to get a solid sense of how to open an art gallery and initiate its early phases.

Don’t Be Scared to Lose

Make no mistake, the first two years will be tough and your gallery might run at a loss, and after these are in the rear mirror, you will still find yourself struggling from time to time. This is mostly a hit-and-miss game, so you must be prepared to take the loss and move on.

The art market is such that you will sometimes misread the situation, but the goal is to become capable of cutting a profit more often than of folding it. This, unfortunately, is the nature of the business and you must not be disheartened when it happens.

Be Original With Your Gallery

Never forget that galleries are a place for artists to experiment and play with their imagination, and this is also true for owners. In a market dominated by wild personalities and free spirits, it is important to make yourself stand out, so do not be afraid to experiment.

Test ideas, think outside the box and take risks – this has been a proven method of getting ahead in the art world.

Stick to Artists You Love

The art market is a platform for learning, innovation and conversation, so it comes as no surprise that you will thrive in it only if you deal with something you are passionate about. Surely the best resource to navigate this kind of a field, passion inspires hard work and people will always notice when someone is dedicated.

Furthermore, by making sure you are close to what you love, you’ll significantly lower the chances of getting disheartened with what you do. Needless to say, it will also make all of your small victories and successes that much sweeter.

Measure the Market’s Pulse

Needless to say, you must become a part of the art market if you wish to be successful at it. Always fluid and quite dynamic, the art market is an interesting beast that constantly changes and evolves, often going down some very unpredictable roads. That’s precisely why you must make sure to always be aware of what’s going on in the world of art.

Apart from making assumptions yourself, rely on experts such as artists and members of the business community as well, in order to assess the situation.

Always Keep Honesty In Mind

Finally, never lie, misrepresent, over-embellish or otherwise manipulate the public you sell to and the artists you represent. Remember that the bottom line of everything you have in the art world is your reputation and be sure to never compromise it.

To all major players of the game, their word is what holds tremendous value and the ultimate goal is to get to a point your own words mater as much. Simply put, you won’t ever get there if you cheat your way there.

Artwork on Display - artist work on view at an opening
Artwork on Display, via timeout.com

The True Value of Your Business

Ultimately, what it really costs to run a gallery depends on your goals, ideas, resourcefulness and own sense of value[4]. If you’re a true art lover, being able to represent art as you see it over-weighs being a few digits behind once all the calculations and number crunching is done. Whether you run a gallery because you appreciate art or simply for its monetary aspect, you are bound to clash with the unpredictable environments of both worlds.

However, running a successful gallery is a marathon, not a sprint, so please make sure you understand that it will definitely take some time before you start seeing profits from your investments. But once you do, there’s nothing quite like being a founder of a successful art gallery who made it through all the hoops and obstacles placed in front of you, now capable to sit back, sip wine and enjoy the creative wonders of human kind for a living.

References:

  1. Winkleman, E., How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, Allworth Press; 1st edition, 2009
  2. Grant, D., 2015, The New Art World Math: What It Really Costs to Be an Art Dealer?, The Observer [Oct 15, 2017]
  3. Nazarevskaia, K., The rise of the art fair: who wins and who loses, Gallery Intell GI [Oct 15, 2017]
  4. Brenner, M., 2010, Running a Gallery on a Shoestring Budget, Art21 Magazine [Oct 15, 2017]

Featured images: Vancouver Art Gallery, via Tourism Vancouver; Artwork on Display, via semipermanent.com; The Brickhouse Art Gallery, via breegracia.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.