studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 22

October - December 1998

Pablo Picasso
Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (detail)
oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 25 5/8 in.
Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
Artist-gallery relationships. For this issue, we asked several art dealers two questions that, according to our surveys, concern many readers: What to expect from a gallery, and What should go in the slide packet you send a gallery. Here is a summary of what they had to say:


One of the most encouraging responses was from a northern California dealer who said that an artist should "expect an honest effort" from any gallery that represents him or her. Furthermore, the artist should expect the gallery to "present the work in the most favorable way."

Fair enough. Certainly you should accept no less. But what about the details? What particular arrangements will the gallery make? What services will it provide? The short answer is, it depends. Some galleries will do little more than put your work in a group show and keep a few examples in the back room. Others might sign you to a long-term contract, give you a solo show each year, advertise widely, publish a large color catalogue, and promote and sell your work to museums. While most reputable dealers charge a straight commission which covers everything, others ask you to pay part of the cost for advertising or the reception, or even require you to buy frames from them (a bad idea).

And how successful an artist already is makes a difference, too. According to San Francisco gallery owner Dick Ebert, "If he's well-established he's expecting that the dealer could take over the marketing of his work. If he's a young one, he's going to expect the dealer to project, or start him with his career as an emerging artist." What the gallery provides may also depend on the dealer's assessment of the artist's marketability or potential for growth, as well as the gallery's stage in its own development; newer galleries with fewer contacts can do less.

The simple fact is that there are no industry standards. Thus, before signing on with a gallery that wants to handle your work, you should ask them about their commission, when you will be paid for work sold (e.g., within 30 days), when your work will be shown, who pays for announcements, advertising, the reception, return of unsold work, etc. You needn't be shy about asking for the details, either, according to one veteran artist-precisely because there is no industry standard. Most established galleries have printed contracts. Read any contract carefully before you sign it; take a few days to look it over if you need to, and ask about anything you don't understand. If the gallery does not have a written contract, come to an agreement with them and then write a letter covering what you understood the agreement to be. This will serve both as a reminder to you and the gallery, and as a contract. (See Art & Sleaze, sN #18.) While some arts organizations provide model artist-gallery contracts, several experienced artists recommend that you use these only to extract a list of points you want to cover, and then after you come to an agreement with the dealer, write and send your letter-contract.

What should you expect after the gallery has taken you on? Kansas City (MO) dealer Clint Jayne replied, "An artist should expect a gallery to fully and completely promote, market and sell the artist's work. This should be accomplished from a pro-active stance and not a passive one. The gallery should help in inventory control and management, but not be solely responsible for record keeping. These are basics and not all encompassing." Again, the details of this depend on your agreement with the gallery, and the gallery's abilities. Another thing to expect is change. It's smart, noted one dealer, to view the relationship as one that can grow. The best way to avoid problems, said San Francisco gallerist Catharine Clark, is to communicate with the gallery about your needs and to ask about things you don't understand. Sometimes, though, despite the best efforts of both parties, things will not work out and you will have to find another dealer.

What to send in slide package

As emphasized in Finding Galleries, sN#17, send slides only after you have determined that the gallery is appropriate for you. Otherwise you waste time and money, and may harm your reputation. Usually it's best to call first to ask if the gallery is even reviewing slides; some are not taking on new work for a while, or never view unsolicited slides. If the response is positive, then ask what they want to see in a slide package. Listen carefully to their requirements, but don't take them as limitations. Keep in mind that the point of your submission packet is to make it as easy as possible for the dealer to understand and appreciate your art. Here is what is usually in such a package:

Cover letter: No more than one page long, this should be clearly written and straightforward. It should say why you are sending your slides to that specific gallery. If it was recommended by someone they know, say so. Some dealers suggest you include a brief paragraph about the highlights of your career. You might also want to say a bit about your work, its purpose, or your approach. You might also state what you are asking for; e.g., representation, solo show, or inclusion in a specific theme show. It's also a good idea to list what's enclosed in the package (slides, résumé, etc.).

Slides: If they don't show your work to best advantage, don't send them; get ones that do. A Los Angeles dealer told us, "If I see slides that are out of focus or crooked, I worry that the artist is careless and will be hard to deal with. And if he says in his cover letter, 'slides don't really do justice to my work,' it's a real turn off." According to David Lusk of the Ledbetter Lusk Gallery (Memphis TN), "the slides should be clearly labeled with the artist's name, date of artwork's completion, medium, size and orientation. Skip the color-coded dots for orientation-use an arrow instead. Write in only one direction-not on all four sides of the slide mount. Make sure the slide sheet is clean and fairly new. Computer generated labels are usually easier to read and neater, but not imperative." Some galleries like the retail price to be on the slide label, too; others want the prices on a separate list, if at all. Most dealers ask to see 10 to 20 slides-enough to give them a sense of what your work is like, but not so many as to overwhelm. A few prefer some older work, as well, because, as Ebert said, one can "see where he's come from and how he's improved." Many dealers expect a body of work that has a definite style or "look" to it. One, who wished to remain anonymous, advised, "When choosing slides to send a gallery for a slide review, the artist should send a cohesive grouping of mostly current work. If the artist sends 2 or 3 slides each of divergent and unrelated styles, the presentation appears un-focussed." It's fine to work in several different styles and approaches, of course, but in your initial presentation to a gallery, keep in mind that the dealer may not have much time to think about what you are doing and why.

Résumé: The purpose of this, as one gallery manager put it, is "to give me an idea of where the artist stands in the art world, whom he has associated with." Jayne noted that the résumé "indicates commitment to the work." Lusk said it should "look good and professional." Another gallery owner cautioned that it shouldn't exaggerate: "I can spot a snow job a mile away," he said. While there is no set form for the résumé, it should always include your name, address and phone number. Many dealers like to see a list of your schools and degrees, if any, but this is less important the longer you have been an artist. List your most important solo and group shows, by date, normally with the most recent first. In general, warned Consuelo Underwood, formerly of the Public Art Program of the Sacramento (CA) Metropolitan Arts Commission, omit little neighborhood shows, open studios, or things like that, unless they are particularly significant, since they can give the wrong impression about the level of your work. Bottom line: quality is more important than quantity. List the well-known private or public collections your work is in, too, if that applies.

Artist's statement: This is a paragraph or two-rarely should it be more than a page-that can provide some extra insight into your work or alert the reader to something unusual. It can be about your symbols and metaphors or materials and processes-or anything else that is particular to your work. What it should not be is dense, overblown, academic-or forced. If you are having trouble writing a statement, have a friend or colleague ask you questions about your work. The answers to these can, perhaps with some polishing, serve as your statement. If you believe you should not talk about your work, you can say just that. But whatever you write, it should match your work. For instance, if you do straight-ahead plein air paintings, you probably should not claim that your work deals with postmodern existential neo-nihilistic paradigms of the second order and the concomitant holistic continuum of the healing process.

SASE: The self-addressed stamped envelope should be the same size as your original, and have the same postage. Some artists use a plain envelope and clip a return label to it, with the correct postage clipped to that. This way, the gallery can use the label on their own envelope if they choose.

Other stuff: Include anything else that would help the dealer understand that your art is appropriate for his or her gallery. For instance, Clark suggests sending a sharp 8x10 color photo; it doesn't have to be one of the pieces in the slides, but it should give a good sense of your work. Lusk adds, "Throw into the solicitation any invitations which represent your work. Old and new are important. . . . It's easier to see a photo or card than to carefully look at slides." Some artists, especially those whose work is large, use 4x5 transparencies. One sculptor mounts a 4x5 in one section of an 8x10" black mat. In another section he mounts two slides of details; these can be removed from their holders to be projected. If you do installations or large or kinetic sculptures, a video tape might be appropriate, but it may take a while for the dealer to get around to viewing it. Some galleries are willing to look at images on a CD ROM, but, as with a video, check first.

You can also enclose copies of press clippings or reviews of previous shows if relevant. A personality profile from the local paper may not carry much weight with a dealer who has seen hundreds of them, but a glowing review from a respected critic can be helpful. Some artists also send professionally produced brochures containing reproductions of their work.

When it comes to the business of promoting your art, bear in mind that you are the president of your company, as well as the senior sales and marketing manager. As such, it's your job to do the research, think things through and come up with appropriate solutions. Keep your packet easy to deal with and informative, and never let the presentation get in the way of the work. In the end, it's the art itself that counts the most. As San Jose (CA) dealer Frederick Spratt replied when asked what he wanted to see in a package: "Great work. And the manner in which it's presented is less important than what's in it."

Copyright © 1998 by studioNOTES

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