Ask a Gallery Owner: What Advice Would You Give to Someone About to Open a Gallery?


I regularly receive emails from readers who are considering opening art galleries. These prospective gallery owners are looking for any insights or advice I might offer. I’m happy to help when I can, though it’s difficult in an email to even scratch the surface of what it takes to run a gallery.

Still, the conversations give me the opportunity to think about the business from the perspective of someone who’s just beginning. For example, I received the following email from just such an aspiring gallery owner (conversation edited to protect the identity of my correspondent and for clarity and brevity):

We’re opening a gallery at the end of June. My husband and I are going to be changing careers (me first) instead of retiring and have been collecting art and fine craft for the last 42 years.

The gallery will sell art, ceramics, glass and some wood and jewelry.

My top three questions are – If you could go back to when you opened, what is the one piece of advice you wish you had had?
How did you decide which artists to represent?
How do you find the sweet spot between educating the collectors and selling the work?

My responses:

Question #1: If you could go back to when you opened, what is the one piece of advice you wish you had had?

There are so many things! First, I learned very quickly that everything we did was going to cost more than we thought and that sales were going to occur more slowly and at a lower level than we hoped. It takes time to get established and build relationships and awareness with buyers. We were underfunded and had to scramble to keep up with cash flow.

I also wish that we would have done a lot more to follow up with clients who expressed interest in work. We are very efficient and pro-active in this regard now, and if we had been more so in the beginning we would have certainly increased our sales.

I also would have offered a wider range of price points. We are in an area that attracts both very high-end collectors and casual tourists. We’ve always catered to the high-end collector, but over the last few years we’ve expanded our offerings to the casual art buyer, and it’s turned into huge business for us.

That’s more than one bit of advice, but those are the main things I feel would have been helpful to understand going in.

Question #2: How did you decide which artists to represent?

This is more of an art than a science, even to this day. I primarily still go with my intuition. I have to be personally intrigued and excited by the work first, and then I have to believe that it fits well with the other artists I’m carrying. I look for quality of presentation and consistency of style. My goal is to build a long-term successful relationship with each artists, and consistency and quality are critical to doing this.

Question #3: How do you find the sweet spot between educating the collectors and selling the work?

This is a great and incisive question. For a commercial art gallery it’s critical to always have the goal to sell as the primary focus. Educating visitors and building relationships with them are tools that help you move toward that goal. This isn’t to say that we are trying to force sales or use pressure tactics, but we also can’t be timid about our purpose. We are not a museum, and we aren’t doing ourselves, our artists, or our collectors any favors by trying to disguise our sales efforts as education.

We certainly have many visitors to the gallery who don’t end up buying, either because they aren’t in the market for art or perhaps can’t afford to buy at this point. We won’t know who these visitors are, however, so we are going to put our best efforts into selling art to every visitor. It’s often surprising who will turn into a buyer. Regardless of whether someone buys or not, I want all visitors to have a positive, engaging experience in the gallery, so we work very carefully to be professional without being overbearing and high-pressure.

The prospective gallery owner replied:

We haven’t even opened our doors and I’m already learning the first lesson.

I think that your second point – sales are slower than we expected, is one of my worries. We should be good with cash flow, between my husband’s salary and my pension to cover our living expenses, but it is a worry. I’ve been told 3-5 years.

I have been planning on a wide range of price points – to bring in a first time buy and to build serious collectors.

One place that we are going to be spending money on is display units – we’ll be carrying fine craft and need shelving and pedestals – sometimes I worry that we are trying to do to much – but I firmly believe that a beautifully made bowl that you eat your ice cream out of is as much a piece of art as a bronze sculpture and that it can lead to larger purchases – I know that the $50 perfume 30 years ago led to a collection of contemporary glass that fills four cabinets in our house…..

I also feel better about how I’m choosing – I have to love the work or at least really respect it. If I can’t find something special about it, I’m not sure how I can sell it.

The hardest part for me will be closing the sale – that also keeps me up at night. I go to galleries and have point in low pressure environments, but I don’t know that sweet spot.

I really like your website – right now I’m not planning to sell a lot through a website, but will offer concierge services and help people find the art that they are looking for. We will build out our website as we start to get work in, but right now I’m thinking about it more to showcase the artists than to have a large internet store.

My response:

Tell me what you are thinking for location – do you already have a space leased? Does the area get tourists?

New Gallery Owner:

We’re going to be located in a historic building that’s being renovated in downtown. We have leased about 950 sq feet of space (to include back room, etc). Our town doesn’t specifically get tourists, but is the arts district for the area. The town is undergoing a renaissance with the opening of a number of superb restaurants (1 on 10 best new restaurants in the country 2 years ago), and business incubators for tech, entrepreneurs and “makers”. Warner Brothers recently rented out two floors of a major building for animation and animators. In the last year two other small galleries have opened. The town also has a farmers market that attracts more than 10,000 people on summer Saturdays and we’re in easy walking distance of that. There are music festivals and other weekend events that are promoted by the city. Because of our location we will be listed on maps provided by the Business Improvement district as well. We’re also on the main walking path between a college and the main restaurant district. Our building is new and will have 100 new apartments as part of the redevelopment.

Last spring I took an entrepreneur’s course through our local Chamber of Commerce and the instructors agreed that with the exception of  a nearby town (tourist industry, but based around the race track and horses), our city is the only place in the capital district to open a gallery.

My Response:

I learned early on that getting qualified buyers through the door is the most important aspect of building success (obviously) and that it’s one of the greatest challenges. When we first opened we were in a great shopping area, but one that catered more to locals than tourists. It also didn’t get a very high volume of traffic. We did okay in the location, but when we moved into the gallery district five years later, an area that gets a lot of tourism, our business increased substantially. It also helped that there were many other galleries around us so we knew that just about everyone who walked through the front door was interested in art.

Our market is likely different than yours, but I can’t overstate how important it is for us to have a steady stream of tourists coming through the door. People who are traveling seem to be far more likely to spend time in the gallery and actually buy. In any given year, 70-80% of our sales are shipped out of state.

Of course, because we’re in a travel and arts destination we also pay a fairly high rent. It may be that your moderately-sized gallery will be significantly less expensive to operate and won’t need tourist sales. Does the building and immediate neighborhood already get a lot of foot traffic?

New Gallery Owner:

The building and neighborhood does have a fair amount of foot traffic, especially in the summer (but then with our northern climate, foot traffic in the dead of winter can be hard.) Our rent is quite reasonable, about 1/2 of what the local malls charge. There is a huge business improvement district program that drives traffic from throughout the capital district into the neighborhood (in the 1000’s to 10,000) 2-3 times a month. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

There is certainly much finger-crossing in the gallery business! Each gallery is going to face a different set of circumstances and challenges, and you can only overcome those challenges by working through them.

Share your questions, experiences, and thoughts about opening and operating a gallery in the comments below.




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