At some point in their career, an artist will be approached by a gallery or will approach galleries looking for representation or to have an exhibition. You’ve had some success at local art shows and fairs and have made some inroads selling your photography online, but now you want to get your work out there and start looking for galleries to show your work or represent you.
Having your first solo show at a gallery is a huge step. You’ll need to prepare your work and do your research before you submit your entry. An exhibition of your work at a gallery is a great way to kickstart your career. Gallery patrons are regular visitors and will be happy to promote your exhibit on their mailing lists. Of course, it’s great to have exhibitions at notable galleries on your CV.
Having your artwork represented by a gallery can be an asset for artists. Artists want to be their own boss and manage their marketing and sales. They also don’t want to share the sales revenue with a gallery. But that attitude can hurt an artist’s development and a gallery can pinpoint those buyers that are apt to flip artworks.
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Do Your Research
Before you start making submissions to galleries you’ll need to do extensive research on which are the best galleries for you to submit to. You will need to narrow down on some key factors that help you identify galleries that suit your needs and best showcase your work. First, make sure the gallery is accepting submissions. Then check these points.
- Does the gallery show or represent photographers?
- Do the photographers they represent sell work at a similar price point to yours?
Are the artists represented at the same stage in their career as you?
High-end galleries will represent artists who are well established in their careers. It’s possible that you don’t have the skills to work in a big-time gallery. You will need to find one that accepts artists at the same stage of their career.
Be sure the gallery represents photographers. Many galleries do. However, some might not. Take a look at what the photographers represent. Does it have a similar feel and vibe to your work? Is it the same or like in style to yours?
If possible, visit other galleries to see what they have to offer. It’s a great time to go when the gallery is hosting an artist vernissage or an event. It will also be possible to see the prices that the gallery sells its artwork. You might be uncomfortable with the prices offered by that gallery and not willing to pay them.
The other major point you need to cover in your research is what commission the gallery takes when they sell your work. Most galleries take 50% of each sale. You will rarely find a gallery that takes a higher percentage. Most will take 40% and I have seen them as low as 25%.
Write a Query Letter to a Gallery
Much of this research can be handled with a well-worded query email. They are relatively simple to write. It is important not to give too many details about you and your work. Be succinct and to the point.
If you do not have or cannot find a gallery contact person, please send a generic salutation to the curator. Be clear about what you’re interested in, and whether or not it is representation space.
Don’t pitch your ideas or your work via the query email. You’ll be just like the annoying door-to-door salesman that randomly shows up. Also, don’t do a bulk email submission. The recipient will be aware that it is a bulk email submission and they will likely not reply.
Unless they give permission to you after receiving your first query, or if it states that they accept submissions via email, please don’t include any images. A link to your online portfolio will suffice.
If you haven’t heard back from the gallery in regards to your query, then you should follow up. Ask the gallery if there are any improvements you could make if you’re rejected. It can be tough getting a gallery exhibit or representation and it is fraught with rejections, so don’t get discouraged and learn to develop a thick skin.
Selecting Work to Submit
Make sure your work is a cohesive body of images with a theme, concept, or series. As an example, I created a series of portraits shot on film and printed in my darkroom on fiber-based paper of some of the patrons of our local community center and soup kitchen. At the time they were struggling and I wanted to draw attention that they were good people who needed help and their stories. A series of photographs from the neighborhood I grew up was also included. The gallery might be more interested in work that examines the same theme.
These themes can be common, so you need to find an original way to tackle the subject. Be sure to show your connection to the subject matter so it’s palpable to the audience viewing your work.
Take a hard look at your photographs and ask yourself, do these images look like they were created by the same photographer? Be sure that they do. Every image must have some connection between them. This will show the vision and style you used to create. If the images include a mixture of landscapes and portraits as well as still lives in color and black and white, a gallery will not be interested.
Also, ask if your work demonstrates a remarkable artistic perspective. Have you handled the subject matter deftly as no other photographer has? It can be very difficult to be that honest with yourself, but you want to make sure you can pass these markers before making your submission.
Selecting the Gallery
When selecting a gallery, do not follow the old axiom of “go big or go home.” Although your images may be fantastic, you are probably not at the stage in your career to submit them to the large national gallery of whatever country you happen to live in. You should start by visiting smaller, regional or commercial galleries.
Here’s a quick refresher about the differences between these two kinds of galleries. A public gallery is operated and managed on behalf of the public. Private or commercial galleries exist solely to sell artwork to private collectors, and to the general public. Remember that commercial galleries will evaluate your ability to sell work.
Every gallery will have submission guidelines. They are usually available online. These guidelines should be followed. Depending on the gallery, this will be a physical portfolio, digital images on a thumb drive, or a link to an online portfolio delivered in an email.
If the submission guidelines are not included on their website, you can email them and ask for the guidelines to be sent to you.
Here are the key items that a gallery will ask you to provide in a submission:
This is a document that talks about your art and why you create that art. It is not a place where you can show that your Thesaurus was used to create all the wonderful adjectives and other accomplishments. It will discuss how and why you made the photographs, what you were trying to communicate, and the reasons you used the Thesaurus to create them. Describe your main theme and how you achieved it.
This is your professional resume. Here is where you lay out your education, solo and group exhibitions, special commissions, any media and publications where you were written about, awards you have received, and of course your name, address, phone number, email, and website.
If you are submitting digital images, the gallery will tell you in their guidelines what pixel dimensions they’ll want. It’s important that the file size of the images is not too large for the gallery’s computer. If they are too small they will display the files at a poor quality. A good starting point would be 72 dpi and 2000 pixels on the longest dimension and in jpeg format. The gallery will tell you how many images they require. If they don’t, you should send 10 – 20 images. The gallery will also ask for the files to be named a certain way. This is what I submitted to all galleries.
01_artistsname_title_2022 (or whatever year the image was created)
Try to number them so they are in chronological order of when you created them.
Provide a companion list of the images you are sending. Use the same numbering system and order that you have them on your thumb drive, CD, or email. Also, make sure your contact information is on the sheet.
This is where you will expound on your process for creating your photography. This is where you can discuss your inspiration and the reasons you made these images. You may also mention any unique processes you used to create them. There is no right or wrong artist statement. The best way to understand what they are and what should be in them is to read the statements of other artists who are photographers.
You might want to take a look at statements made by artists other than photographers. Each will give you a new perspective.
And one more important point – your artist statement should be around 500 words, give or take a few.
Some galleries will ask you for a proposal for the exhibition you would like to show in their space. A proposal may not be necessary if you are looking for representation.
The difference between the artist statement and the exhibition proposal is the statement focuses on you, your practices, and your photography. The proposal, on the other hand, is about your plan and vision for the exhibition.
You should include the following in your proposal:
- Tell them about the concept and inspiration for the exhibition. Be brief but thorough.
- How many artworks will be included in this show?
- The timeline you are working on.
- Any specifics of the installation (i.e.
- Any details about the installation (i.e. unusually large works, hanging requirements for the work or the layout of the gallery).
- If you have a curator involved or if it’s a group show, a brief biography about the curator or other artists.
Things To Consider
If all of the above wasn’t enough to think about, here are a few more things to keep in mind when getting ready for an exhibition of your photography.
Ask the gallery what type of lighting your work will be displayed under. It’s always worth visiting the gallery to see the lighting used before you submit your work. Photographers are well-versed in the various types and temperatures of artificial lighting available. Tungsten light will cast a warm tone that you may not want on your images.
Window lighting will affect images displayed. A mix of both could be problematic.
Also, if your work is very glossy, you will want to examine how the work is lit. Glossy materials can often have hot spot reflections that can distract from the proper viewing of the work. While glossy materials can make your photograph appear brighter and more vivid, matte papers will not lose any depth. However, you do not have to be concerned about strange reflections caused by lighting.
Displaying Your Artwork
How your art will be framed should be given careful consideration. Quality framing is a must. Make sure each piece of art has the correct hanging wire attached. It is not a good idea for a piece to come off the wall.
To provide a uniform display, photographers will often frame their work the same way. Simple, black frames with a narrow profile are my favorite. They can be made from metal or wood. There are lots of different ways to display and hang your images. Maybe you are producing very large prints that are five feet tall and frames may not be practical but there are several ways you can get them ready to hang like mounting on Gatorboard, masonite, and foam core.
Since your body of work will have a flow and connection between each piece, you will have to plan in what order they will hang and the direction of that flow. You are telling a story with your images so they may be chronological. The exhibit can also be organized based on the importance of the images’ color. They can also be grouped by subject matter.
The best way to see the works is from outside and as if you were just entering the gallery. Where do your eyes go first and what carries you to the next image and the next and so on? Also, you’ll want enough space between photos so they can be seen on their own. Or group them together for an even more impact.
Once you hang your work, you’ll need to label each piece. In my experience, I’ve found the following label format in this example works well.
If you have images you do not want to sell, put NFS (Not for Sale) instead of the price. Each gallery may have a different way they like the images labeled and will often take care of that for you. If you have any important information you would like to share with the viewers, then you should ask your gallery about including it.
Now you have to let everyone know that you are having an exhibition! This is the fun part because I’ve always enjoyed promotional activities. Check with the gallery and see what promotion they will be doing. They will surely have your exhibit on their site and include it in their newsletters. Ask them if there are any additional promotions or advertising. It is not a good idea to cross-promote what they have in mind.
I have discovered that publicity such as interviews with media and news articles, is a very important aspect of the business. the gallery will often leave that in the hands of the artist. I recommend that you create a press statement and distribute it to all media contacts.
Writing a press release is a time-consuming task. It also has its own style, so make sure you do some research on the best way to create one. If you have the budget, it’s a good idea to hire someone who is experienced in writing them and have them do it. Writing your press release can be difficult because a lot of people have trouble talking about themselves in the third person and also promoting their work, so it’s a good idea to consider if you can.
I hope that this will help you to get your next show a huge success. A final bit of advice – get someone to read over all your material and check it for spelling and grammar. It is important not to leave a negative impression on anyone who looks at your photos. Good luck!