Thinking of opening a gallery space?

Guest Blogger: Kesha Bruce

Every artist I know, no matter what medium they work in, is always looking for good opportunities to exhibit their art and introduce it to broader audiences.

Over the years I had casually considered what it would be like to run my own gallery space, so when an opportunity to share a gallery space practically fell into my lap, I jumped on it. Three years ago I opened a gallery–a space where I could show and sell my work.

Although I could easily label this a list of ‘what went wrong’, it’s also a list of lessons I learned in the process of running a gallery space.

Kesha Bruce, Big Dancing Spirit

©2010 Kesha Bruce, Big Dancing Spirit #1. India Ink and graphite powder on paper, 24x 17 inches.

1. Know your true expenses
Having a gallery space doesn’t mean more sales, but it certainly means more overhead. Even though the rent on a space itself maybe completely affordable, other expenses quickly come into play. Never mind the heating bill, I soon found myself spending more than a handful of nickels and dimes on small minor expenditures such as light bulbs, extension cords, and cleaning supplies.

2.  Know how to budget your time
As much as I enjoyed talking about my work with new people, chatting for hours on end with the people that strolled in off the street soon became exhausting. Within a few months I began to resent spending my weekend afternoons gallery-sitting. This problem might have been avoided had I done some real thinking in advance about how much time I realistically wanted to spend interacting with the public on a regular basis.

3. Know your collectors
Besides the once-in-awhile “love at first sight” buyer, most likely a collector will have seen your work and gotten to know you a bit before they decide to make a purchase. One-hundred percent of the sales I made while I was showing my work in my gallery came from collectors I had already formed relationships with long before I decided to set up shop outside my studio.

4.  Know what you really want
In the end it all comes down to choosing opportunities that fit who you are as a person and the direction you want your career to move in. As exciting as it is to meet new people and sell work in a new venue, you probably don’t need to open a gallery space to meet new collectors or to engage with the fans that you already have.

Goals and career vision are the backbone of the Blast Off class for artists, which starts tomorrow (August 25).

Aside from having the opportunity to temporarily see the art market from a new perspective, the most important lesson I learned was that having a gallery is not a substitute for using your contact list and taking care of your biggest supporters.

Opening a gallery taught me a ton about the value of connecting with people and growing long-term relationships with collectors. It also made me appreciate the hard work of gallerists on behalf of artists.

In the end I closed the doors of my initial idea of running a traditional gallery space, but I took what I’d learned from the experience and used it to create a new model for promoting and selling my work. Stay tuned!

Kesha Bruce received her MFA from Hunter College and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship recipient. She lives and works in the US and France.

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6 comments to Thinking of opening a gallery space?

  • Thank you Kesha for sharing your learning experience it was very insightful and helpful. I’m sure it will help many others in evaluating their decisions how they will present their art to the public. It sure did give me a clearer understanding of choices that would be involved and whether I would want to go the self-gallery route or not. Thank you again for this open and honest report on your experience and what you learned. Yes the “Blast Off” class is very helpful in this respect too. I recommend everyone, those who are able, to take this class.

  • 3 of my artist friends and myself rent a walk-in location just off the beaten path in the middle of a small city. We decide a year ahead of time which month we want to have our own exhibit-then rent out the other 8 months to artists looking to promote their work. We each pay the month’s rent and electricity, and all expenses incurred with an exhibit. Each artist sits as his own shop keeper during the month, and that seems to be the hardest obstacle to overcome. Talking about one’s work to everyone off the street, and being welcoming and inviting them into your space is a HARD thing. It seems superficial but at the same time, breaking the ice by saying “welcome”, is easy enough. I feel that the hardest part is the interaction, but when it goes well, it is very gratifying to get immediate feedback on your work. All the practical details around pricing the work is also very difficult, because I feel like I will never be making money at this passion no matter how affordable I make the work. I don’t ask as much as a regular gallery, as I am saving the price of paying that overhead, but if I sat down and tried to price according to what my studio expenses are for the year, plus rent for the gallery, plus material costs, that doesn’t leave much leeway for paying myself for my artistic efforts. After just one month of sitting at the gallery, I am glad that it’s about a year til next time. Running a gallery is hard work, especially the people part….

  • Nice Article +art. Thank you Kesha for sharing your learning experience it was very insightful and helpful.

  • Great advice, Kesha. I ran my own retail gallery/studio for three years. Yes, it made a little income for me, but it also took up all my time and energy. I found out that I really didn’t like small talk with the visitors who are asking for art lessons (how did you do that? What colors did you mix?). It is different than being at a show or art fair where the customers are coming to look for art. Having a partner would help as long as one of you has a business mindset. Or better yet, a rich backer who lets you do your own thing!

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