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 an exhibition of your photography at a gallery can be an excellent stimulate your career. The galleries have regular patrons and they will promote your exhibition on their mailing list. Of course, it’s great to have exhibitions at notable galleries on your CV.
Having a gallery represent your work can also be a large boon to an artist. Many artists want to remain independent and handle their sales and marketing. 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’ll want to zero in on a few key points that can identify the galleries that are right for you and your photography. First, make sure the gallery is accepting submissions. Then check these points.
- Does the gallery show or represent photographers?
- Are the artists they represent currently at the same point in their careers as you are?
- Do the photographers they represent sell work at a similar price point to yours?
High-end galleries will represent artists who are well established in their careers. You may not be ready for that big-time gallery yet, so you’ll have to look for one that will accept work for those who are at a similar place in their careers as you are.
Be sure the gallery represents photographers. Most do, but some may not. Have a look at the work of the photographers they represent. Does it have a similar feel and vibe to your work? Is it the same or like in style to yours?
If it’s possible, another part of your gallery research would be to visit the galleries that you would like to show in or be represented by. A great time to visit is when they are having an event or a vernissage for an artist. You’ll also see what the gallery is selling its work for. If those prices are much higher than what you’re currently getting or comfortable with, then you might not want to submit to that gallery.
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. Rarely do you find one that will take a greater percentage than that. 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. The key is not to be too wordy and not give too much information about yourself and your work. Be succinct and to the point.
If you don’t have, or can’t find, a contact person at the gallery to send it to, then a general salutation in the subject line to the curator will suffice. Clearly state what you are interested in and state whether it’s representation or exhibition space for your show.
Don’t start pitching your ideas and your work in 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. They will know it’s a blanket email and will probably not respond.
Unless you get permission after your initial query to email your submission, or it says they will accept email submissions on their website, don’t send any images of your work with the query. 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. If you get rejected, ask if they have any suggestions on how you can improve. 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. I also created a series of images from my old neighborhood where I grew up. If you have work that explores a common thread like that, the gallery may take more interest.
Now, these themes are not that unique so what you have to do is find a unique way to approach the subject matter that will make it stand out. 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. Each image has to have a connection and common thread between them that shows the style and vision that you use to create. A gallery won’t be too interested if the images are a mix-up of portraits, landscapes, abstracts, and still lifes done in black and white and color.
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. It’s a good idea to start with the smaller local or regional public and commercial galleries.
Here is a small refresher on the difference between the two types of galleries. A public gallery is operated and managed on behalf of the public. Whereas commercial or private galleries’ primary reason to exist is to sell art to private collectors and the general public. So keep in mind that a commercial gallery will be looking at how saleable your work is.
Every gallery will have submission guidelines. Most make them available on their websites. Follow them exactly. 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. This isn’t a place to demonstrate that you used a Thesaurus to come up with all these wonderful adjectives or your accomplishments. In it, you will be addressing how you came to the type of photographs you create, why you created the photos, and what were you trying to convey in them. Explain your central theme and the process you used to achieve 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. You don’t want the image files to be so large they’ll be too cumbersome for their computer and if they’re too small, then the quality will be very poor when they display them. A good starting point would be 72 dpi and 2000 pixels on the longest dimension and in jpeg format.
The gallery’s instructions will usually tell you how many images they want. If they don’t, you should send 10 – 20 images. The gallery will also ask for the files to be named a certain way. Of all the galleries I have submitted to, this is the format I’ve they have asked for.
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. You can elaborate on your inspiration, why you created the images that you’re submitting, and maybe mention a unique process you may have used in creating 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 may want to look at the statements of artists who aren’t 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. If it’s representation you’re after, then a proposal isn’t necessary.
The difference between the artist statement and the exhibition proposal is the statement focuses on you, your practices, and your photography. Whereas the proposal is your vision and plan for your proposed 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 are included in the show?
- The timeline you are working on.
- Any specifics of the installation (i.e. unusually large size works, special hanging needs for the work, the proposed layout in the gallery, etc.).
- 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. If it’s possible, it’s always a good idea to visit the gallery before you begin your submission and observe the type of lighting they use. As photographers, you are already very aware of the types of artificial lighting that are available and the color temperatures they burn at. Tungsten light will cast a warm tone that you may not want on your images.
Window light will also affect the images on display. 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. Glossy material does make the photograph look more vibrant and matte paper does lose some depth to the image, but you don’t have to worry about odd reflections from the lighting.
Displaying Your Artwork
How your art will be framed should be given careful consideration. Always invest in quality framing; most importantly make sure that each piece has the proper hanging wire or device securely attached to the back. The last thing you want is for one of your pieces to fall off the wall.
To provide a uniform display, photographers will often frame their work the same way. I like simple, narrow black frames in either wood or metal. 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. If the color you used in your images is an important part of the exhibit then the photographs can be arranged where the colors flow well with one another. They can also be grouped by subject matter.
The best way is to step outside yourself and look at the work like someone who has just walked into the gallery. Where do your eyes go first and what carries you to the next image and the next and so on? You’ll also want to make sure that there is enough space left between the photos to allow them to be viewed on their own or group them closer for a different 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 there are images that you don’t want to sell, then put NFS (Not For Sale) in place of the price. Each gallery may have a different way they like the images labeled and will often take care of that for you. But if there is important information that you want to include; that you think the viewer needs to know, you can ask them about incorporating 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. I’m sure they’ll have your show on their website and will include it in any of their newsletter mailings. Ask if they are planning any other extra promotion or advertising. You don’t want to crossover on what they are planning.
I have found that when it comes to publicity like interviews with the media, news stories, etc. the gallery will often leave that in the hands of the artist. In this case, my recommendation is to create a press release and send it off to as many media contacts as you can.
Writing a press release takes a bit of time and it has a definite style that it’s done in, so do your research on how to write one – if you’re planning to do it on your own. 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 this helps you get your next exhibition and it becomes a great success. A final bit of advice – get someone to read over all your material and check it for spelling and grammar. You don’t want to make a bad impression before they even look at your photographs. Good luck!