Unless you're a star performer in one of a handful of top art schools, galleries won't often come to you - like an author seeking a publisher, you have to get out there and find the right gallery to suit your work. It's not all that different to searching for a job, but without a handy agency to do the legwork for you. So where do you begin?
Do Your HomeworkBefore you set out to approach a gallery, do your homework. Most have websites, so this isn't difficult. Take a look at the artists and the type of work they handle and consider whether yours will be a good fit. What do you have in common? What is a point of difference? For drawings, you'll particularly want to look out for galleries who deal in works on paper, which may include drawings and prints.
Once you've identified your target galleries, you need to find out who you'll be dealing with. If you're active in your art community, you may already know some of the personalities involved - indeed, this should be the case. If you don't, and you're looking for representation further afield, do your research! Find out about the owner, manager and staff, as well as the artists they represent. Having an 'ear to the ground' in your artistic community helps a great deal; look out for any warning signs about the gallery's bona fides, such as stories about missing work or late payments. While some people suggest seeking a recommendation from another artist in your network, I don't personally agree with this strategy. It places both the colleague and the gallery in a potentially awkward position.
Be ProfessionalIt sounds screamingly obvious, but you'd be surprised. Some artists can be amazingly arrogant, or maybe they're just ignorant, I don't know. Approaching a gallery is like going to a job interview, and a crisp, professional presentation matters. Every step of the way, whether a phone call to reception , an email to the director or turning up for a meeting, be polite and formal. You don't have to be cold - warm and friendly works - but don't be casual.
Email or Telephone FirstNever 'cold call' a gallery. It's just plain rude to show up at anybody's door unannounced, especially when you're expecting some undivided attention. Most people prefer email, some telephone (though you may be automatically sent to voicemail, so be prepared to leave a concise message). Don't send your entire C.V. - just start with a brief, polite message asking if they'd be interested in taking a look at your work. Address your correspondence to either the identified contact by name, or the manager (by name); you could include 'and staff' if you have a feeling it will be handled by someone else. You'll find a brief example at the bottom of this page.
Prepare Your PortfolioUnlike an art school portfolio, the established artist's portfolio should show unity. Continuity of development and unity of vision are key. This isn't to say the work should be uniform, but it should have a visible connecting thread. You should have a substantial body of work; how much depends on your age and type of artwork, so it's a case of being honest with yourself: does this portfolio represent a committed, consistent output of serious art? If not, you might need to spend more time in the studio before going further.
Presentation MattersIf a gallerist is going to take your work seriously, they'll expect a beautifully presented cover letter and a concise Curriculum Vitae, with a display folder of printed examples accompanied by a DVD of images. When you arrive in person, you'll be on time, smartly dressed - leave the 'I'm too busy making art to don a suit' nonsense for the art-student wannabes.
Be ConfidentDon't feel guilty or apologetic for taking their time. You and your work are worthy of time and respect. Don't be dismissive of your work - if it isn't a great piece, it shouldn't be in your folio. At the same time, don't try to 'hard sell'; they will make their own judgement, and the work really does need to stand on its own merits. Be prepared to 'speak to' the work, answering any questions about your process or ideas, but try not to jump in and 'explain' your images: again, your drawings and paintings speak for themselves - that's the whole point. Thoughts about how you see your imagery progressing may be of interest, but ultimately the gallery will base judgment upon the pieces in front of them.
After the Unsuccessful InterviewThank-you notes should be handwritten, but I guess this is the digital age so make it an email if you really must. So long as you send one. The art world is small and the dealer may well be on jury of a show or curating a group show that will bring you together in the future. Simply say thank you for the opportunity to show your work, that you appreciate their time and that their feedback (if given) was helpful. Short and sweet is fine. Don't give up! It's not a matter of meeting up to some measure but rather finding the right chemistry, so keep searching until you find the gallery that's right for you.
Success! Negotiating the ContractThe ongoing gallery relationship is a whole new article. But first you need a contract. First and foremost, however friendly you become with the gallery, remember that this is a business arrangement. You will need a contract stipulating issues including framing arrangements(important for drawings), copyright, commission, fees and payment schedule, and exclusivity. Contracts should be negotiable. Take it home, read it carefully, discuss any changes you require with the gallery, and seek legal advice if you have any concerns at all. You also need to do your paperwork: you will need consignment receipts and purchase orders, keeping a record of all work and all moneys that change hands. The Arts Law Center can help with sample agreement forms.
Sample Gallery Letter
Dear Ms Baumgartener,
My name is Sarah Jane Smith. I am a practicing visual artist and have been engaged in exploring the meaning of time and labor through mixed media installation and performance since completing my Fine Art degree at Big City Art School in 2005. You may have seen a recent review of my work in the Small Town Times Arts Supplement.
I am currently seeking gallery representation. My work shares some common ground with other artists represented by your gallery, such as Clive Jones and J. J. Kapoor, and you have a notably proactive approach which would be a good fit with my career goals.
I can provide you with a digital portfolio by email or on DVD, and have a presentation portfolio which I would be particularly keen to show you in person.
Thank you for your consideration.
Sarah Jane Smith