Monday, January 23, 2012

How do art galleries work?

There are basically two business models for art galleries. One follows the set up of an individually owned, traditional retail store. The other follows the co-op model. This is where the artists ban together and own the gallery and work cooperatively to run it.

In the case of the individually owned gallery, the gallery owner runs the gallery as a retail business. They have sales clerks who wait on customers shopping in the gallery. Individually owned galleries operate as follows:
  1. To show artwork in this type of gallery, the artist would approach the owner with a portfolio representative of their artwork or with a few samples of originals of their work. The owner would evaluate the work and decide whether or not to carry the artist’s work
  2. The artist would then provide the gallery with work ready to hang or be displayed. In some cases, the owner lets the artist choose what work they want to display in the gallery. However in most cases, the gallery owner would choose the works for the gallery.
  3. At times, galleries will buy the artwork outright at a wholesale rate from the artist and sell it at a retail rate in the gallery. Most often, however, the gallery will represent an artist on a consignment or commission basis. In these cases, the artist receives a portion of the price of the artwork when the work sells and the gallery receives the rest.
  4. The gallery owner is responsible for the overhead of the gallery, including the salaries of the sales clerks and other costs of running the business.
 In a cooperative gallery, all artists join together and cooperatively set up and run the gallery. They collectively incur all costs equally. A cooperatively owned gallery usually operates as follows:

  1. Wall space is shared by the artists in the cooperative.
  2. Expenses are shared by the artists in the cooperative. There is usually a monthly fee to cover the operational costs and a commission goes to the gallery kitty when an artist sells a piece of artwork.
  3. When an artist joins a cooperative gallery, there is often an initial fee for joining.
  4. At times, cooperative galleries take in consignment pieces and have shows for artists who do not belong to the cooperative. They usually charge for these services and provide these opportunities to help defray the costs of operating the gallery.
  5. The member artists share the duties of being on duty at the gallery. They act as gallery guide and sales clerk when it is their day to be on duty. Usually, each artist works a certain number of hours per month.
Museums are often considered galleries, but do not operate in the same manner. They are not a retail business like a gallery. They are in the business of showing artwork rather than selling it. They are usually run by a board of directors or some such advisory board with employees often consisting of a curator and several docents who tell visitors of the museum about the art work. Often museums have offer educational programs that are not available in galleries. Galleries usually hang traveling exhibits rather than representing local artists.

There are of course many variations within these two groups, but the structure is the same. When joining a gallery, it is important to study their structure and determine if you will be happy with what they can provide and the amount of work you'll need to put into it.


  1. A very interesting post Lou. I am lucky to be involved in the art world enough to know this. My brother is a Master Print Maker and he has taught me well about this fascinating world. I am glad you print this not many people know the difference. I wish he could tell me more about writing, something I am trying to immerse myself in a little more. Tricky area. B

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