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Approaching art galleries for the first time

Friends and family have been admiring your art for a long time and their walls are adorned with countless examples. They might even have paid you for it on occasion. They’re also the ones encouraging you to take the next step and promote your work to a wider audience.

High street galleries are one of the obvious avenues to explore. Having said that, I'm always surprised by the number of relatively successful artists I meet who don't consider this a realistic option. They each have their own reasons but I’ve noticed that common threads are intimidation (though I have yet to meet an unfriendly gallery owner), and, understandably, a fear of rejection.

I certainly remember the first time I approached a gallery. The internet didn't exist in the way it does today, so it was a question of walking in off the street with some examples of my work and an awful lot of trepidation. I am fairly sure that if that first gallery had said "no", that would have been it; I doubt I'd have had the courage to move on and try somewhere else. Fortunately, they said "yes" and went on to sell a lot of paintings for me over the next few years. It also gave me the confidence to make successful approaches to other galleries across the North West.

Having relocated and recently taken up painting again, I am going through the same process in Wales. Things are a little different now; the internet makes it a lot easier to do research, make initial contact and submit examples of your work. Although pressing "send" on an email can raise the heart rate just as much as walking through a gallery’s door; you've only got one shot and there aren't so many galleries in Wales that you can afford to blow opportunities. Fortunately, I’ve once again had a lot more “yeses” than “nos”. However, those rejections (and consequent knocks to confidence) could easily have been avoided if I'd followed some simple rules:

  • Research potential galleries, either by visiting them or checking out their website. Identify those that sell work of a similar genre and price to yours. As an emerging artist, put aside higher-end galleries that only sell work by established artists with a price tag to match. That day will come – I have a list of galleries that I wouldn’t dare approach just yet! Avoid galleries that focus on lower-end mass-produced prints. And galleries that only display the work of the resident artist(s) are not generally going to be an option

  • Get professional. Your website should be live and a social media presence will help galleries to find out more about you and understand that you can promote them as much as they can promote you. You'll also need at least some sort of biography and artist’s statement (in your head or on paper) to give a context to you and your art

  • Rehearse and be confident in your prices. While most galleries will understand that you are new to it all and will be happy to give advice, your chances of success are greater if you seem to know what you're doing. Nine times out of ten, any arrangement will be on a ‘sale or return’ basis, with the gallery taking a commission on sales; they are unlikely to want to buy your work outright at this stage. Importantly, don’t be tempted to hike up your prices to offset the commission; you will upset both galleries and buyers if they discover your work can be bought more cheaply elsewhere

  • Try to come to the attention of gallery owners through other means. Go to preview evenings or submit some of your work to their open exhibitions. Get to know some of the artists who are already represented; they may make an introduction for you.

  • Once you feel ready to make an approach, email the gallery and ask them if they would be interested in selling your work, directing them to your website. You can phone instead but they will almost certainly ask to see pictures of your work anyway and you may just catch them at a bad moment. If they’re interested, they will probably make an appointment for you to go in with some pieces. If you drop in unannounced off the street (like I used to), you run the risk that the decision-maker isn't around and you'll have built yourself up for nothing, or they’ll be too busy with customers to give you their full attention

  • Don’t take a lack of response to emails as rejection. Few of the initial emails I send to galleries seem to get a response. Understand that the gallery owner is busy and probably inundated by enquiries like yours. If you’ve heard nothing after a while, a follow-up phone call usually does the trick

  • If you’re planning to show them framed work, make sure the framing is of a good and consistent standard. Understand that some galleries offer a framing service and will, naturally, insist on only displaying work that they’ve framed themselves. Its your call whether you're happy with this. If you're struggling to pluck up the courage for a direct approach, you could always take some work in for framing and use that as an excuse to start a conversation about your work. I've done that many times

As you become more established and your profile starts to rise, with any luck you’ll find that the roles start to reverse – the galleries will begin to approach you. The first time that happens is very satisfying indeed!

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