How the commercial gallery system works and how to earn a living as an artist

Notes from a talk at The Griffin Gallery, with Trudie Stephenson, Director of The Art Insider and Zavier Ellis, Director of the Charlie Smith Gallery.

The talk covered two main topics; how the commercial gallery system works and the age old conundrum of how to earn a living as an artist. Trudie and Zavier were both passionate about their involvement in the art world, and it was great to learn from them in a friendly atmosphere… These are my notes as I remember them; they are meant as an aide memoire, and are not in any way The Law ;). If there is anything you think I’ve missed, or there are any glaring mistakes in here, do let me know.

The Art Insider presents... How to get ahead in the art world talk
Getting your work in front of people

  • Gallerists get sent hundreds of examples of work everyday and the likelihood of them checking your email with pics and info about you slim, even if you have spoken to them / called the gallery beforehand. A much better way for getting your work in front of people is to enter competitions / prize shows. Yes there is sometimes a fee, but you are guaranteed that the gallerists and judges are going to look at your work properly
  • Be self motivated with shows; no gallery representation, no problem, set up a show yourself!
  • Be strategic with show timings; try to organise a show a bit after any art fairs to you go / galleries you visit to give someone an upcoming a date to look at your work.

The artist, gallery & collector

  • Research galleries; ideal partnership means you and gallerist working together to get collectors attention
  • Keep an eye on collectors (or at least know who they are!)
  • Call galleries asking for their submission policy if you do want to try and get them to look at your work. Follow up with an email following their guidelines
  • Potential galleries; do they have international connections? are they open to collaborating with other galleries to put on shows? are they amenable to you showing elsewhere or taking part in group shows?
  • As a guide, have one gallery represent you in London, with others potentially in a different field (ie photography and sculpture) or regions, and then others still internationally. Use your common sense; you don’t want there to be a conflict of interest with galleries treading on each others toes.
  • If you’re lucky, the route for showing your work is via: opens / prizes > group shows > representation > solo shows > at fairs > and then into museum collections
  • Shows put on at ‘for hire’ galleries, ie with no curatorial input, are generally looked on with suspicion by established galleries and is best to avoid them (or at least leave off your CV). I think the connotations are as in publishing via established house vs vanity publishing
  • Look at gallery internships as a way of finding out how galleries work
  • Don’t include open studios or end of term shows on your cv
  • Only got an exclusive gallery representation if offered a retainer; it is more usual to be go in as non-exclusive


  • Financial cuts – galleries & you, 50/50, agents and you, 30/70, fine art prints / limited ed. they take around 15-25%, online galleries, you shouldn’t pay any kind of annual fee, expect them to take about 40% from sales
  • Use the artists’ year book or artmediacontacts to find out the price range of galleries; no point submitting your work to galleries that are selling work at £10,000+ and you’re pricing yours at £300 and vice versa
  • Ask galleries how they’d price your work; get a few quotes from different people
  • If successful at getting gallery representation and shows, expect a 20 / 25% increase in your prices in subsequent shows thereafter
  • Galleries will look at your output – if you are making 10 sculptures a year and you’re only charging £300 per work, you are never going to be sustainable by your art alone (ie £3000 per year)
  • Look at other ways at diversifying your work – produce work that is suitable for a range of situations, outdoor, domestic, galley, transportation, look at licensing the imagery produced from the work you make
  • Use kickstarter to fund a project; research how others have used it in this way (successfully) and think about how you’d do it as way of crystallising your ideas about your own project
  • Discounting; offer additional work rather than percentage discount. ie a collector buying 3 x work at £2000, offer an additional work (at £200) rather than 10% off (which would be £600)
  • To get PR to help you promote a show: you’re looking at £3000 per project or per month

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