Dealing with art galleries

>>>Lessons in artsmanship: Dealing with galleries

layoutIt’s official: I’ve had my first “me” show in an art gallery, where I was one of the attractions instead of one of the crowd. And boy did I learn a lot, mostly about what NOT to do.

(For the record, the show is at Guardino Gallery on Alberta Street in Portland–if you missed the reception you missed a really nice party and a really beautifully laid-out show, including Leah Wilson’s wonderful paintings. It’ll be up until April 27, 2010.)

Biggest lesson: It’s one thing to send a couple of pieces to somebody else’s show. It’s quite another to BE the show.

Caveat: Like I said, I’ve got exactly one show under my belt. I’m not suggesting that the following is what everybody else should do with galleries. This is just what I’ve learned as a glass-casting sculptor. Probably there’s food for thought here for other artists contemplating their own shows…but take it with at least a couple grains of salt.

1) It takes MUCH more work and time than I realized.
Leah said she spent a solid three months doing nothing but paintings for this show (she delivered 15, gallery owner Donna Guardino used 12). I thought I’d need three or four months to complete mine, too, but I was off…by about six months.

The bigger glass castings needed as much as three weeks in the kiln, and at least that much studio time to make the clay model, build the master mold(s), make and steam out waxes, develop and fill the refractory molds, and coldwork the finished casting.

Donna needed photos, titles, dimensions and descriptions of the major works at least six weeks before the show. Add in the time it takes for photography and other details, and that meant I should have completed the major works about two months in advance.

They actually weren’t finished until the day before we hung the show, thanks to a late start and the inevitable missteps and delays. I had to subcontract parts of the work to get things done on time…and that meant coordinating subcontractor schedules too.

Horribly unprofessional. I’m lucky Donna was an understanding gallery owner who simply rolled her eyes and said, “You artists,” indulgently.

Lesson learned: Major pieces must be finished two months in advance. Anything that isn’t, either doesn’t go in, or is supplemental. That means better planning, and starting a LOT earlier than I thought.

2) I can’t do it alone.
I’d love to say I did the whole show myself but I would be lying. There have been more people involved in getting my show ready than if I’d been performing brain surgery.

And that was the hardest lesson. I tried to do it all myself to save money (and as an ego thing) but badly overestimated my capacity. At nearly the last minute I wound up hiring “rush jobs,” for coldworking, casting, kiln rentals, etc., which cost more, reduced my control over the final work in some cases, and certainly didn’t add to my image as a professional artist.

What did work: Knowing that a good professional had my back on coldworking, metal stand-making, photography, sandblasting, spare kilns and even investing and firing meant that I could focus on actually creating the work. I’d thought that this kind of subcontracting was a luxury I couldn’t afford; I was surprised to find it really wasn’t. It made the work better, which hopefully translates to better sales.

So…thanks to Dan Woodward and Juno Glass for incredible, last-minute coldworking at really great prices, to Hugh McKay for pushing my biggest casting ahead of other clients to get it done before the show, to Dewey and Mary and Raoul of Metal Enterprises for making a custom stand in four HOURS. Paul Foster for being great about the photography (we’ll get it yet, Paul).

Same goes for finding and building relationships with suppliers. Thanks to Bullseye Glass for digging up billets and cullet when it looked like everything was spoken for, to Uroboros for going above and (well) beyond to find me off-the-chart billets in pale, warm blue and making emergency space in the DEEP kiln for me (and being really sweet about certain disasters). Thanks to Gaffer for offering to drive the billets down from Seattle to make sure they got here on time and sending all those samples and chocolate kisses.

To Seattle Pottery Supply for quickly delivering the (I’m not kidding) 600 pounds of investment I went through. To the guys in the back at Georgie’s who obliged me with 250 pounds of Hanjiki porcelain when it was supposed to be out of stock, and found the last bag of alumina hydrate in, I dunno, the attic or something.

And a huge thanks to Lesley and the crew at Stephenson Pattern Supply for all the hand-holding and investigations they did to find just the right silicones and resins for my moldmaking.

Lesson learned: I save time, money and wear and tear on everyone’s nerves if, right from the start, I bring in good, solid professionals to do what THEY do best.

3) Subcontractors need room to do their jobs and have opinions.
This one I actually got right. Subcontractors–coldworkers, photographers, foundries, etc.–are professionals. They need my pieces delivered on time and enough information to do their jobs…and then they need me to get out of the way. I got the best results when I made it clear what I wanted and left it to them. (I’m very lucky in that I’ve learned this in my dayjob (the hard way), but I was surprised at how vital it was here)

In good old polite Portland, I’ve also learned to actively solicit professional opinions. Each person I worked with came up with suggestions for doing better work at less cost when I asked…but until we started trusting each other I had to specifically ask. I don’t mind if someone says, “Cynthia, that’s a dumb way to do it when you could do THIS,” but most didn’t feel comfortable saying it until I let them get to know me.

BTW…even though the gallery isn’t a “subcontractor,” the same rule applies. It was my job to make great art, package it well and give Donna the tools (photographs, lighting suggestions, stories behind the work, etc.) that she needed to do her job. But in the end, it’s her gallery, she’s the expert at merchandising the art, and she gets the final say on how the show comes together.

Lesson learned: Knowing how to give clear direction and then let professionals do their job is a difficult skill to learn, but invaluable.

4) Spaces are MUCH bigger than they look, especially when you’re working in glass.
I didn’t really think about how to fill the gallery until late in the game. When Donna asked how many pieces I could deliver, I counted the number in her current show (20), divided it in half since I was partnering with Leah, and told her I’d deliver ten.

I actually delivered 15…and it only filled about two-thirds of the space. I hadn’t counted on the fact that my work–which seemed enormous to me–actually has a very small footprint compared to a 36×48 inch painting. We also had to consider price points–in cast glass sculpture, a 36×48 work would have been unrealistically expensive. As it was, the biggest pieces were probably on the high side.

Donna’s a great curator; she immediately pulled all my work to the front of the gallery and let Leah’s largest oil paintings do the talking in the back. She grouped the glass fairly closely on pedestals near the windows, for maximum daylight, and it looked absolutely fabulous.

Lesson learned: I need to understand how MY work will fit into the space–maybe even try a couple of pieces while I’m planning–and work with the gallery manager to figure out how many I really need (or if we need to use a smaller space).

5) Know how your work will show in the space.
I love the Bullseye Gallery for its creative use of textured and dark wall surfaces, and obsessive attention to lighting (even if I sometimes have to feel my way from light pool to light pool kinda like I’m in Soho). Most galleries, however, are used to art that doesn’t absorb, reflect, refract and transmit, and they tend to stick to white or cream walls and pedestals, with dark floors, brightly lit from above.

Guardino is all white, which would have drowned my more typical light-to-neutral warm palette. Fortunately, the theme of the show was water, and I’d switched to cool, fairly dark blues, greens and purples, so white walls made a good foil for maybe 80 percent of the work. For the rest, I either mounted the work on black or ensured that it sat against a window, not a wall. The only work that really didn’t show well was made of crystal-clear glass, and I nearly took it out of the show.

Donna lit the pieces beautifully with ceiling lights and used natural light from the windows to good effect. However, several of the pieces were really designed for strong side and bottom lighting.

They look very good, but if I’d known more about how my work would show in the space, I’d have either requested special lighting in advance, or brought my own. Since Donna hadn’t seen most of the work until 24 hours before the show opened (there’s that “plan better” thing again), she was pretty much stuck with using available light.

Also, I’d agreed to deliver mostly tabletop pieces since Leah needed the walls for her paintings. What I didn’t realize, though, was that some pedestals would sit against walls and others would be out on the floor, where people could walk around them. Eight pieces really needed to be viewed in 360…but we had floorspace for only five. Again, if I’d had the work ready on time, I could have worked with Donna to figure this one out.

Lesson learned: Next time I’ll practice setting up the work in the studio and working out display, lighting, etc., in advance. That way I’ll know to spec lights, or a dark background, or a 360-degree view.

reposesmall6) What’s on the postcard and the catalog should represent the whole show.
I was so late that photographs of the REAL work weren’t done when Donna needed to print postcards. We went with an existing photo that represented the show reasonably well…but it was also one of the smallest pieces in the show. On opening night I desperately wished we could have advertised one of the bigger pieces.

smallbreakersDonna chose well, the postcard and online/print ads looked great…but she was working around the limitations I’d made by not getting good photos to her on time. Shame on me.

This is in part due, I think, to being a developing artist: The whole transparent “water” theme was new to me, and these pieces are experimenting with many different things.

smallriverflowI’m still a loooong way from a signature style that allows me to represent an entire body of work with just one or two examples, which makes choosing a single photograph for a show postcard rather, uhm, challenging.

Lesson learned: Deliver the right photographs, on time. And work on that personal voice issue.

7) How you package the work is reeeaaaaaally important.
Casting glass, especially a lot of glass, is hard, complicated work, so involved that I tend to see just finishing the casting as “done.” In reality, the stands and mountings are nearly as important as the work, and most of the ready-made stuff looks a tad tacky.

With this show, I started planning the stands and mounts in advance for each piece. What was the stand supposed to do? Did I want it to fade away or become part of the piece? It was a very different way to think and I was only partly successful.

What worked: The transparent castings were looking for light, so I kept mountings simple–I simply stuck them on 3/4 inch slabs of Starphire (brilliant, colorless float glass). That got the work off the table for better light transmission, but stayed relatively invisible.

raoulNot surprisingly, the two least successful pieces in this show are the ones with packaging issues. I’d originally planned to hang the crystal clear piece on a wall, but the white background ate it up. We finally stuck it on an old metal stand…I’ll go back with a new stand and fix it, but it’s still not making me happy.

And I “rescued” a failed piece by cutting out the successful glass, polishing it and incorporating it into a rusty stand, courtesy of Raoul and Metal Enterprises. It was a last-minute effort that should have been better planned; once it was together I realized all kinds of ways that I could have made a great piece…if I’d given myself time to plan and execute.

Lesson learned: Integrate designing the glass and its packaging right from the start. Stands are not an afterthought.

8 ) Crating takes longer, and costs more, than you’d think.
Minor point compared to the above, but gallery owners REALLY don’t like it when you deliver art by tucking the bare work under your arm and dropping it on the table. If the work sells (and remember, that’s the goal), the customer most likely won’t be tucking it under HIS arm. If you don’t supply a crate, you’re at the mercy of whatever’s available in the gallery to pack it up.

My friend Dennis McConnell, who’s in the Bullseye eMerge show going on now, had given me chapter, book and verse on eMerge crating requirements, so I was a bit prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for were the prices on a good box. Wow. I found a really inexpensive box place in North Portland but even then it wasn’t cheap.

I also wasn’t prepared for how long it takes to crate 15 pieces, even when you have the supplies at hand. Glass needs double-boxing for safety, the box needs to be labeled (ideally with a pic of what’s inside and information about the work–this helps you get your box back), and all that takes time. I was to deliver all 15 across town at 11am, started packing it up at 8:30 that morning…wasn’t nearly enough time and so my boxes went unlabeled and less than optimally packed.

I also hadn’t estimated how much space they’d take up in the car. If I keep doing this art show stuff I’m definitely gonna buy a truck.

Lesson learned: Since all my major (and therefore probably biggest) pieces are done two months in advance I have PLENTY of time to get them securely packed and labeled. Right?

9) Pricing is, well, embarrassing
It’s one thing to sit at a spreadsheet and calculate overhead, materials costs, hourly rates, etc., and come up with a reasonable price for your work. It’s quite another to present that price to a gallery owner without squirming, especially when you’re just starting out.

I’ve made a very good living off my creativity for years, I’ve been collecting art since I was a little girl. I go to galleries online and in person several times each week and I watch art sales. I still can’t price my own art without blushing, and I don’t know if that goes away with experience or not.

I suspect it will…but for now, it was extremely helpful to sit down with Donna and have a frank talk about pricing. She knows her customers and what they buy far better than I. I know what I’ve invested in the work and what I need to make. We worked out in advance which pieces I’d be willing to discount to make a sale–if the subject came up–and which I wouldn’t. And I greatly appreciated her assessments of my prices, which validated some, made me think about how to reduce my costs on others.

Lesson learned: When I price my own art I need all the help I can get. I need to keep working on that part.

10) It helps to have a theme
Donna asked us to submit works based on water, which made it easier to build a (mostly) cohesive body of work. In fact, I took the theme thing even farther; I asked myself, “what does water DO?” and made a list of water actions–swells, drips, flows, floods, surges, etc. Each piece in the show tried to illustrate some aspect of that.

I don’t suppose the Monets and Harts and O’Keefes of the world need it, but having that “assignment” gave me a framework for designing the work. I’m a born storyteller (can you tell?), and the feeling that I was telling the story of water was, well, comforting. We didn’t announce the theme at the reception, but guests picked up on it immediately, which was gratifying.

I’m still not entirely happy about the whole collection–if I hadn’t needed so many pieces I’d have edited out perhaps four of the 15 that didn’t fit as well–but on the whole I think it worked.

Lesson learned: Even if the gallery doesn’t ask for a specific theme, it’s probably going to help me to have one.

That’s it. Nothing really earthshaking about any of this, and experienced artists and gallery owners are probably rolling their eyes at my naivete…but I feel as if I’ve learned some major lessons in artsmanship. Thanks.



  1. Rinee September 8, 2014 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    As always, so wonderful to read. Glad I made the time today to do so. All of your posts today have been great. Your writing is so engaging. Your experiences are priceless and also, thanks for listing the contact info for Metal Enterprises.

  2. sunny strapp April 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Price points… what a blithering topic. Why do gallery heads think in these units when considering anything other than their usual flatware? Why not go down for selling by the pound. Or by the hundred lot. Or is the glass so strange that no one on earth could guess what the value of any given piece at any given time on their market might be? If you are a newbie, and a genuis do you still start low and work up? (Is it just as good if not better than anything NQ or DC might do if they decided to try their own hand at something?) Or if the kids in my class do all the elbow grease is it still worth $18000? Does the local public think that glass is only used in drinking receptacles? (my unfortunate state…) Hey, just what is art worth? If you are marketed, does it matter what the real value is? on and on…happy rant day.

  3. sunny strapp April 9, 2010 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    ¡great job! not only getting it out there in view, but having the presence of mind to LEARN something, and whats more, share it so accurately. Thanks… Hey! If ya wanna try something a little more rigorous… Did a show in the Santander Art Fair, in Spain. Its a TRIPand a half by our van to the boatyards, 12 hours on the rolling main from our quaint little island, 15 hour freeway trip across the mainland, 25 pieces packed as only a desperate artist is capable of, had never been there before or seen the space, and had only contacted the gallerist once a few months ago in my studio… Was true ALL that you said, only in a mild way. How we do grow due to “trying” while not “dying”. sounds like you’re on a positive roll. Go for it all. You’re bound for fame, ¿no? Once again, GREAT GOING GIRL


    • cynthia April 10, 2010 at 3:54 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Sunny. I don’t know if I’m bound for fame (and when I add up the costs of this show I kinda wonder if ‘bound for bankruptcy’ might not be closer to the mark), but I feel as if I’m edging closer and closer to a right direction. I suppose that’s what counts.

  4. Bonnie Gilchrist March 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Hi Cynthia–Planned to make it to your opening but had to go out of town at the last minute. Will definitely get there this week. Congratulations on your first big show! After reading all that you went through to make it happen,
    I’m so glad to hear you aren’t giving up and that you’re going to apply everything you’ve learned to the NEXT one! I’m surprised you had enough energy left to make opening night!

  5. Terrie Corbett March 29, 2010 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Cynthia, your work and the exhibition looks wonderful! Congratulations! I enjoyed reading this. Your observations and comments are “spot -on!” (I can hear the cheers of gallery owners and curators now)! This would also make an excellent presentation at an artist seminar or workshop. (So now I’d better get back to the studio – I’m suppose to be mailing work to a gallery for a show next week and I am nowhere near ready)! Hah!

  6. cynthia March 29, 2010 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Hey…thanks all. It’s been quite an experience. And at the end of April I get to have my very own first booth in an art fair, which looks to be every bit as challenging (or maybe even more, since there’s no hand-holding gallery owner). Nothing like jumping in with both feet. Whether my brain went along for the ride is debatable…

    Luann, believe me, if Metal Enterprises (Dewey and Mary Baccastrow are the owners) HAD a website, I’d have included it, but it’s a small shop that’s been in business for years and not really gotten into the Web thing. They’re a bit puzzled by artists’ requests, but after figuring out what you’re really asking for, they deliver quickly, for a very reasonable price. I *can* give you a phone number and an address:
    2425 Northwest 23rd Place
    Portland, OR 97210-2125
    (503) 227-7932

    Hope that helps.

  7. Luann Udell March 29, 2010 at 8:53 am - Reply

    WOW!! Great article! It was so helpful to read what the issues were, and how you got through them. Thank you for the insights.

    And congrats on your first big/big/big real show! That’s wonderful, too.

    Okay, you gave everybody a link except Raoul at Metal Enterprises. I have stand issues, too….. (hint, hint, nudge, nudge.) :^D

  8. Kat March 29, 2010 at 7:16 am - Reply

    I dunno talk to *most* glass artists and you’ll find that they’ve hung or placed at least one piece in every show that was still “warm”. Great show! Don’t beat yourself up too hard!

  9. Jan March 28, 2010 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Hi Cynthia – Congratulations on your art show!

  10. Kathleen Krucoff March 28, 2010 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing your insights and lessons learned on this Cynthia! Congrats too on the show. I bet it’s spectacular.

  11. jenn March 28, 2010 at 10:52 am - Reply

    You learned a lot in a pretty short period of time. You also survived your first show- the work looks beautiful- Thanks for sharing!

  12. rinee March 28, 2010 at 8:34 am - Reply

    Thank you again for sharing, it is so appreciated. (plus the fact that your writing is so engaging).

Comments welcome! (thanks)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: