How to Approach a Gallery Part III

Approaching a Gallery by artist coach, Mary Edwards, Ph.D.
3rd of a 3-part series of articles.


Approaching a gallery is like an old-fashioned courtship, where you get to know each other gradually before you commit.  In this series I’ve described how to identify the galleries that are right for you, find ways to become visible to them, and then start a conversation.  When all goes well you are ready to sign a contract.  

Here’s how to prepare for that moment:

Know what matters most to you.

The best way to negotiate a contract is to know what’s important to you.  As an emerging artist you won’t get everything you want, so think about your priorities.  You might care most about your selling prices, or how the gallery promotes your work, or even how soon you’ll get paid.  You’ll feel more confident when you are prepared to talk about what you want and why.  

Take your time to read & understand the contract.

Sometimes artists feel pressured to sign a contract they haven’t read or understood.   When an artist friend of mine was faxed a gallery’s “standard contract” she thought she had to sign and fax it back immediately, even though the contract was full of phrases that made no sense.  Take your time, ask questions, look up words you don’t understand.  Ask for help from legal sources like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.        

Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to say no.

In the gradual “getting to know you” process I’ve been describing, you already have a sense of how the gallery operates.  How they treat you now is how they’ll treat you later.  Do you feel respected?  Are your questions answered promptly?  Does the gallery staff seem professional?  Since there are no credentials required to open a gallery or any regulatory agencies, a gallery stands on its own reputation.  Ask other artists showing there if they are satisfied with their experience.  If you begin to feel that the gallery is dishonest or unreliable, or their terms are unfavorable to you, don’t sign the contract.

Sometimes a gallery says it doesn’t use contracts.  Listen to their point of view but keep talking so that you reach verbal agreement about all the areas that are most important to you.  Take notes.  Then follow-up with a friendly email that summarizes what you’ve discussed.  Ask if they have anything to add.   You will have created a written letter of agreement.  

When you review a gallery contract, look for these qualities:

1.  A good contract is specific.

A contract spells out the nature of your business relationship.  It states how long the contract will last (usually 6 months to a year).  It explains whether you will have an exclusive relationship, where they are your only gallery within a specific geographic region, or non-exclusive.  It says whether the gallery will represent all of your work or just parts of it.   A good contract is full of details!  

2.  A good contract is clear about financial matters.   

Bad gallery contracts are often vague about the money part.  The contract that was faxed to my friend included this phrase:  “All sales prices and terms of sale shall be determined by mutual consent of the parties.”  It sounds good at first but there is no substance.  When will you agree?  How will you reach mutual consent?   

The most important number in the contract is the sales price (also called the retail price) for each work of art.   You’ll reach agreement on sales prices through discussion with the gallery.   The gallery takes its commission (usually 50%) from the sales price.    

Sometimes a gallery will want to pay you the “wholesale price” for your works without specifying their sales prices.  This practice was hidden in the vague language of the contract faxed to my friend.  By paying the artist “wholesale” prices, a gallery gets to sell your work for any price they choose, while your payment remains fixed at a low point.  

The contract should also state when you will be notified of a sale and paid your share of the sales price.  You can ask for immediate notification, and payment within 10 days, but 30 days is standard.

3.   A good contract lists the specific works that you are giving the gallery permission to sell.  

This list, called a consignment list, is usually the last page of the contract.  Each work of art is described by title, materials, and dimensions.   You can use the list  to remember where your works are, and to track your sales.   It also serves as documentation in case something gets lost when a gallery closes or changes location.

4.  A good contract describes what the gallery will do to promote your work and what is expected of you in return.  

Galleries often talk in general terms about “devoting their best efforts” to selling your work, but it is useful to have things spelled out.  When will your work be up on their website?  When will you be given your first solo or group exhibition?  When will your work be taken to an art fair?  You might not get specific dates, but  language like “within the first year” or “during the first six months” of the contract helps to clarify their intentions.
You also need to know what they expect from you in terms of promoting the gallery on your website and social media sites.  Also be sure to find out how gallery representation will affect your ability to sell or promote your work in other venues.       

5.  A good contract provides an escape clause.    

No contract can spell out every single detail, or anticipate how well a new relationship will work out.   If nothing sells after a certain period of time, or conditions change, or if either party is unsatisfied, it is helpful to have an escape clause.  The escape clause states that either party has the right to terminate the agreement by giving 30 days written notice to the other party.  

What’s next?

If you do not find a commercial gallery that’s right for you, don’t worry.  There are many other ways to show and sell your work now.  There are cooperative galleries run by other artists, nonprofit venues that rent out gallery space for a reasonable fee, and a wide range of online options to consider.   Keep making good work, believe in yourself, and stay open to new opportunities.

Mary Edwards, Ph.D.

Mary Edwards is a Career & Life Coach for Artists, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She works with artists across the United States and all over the world.

Mary has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and received her coach training from the College of Executive Coaching.  She brings a unique combination of business knowledge, art world experience, and professional coaching skill to her practice.

To receive Free Tips for Artists (twice a month), visit and click on “Mailing List Sign-Up.”  If you would like to schedule a time to talk, see “Contact Mary.”


Career & Life Coach for Artists


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