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Dealing With Galleries

Guest blog by Geoff Harrison.

Dealing with galleries can be a tricky business. It often seems that the corporate world's laws don’t apply to the art world. Gallery owners can declare themselves bankrupt and then open a new gallery under a new name whilst owing artists from their previous venture a fortune. For example, I suggest you Google the Sydney Morning Herald article “Unpaid Artists Up In Arms”.

Artists protesting outside Bonnefin Gallery, Sydney (Jon Reid for Sydney Morning Herald)

During my many and often lonely wanderings around Victoria, I have been warned to stay clear of a certain gallery in Daylesford from artists I have met along the way. You’ll have to contact me directly for the details. The stories I’ve heard include late payments to artists, lost (or possibly stolen), and damaged artworks. Having visited the place a few times, the impression I got was that the gallery is just a minor adjunct of a larger enterprise, which may be part of the problem.

It helps to do your research before approaching a gallery with a view to exhibit. The now defunct Penny School Gallery just outside Maldon comes to mind. I once visited the gallery with my folio and got a lecture about the expenses faced by gallery proprietors - most of which also apply to artists, but that was beside the point, apparently.

Later, a friend told me of the time she visited the Penny School with an exhibition proposal and some paintings and was told to leave them there and the owner would “get back to her.” Against her better judgement, she agreed. Having not heard anything for a week, she returned and found her work exactly where she had left it. Anyone could have marched in and stolen them so, needless to say, negotiations went no further.

The Penny School, Maldon (

I once attended an opening at the Penny School and listened to the owner’s opening speech. My mind went back to the very early days of Australian television and to an appalling talent show called Kevin Dennis New Faces that was screened on the Nine Network on a Saturday morning. Kevin Dennis was a used car dealership, and the “acts” were interspersed with ads featuring Kevin strolling around his cars (80% were Holdens) extolling their virtues. In other words, Mr Penny School knew nothing about art. Obviously, I should have attended an opening there BEFORE hitting them with a proposal.

Gallery directors, quite understandably, don’t like it when complete strangers march into their gallery and expect to discuss exhibiting there. You are unknown quantities to one another. So how does one approach a commercial gallery? Of course, the tried and true method is by referral from someone they know. Failing that, the method I was taught (and which actually worked) is to walk in, look around the space and have a chat with the owner/director, getting the message across that you know something about art. And then walk out. Repeat the process over the next few weeks, and hopefully, you will establish a rapport to the point that you may feel confident enough to raise the possibility of exhibiting there.

One advantage of this method is that (hopefully) you will get a sense of what type of art they specialize in, what their clientele might be and how consistent they are in the quality of their exhibitions.

It helps to know exactly who you are dealing with. Many years ago, I had lunch with a gallery owner and some friends in Castlemaine, and the owner remarked that the arts business is “all a game.” If I had my wits about me, I would have bitten back and said that she deals with people’s careers, creativity, and aspirations. But instead, I actually visited her gallery with my folio sometime later, to no avail. It never pays to be desperate.

Obviously, there is more to dealing with galleries than I have outlined here. This is just an introduction.

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