Showing your work in a Gallery - Is it worth it?

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Showing your work in a Gallery - Is it worth it?

Friends, today I am writing this blog purely for informational purposes only. When it comes to working with galleries there are a lot of variables that come into play. This is true for both the photographer and the gallery. This blog will be written from a photographers view who is selling Matted and Framed Prints, Acrylic Prints, Canvas Prints and Metal prints. This blog will not have anything to do with other types of artists who sell in galleries. This post is also aimed more towards the people who are actively trying to make a profit from photography.

Some of you will take this to heart and re think your current situation, some of you will blow it off and for a select few it will upset you because it's happened to you. This blog post is not designed to make anyone mad, it's just me speaking the truth. I am sure there are a very few of you who have had different experience but for most this is the cold hard truth.

When I arrived in Denver 7 years ago I was asked to be part of a gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District and over the following couple years I joined a couple other galleries in the greater Denver area. The experience was a huge eye opener for me.

I have friends who have been or are still showing their work in galleries and as long as they continue to do so I will continue to help support them through various ways to help promote their work and bring attention to others so that they know where to go to see the work.  Some of you may know that I worked in a photo lab for a few years after high school and I really love seeing printed images. Whenever I am in a new city or a friend is showing work in a gallery near me, I will do my best to stop in and take a look. We all have our own unique styles and that is one thing I really love about being a photographer.

Being new to Denver and having the opportunity to join a gallery was amazing and I was really excited. This was my first time being in a real gallery. I had a great social media following and figured I could use that to draw people in, in addition to what the gallery was doing. Some nights it worked, some nights it didn't. That's just the nature of the game.

As I was ending my time in the galleries and one of them was about to close I really started thinking about the business aspect of it all from both the gallery owner side as well as the photographer side and it didn't take me long to realize that for the average photographer, you're not go to make any money by showing your work in galleries. If you do it will be barely breaking even or maybe a tiny profit. In my opinion the tiny profit at the end of it all probably wont be worth the time and effort you put into the whole thing.

When people I knew were telling me they were accepted into such and such gallery I was naturally happy for them, just as my friends and supporters were when I shared the good news. Some of them I went a little deeper with and told them my theories on why you will never make money in a gallery. Of course, as I said before, there are some variables. One of them being this, "Well, it's a great way to get my name out there." True, it can be a good way to promote your work in general and if someone sees something hanging on a gallery wall that they love but want a larger size then it can be a nice feeling to make that sale, but are you really making any money?

I found that there are a couple ways galleries work, at least from my experience. A gallery can take up to 50% of your sales, generally more in the 40% range and not charge you any "Wall Space Rent" or the can charge you "Wall Space Rent" and take a smaller percentage of your sales. One gallery I was asked to join wanted $600 a month rent for the space. They also offered me the other option of no wall rent space but they would take a higher percentage of my sales.  I kindly declined both offers. It wasn't too long before a friend of mine decided he wanted to jump in on that deal. If I remember correctly, I think they said that just to get into the gallery on a 6 month lease for wall space and his prints was somewhere in the $5,000 range. I have confirmed this with them. After talking further to get the facts correct, they told me that in 2.5 years of showing in the gallery, they broke even. They did not make 1 penny profit.  I could use this as one of my examples but I'm not going to. Once you read further you can come back to this and figure it out on your own!

For these situations, I am going to use real world whole numbers to keep the math simple. Let's start. Gallery X offers you wall space for 1 year. No rent but they take 40% of your sales.  You're excited and go home and figure you can get 10 good sized images on the wall they have offered you. You decided on the prints (24x36) and have 10 printed up. Ten beautiful metal prints (I picked metal because they are priced between canvas photos and Acrylic prints) headed your way to showcase in your newly acquired gallery space.  Your total investment cost for the 10 prints comes to $2000 at 200 each with printing and shipping. It's opening day of your show and you sell 2 prints for $600 each. That's being pretty generous for the average photographer with that sized image. Your total sale is $1200 and the gallery is going to take $480 leaving you with $720. Now you need to replace those 2 that you sold because the gallery doesn't want empty space on their wall. $400 more to replace them and now you are looking at take home of $320 or, and this is the way you should look at're still $1680 in the hole. This continues on for the year and you end up selling all 10 prints in that year with your last sale 2 months before your year is up. 10x$600=$6000 in sales, Gallery takes $2400 and it costs you $2000 to replace the sold prints. That's $1600 left over but with your initial investment of $2000, you have still lost $400 over the course of the year. It's that initial investment that most people don't want to look at because they are getting their gallery business set up and it's something you simply can't avoid yet it's still an expense. So what happens when the gallery closes or decides to keep you on for another year.  Maybe next year you sell 15 prints because now more people are aware of your work. 15x600=$9000 in sales, Gallery takes $3600, replacement costs are $3000 which leaves you with $2400 and now you have made a $400 profit for 2 years in the gallery with your initial investment of $2000. Don't forget that the gallery is going to send you a W-2 because your sales were over $500. I think that's the lowest amount before they have to send you one.  So you will end up paying 30-40% taxes on the $400 you made so in the end, for 2 years in a gallery your take home profit will be about $260.

For most people, that's a pretty hard truth to swallow and in all of your defenses, it doesn't feel like that...It feels great when someone comes in and buys a print for $600 that you're showing at a gallery...

Now, If you do want to show in a gallery here are some things I recommend you do to increase profits. First and foremost, talk to the gallery owner and ask them about how much art you are required to have on your wall space. If they don't require you to replace all your work that you sell then your profits will potentially go higher. Talk to your printer and see if you can work out a deal on prints. If they know you will be buying 5-10 pcs up front and more throughout the year it's very possible they will give you a deal and that will contribute to the profit margin. Bin work (small matted prints) usually have the highest profit margin. You can make all your prints standard sizes, 12x18 inches and purchase the mattes in bulk for pretty cheap. Let's say you do 25 9x12 images that will fit in 11x14 mattes that have openings of 8.5x11 with backing and plastic bags. Total cost is going to be roughly no more than $150, or you can go a little larger and do 16x20 mattes with 11x14 openings for about $170 for 25.. The smaller ones I would sell for about $59 and the larger ones $79. You really only need to sell 5-6 to make your initial investment back even after the gallery takes their cut. If you do sign a lease for 6mos, 1yr or 2yrs, be very cautious about ordering replacement prints towards the end. You really only make money when you sell what you have and don't have to spend more money to replace inventory. One last thing, if you can get away with it and you're an amazing salesperson, up your prices, a lot...

If you sell 10 prints at $999 each for a total sale at the end of the year of $9999 and the gallery takes $4000 that gives you $5999-$2000 initial investment leaves you with $3999 and then $2000 to restock inventory so now you have made $1999 for the year minus the taxes you will pay. There is also a chance that if you raise your prices too high your sales will be down and therefore you will take a loss (again) rather than make anything.

If your prices are really high and your initial investment is $2000 for the 24x36 metal prints and let's say you only sell 1 print during the year. You would have to sell that 1 print for $3450 in order to make your $2000 back.

This is something I feel very strongly about and I hope this helps you to understand how it works for photographers in a gallery setting.  Galleries that rent out wall space to several photographers are generally doing it so they can pay their rent because the commissions from the sales aren't enough and it's less risky to collect rent from a signed contract than it is to rely on commissions from random sales.

One final note to think about is this and this is exactly what happened to me. When your time is up in a gallery or the gallery is going to close due to unforeseen circumstances ie, Covid-19 you will either end up with a garage full of your work or you will try to have a "sale" before the gallery closes. If you have the "sale" then you're cutting your prices even more and while you may end up getting some of that money back, you're not making a profit.  After 2 years of about 100 total pieces sitting in my garage well cared for and protected. I decided to sell them privately. It was in the beginning of this whole pandemic and I was amazed at the support. I used Facebook Market place as well as Nextdoor to connect with potential buyers. I sold all but 4 images.  If you can sell privately or on your own I feel it's a much better deal for you as a photographer.

All that glitters, is not gold.

Please feel free to ask any questions you may have and I'll be happy to answer them.