Photo by Dannie Jing via Unsplash
Perhaps we can start by discussing what an art gallery is. When this word comes up, what often springs to mind is a lofty, brightly lit space with fashionably dressed gallery owners and sales staff conversing with customers in a polite yet aloof manner. These galleries are typically situated on the busiest streets of economically prosperous cities. However, this is just the type of gallery that the media loves to report on.
Now, about the business models of galleries. Most people expect the traditional patronage model that was prevalent from the Renaissance period to the early mid-20th century. In this model, artists were sponsored for their basic living and creative needs, allowing them to focus solely on their art. As for contemporary galleries today, I’m also curious about how they represent artists. Not many people truly understand this, aside from the common 55 percent commission shared between galleries and artists, usually under a non-exclusive contract for around two years. For instance, the following questions:
“When a gallery exclusively represents an artist, what are the responsibilities of the gallery towards the artist, and what are the artist’s duties?”
“Most galleries are non-exclusive in representing artists and operate on a consignment basis. What are the responsibilities and rights of both parties in this arrangement?”
“Regardless of whether the representation is exclusive or not, if an artist is discovered by a better gallery through the promotion of a previous gallery, does the former gallery receive any compensation or recognition?”
“How do galleries promote artists, and how many works are artists expected to provide to the gallery?”
我想第4点是最重要的。据我了解，无论纽约曼哈顿、洛杉矶市区，还是我所在的城市凤凰城，所有纯艺画廊模式的经营，在展览期间以外，都是不宣传艺术家的；有展览的时候宣传方式是在画廊自己的社交媒体上发布内容，简单的开幕或闭幕party — — 更像是圈内人借机聚会，基本没有藏家到场。
I think the fourth point is the most important. From what I understand, whether it’s in Manhattan, New York, downtown Los Angeles, or in my city, Phoenix, all pure art gallery models operate without promoting artists outside of exhibition periods. When there is an exhibition, the promotion method is to post content on the gallery’s own social media, and hold simple opening or closing parties — which are more like opportunities for people in the industry to gather, with hardly any collectors attending.
美国人的画廊经营模式非常多样化，但其实并不是想象的那样，高大上的蓝筹画廊代理模式有多先进，而是“普通“艺术从业者 — — 包括艺术家和经纪人，在中端艺术市场上如何占有一席之地。
The reason for posing the above questions and outlining the background is to understand what objectives an artist can achieve by being represented by a gallery. Are these objectives achievable only through gallery representation? The business models of galleries in the United States are very diverse, but in reality, they are not as high-end and advanced as one might imagine in the blue-chip gallery representation model. It’s more about how ‘ordinary’ art practitioners — including artists and agents — can carve out a niche for themselves in the mid-tier art market. Of course, most people in the art world don’t consider themselves ordinary.
Artists Crowdfunded Art Galleries
After coming to the United States, I truly gained a deeper appreciation for many of the values extolled in foreign enterprises, such as the spirit of teamwork. Crowdfunded art galleries are a great manifestation of this spirit.
Financially, several artists partner together, sharing the rent to open a gallery. They take turns staffing the gallery, and if one sells another artist’s work while on duty, they receive a commission; if they sell their own work, they keep all the revenue.
In terms of promotion, the gallery takes turns hosting solo exhibitions for the shareholder artists or group exhibitions for everyone, collectively creating exhibition records. Naturally, as it’s for their own work, each person will be very motivated to promote it.
There’s a small variation to this crowdfunding model, which involves agents becoming shareholders. They handle tasks that artists themselves aren’t necessarily suited to do.”
2.Artist and Art Agent Dual Role Galleries
Some artists have a keen business sense, enjoy interacting with people, and collect art themselves, so they independently operate their own galleries. This isn’t much different from other commercial galleries, except that the artist has more autonomy in organizing their own exhibitions. Also, because of their secondary role as agents, they seek out other artists, thereby optimizing and sharing their collector pool.
This model demands a lot from artists in terms of both financial and energy resources. I think combining the studio and gallery might make things a bit easier.”
Installation view of essentials, Gino Belassen, 2023, BELHAUS, Phoenix. Photo by Ding Ding.
In Collaboration with BELHAUS
3. A Fusion of Art and Business
Unlike What You Might Imagine In China, there are quite a few art businesses, like K11; or some galleries, in an effort to be more accessible and attract foot traffic, have added lifestyle elements to their gallery function, such as cafes, craft workshops, etc. This model is basically still a gallery or a shopping center, which also requires substantial financial and commercial scale.
In the United States, it’s common to see cafes, bookstores, and curators collaborate, dedicating a part of their commercial space to a gallery area and organizing regular exhibitions. The difference from the art-business model mentioned above is, first, it doesn’t require a large commercial scale. It’s easy to find partners, as there are existing cafes and bookstores everywhere, and their empty walls serve as ready-made art display spaces, only needing a curator’s input. Second, from a promotional standpoint, as both parties are considered hosts of the space, not only does the cafe promote it, but the curator also advertises the exhibition as they would for a gallery show.
A variation of this model doesn’t require a curator; artists can directly collaborate with commercial spaces. For example, a few days ago, I visited a shared space between a hair salon and a gallery in downtown Phoenix. From outside, looking through the glass, I initially thought it was just a gallery. To my surprise, inside were salon chairs. On weekdays, the hairstylist is present and is quite knowledgeable about the gallery, enthusiastically introducing it to visitors; on Friday evenings and weekends, artists use the space as an open studio. The gallery part also rents out space to outside artists, charging a venue rental fee and a commission on sales.
Aftermarket, Phoenix, 2023. Photo by Ding Ding
I agree that art is above life, a viewpoint that applies to its academic essence but may not necessarily be suitable for business. For example, Gagosian is one of our role models.
However, don’t misunderstand, the traditional gallery business model is still needed by us, and opening a gallery remains part of my plan.
All the aforementioned models represent artists banding together for mutual support or collaborations between individuals with different societal roles.
If you are an artist not yet represented by a gallery, or an agent who doesn’t want to open a gallery, these models might be worth considering.