What is a “Vanity Gallery” and Is a Pay-to-Play Exhibit Ever Smart for Emerging Artists?
A vanity gallery is the artist’s equivalent of fool’s gold. You receive an email from a gallery you’ve never heard of before. Maybe the gallery claims a “collector we both know” recommended your work. They promise your very own exhibit, with all the publicity and glitter that goes along with it. Your pulse quickens and you dream of riches. But there’s a catch: you need to pay them $10,000 upfront. Oh, and don’t forget those extra expenses for appetizers, wine, invitations, framing and security. You realize you’d need to sell six-figures’ worth of art before you made a dime.
Vanity art galleries are sometimes compared to the self-publishing industry. Indeed, they are essentially exhibition spaces that charge the artist to exhibit, just like a publisher charges the would-be novelist to print their magnum opus. But vanity galleries often prey on the dreams of emerging artists so eager for their “big break” that they’re willing to pay exorbitant sums to get their work in front of collectors. But once they collect your fees, they may have little incentive to market or sell your work.
But, you ask, it’s so hard to get your first gallery exhibit. Are vanity galleries ever a smart choice?
Let’s look at the pros and (mostly) cons of the vanity gallery. Is a pay-to-play gallery ever a sound business decision for emerging artists? Or just a con aimed at the naive and inexperienced?
Firstly, what distinguishes a “vanity gallery”?
The best way to determine if a space is a vanity gallery is to look at where their revenue is coming from. If it is from the art buyer, then it is a gallery in the traditional sense. The gallery is representing your work because they believe in it, and they will work on your behalf to sell it. Their commission, which can reach 50% of the sale price, may feel excessive, but they cover all the costs of the exhibit: staff time, gallery costs, invitations, advertising and marketing, and more! If their revenue derives solely from you, the artist, and the fees you pay for renting the space and hosting an exhibit, then it is what is known as a vanity gallery. The actual term “vanity gallery” goes back only a decade or so, but the concept of preying on artists’ dreams is as old as time…
What isn’t a vanity gallery?
Not all pay-to-exhibit arrangements are vanity galleries. If you rent a community hall or local party space, that’s a “rental gallery.” There’s no cause for concern, because you’ve simply made a transparent commercial transaction.
Equally, a “co-op gallery” is a legitimate way for artists to pay to exhibit. In fact, they can be a really valuable resource for emerging artists. They normally charge a monthly membership fee, and operate as a non-profit co-owned by the member artists. Co-ops offer regular opportunities to exhibit work. While vanity galleries will show anyone’s work as long as they have the cash, co-ops generally have a juried process and their choice to exhibit your work is an endorsement of its quality. Joining a co-op gallery can be a great way for emerging artists to launch their career, share expenses and learn about the business side of art.
In contrast, vanity art galleries often pretend to offer services beyond space rental, and charge much higher rates based on empty promises.
How do vanity galleries approach artists?
Often the gallery will send emails that appear personal. They may mention that they’ve seen your work or know someone who raves about you. However, on closer inspection, their praise may be unspecific and the email a clear copy-and-paste job. Vanity galleries tend to focus on emerging artists who may not have representation yet, but want to get their work out there.
Over the years, numerous vanity galleries have attempted to contact thousands our members through their ArtWeb websites. While our spam filters usually block the emails, we have noticed a trend: a gallery says they’ve seen your work, they offer you an exhibit. Maybe they mention their fees upfront, maybe they wait until they get an artist “hooked.” Their overture is not technically a scam because all the information will be available once the artist signs a contract. But at a minimum, it can be seen as a distasteful effort to prey on the understandable optimism of those new to the art world.
It’s worth mentioning that not all rental exhibit spaces employ this marketing method. But it’s important to scrutinize an offer that appears too good to be true! We all like to think we’re on the look-out for scams these days, but it’s easy to let our guard down when offered a compliment. Ask yourself why they would be contacting you, is your work really relevant to them, and most importantly, are they asking you to part with your money?
But isn’t it a good thing to hold your own exhibition?
Well yes, putting on your own show can be extremely rewarding, as we discussed in this article. A few advantages to investing in your own exhibition might be:
- Exposure: Initiating your own show can be a good way to get your work seen by people, provided you have the right network in place.
- Creative Control: Not working with a curator or gallery manager means you make all the decisions of how your work is seen. That freedom may work in your favour. Or not…
- Splitting the cost: If you work with a group of artists, the initial outlay might not seem so severe. Plus, you’ll be more likely to get the return you need to make some profit. Many artists starting out will do this so they learn what artwork sells, how people react to their work etc.
- Keeps you creatively active: If you’ve been stuck in a rut, an exhibition deadline might be all it takes to get you out of it. Rather than waiting until the perfect opportunity comes along, sometimes taking your destiny into your own hands can give you the push you need to create.
Although there are many positives to putting on your own exhibition, you shouldn’t be ripped off or damage your reputation. If vanity galleries are essentially just empty spaces, with no marketing or perks, then why not get resourceful and find a cheap (or free!) alternative? Empty shops and office spaces are often used by artists for temporary exhibitions and pop-ups. You can even negotiate a win-win arrangement with a commercial landlord desperate for a new tenant: a few months of (way) below-market rent in exchange for the visibility and goodwill an art exhibit provides.
So remember, if it seems like an extortionate waste of money, it probably is.
Reasons not to work with a vanity art gallery:
- Costs: This is the biggest con involved with vanity art galleries. The rates are often so high that it’s nearly impossible to break even through sales. If you recognize that grim reality from the start, it might not be a problem. Perhaps you have the cash and you view the exhibition as a marketing opportunity. But since you’ll pay upfront, you need to beware of the risk of losing (sometimes a lot of) money.
- Lack of marketing: Unfortunately, because vanity galleries already have all the money they need from the artist, they have no incentive to market the exhibition. So unless you have your own network of valuable contacts and a solid marketing plan, you could find yourself with a very lonely opening.
- Lack of private view funding: You may discover that you have to provide all of the drinks, and sometimes even security, on the private view night. Factor those extra expenses into your budget.
- Reputation: We all know the art world is a fickle and confusing place. Some vanity galleries have a reputation as being just that. If an artist has a vanity gallery on their CV, it may hurt their future chance of finding representation with credible commercial galleries. It’s also worth asking whether serious collectors will visit exhibitions at vanity galleries. After all, collectors prefer art that’s been professionally curated.
To sum up…
Some artists might find success with vanity art galleries, but it takes good business know-how, a hefty budget and confidence in your network to do all the marketing and promotion yourself. Unfortunately, vanity galleries’ target market is the inexperienced artists who are less likely to have that broad network in place.
It’s important to be savvy in your negotiations and clear in your budget. While a pay-to-exhibit show might be a viable option, don’t let unscrupulous players prey on your dreams of a successful art career. Fortunately, a credible gallery or rental space will welcome your questions and gladly provide references. Better yet, use the creativity and resourcefulness that drove you to the artist’s life in the first place and find a location that will showcase your art for free!
A good place to start is our ‘Exhibiting Your Art’ blog series.
Have you ever been approached by a vanity gallery, or taken part in a pay-to-exhibit show? Was the experience good or bad? If you’d like to share your experience with us, please get in touch via Twitter or share your comments below.