What is a ‘Vanity Gallery?’

By in How To


Many artists out there will have heard of the term ‘Vanity Gallery’ at some point in their career. For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, you are likely to have been approached or heard about them under another guise. Essentially they are exhibition spaces that charge the artist to exhibit. They generally don’t need to market or sell the work that is shown, because they make their profit from the artist themselves. In this article we’ll be asking if this is a viable option for emerging artists, or whether it is simply a con aimed at the naive and inexperienced.

Firstly, what distinguishes a ‘vanity gallery’?

The best way to work out 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 (and will take commission – up to 50% normally.) If their revenue is coming solely from you, the artist, by you hiring the space, then it is what is known as a vanity gallery. The actual term ‘vanity gallery’ is relatively new (and more prominent in the US), however it is a concept that has been going for quite some time.

What isn’t a vanity gallery?

Not all pay-to-exhibit situations can be classed as a vanity gallery. Often you might be hiring rental space such as a community hall or function space, in which case you tend to be aware that it’s just that (and are often charged at an according price!) This is what you would call a ‘rental gallery’ (just to confuse things further.) The issue with vanity galleries is that they will often pretend to be offering much more than they are, and as such try to charge much higher rates.

It’s also worth mentioning the ‘co-op’ gallery, which is a legitimate way for artists to pay to exhibit, and can be a really valuable thing to be part of, particularly for emerging artists. They normally involve a monthly membership fee, are co-owned with a group of artists, are generally non-profit and can offer regular opportunities to exhibit work. As opposed to vanity galleries who will show anyone’s work as long as they have the cash, co-ops generally have a juried process. Here’s some more information on co-op galleries for those who are interested.

How do vanity galleries approach artists?

Often the gallery will send emails that appear personal, but on closer inspection my reveal a more generalised compliment about your work. They tend to focus on emerging artists who may not have representation yet, and who are keen to get their work out there and seen by people. We had a discussion on our forum a while back about how some NYC based galleries were continually contacting them via email, saying they had seen their work on a genuine site and offering them the chance to exhibit their work. Indeed, ArtWeb has over the years had numerous people or companies attempt to email thousands of our members (which normally gets blocked by our spam filters), and we have noticed several vanity galleries amongst such attempts. This is a typical technique, and although not a scam technically (all of the information will be available at some point), it does somewhat play on the understandable naivety of those new to the art world.

It’s worth mentioning that not all hire-spaces employ this marketing method, but it’s important to think about if an email appears too good to be true! We are all used to looking out for scams these days, but many of us can let our guard down when someone appears to compliment us in a personal way. 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 while back. A few pros 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. This may either 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, and you’ll be more likely to get the return you need to make some profit. Many artists starting out will do this so they can start learning what artwork sells, how people react to their work etc.
  • Keeps you creatively active: If you’ve been stuck in a rut, just the act of setting up a deadline of an exhibition can be all it takes to get you out of it. Rather than waiting until the perfect opportunity to come along, sometimes doing it yourself can give you the immediacy you need.

BUT the important thing here is to mention that although there are many positives to putting on your own exhibition, you need to make sure you aren’t being ripped off or damaging your reputation. If vanity galleries are essentially just empty spaces, with no marketing or perks, then perhaps looking at alternative spaces would work out much cheaper, or even free. Empty shops and office spaces are often used by artists for temporary exhibitions, here’s some more information on the Meanwhile space initiative. So remember, if it seems like an extortionate waste of money, it probably is.

Reasons not to work with a vanity gallery:

  • Costs: This is the biggest con involved with vanity galleries. The rates are often extremely high, and can therefore be nigh on impossible to break even through sales. If you know this before you start it might not be a problem, perhaps you have the cash and you are using the exhibition as a marketing opportunity. But since artists are paying upfront, sadly this is a big risk, and there’s a very real possibility 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 direct interest or much to gain by actually marketing the exhibition. So unless you have your own network of valuable contacts and marketing plan, it’s possible you could end up having a very lonely opening.
  • Lack of private view funding: You may find that you have to provide all of the drinks, and sometimes even security, on the private view night, so this is something to factor into the initial outlay.
  • 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 damage their opportunity of gaining future representation with commercial galleries. Here’s an interesting insight into an ex-commercial gallery owner’s opinion of vanity galleries in the US. It’s also worth considering whether serious collectors will visit exhibitions at vanity galleries, knowing that the artist has paid for the opportunity as opposed to being professionally curated.

To sum up…

Some artists might have their own success with these kind of galleries, although it takes a good business know-how, and a confidence in your network to do all of the marketing and promotion yourself. Unfortunately, the target market of the vanity gallery is that of inexperienced artists who are just keen to get their work seen by others, and are less likely to have such a network in place.

It’s important to be savvy and know exactly the situation you’re getting into, to be sure that you aren’t being taken advantage of by the gallery, and have a clear understanding of your budgets. We would recommend thinking hard before you commit to something that seems like a vanity gallery, and consider the many other options that are available to you. 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 at the comments at the end of the article.



3 comments for “What is a ‘Vanity Gallery?’

Gary Hall

December 13, 2013 at 12:02 am

Great article. Yes I was sent an email “Call to all artists” sent them some pictures of my work (they were very complimentary) I was offered to take part in a group show. Prices would start at £500 for 3mtr display or could have 6/9mtr £1000/£1500 and zero commission? they in turn would produce flyers and promote or their Facebook page the show would run for 2weeks? They said have a 30,000 customer database.? this was a gallery based in London’s east end!

Gary Hall


February 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Making a contribution to exhibit is quite usual in Europe and often involves a service such as printing and mounting the work. If you are an emerging artist and you are offered a good deal to exhibit and promote your work which involves a small fee and a good return I think this is fine. It’s too simple to divide exhibiting into vanity, pay to exhibit and commission with the latter being something we should all aspire to. Why is giving 50% and in some cases I know 60% of your profit seen as better? Also with this kind of system the emphasis must be on sales which often does not always equate with quality and originality especially in the present climate.

Matt Emmett

January 12, 2018 at 4:17 pm

I constantly get these kinds of emails, fortunately I saw them for what they were fairly early on. I have just politely said no to one that was asking for an up front fee of 10,000 euro’s.
The art world does sadden me somewhat, I see so much nepotism and shoddy practice going on that I have pulled away from it in recent years. I have had representation for the last 3 years with an excellent London gallery but would have liked to signed up with a few more or even had an agent by now. I was told to go out and make more of a name for myself the last time I spoke to an agent and then the galleries would come looking for me. Since then I have placed first in four International photography Competitions, two of them were pretty well recognised awards but sadly nothing so far. I think there are so many people out there now trying to make it that even if you are very good at what you do you are still largely invisible.

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