How to Start an Art Gallery

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Have you always wanted to start an art gallery, but been unsure of how to break into the art market? Here, we’ve round up the essential elements to consider if you’ve decided to start an art gallery, and advice on how to make your venture a durable success.

In 2015, the arts and culture sector contributed over 763.6 billion dollars to the United States economy and generated 4.2% of the country’s GDP, with earnings in the sector totaling over 370 billion (pull that one out the next time someone says there’s no money in art). But the art world’s ecosystem is a complicated one — many small galleries struggle to establish themselves both with artists and the public, whose references remain the oldest and most well-established galleries (Marian Goodman), auction companies (Sotheby’s), and museums (MoMA) and the artists they represent. However, small galleries and arts businesses such as publishing endeavors are essential to the art ecosystem; they invest in and promote emerging talent when it’s still a risk, before it gets poached by the big boys, and they’re often the spaces in which we see the newest in artistic innovation. Small arts businesses require as much passion for art and curation as they do good business sense and social awareness; if you play your cards right, you can make your gallery a roaring success both creatively and entrepreneurially. 

Start an Art Gallery: First Steps

As with any other business, you’ll need to take care of certain administrative tasks before you open. To start an art gallery you’ll need a name, and you’ll need to choose a business structure that suits your endeavor. This will be dependent upon where you open your gallery, and also upon whether you’ll be renting or buying property for your gallery space, officially representing artists, and/or operating on a non-profit basis or as a cooperative. If you’re representing artists, you’re going to need to decide upon how you’re going to integrate that into your business model — will these artists become partners in the gallery, or will you establish an employment contract, or a contract to determine the commissions collected on their sold work? Many galleries will choose to function either as partnerships, non-profits, or Limited Liability Companies. You can check out our articles on business structures available in the United States, the UK, and France to know more about each structure and how to go about registering your art gallery as a business in your region.

Before you start an art gallery, you’ll also need a solid business plan. Among other elements, this will address where your startup capital is coming from, how and when you plan to break even and begin generating revenue, and, of course, what your gallery is all about and what will make it a unique player on the art scene. Check out our free business plan templates available for download to help you get your plan on paper.

Generating Interest

While it’s no secret that there’s loads of money in the art market, the obvious concern is that so much of the sector’s wealth is concentrated at the top. The art market is as much about investment as it is about passion for good work, and it goes without saying that a large portion of the collectors and actors that put money into the market are interested in minimizing both risk and effort by investing in already-established names. And while artists generally get famous thanks to their affiliations with high-end galleries, museums, and collections, their talents as well as public awareness of them are often incubated in the “lower” end of the market, by the smaller galleries and organizations that invest in emerging rather than established talent. When you start an art gallery without hundreds of thousands (or millions) in startup capital, you need to find other ways to generate interest in your gallery’s offer.

One of the most important of these elements when you start an art gallery will be your space. The right space for you will depend on what kind of gallery you envision yours to be — are you going for a hyper-contemporary, industrial vibe, where you may need more space for larger works like conceptual sculptures and installations, or are you more interested in a smaller space in a central location? It’s not just a question of ending up on high street — you need to decide what sort of space will actually work for your curatorial vision and the number of artists you wish to show at a time or represent.

Keeping it Relevant

If it’s your dream to start an art gallery, we can only assume it’s because you love art. Thankfully, there’s never been a better time for gallery owners and curators to find emerging talent — the internet, with networks like Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and many more, is bursting at the proverbial seams with new work — so much, in fact, that the sheer volume of options can become overwhelming. This is where your curatorial vision will come into play, and you’ll need to find clever ways to make your gallery’s offer interesting to people who may not necessarily engage with the art market on a regular basis. Many galleries have begun using pop-up schemes and, of course, participating in art fairs is an important way to get exposure. But you’ll also need to keep your programming and your marketing snappy and relevant. Make your show titles intriguing, and make them visible to passerby: you need to plug into the public consciousness and determine what people want to see without knowing that they want to see it. Art, let’s not forget, is a social activity — it follows social trends, and it’s all about how spectators relate to the work they’re shown. Themed group shows that speak to our times and subjectivities, using the public space insofar as you’re permitted, and having a strong presence on visual media outlets like Instagram will keep your gallery fresh. Promote interest by making your gallery impossible to miss — not only in terms of your visuals, but because you make a statement with your programming and generate buzz.

Keeping it Cool

While small galleries can’t capitalize upon housing the works of art celebrities, they possess the potential “cool,” or alternative factor that differentiates them from the stuffiness of museums or white-cube spaces, which are often intimidating to people who feel they “don’t know anything about art” and are put-off by the academism of the high-end art world. In 2018, the days of all-male, all-white, or all-cis group shows are numbered and attract more and more negative attention and even outright hostility, even in respected institutions (see, for example, the open letter originally published in French paper Libération about the programming at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles). By keeping your programming and your artist roster young, fresh, and diverse, you not only appeal to a greater market segment (remember, people like art that speaks to them), you establish yourself as a progressive space (an important factor in a sector that values that new-new). Art isn’t just for rich collectors — young people interact with contemporary art more and more thanks to the internet, and art galleries and spaces are hosting events, parties, vernissages that mix visual art and concerts or DJ sets, public interventions, and other events that attract attention and, of course, crowds.

Oh, and those rich collectors? When your space starts generating word-of-mouth because of the strength and relevance of its programming and just how darn cool it is, you’ll find them lining up out the door. Like it or not, the art world, like fashion, runs on trends. If you can not only keep up with them, but get in front of the next wave, collectors will know that they can come to your space when they want to see and invest in what’s New. You got it: to start an art gallery, you’ll need to be an innovator in more ways than one.

Many galleries have also started investing in publishing (especially limited editions) as a means of generating revenue — from academic publications to catalogs, artist books, multiples, and more, publications are a great way to keep your price points varied, your offer diverse, and your gallery intellectually relevant: it ups your gallery’s credibility on the market as a generator of knowledge. By promoting yourself as a community fixture and a space that promotes creation of all kinds, your gallery will become a fixture on the scene. It’s no easy task to start an art gallery, but the variety of rewards you’ll reap justifies the risk. 

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