Vanity Galleries: Pay to Play at Your Own Risk


When confronted by the temptation to exhibit in a gallery that charges

representation fees, you may want to ask yourself:

• Can I really afford to spend this money at such a risk?

• If I pay an exhibition fee, is there any incentive for the gallery to sell my work?

• How does this decision fit into my overall career objectives?

• Do I want to exhibit with other artists who were chosen primarily because they had the money to pay?

• What false illusions do I have about galleries regarding my career?

• What steps can I take to attract the interest of legitimate and respected galleries?

• How else can I invest my money and time more wisely with little or no risk?

• Has this gallery received any attention from leading art writers and critics?

• Does the gallery in question regularly advertise “Artists Wanted” or lure artists through juried competitions?

• When you attend the gallery’s receptions, are most attendees the guests of the exhibiting artists?

• Does the gallery offer testimonials of satisfied artists and their names?

• How many artists have remained with the gallery for more than four years?

The final decision is yours and perhaps your experience will be among those that are positive. However, before you take the plunge:

• Speak to several artists who have already shown there.

• Calculate all costs and risks, including those to your reputation.

• If you want to proceed, negotiate with them. Ask them to decrease or

eliminate the fee and work on commission only. You have leverage if you have a proven track record of sales, credentials, and/or an impressive mailing list or press contacts. I know artists who have succeeded in getting the gallery to lower the fee.

An artist recently e-mailed me a copy of a contract she received from a Chelsea, New York gallery. The gallery offered her several options of “gallery representation”, ranging from $2,900 to $20,000. For a group exhibition and a “year of representation” that offered little more than showing her work on the gallery’s Web site, it would cost $9,200. She was seriously considering this offer.

This woman is just one of the many artists from around the world who have been keeping galleries like this one in business. And, as evidenced by my bulging folder labeled “Vanity Galleries Contracts,” this practice is multiplying. Due to the unbalanced proportion of artists to galleries, this way of doing business has become profitable and is here to stay. (Note: I must point out that I do not consider non-profit, artist-run galleries, also known as cooperative galleries, to be vanity galleries, because membership fees are not designed by profiteers.)

The Price of Fame

It was in the 1980’s that I first became aware of vanity galleries. New York’s tremendous prestige in the art world has contributed to the longevity of this enterprise. To many people, an exhibition in the Big Apple represents the perception (not necessarily the reality) that an artist “has arrived.” Many artists from abroad view vanity galleries as an affordable way to enter the New York gallery system, effectively enhancing their careers in their homeland.

For numerous artists, this route also offers a temporary bandage from the wounds of rejection. One artist, who paid $2,300 to hang three paintings on a gallery wall, expressed the feelings of desperation many artists share, “The problem for many of us who use these galleries is that we found it very difficult to find a gallery that is willing to show our work solely on a commission basis.”

Throughout the last two decades, the complaints I’ve received from artists showing in vanity galleries have been disheartening. Many have fallen victim to false promises and condescending attitudes.

Worse than the artists who regret a single lapse in judgment, are those artists who go from one vanity gallery to another, without any tangible growth in their careers. Their hope is the next gallery will be their lucky break to stardom. When mistreated, their shame silences them from making any formal complaints to the Better Business Bureau.

Too Good to Be True

To believe an exhibition in any gallery in a major city at any cost will garner the attention of serious curators and collectors is naïve at best. Although they may appear to have credibility to outsiders, vanity galleries are viewed dimly by knowledgeable art professionals. As one art critic said to me, “When I see such a gallery on an artist’s resume, I know they paid to have their ego stroked.” Furthermore, the uneven quality of art found in most of these galleries turns away serious collectors.

Whether these galleries cleverly label their fees “representation” or “promotion,” or blatantly charge by the linear foot, others simply resell services at a high markup.

If you don’t yet have a following, here are a few suggestions to prepare you for legitimate gallery representation:

• Build a strong and cohesive body of work.

• Maintain a positive, confident attitude about your work, and speak about it succinctly and enthusiastically to everyone you meet.

• Join forces with other artists who share your creative vision and combine your strengths, goals and resources to curate exhibitions in alternative spaces.

• Hold “Open Studios.”

• Approach alternative spaces for exhibitions.

• Build your Web site as a powerful 24-hour portfolio, and promote it worldwide.

• Enter juried exhibitions that have credible jurors.

• Network, develop and nurture empowering relationships in the art community.

• Grow a mailing list of prospective collectors and members of the press.

• Print and circulate outstanding presentation materials.

• Strive to acquire credible career credentials.

• Set career goals, and be persistent in taking action steps toward them.

• Make wise choices by trusting your instincts and the advice of reputable experts.

An artist was offered a one-person exhibition with one condition — that he pay for all advertising, invitations, a catalogue, and framing — all under the control of the gallery. He said, “The grand total comes to $28,000 and their commission is 40 percent. I would have had to sell over $40,000 worth of paintings just to break even!”

When he began to tally additional costs, such as shipping the work to and from the gallery, plus travel time and loss of pay from his day job, the stress on him began to mount. It is no surprise that a colleague of mine refers to the worst of these galleries as “Vulture” galleries.

Obtaining Legitimate Gallery Representation

Before falling back on the option of vanity galleries, artists should ask themselves if their work qualifies for a legitimate, reputable gallery. There is no one-size-fits-all, and no two galleries are alike. Each gallery has its own focus and criteria, and each artist has their unique strengths with varying market potential.

First, learn about the gallery’s requirements and aesthetic direction. In general, in New York City, having a strong and cohesive body of work, previous exhibitions in respected venues, a track record of sales, press reviews and awards ensure that you are ready to approach legitimate galleries with the confidence that your work has value — both artistically and financially.

Since many respected galleries rely on their colleagues, art collectors and the artists they already represent to recommend new artists to them, it is wise to build a strong career as well as relationships. Whether you have a referral or not, if you have confidence that your work fits the gallery’s artistic direction and you have strong presentation materials to reflect the work, you should approach them directly without hesitation.

Honest Pay for Honest Work

How can you determine which galleries charge fees or not? Ask them. Ask other artists. Also refer to The Complete Guide to New York Art Galleries, a free online resource directory we created at If we learned they charge artists fees, you’ll find this at the end of their listing: “Artists should be prepared to pay exhibition expenses.” When in doubt, send us an e-mail about the gallery in question.

The most reputable galleries are members of the Art Dealers Association of America, For a dealer to qualify, he or she must have an established reputation for honesty, integrity and professionalism among his or her peers. This association has strict ethical requirements. You won’t find a vanity gallery in this group. AC