My wife Silvia and I have only been in the gallery business for just over five years now (plus two more years spent managing Crimson Laurel Gallery). It wasn’t something either of us had a background in or even considered when thinking about a career or starting a business, but like many things that happen in life, it just happened.
For many ceramic artists, a gallery is a partial or even main source of income and exposure. Working with a gallery is a way artists can determine both how accepted their current work is by the public and what is a reasonable price to set for their creations. A gallery also provides a way to develop a following of patrons and collectors. We thought we’d share a behind-the-scenes look at our own journey as gallery owners so that artists could get a better sense of how a gallery business like ours is run.
Building a Business
In hindsight, we really had a lot of background experience and interests that, when combined, worked well for building and running a gallery. Once circumstances came about where we were both looking for a change right after we got married and wanted to work and live in the same area, a gallery just kind of made sense. We opened the gallery in Bakersville, North Carolina, in a 1270-square-foot space. The building housing the gallery dates back to the early 1900s and was originally a historic brick Farmers & Traders town bank. It is the oldest building in Bakersville.
Silvia was born and raised in Milan, Italy. Her training and schooling were in art and illustration at the Accademia Comunicazione, and once she moved to the US, she became well versed in web design and graphics, working for various magazines in New York doing layouts and ads. Her photography skills came about out of necessity. Putting work online for the gallery means that multiple images need to be taken of each and every piece, which is a pretty overwhelming task for anyone—especially if you have a thousand pieces with a continual influx of new work every few weeks. Fortunately, she’s become extremely proficient at photographing ceramics, getting help from local photographers, practicing for hours and hours, and taking private lessons. At this point, she’s had cover shots for Ceramics Monthly and regularly has her images in print in various magazines. In addition, sending the artists high-resolution images of their work really helps them out and gets some extra use out of the pictures.
My background has primarily been in education (with a side of construction to help pay bills and give me a job in the summers). I’ve had the fortune of teaching students from kindergarten to the collegiate level for most of my career. I was in charge of Cornell University’s ceramics program for 17 years, and my position there really helped me learn how to do budgets, manage and train instructors, order supplies and equipment, and basically run a program. And probably the biggest benefit was the lifelong relationships formed with so many ceramic artists and people associated with ceramics. Once we opened the gallery, we had a pretty huge base of artists we knew personally who were willing to provide us with their work to display and market. It really made the first year a much easier beginning. Plus, the artists’ support and willingness in helping to promote, make suggestions, and basically get the word out was priceless. We now represent around 120 artists, with 5% international artists and 20% regional artists from Western North Carolina.
I am able to still teach a couple dozen regular students, plus the periodic workshop here and there, which is just like teaching but in a condensed way. A friend and I also started a small manufacturing and consulting business, and that’s been a lot of fun. I get to figure out ways to improve other ceramic artists’ production methods and or clay body/glaze issues, etc. We deal with RAM-press and slip-cast molds as well as anything related to materials and processes. The income from that isn’t all that reliable, but it’s extremely valuable as far as personal satisfaction; you’re very much like the white knight who comes in to help and saves the day (or career).
Teamwork and Vision
Right now, Silvia and I have divided up the jobs at the gallery to align with our abilities and schedules. Silvia definitely takes on the brunt of the work. She does the vast majority of the marketing, does all the website management, takes all of the photographs, posts daily on social media, figures out the taxes, pays the artists, and basically does all of the day-to-day functions. I get the privilege of lining up the shows and contacting the artists (which is honestly pretty enjoyable for me), setting up the gallery displays, doing any and all construction and maintenance on the building, writing newsletters, providing background and process information for the videos and to answer customer questions, and helping at the desk and at openings as needed.
Our main concern and number one priority is doing right by the artists and customers.
- Being up front with everyone as far as shipping is concerned—for example, giving refunds whenever the cost of shipping is overpriced on the website, as well as dropping off and picking up work from the artists whenever possible to reduce their shipping costs.
- Staying in contact with people by sending newsletters, responding to social media posts, answering emails and texts, returning calls as soon as possible, sending reminders of when a show is coming up and what’s needed, sending images of artwork to artists so they can repost and/or use for their own personal promotions, and opening our own home so people have a place to stay for shows/exhibitions and just to enjoy their company in a more relaxed setting.
- Dealing with issues like breakage, lost checks, returns, etc. openly and honestly. Nothing’s worse than just ignoring a contact or problem and thinking it’ll go away. Dealing with something professionally helps everyone feel better and creates a dialog and a relationship. These connections give you a customer base and happy artists, which is what it’s all about.
Whatever we’re doing seems to be working, at least so far. The gallery opened in 2016 and has increased in sales by 20% on average each year—even during the pandemic. We’ve also doubled the number of shows and exhibitions we put on each year and have added about 75% more artists to our shop since we first opened. Plus, our following on social media has been building at a steady clip. In fact, we just hit 21,000 followers on Instagram recently, which we were psyched about.
The main thing we do to maintain and build a following is just being consistent. Keeping a constant presence with high-quality work and images and being in the audience’s awareness regularly online and on social media via videos, images, keywords and tags added for search engine–optimization, newsletters, as well as physical cards and flyers gets you noticed and keeps that attention. Our web platform, Squarespace, actually keeps track of all online sales and Facebook and Instagram automatically track engagement. So, we’re continually updated as far as number of followers, effectiveness of images (likes and engagement), direct sales based on the posts, number of views for videos, etc. It’s fairly easy to correlate sales/views/interest directly to what type of advertising is done because it is so immediate. Our online sales volume has also steadily increased each year with an enormous jump this past year (up 100%), which we hope to continue building on down the line as people return to going out and about and recuperate from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advice for Artists Seeking Representation
For people interested in being in our gallery—or any gallery for that matter—there are definitely things we look for. Primarily, the gallery owner has a certain aesthetic, taste, and knowledge of the work. We often acquire work we’re aware of and like, and so to expand beyond this, it’s really helped me specifically to contact people I respect that are outside my gender/ethnic/age group to get their advice and see what they’re looking at.
After we consider artists’ work for a show or for regular representation, we check out everything we can find on them. There’s a lot of information out there on people: personal and professional websites, gallery sales records, social-media posts, articles published online, magazine articles, images, references, etc. There are many ways to check and see what an artist is currently and has been doing, what their sales records are as well as price points, how consistent they are, how full and varied their body of work is, if they post and self-promote—just all sorts of things a gallery wants to know. All this is basic professionalism and gives us an idea of what to expect when we deal with a specific artist.
At this point, I’ll contact them and see if they’re interested in doing a show or being involved in our gallery as a regular and go from there. If an artist initiates the contact, it’s really the same process —check out their background, work quality, and price points; make sure the work isn’t too similar to someone else we represent; and see what kind of relationship we can put together going forward.
I’ve really been trying to make a concerted effort to fill the exhibition schedule with an equal mix of emerging artists or artists with less name recognition and well established artists who many people know and see. Some of our best shows have been with artists who are in or just out of graduate school, ones who’ve just started their careers and make amazing work. They need to be sought out and promoted to expose others to their art as well as encourage them to keep working.
I would definitely tell artists to avoid a couple of things:
- Don’t change your price points by being inconsistent. That means don’t change your retail price for a gallery versus what you’d sell it for through your own website. It undercuts us and makes it much tougher to sell or explain why our prices are so much higher.
- Don’t ignore emails. It’s understandable to take a few days to consider something, but a few months means that you’re probably not too reliable or all that interested.
- Keep in good contact with the gallery. Again, everything is basically interpersonal and we want to know what’s happening with you if there’s a change in life/address/work. We really do have an affinity for the people we work with and are willing to help or listen if needed.
- And the biggest headache—don’t ignore deadlines! We have to pre-promote, so when we say we need the work four weeks in advance, it’s actually true. Photographing, contacting collectors, making fliers, writing articles, posting images—all that stuff requires time as well as the work. This is definitely our biggest stressor.
Marketing is basically the way you present the product (ceramics) to the collectors/purchasers. I can’t emphasize enough how important good images are and creating connections with everyone involved is in successful marketing. I think it’s what makes or breaks a gallery. Over the past year (during the pandemic), our sales at the gallery have flipped from 60% in-person sales to 80% online sales. It was a huge change, but it really made us focus on increasing our customer base online and funneling our energy into improving and maintaining the shop section of our website. For some background, Bakersville (where our gallery is located) is an extremely small but quaint town with a population of around 400. A number of wonderful artists live here, and the town has more artists per capita than anywhere else in the country. However, there are not as many tourists compared to a city or metropolitan area. There really isn’t a lot of foot traffic, even though Penland School of Crafts is just down the road and the artists and staff regularly come to the gallery and their presence is a huge asset. So, the gallery has really become a destination, which means most visitors are there to buy and are pretty well versed in ceramics before they even come in the door.
Because of the huge decline in these focused shoppers and students as customers—due to the state and federal recommendations and restrictions canceling classes and workshops, limiting the numbers of people in the gallery, as well curtailing travel during the pandemic—we ended up limiting the days we were open as well as the hours. We also switched all exhibition openings to virtual events because of the crowd issues and reduced numbers of people traveling.
Fortunately, Silvia’s computer savvy allowed us to really expand our social-media footprint. She makes sure to post multiple times daily on Facebook and Instagram, we put together a bi-weekly newsletter promoting what’s new in the gallery as well as upcoming shows, we regularly submit images to be considered for publication in the Exposure section in Ceramics Monthly when we can get work enough in advance of an exhibition to shoot it, and create flyers and postcards as handouts that we post in the area as well as give to customers and Penland students.
Ideally (as mentioned above), we’d want all the work for an exhibition to be shipped to us a minimum of four weeks before the show. This helps out a ton with all the promotional needs and gives us some leeway in shooting images and creating buzz around the show. One of the new things (at least to us) is creating videos to add a new avenue to promote the artwork. We were able to get a grant this past year that was designed to help small businesses improve their advertising and marketing. The main thing we were encouraged to do was to add video anywhere we could. We’ve broken the video down into specific categories; artist interviews, ceramic processes, and studio/gallery tours. We ask for video from our ceramic artists as well as shoot videos of them whenever they step into the gallery or when we can line it up. Many platforms have specific requirements as far as layouts (square versus vertical or horizontal) and time limits, so while shooting a video multiple times is a pain, it really helps. We regularly post clips on Instagram and Facebook as well as longer videos on our YouTube channel. The learning curve is a bit steep in the beginning, but we’re plowing through it and will hopefully see some benefits from it in the near future.
Tools and Infrastructure
Initially, the gallery was a pretty intimidating undertaking with all the things to learn like processing a sale, doing taxes, paying artists, setting up displays, building a website, and on and on. And that doesn’t even touch upon all the computer programs you need to know, like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, QuickBooks, iMovie, Squarespace, etc. But once we learned the basics, we were able to focus on where we wanted to go with the business and how to get there.
Expanding the areas of promotions from primarily advertisements and press releases in local magazines and newspapers to using social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and now YouTube as well as pursuing larger nationally known magazines such as Our State and Ceramics Monthly has definitely expanded our reach both in the US and internationally.
One huge help has been owning the building that the gallery is in. We were able to purchase it our second year in business and it’s been a wonderful investment. There was really little that needed to be changed about it to function as a gallery, and we were able to take our time in considering how to use the space and what changes we’d like to make in the future. It’s also been a great source of secondary income, since we’re able to rent out an apartment on the second floor to people. Also, we can pay ourselves rent, which feels a little odd, but our accountant says it’s normal. (Get a really good accountant. They’re worth their weight in gold!)
Building an addition onto the building helped us with the issue of a lack of space and allowed us to expand the number of artists we could represent. The gallery as a whole filled up pretty quickly, but it’s at a decently manageable size for the two of us, at least so far.
In terms of sales of artwork, our percentage breakdown is 55% of the sale goes to the artist and the remaining 45% is used for advertising, mortgage and utilities, the website, insurance, software, equipment, packing materials, openings, and finally salary. In the end, after the other expenses, we make about 18% in salary to pay ourselves and/or employees. Making only 55% of the sale probably seems like a big hit to the artist, but what that commission provides is a spotlight on their work as well as exposure to a new market that might not have been aware of the artist’s work previously. It’s also a steady income for many artists if they have numerous galleries that carry their work. Working this way can give artists the flexibility to stop doing craft shows, street sales, or managing a website with all the updates, packaging, and promoting—all the things a gallery does regularly and is probably good at. Having an exhibition periodically at a gallery allows artists to test the market with pricing and find out what sells. It also gives artists a reason to get out and about to hopefully attend the openings where their work is the focus and to network with collectors and members of the public who are interested in what they make.
To know if a gallery is doing good by you, I’d recommend that you look for a few things. The first two things would obviously be the sales and promotions. Is the gallery moving your work and/or are they increasing your name recognition? That’s not always the same thing, although the two usually go hand in hand. Sometimes a gallery won’t have the client base for the kinds of work you make, but they still want to expose it to people and want to expand the types and styles of work they offer. That’s a benefit in itself: even if it doesn’t immediately translate into sales, it certainly should eventually. That means that the gallery is invested in you and your work and they’re willing to actively put the time and effort into showing it off. So, keep track of what they’re doing for you and help them out: be active by posting on social media regularly, and share the gallery’s posts, send them information and updates about your work, shoot some videos, do all the things you want done to help your career, using the gallery as a conduit. Thirdly, is professionalism: Is your check sent on time? Do they keep you updated and communicate regularly with you? Are they personable and reliable? Would you recommend them to other ceramic artists you know? A reputation is super important and it goes both ways. Hold the gallery accountable just like they’d expect of you.
The most important lesson for me was to marry well! There is no way I could do this on my own, nor would I want to. Working hand-in-hand with someone you adore, having a common goal and passion and focus is a really wonderful thing. We spend a ton of hours doing gallery stuff together—it’s definitely not a 9–5 job, and Silvia’s company is my benefit package.
The most important lesson for artists and gallerists is to always see each other as an integral part of both your livelihoods (that adage “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” is applicable here). Keep things courteous, reliable, fair, and forthright. Do what’s right by each other in all aspects of the relationship and communicate as often as needed.
The most important lesson when it comes to cultivating collectors and clientele is to have excellent products that give variety and choice (provide them with a reason to check you out either online or in the gallery itself) and to take care of whatever issues may crop up. This includes being able to handle problems like breakage, refunds, and on-time delivery, as well as keeping clients informed. It also includes making a person’s visit an enjoyable experience via attention to details like having good interpersonal skills, maintaining a clean facility with good lighting, and having exceptional images and an updated and easy to use website. Combined, all of these things make purchasing simple, pleasurable, and memorable.
the author Andy Palmer operates In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville, North Carolina. Learn more on In Tandem Gallery’s social media pages: www.intandemgallery.com, www.instagram.com/intandemgallery, www.facebook.com/InTandemGallery, and on YouTube at InTandemGallery.