Rejection: it's a word - and more importantly a feeling - that every artist in every field has dealt with. After being turned down by gallery after gallery, or publisher after publisher, or booking agent after booking agent, eventually that undaunted confidence in your creativity you once had might look like it's been through the rounds of a Before-and-After diet commercial.
And it's usually that somewhat thinner, somewhat more pliable inner you that will be particularly vulnerable to a vanity gallery letter if, and when, it should come along.
|Your confidence probably starts out on the level of the villain in Ghostbusters. Until all those art galleries start giving the wrong answer.|
(Image from american-buddha.com.)
A vanity gallery is a gallery that expects you to pay in exchange for having the chance to exhibit your work. Unlike a cooperative gallery, which utilizes reasonable membership fees to cover facilities overhead and publicity for a carefully selected group of artists, a vanity gallery profits by accepting just about anyone willing to pay a tidy fee, and then leaves all promotion up to the artist. And they'll be sure to send you a sugar-coated letter praising your work and inviting you to be a part of their gallery - all too often at those times when you find yourself most in need of a pick-me-up.
It's always a good practice to be wary of those who are trying to butter you up (think Hansel and Gretel): if something looks suspicious, it probably is. But there are a few steps you can take to be sure.
Scout out the gallery yourself. Get a feel for the clientele the gallery attracts, the quality of the art it exhibits, and its reputation among other art businesses in the area. Seek out artists who have been involved with the gallery in the past to find out if they're happy with the results. Do artists get actual representation and promotion from the gallery? Search for write-ups on the gallery from legitimate print or online publications; if the gallery has been in existence for over a year or two, the lack of any reviews could be a tip-off.
Check out the focus of the gallery's own promotions and announcements. Are they mostly aimed at recruiting artists, or are they focused on attracting an audience to the gallery? Remember, vanity galleries make their money off artists, not buyers.
Keep in mind, also, that vanity galleries come in many guises. Consider ongoing fee-based "calls for entry" and "artists wanted" announcements to be a red flag, especially if the "juror" consistently includes the gallery director, or the same cast of characters. Be especially suspicious of galleries with frequent entry calls where there is only a single award to one artist for a "solo show." Think about the economics: do the aggregated entry fees far exceed the reasonable overhead for the resulting exhibitions? A gallery that gets $35 from 500 artists ten times a year is making a very nice profit off those artists. (See Joan K. Smith's previous blog entry on juried group exhibitions, which touches on gauging the legitimacy of a venue.)
Most importantly, get a detailed account of the fees you're expected to pay. If they are asking for an exorbitant amount simply for the exhibition space, or if you are expected to pay to be a part of a glossy print catalog, chances are the gallery is making its money off of these fees alone, with no incentive to promote or sell your work.
Still feeling the draw of an easy pay-for-show situation? One last consideration: your reputation. Many artists think that any exhibition on their resume will give them more credibility, but this is not always the case. Having a vanity gallery listed on your resume is lethal when you later approach legitimate galleries and critics, or apply for a respected residency program.
The bottom line? You cannot afford a vanity gallery. You are better off avoiding the temptation of an easy exhibition, and using this money to promote your work yourself.