There’s a popular idea that for an artist to be a “success” they need to be in a gallery, especially one in New York City. I get bit by this bug all the time, but I am starting to believe that this is just a myth. I recently attended a panel discussion headed by several well-know NYC gallerists, who were being quite frank with the audience of artists. Two of their statements struck me. First, one gallerist admitted that the majority of her sales came from 10 people. Ten! When asked to describe those people, she hemmed and hawed for a bit (“oh I get all sorts of people in my gallery…”) until she finally admitted that all ten were rich single young Wall Streeters. When asked how she chooses new artists, she admitted that she chooses art that she knows she can sell to those ten guys. As a small-business owner, I can respect this — she’s gotta pay the rent after all, and Chelsea ain’t cheap. Next someone asked the gallerists how many of their artists actually made a living from their art. The collective answer was barely any. They admitted that while a small number of their artists (their “rock stars”) make a decent living through the gallery, most make barely anything.
So although the myth is that an artist has to be in a NYC gallery to be a success, the reality is that very few artists find success along that path. While being in a gallery can be an important part of your business plan, it cannot be your only plan. We shouldn’t put art galleries on a pedestal — they are not the gatekeepers to the world of art, they are retail stores who sell art. And gallerists are business people in a tough and competitive market, and I respect the hell out of anyone who can be a success at it. But they are not the only market for our work. A few years back I started an online business to sell my art directly to customers, and have been pleasantly surprised to watch it grow into an actual living. What I am learning is that to be a success as an artist, you have to make your own path and have to find your own markets.