The gallery myth

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.

(Inspired by this post.)


Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the trackback. While I generally agree with what you say here, I think an artist has to think bigger. Or, at least I try to think bigger. Like WWC said on my post, you have to decide who is your competition. I’ve set the extremely lofty and improbably goal of being part of the history books. Anything less than that will not be satisfactory. As long as I compete with history, I’ll be happy.

So the question is… who currently in the history books (obviously it changes all the time) does not have a significant presence in the NYC art world? Anyone? And if no one, why should I think I’ll be any different?

These are the things I think about. I’m probably doomed to “fail,” but this isn’t just about making a living. It’s about being great. I like to sell my art, but frankly, I don’t care about that. I can make bad work that sells if I wanted…

Thanks for the thought provoking post.


Very true – you must make your strategies match your goals. My goal is not to become famous from my art, but to make a living from from it, so my strategies will be different.

You asked: “who currently in the history books … does not have a significant presence in the NYC art world?” This makes me think: the people in the history books might have had their presence in NYC, but that was in history. Just because it worked for them back then, doesn’t mean it’ll still work now. Art and its relationship to society keep changing. Interesting things to puzzle out! Thanks for the conversation.

To be clear, I never said I wanted to be famous. You can be a famous artist and not be in the history books (this is a simple way of saying to be great) but you can’t be in the history books without being famous. Two different types of famous-es, I think. And it’s true, history is history, but though it’s far less certain, think of the current artists today who you think will be in the history books. Where are they or where have they been?

We don’t know how things will change going forward. But, the probabilty of things changing that dramatically in my lifetime is slim. Perhaps a poor analogy, but… you can’t play baseball unless you’re on the field. It just depends on where that field is for you… a major league field, a college field, Little League….

I agree that much “success” lies in the marketing. It isn’t the folks with the most talent, rather the folks with the most drive who find a market and are able to sell their goods and make a living.

– Glenn