What is a vanity gallery? To quote an excerpt extracted from MYARTSPACE>BLOG: “A vanity gallery will exhibit anyone who is willing to pay and they will often accept an artist into their roster without having viewed an example of said artist’s work.” In other words, placement depends on payment, not merit. Payment may include an “introductory” fee (sort of like a welcome to the gallery tax); a promotional fee (meaning the artist pays for their exhibition catalog); and/or a monthly rental fee. In a world where artists far outnumber galleries, vanity galleries can prey on the desperation of artists who panic that they may never get into a gallery and therefore may never have the opportunity to expose their art to a wider public.
Fees, from what I’ve read, seem to range from one hundred and fifty dollars for the dubious privilege of hanging one painting on a wall to thousands of dollars for the equally dubious privilege of advertising. I say dubious because art never gets sold without a great deal of promotion and support from the gallery, something that is less likely to happen when it is the artist who contributes towards the rent, the promotion, and the openings. Take away the gallery’s incentive to promote and sell the work and the artist is left with either their art hanging unsold or giving up painting so they can focus on a day job so they can sustain their so-called representation in a so-called art gallery.
Most importantly, even if the occasional piece does get sold, who does it get sold to? Chances are the buyer will be some passer-by who bought the piece on a whim rather than a conviction and while this may not seem such an important distinction, it most absolutely is. The buyer who buys on a whim is not a collector. They bought the piece because they liked it and they needed something to make their walls feel less empty. To put it crassly, they bought the piece much in the same way they would have bought a vase or a pricey poster – as something decorative. Will they return to buy another piece? Probably not. Will they remember the artist’s name after they’ve hang the piece up in their walls? Probably not.
While a casual buyer may soon forget about the work, a collector will follow an artist’s progress, promote the artist to his/her circle of friends, and, more importantly, perhaps buy another piece. If he/she is a well known collector, the artwork in question, and by extension the artist, will gain prestige and respect by having been placed in a worthwhile collection, amongst other worthwhile artists. This is how an artist’s reputation grows – through a joint partnership between the gallery and the artist and the colletor – a partnership based on hard work and mutual respect, not only for each other, but for the art.
Respect, is the key word here. Many times I have walked into a gallery and wondered at the uneven quality of the work. Usually, I take a quick look around and then leave. Usually, these galleries are in touristy parts of town and usually I am on vacation or just passing through and while I have never before stopped to wonder what was missing from these galleries, it is, in hindsight, respect. Serious galleries represent and promote artists whose works they respect. If it is an emerging artist they are selling, then they are basing their support and promotion on potential. If it is an established artist they are selling, then the quality of the work, along with the name and reputation speak for themselves.
It is important to distinguish the vanity gallery from the co-operative gallery. In a co-operative gallery, the space is run by artists for artists. Participating artists contribute towards rent, publicity, and sometimes utilities, but here is the all important distinction – Co-op galleries have a jury that actually examines the work of a prospective candidate. Available space does not depend on who can pay, but on whose work merits placement. Also, co-operative galleries never hide the fact that they are co-operative.
So – before you buy from a gallery – check out who is behind the gallery. After all they are a commercial enterprise, but like any businessdo they conduct their affairs with the ethics that one expects. Does it belong to a gallery association? Does the work of its artists appear even? Who are its artists, where do they come from, and in what other collections do their works appear? There may even be a place for vanity galleries, I just haven’t figured that out yet.