Showing Your Art Work in New York City

by Daniel Grant
Showing Your Art Work in New York City

An Excerpt from An Artist's Guide: Making it in New York by Daniel Grant

Editor's Note: The prices quoted below were accurate as of 2002, when An Artist's Guide: Making It In New York was initially published. Check with the galleries and websites listed for updated information.

Few descriptions carry as much caché in the fine art realm as "New York artist." Artists believe, sometimes with reason, that an exhibition record in Manhattan adds stature to their careers and artwork, elevating them in the eyes of gallery owners, critics, collectors and curators elsewhere in the country.

Armed with this set of beliefs, artists around the United States strive mightily to get shows in New York City galleries. The results are often disappointing, as most gallery owners only exhibit the work of artists recommended to them by other artists or dealers or critics whom they know and trust: Sorry to say, the art world is not a meritocracy but runs primarily on a who-you-know basis.

For many, the alternatives for artists who want to be shown in Manhattan galleries are to either become part of the New York art world (moving there or visiting regularly) or paying to have their work displayed.

What Price to Show In New York?

In order to succeed in one's career, we are often told, one needs to invest in it. That may mean additional schooling -- would-be lawyers and doctors, for instance, have rigorous academic programs and sizeable tuition bills ahead of them -- or taking out advertisements or purchasing a new wardrobe or simply buying business cards.

Money needs to be spent, but it must be spent for the most appropriate things: Should the musical group invest first in new outfits, in producing a demo CD, or in new equipment? That may depend on whether or not they have a bunch of performances planned, if they are looking for a recording contract or if their instruments are adequate. On the other hand, it might seem odd for a would-be novelist to "invest" in an expensive pen with which to do book signings before the first page of a manuscript has been written.

Fine artists also have investment decisions to make: Art supplies can be quite expensive; paintings may need to be framed, sculptures placed on pedestals; works may have to be crated, shipped, and insured. There are outlays for postcards, postage, brochures, slides and even (perhaps) a website. Still more possible expenditures loom ahead.

Gallery Rentals

Should artists buy an ad in a who's who-type directory or rent a booth space at an art fair? New York City offers another opportunity for spending: renting a gallery for an exhibition.

There are a number of exhibition spaces -- most of them called galleries -- that charge artists between $1,000 and $4,000 for the opportunity to display their work for a two- to four-week period.

Monserrat Gallery, for instance, which is located at 584 Broadway, has three rooms that are rented for two-week shows: The room with a twenty foot-long wall costs $1,900; the gallery with a thirty-foot wall is $2,300, and the forty-foot-long space rents for $3,900. Jadite Gallery, at 413 West 50th Street, charges $1,200 for its small room and $3,500 for the larger space for shows lasting four weeks. "We love artists, and we try to treat them well," Katalina Petrova, assistant director of Jadite, said.

Similar fee structures are also found at Agora Gallery (415 W. Broadway), Art Alliance (98 Greene Street), Artsforum Gallery (24 West 57th Street), Broome Street Gallery (498 Broome Street), Caelum Gallery (526 West 26th Street), E3 Gallery (47 East Third Street), Emerging Collector (62 Second Avenue), A. Jain Marunouchi (24 West 57th Street), New Century Artists (168 Mercer Street), Nexus Gallery (345 East 12th Street), Slowinski Gallery (215 Mulberry Street), Subculture (376 Broome Street) and World Fine Art (443 Broadway).

Most of these gallery spaces are located in major gallery districts -- 57th Street, SoHo, Chelsea, and the East Village -- which might suggest to artists that even if the gallery itself is not prestigious, walk-in traffic may well include real collectors. Manhattan Fine Art Storage, which has two gallery spaces that rent for $75 and $125 per day, regularly advertises in art magazines: "Have a show in SoHo."

Rental costs may or may not include the expense of someone actually hanging the show or sitting in the gallery -- the artists or their friends and families often assume those jobs -- and promotional efforts are limited at best.

New Century Artists will place a listing in Art Now Gallery Guide. In addition to the listing, Agora gallery will also place display advertisements and mail out invitations to the opening reception parties. Feroline Pavone, exhibition coordinator of Agora Gallery, says that artists may also have a personal catalogue for their shows "if they pay for it."

The likelihood that shows at these "vanity galleries" (as they are sometimes called) will be reviewed is almost nonexistent. Sales are also iffy at best.

Meyer Tannenbaum, a painter in New York City who has paid to have his work exhibited at New Century Artists three times, noted that during his best show he sold two small paintings for $200 apiece - "I've never sold enough to make the rent."

Naomi Campisi, president of the Artists League of Brooklyn, which has shown its work at Broome Street Gallery, said that "if we sell two pieces, that's good. Usually, it's more like one piece, or maybe nothing at all." However, sales and write-ups may not be the point to at least some of the artists. "A lot of out-of-towners and people from other countries want a New York credential on their resumes," said Caroll Michels, an artists' career advisor in East Hampton, New York. "They assume that saying their work was exhibited in SoHo will impress people back home. Maybe it will."

She noted, however, that there may be a valid reason to rent a gallery space to show one's work: "You may have some people who want very much to see your work, but you don't have a place suitable to show it. In that case, renting a gallery simply solves a problem, and the costs are likely to be offset by sales or whatever you're expecting from the people you're showing the work to."

A number of artists and gallery owners have taken a different tack on the concept of artists paying to have their work shown, not only in the vanity spaces but also in galleries that otherwise represent artists in the traditional way.

Artists may be asked to pay one-third or one-half or even more of the costs of the gallery in putting on the exhibit -- payment to the gallery owner may reach $3,000 or $4,000 in order to have a three- or four-week show. Sometimes, these pay-your-own-way shows are tryouts for artists who want to be represented by the gallery.

"I usually go 50-50 with the artists," said Deborah Davis, director of El-Baz Gallery in SoHo. "Artists may not want to think about how salable their work is, but I have to. Artists may think that their work should be shown in museums, but I have to know if it will appeal to people who walk in off the street. You take a flying leap into the unknown with many artists, and you know that sales will be less than the costs of putting up the show."

Another SoHo dealer, who asked not to be named, asked "How can you invest in someone whose return on your investment is likely to be zero? We're not a communist country; everything isn't free. Artists have to be willing to help out in the costs or else they're living in some fairy tale." With escalating rents, dealers claim, many galleries are not in a position to give young artists a show without the financial assistance of the artists. "The reality," according to Katharine T. Carter, an artists' advisor, is that artists and dealers "need to be in a shared business relationship" in which both parties decide what they want and how they are going to pay for it.

She noted that artists should approach "emerging talent galleries" with a budget, "equal to what you would pay a part-time secretary, say $8,000-$10,000." That money would be used in part to publish postcards, a full-color catalogue with an essay, press mailings for the show, and mailings (of the catalogue) afterwards to museum curators and dealers around the country. For Carter, as well as many artists and dealers, this is what it means for artists to invest in their careers.

Pay to Play? Online Galleries

Pay in order to play is certainly a well-known theme in artists' lives.

Most juried competitions, for instance, require an entry fee. Coop galleries entail the payment of an annual membership, plus monthly dues, plus all the costs of organizing and promoting an artist's show. Many online mall sites for artists require artists to pay sometimes sizeable amounts of money with the hope that a user finds them and wants to buy something.

For example, ArtistsOnline, which is based in Santa Barbara, California, calls itself a "free" website, but it charges a one-time fee of up to $150 to create a one-page portfolio (for artists with their own site, they must still pay for a one-page "personal profile"); additional pages are $50 per page plus a fee of $1.95 per month, and any changes made to the website-such as changing the images periodically-are billed at $40 per hour.{Editor's Note: These fees and packages were current as of 2002. Visit ArtistsOnline for updated information).

Gallery Art Garden, which comes out of the city of Alkmaar in The Netherlands, costs a monthly fee of $25, affording an artist four images and a description of his or her work; there are also costs for changes and additional pages.

The New York City-based ArtistsRegister charges $450 for a one-year "membership" that includes one color illustration and text (up to 10 lines); additional illustrations are $60 each. The website itself is not actively promoted-either by direct mailings or advertising-by its operators, but Marie Fischer, who designed ArtistRegister, claimed that there are an average of 12,000 hits every week from all over the world. "I tell artists to support their website with direct mailings; that's the best way to let people know where they can find the artists' work," she said. ArtistRegister will also create an artist's direct mailing ("We'll write a nice letter, putting the artist's website on it") and provide a stamp and an envelope at the price of $1 per name.

A spokesman for World Wide Arts Resources (located in Columbus, Ohio) claimed that the site receives 100,000 visitors per month, but there are no figures for the number of sales actually made on- or offline from the artists and galleries that have websites attached. ArtistRegister also only has anecdotal information about works sold, commissions, artists taken on by dealers or hired to lecture, teach, or give demonstrations. They only count the number of overall hits, not the quality or the result of browsing, and they do not actively survey their artists. Unlike ArtNet.com and some others, these gallery sites remain in business because artists pay them for services and the rental of cyberspace.

The art world has a lot of what could be called victimless crimes.

Critics, for instance, are often hired to write privately-published catalogue essays for artists they never heard of before and to whom they may never ever pay attention to again. One editor at Art in America has written a number of these essays for artists whose work would never appear in that magazine, although the artists who pay for the editor's implicit endorsement ("a dollar a word is the going rate," the editor said) will proudly proclaim that their work was the subject of an essay by an editor at Art in America. The artist is happy, the editor is happy, but it is a fool's bargain into which the artist has entered, because it is cynical about rather than beneficial to the artist's career: Critics and editors will associate their names with these artists precisely because they expect the artists will never be heard from again. They wouldn't want their words thrown back at them years later.

Calling an expenditure of money an investment may make people feel as though they are taking charge of their lives or careers where in fact they are only gambling. All investments, of course, are a form of risk-taking, although the better risks tend to be researched and evaluated. The art world offers many opportunities for one's money to flow freely. Artists would be wise to invest a little time to understanding how the art market works.

Daniel Grant is the author of a number of career development books for fine artists, including The Business of Being an Artist, How to Grow as an Artist, The Fine Artist's Career Guide and The Artist's sexGuide: Making It In New York City, from which this article is excerpt. Allworth Press, publisher.

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