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An Introduction To Gallery Types

8th April 2020 Business & Sales

"It's art, so there are no rules, but..." is how many conversations start at Image Science. Choosing where to exhibit your work is no exception...

You could launch it into orbit, wrap it around a train or etch it into a single grain of sand. But, broadly speaking, galleries are where people share their artwork, particularly our speciality: archival fine art prints.

The variety and number of galleries out there can be daunting. Physically most are variations on the 'white cube' - so from the outside they can be hard to distinguish. But there are important differences behind the scenes, and understanding the basic categories of galleries will help you get started.

(Thankyou to the wonderful Rhiannon Slatter for supplying her photograph to illustrate the header on this article above!).

Rental Galleries

Sometimes also known as 'vanity' galleries, these are essentially venues for hire. They are not typically curated (though some may be selective in who they show), and make their profits primarily from the rental fees they charge artists to use their space/s. These galleries can be great for putting on first shows, getting practical experience and building an audience. They can also be used for events by artists directly connected with their collectors to avoid losing commissions on sales that commercial galleries charge (more on those below).

Beyond that rental galleries can vary a lot. For example your hire fee may or may not include:

  • Trained staff to man the gallery and process sales
    (If not you'll have to sit it yourself, or find someone to do so).
  • Marketing support 
  • Installation & de-install support
  • Opening night food/drinks packages

The gallery may also still charge commissions on art sales or sell alcohol from a licensed bar to further their return etc.

Exhibiting in these galleries does not ostensibly carry 'prestige' in the art world due to their non-selective nature (hence the term 'vanity gallery'), and it is very common for the artist to make a substantial loss while the gallery makes a profit. So it's best to look closely at the level of support they provide and square that with exhibition expenses and sales prospects. For emerging/early career artists it can generally be considered a success even to just cover your costs through sales.

Because it's essentially the artist carrying all the financial risk of exhibiting in this context, a popular option is to share expenses via running a group show, rather than a solo show.

Artist Run Initiatives

Also known as co-operatives, but generally called 'ARIs' in Australia, these are galleries collectively run by artists (and sometimes curators). Typically they're founded by a group of like-minded artists to split the cost and effort required to establish a gallery that specifically caters for them. To better achieve this many ARIs also have physical studios for member artists to use as work spaces, alongside the 'gallery' itself. 

ARIs can sometimes be better defined as communities of artists (or even families). The transactional artist-gallery relationship typical of rental and commercial galleries can be blurred or absent. As such ARIs are great testing grounds for experimental art, and are usually at the forefront of new movements in the art world. At times they can be highly theoretical and critical spaces, though, where art is challenged and exhibiting artists must learn to defend their creations (an important skill in the long run!).

While the founding members will regularly exhibit at an ARI, they also typically have open calls to the public to exhibit too. There may or may not be fees associated with exhibiting at an ARI, depending on the funding model, i.e. they may have public or private funding to operate OR could rely on exhibition fees (or some combination of the two).

There are ARIs popping up and closing down all the time, but some eventually evolve into institutions that carry prestige to exhibit at, so be prepared for competition! Long-standing ARIs typically have a formal structure with a board of directors that judge the merits of exhibition proposals. The application process can be quite involved, and successful applicants often have a minimum tertiary level education in the arts.

    Commercial Galleries

    Commercial galleries are businesses that profit directly by commission from the sale of art to buyers. Owners/directors of commercial galleries typically have specific tastes and expertise, and cultivate relationships with collectors interested in their area of the art market. This means they are very selective in whose work they choose to show based on that expertise and market knowledge.

    Commercial gallerists typically require their artists to enter into an exclusive relationship of representation, i.e. the gallery becomes the artist's agent through which all sales of that artist's work must pass. Though this may be delineated geographically, or for different series or mediums that an artist works with. For example an artist might have one gallery representing them in Australia and another for Asia. Or indeed one gallerist representing their photography work and another representing their sculpture work. The commission that commercial galleries take is usually around 50%, though like all of the above, it may be negotiable.

    In exchange for taking such a high commission on sales, commercial galleries usually make their spaces available to their artists for periodic exhibitions. There should be no out of pocket cost to the artist here other than making the work (as the expenses of gallery rent, lights, staff, food/drinks and promotion is borne by the gallery). Ideally commercial gallerists should also advocate for their artists at events across the art market, offering access to collectors (and thus sales) outside the normal reach of each artist. When operating properly this is a win-win scenario with each party, gallerist and artist, benefiting equally.

    Obtaining representation by a reputable gallery is highly sought after by many artists, and there are only so many artists that any one gallery can meaningfully represent. This dynamic generally creates a field where the higher end galleries approach artists and not the other way round. So the preliminary goal for artists wanting commercial representation is to build a profile as an artist (via showing at ARIs and/or rental galleries etc.) while also attending events/networking at relevant commercial galleries so as to become a known prospect to their directors.

    Public Galleries

    Public galleries are so named because they are owned and run by government. They can range from modest local council spaces to major national collecting institutions that see millions of visitors each year.

    Like all art spaces, public galleries can physically manifest as 'white cubes', but beneath the surface these are specifically driven by missions, visions, goals and strategies that cater for the 'public good' in one way or another.

    At council level this often explicitly means creating opportunities for emerging artists, community groups and interests otherwise under-served in commercial or mainstream contexts. So if you're starting out it's always a good idea to see if a council gallery in your area accepts exhibition submissions (applicants can sometimes be restricted by place of origin/residence) . You may find an excellent alternative to a rental or ARI space at low or no cost. Look a little further and you may even find your council offers arts grants for projects that have some form of outcome within their boundary.

    Higher up the chain of government at state or federal level (or even in heavily populated city councils), public galleries can have a much broader remit. Australia's oldest public gallery for example, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), takes as its mission to 'collect, conserve, develop and promote the state’s works of art and bring art to the people of Victoria'. To achieve all this they have an array of well funded programs in educational, historical and contemporary art fields. The majority of these collections and programs are tightly managed in house by expert curatorial staff and aren't open for submissions. Getting invited to exhibit at such a large, well funded public gallery is often the culmination of a lifetime of work and can carry a lot of 'prestige' in the art world (and positively affect the market value of your work).

    Occasionally large public galleries do run community focused programs that call for entries and/or showcase local emerging artists, so it's worth paying attention to their news and announcements.