Vanity Galleries | Photo Encaustic with Clare O’Neill

When is it OK to Pay-to-Play?

To some extent we all pay-to-play in the art world. We must spend money to get our work seen.

Essentially if you’ve ever been part of an art fair, you’re engaged in pay-to-pay. You’ve paid money for the privilege of a space where you can spend time meeting collectors, talking to customers, networking, and selling your art.

In my mind where it gets murky is when you are contacted by a gallery (commonly referred to as a vanity gallery) that wants to show your work for an upfront fee.

Reputable galleries don’t charge to carry an artist’s work. The art is carefully curated by the gallerist and is decided to suit the aesthetic and reputation of the gallery. The gallery is paid (through a commission) by selling your work to a buyer. The gallery believes in you and knows that their financial bottom line is tied to you and your work. The is there for them to represent you incentive in the best possible way to mutually benefit both of you.

Contrarily, a vanity gallery gets their money up front (often at exorbitant rates for wall space, marketing packages, and commissions on top) and has no incentive to sell your work. Their only incentive is to sign up the next artist willing to pay. When they have enough artists covering their monthly fees there is no incentive to sell anything. They make their money from the artist and not from the sales of the art.

Watch for:

  • Press pages that consist of images of the galleries advertising
  • A lack of cohesion in the artists they ‘represent’ as this shows a lack of understanding to who their customer is.
  • Unsolicited emails or invitations for shows or inclusion in books, especially if it doesn’t give specific reasons why you are being contacted.
  • Advertisements for artists to exhibit with them.
  • NYC galleries
  • Galleries that want to give you a solo show without even knowing who you are.
  • Google the gallery name along with ‘vanity gallery’ to see what comes up.
  • Highlights on their web sites from satisfied artists and not satisfied collectors.
  • You take all the risk
  • Adverse to signed consignment agreements

Don’t be dazzled when someone turns their attention to your work. Be aware of anyone who is using your work to a benefit other than being part of selling your work. In my mind, this includes coffee shops who want you to fill their walls with your work, frame shops that want to showcase your work (but only if you frame it all with their frames) or vanity galleries.

Don’t support anyone who wants to take advantage of you. Although these galleries are not fraudulent, they are a rip off.

Not all spaces where you pay to show your work are Vanity Galleries.

It’s NOT a vanity gallery if……

  • You’ve been asked to join an artist’s cooperative where you are sharing the costs and wall space with a group of artists
  • You rent the facility from a gallery for your own show, and you are renting the space and in control.
  • You pay an entry fee for a juried exhibition by reputable art societies and art competitions

Someone said to me when I was very young, “you are known by the company you keep”. This advice is also true in the art world. Do you want your work hanging alongside the other work in the gallery? If you don’t like the work they represent, then walk away.

My best advice. Know who you are doing business with. Make sure it’s mutually beneficial and create strong long-lasting relationships.

If you want to learn more about working with Galleries, click on my earlier post—Paying Gallery Commissions.

Let me know in the comments below what has been your experience with vanity galleries.

Be well….be creative,

Click to learn more about photo encaustic classes, courses, and workshops.


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