by Cara Ober

In 2004, as a newly minted MFA graduate, I began to research options for exhibits outside of Baltimore.

I will be honest. The options were slim. In the back pages of Art in America I discovered a commercial Chelsea gallery, right on 25th street, asking for artist submissions. Why not? I thought, and sent my images, artist statement, and resume.

Within a week there was a voicemail on my phone, with a sickeningly sweet woman’s voice raving about my work. The woman listed various titles of paintings and drawings and exclaimed adoringly about each one, saying they were perfect for her gallery. I called her back immediately. As an artist, it’s rare to get that type of adulation, especially after just finishing grad school.

We chatted for a few minutes on the phone and I confirmed that the paintings she liked were available. She laid on the charm to the point where it seemed weird, and this made me slightly suspicious. Commercial art dealers just don’t act like this – they tend to be reserved and standoffish.

She asked how soon I could send my work and I said a few weeks, despite a nagging suspicion that something didn’t seem quite right. As we hung up, she said she was mailing me a contract.

A few days later my suspicions were confirmed. On fussily embossed paper, the gallery contract stated the list of works we had discussed for consignment, but it also included a balance. For an entire wall, it was going to cost me $5,000. Say what?! She hadn’t mentioned there was a fee to show in her space, especially such a steep one.

Maybe because I was poor, or possibly because I’m cheap and ornery, instead of considering it, I threw the contract in the trash. Over the next few weeks, I received several more uber-chipper, creepy voice mails on my phone, until I finally answered and told her flatly, “I don’t pay to show my work.” Our relationship was over.

At the time I knew nothing about Vanity Galleries. I just knew it wasn’t a good fit for me. Artists have to pay for their supplies, for shipping, for framing, and so many other expenses. The last thing an artist needs to do is pay to show their work. Since that initial encounter, I have had several other experiences with agents and galleries who expect artists to pay up front for the opportunity to show their work, or to pay for receptions and ‘advertising materials.’ Sometimes this is snuck into a consignment agreement. I do my best to avoid these situations for a number of reasons.

What exactly is a Vanity Gallery? It’s any gallery that charges artists fees to exhibit their work, where payment is the main criteria for the show.

Unlike a traditional commercial art gallery, a vanity gallery makes most of its money from artists rather than from sales to the public. Sometimes they charge a lump sum to arrange the exhibit, while others ask artists to pay membership fees for an exhibit within a certain time period.

What’s so awful about this??

A vanity gallery has no incentive to sell artwork, or even publicize it, because their rent has already been paid by the artist’s fees. By contrast, a commercial gallery makes a profit when they sell artwork, so sales are a huge priority. So is their selection process – a good commercial gallery only chooses artists who will enhance their gallery’s reputation. They invest time and money in advancing an artist’s career and cultivate relationships with the best collections possible for the work.

A Vanity Gallery doesn’t need to be selective because their rent is already paid by the artists. For this reason, critics and publications usually avoid them.Sometimes a Vanity Gallery seems similar to an artist cooperative, in which artists pool their resources to pay rent and organize exhibitions. However, artist collectives jury their members and only choose the artists who fit into their aesthetic and philosophy. This lends credibility to the space and the artists who show there. With a Vanity Gallery, there is no jurying process. If you can pay, you can exhibit.

My MICA students often ask me about Vanity Galleries, because they tend to recruit unsuspecting emerging artists. Advertising your exhibits to inexperienced students is quite different than having a submission policy. This is predatory and unethical! When you are starting out as an artist, and you are hungry for exhibition opportunities, any option seems good. I cannot stress how wrong this assumption is.

If asked, many experienced and respected gallery directors and curators admit that, when they see a line on your CV with a Vanity Gallery mentioned, it can often hurt your chances for future inclusion, rather than increase them. Your willingness to place your work in a less-than-optimal setting can come off as desperate and inexperienced. Bottom line, if you don’t respect your work enough to place it in its best professional context, no one else will.

So what can I do instead of showing with a Vanity Gallery?

You are much better off waiting, making even better work, doing research, and applying for juried shows and exhibits. There are literally thousands of legitimate opportunities for emerging artists to apply to. Go to a free source of information like our Call for Entries Page andNew York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA)to start your research. Don’t rush into anything.

Sure, it often costs a nominal fee to apply to juried shows. Please realize we all get rejection letters in the mail and it hurts, but this selection process also make the acceptances actually count for something.

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Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt