Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How can you tell when it's a vanity gallery?

I'm been drafting an article about Vanity Galleries and got to the bit about "how can you tell when it's a vanity gallery?"

I know how I tell but decided it would be a good idea to check out with my readers:
  • what you think are the main indicators of a vanity gallery
  • what questions you ask to check them out
First - here's some information (ie what I know!) and a checklist of questions about vanity galleries.  Plus some resources at the end - which are good articles about vanity galleries.

Please take a look through and see if there are 
  • any refinements you'd like to suggest 
  • or any omissions of aspects which you think are indicative of a vanity gallery or similar exercise.
What's a Vanity Gallery?

A Vanity Gallery is one which requires you to pay to show your art.  This may involve a fee for each item of art shown or a fee to be shown in their gallery and/or have an exhibition.

The business model of a Vanity Gallery revolves around extracting money from artists rather than selling artwork to art lovers.

Characteristics of a Vanity Gallery

Below are headings which cover different aspects of a Vanity Gallery.  The bullet points indicate characteristics and they are followed by suggested questions to ask to investigate the status of any offer.


  • A naive / emerging artist without an art gallery - who wants to get his or her art shown
  • People who will pay good money to get their art shown
  • People who know little about the reputations of those who operate in the art market
  • Artists who know little about how proper commercial art galleries operate
  • People who produce art which is not very good i.e. unlikely to ever become a gallery artist or get their artwork shown in a proper commercial gallery
  • Artists who don't check out reputations and track records and don't ask questions
Questions to ask:
  1. Why would they approach you - out of the blue?
  2. Do you think your artwork is good enough to be exhibited in a show? (This answer might well depend on how many exhibitions you've been to see)
  3. How does the Gallery recruit their artists?  Is it based on the quality of their artwork or their ability to pay their fees?
  4. Check out the name and reputation of the gallery amongst artists who know more than you do.   There's one gallery in New York which is a well known vanity gallery.  If you see a link to it on an artist's website then you know that person has a lot to learn
  5. Google the name of the gallery and look at what people (other than the gallery) are saying online 
  6. How many people characterise it as a Vanity Gallery? There's a school of thought that says you can damage your career by exhibiting with a Vanity Gallery - since the exhibition is dependent on you paying rather than the art being good enough.  Having a Vanity Gallery on your CV could damage your chances of becoming a gallery artist at a "proper" art gallery


  • Vanity galleries typically pitch their offering via a standard letter which indicates absolutely no awareness of your artwork ie the same remarks might have been made about anybody's art.
  • They may highlight one artwork to demonstrate they've looked at your website
  • They may advertise for artists to exhibit work in their gallery (such a good way of identifying quality art!!)
  • Not all vanity galleries are B&M galleries on the street - some are online.  Vanity activities  may seek artwork for an online competition or a book in return for a fee.  
  • They may offer you a link to their website in return to a link to theirs (it's what Saatchi did!)
  • Exhibitions at such galleries often get no coverage by reputable art critics
Questions to ask:
  1. Does the email used to contact you one which seems like a typical standard/spam letter?
  2. Are there any indications they have looked at your work
  3. If you contact them can they remember your work without prompting? Do they know what it's about?
  4. Ask them to send URLs for coverage of recent exhibitions in art journals
  5. Ask them to a file of press cuttings re exhibitions at the gallery.  
  6. Do the press cuttings relate to press releases which the artist had fed to home town newspapers  (ie artist generated) or to art journals with a reputation for reviewing exhibitions?
  7. How much traffic does their website get? (For Online Galleries see Online Art Galleries and Stores for Artists)
  8. How does their website rank relative to others?
  9. Check out the background to art competitions
  10. Check out the reputation of these people as publishers of books about current artists


  • Successful galleries often have an identify in terms of the type of art they show.  However the exhibitions held in Vanity Galleries tend to be very diverse suggesting:
    • either that the people who they market exhibitions to have very eclectic tastes
    • or a lot of the marketing will be wasted on people who simply don't care for most of the artwork
  • Serious commercial art galleries tend to have a 'roster' of gallery artists whose work they sell on an ongoing basis and whose exhibitions they hold from time to time.  Vanity galleries typically do not have "gallery artists" although they may well try to suggest that they do.
  • If you review the list of past exhibitions and/or the artists' bio pages, it's typical for:
    • serious art galleries to show their artists over a period of years in group shows and solo shows (more than one)
    • vanity galleries to have artists who hold one show only
Questions to ask:
  1. What sort of artwork do they focus on?  Is their answer reflected in what's on their website?
  2. Do they highlight testimonials from satisfied artists?  Serious 'proper' art galleries simply don't do this
  3. Do they have a list of gallery artists who remain with them over the years?
  4. Check out with a gallery artist (or artist which has used their services) what type of arrangement they have (or had) with the gallery and whether they recommend the gallery.  
  5. Do they want your email list of "followers" or are they happy for you to distribute invites to the exhibition yourself?
  6. Do they want to frame your work for you?  (Frame shops can keeps their framing business ticking over by making frames for artists who then have an exhibition in their space.)  


  • Some vanity galleries:
    • try to avoid any risk to themselves by charging the artist a hefty fee
    • have a complex system of fees which involve you paying for absolutely everything
    • and still want commission for a sale!
  • Their business model seems to revolve around success in getting artists to pay them fees rather  than success in getting people to buy art.
Questions to ask:
  1. How does the Gallery make its money - fees from artists or sales to buyers?
  2. Will they take your work if you only pay them commission for what they sell?  If not, why not?
  3. What do they actually spend money on for the fee they ask?
  4. What other activities do they undertake to cover their overheads?
  5. What's the incentive for the Gallery to work hard at selling your art if you've removed all financial risk in relation to their own activities and outgoings?
  6. How is risk shared?
  7. Do they lose if you sell nothing?
  8. How much do you lose if they sell nothing?
  9. Is the amount you have to pay reasonable for the work they are doing?
  10. How much artwork do you have to sell to break even?


  • Vanity Galleries can often be averse to proper documentation and records of transactions between the artist and the gallery.  
  • Contracts which do exist may distort the proper balance and sharing of risks and expenses of an exhibition.
Questions to ask:
  1. Do they have a proper commercial contract for representing your artwork? Ask them to send you a sample contract
  2. If your artwork is damaged or lost while in their care who pays?
  3. How you are going to recover your art if you never hear from them again?  READ Protect Your Art with The Consignment Agreement by Renee Phillips (The Artrepreneur Coach)
Don’t leave any art work anywhere, for any time period, without a signed consignment agreementRenee Phillips

It's not a Vanity Gallery if......

Here's a list of activities which some artists confuse with a Vanity Gallery - and the reasons why they're not.

Group Show with specific areas for individual artists: Do not confuse a vanity gallery with an artist's co-operative.  A co-operative generally has a no-profit basis and artists contribute to the exhibitions held in diverse ways eg covering the gallery and selling artwork. However also beware that a gallery which starts off as an artists' co-operative can degenerate into a vanity gallery if too few artists put in the effort required to run a gallery.

Payment of fees: Payment of a fee per se does not define a Vanity Gallery.  Many juried exhibitions by reputable art societies and art competitions also charge fees.  All such exhibitions and competitions cost money to run and the organisers need to recover their costs somehow or other. The fees may be high if an organisation is long established with a good reputation (think Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts).  However that does not make it a vanity exercise.

Pay to show:  Not all spaces where you pay to show your work are Vanity Galleries.  Vanity Galleries have business models which revolve around the artist who pays.  Commercial Galleries have business models which are based on selling art.  However galleries who make their space work hard may have a sideline which involves letting space to artists - whatever is left over after commitments relating to their main business.  It's a typical arrangement for galleries which regularly hold major exhibitions for prestigious art societies - but have space/time left in the calendar which can be sold.  Their fee is typically a rental for the space and they take no commission if you handle your own sales or a moderate commission if they handle sales for you.  How you market your exhibition is up to you.  However there is scope for business models to change given the popularity of the art fair model for selling art with art collectors.

How do you tell when it's a Vanity Gallery?

Over to you.  How do you tell a Vanity Gallery from a "proper" gallery?

Please also share this post with artist friends who you think might get some value from it.

Vanity Galleries - Resources for Artists

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