For me, 2012 was the ‘year of the venue’. It was a year of intensive venue research, exhibition proposal writing and gut-wrenching refusals in the search for venues for my curatorial project, This ‘Me’ of Mine. It was also, curiously, a year of increased contact from galleries wanting me to exhibit with them. And before the flutter of excitement starts at the romantic thought of galleries beating a path to the door, let me clarify – they were all vanity galleries.
I’ve always had a very clear notion of venues to avoid, namely ones that charge me to exhibit. However, this year has taught me some very valuable lessons on this point and I’ve learned it isn’t as clear cut as that. There is a difference between vanity galleries and galleries for hire – important differences you should pay attention to in your own search for venues. ‘For Hire’ is not necessarily money spent in vain.
The key difference is in the kind of space each venue offers. A vanity gallery will often offer you a room, a wall, or square footage/meterage in conjunction with lots of other artists who have been offered the same deal for space – indication: a hodgepodge of work with no clear theme. They may even offer a full gallery space, but rarely is there any marketing support or promotion or any other kind of services to help you present your exhibition. You’ll be given the keys and you’re on your own; sweep the floor, fill the holes and turn off the lights before you lock the door and hand over the key.
Hire galleries should offer the whole gallery to your project. They will support you to varying degrees, depending on their own resources. They may offer promotional & press contacts, technical support for installation, web & email promotion, private view bar, invigilation, and arrange key contacts for public outreach events related to your project. In short, they become partners in presenting your exhibition; an immense value to you and your vision. Another difference is in their business structure. Hire galleries often are charities and the fees they charge for their space is part of their income. They often are engaged in education, community development and other socially worthwhile causes. Vanity galleries are strictly for profit.
Arguably, the most important difference between a vanity gallery and a hire space is reputation. Vanity galleries are given no credence in serious art communities and exhibiting with one will do your career no favours, you will not be taken seriously – period. Hire spaces often are integral to their local communities and are respected by professionals in the arts community. Exhibiting with an artist-led hire space is an important building block in the positive development of your career.
Here are some key points to look for in identifying a hire space from a vanity gallery:
Hire Spaces offer…
- Charitable status
- Funding from national or local arts councils
- Partners with universities, art colleges or other arts organisations
- Respected reputation amongst arts community
- Quality exhibitions rotating on a regular schedule
- An exhibition selection committee
- Key contact person as liaison & support
- Some level of support for promoting your project
- Sharing of contacts & information needed to help you promote your project
- Some level of technical support, even if it is only supplying filler & paint after your exhibition comes down
- History of critical review in local and regional press
Vanity Galleries offer…
- An allocated space for your work within the gallery or
- A defined number of pieces allowed for exhibit for a certain amount of money
- Promise to market & promote to gallery list, though list is not likely to be shared with you
- Poor reputation amongst other artists and arts community in general
- High rates and/or short exhibition time
- No support
- No reviews
Generally, if you feel like you are being sold space; it’s likely a vanity gallery. If you feel like your project is being considered on its merits for an appropriate mix with the gallery’s mandate; it’s likely a hire space. If you’re still not sure whether the gallery is reputable, talk to some of the artists who’ve exhibited there, search online for comments on the space or reviews of past exhibitions, ask your local arts council or other arts organisations in the area and you will quickly learn whether it is a space you should embrace or avoid.
- Michelle Aragón defines the differences between gallery types on her art scene today site.
- Joanne Mattera discusses the pros and cons of co-op galleries and vanity galleries in her blog post: Marketing-Mondays: Co-op Galleries, Yes. Vanity Galleries, No.
- And Brian Sherwin debunks one artist’s list of benefits from a vanity gallery experience in his article, Vanity Gallery – art scam or art opportunity.
Note: These views are from art scenes in the US where vanity galleries are more prevalent. However, these views and opinions also offer some interesting insights into issues of running an artist cooperative in addition to views on the debate of vanity vs. hire (or co-op as the case may be).