How to start up an art gallery

Art galleries usually showcase the work of artists that the owner is passionate about and which the gallery receives a commission for selling. Get the essentials for starting up and running your own gallery in our practical guide.

Research your target market

It's important that you carry out some market research to gauge the level of demand for your gallery.

Competition

Your competition will come from other businesses that offer the same or similar items for sale as you do as well as offering similar services. Depending on the exact nature of your gallery, your competitors may include:

  • other local galleries
  • online galleries
  • specialist art equipment retailers
  • craft shops
  • gift shops
  • picture framers
  • specialist picture restorers
  • artists who sell their work direct to the public

It may be useful to try to identify how many competitors there are in your area by searching online, including on Yell.com and other online directories, by looking in local print directories or by making a physical count yourself.

Be aware though that it's not always a bad thing to be located near to other galleries. Towns like St Ives in Cornwall have become famous for their art and galleries, and they attract thousands of art lovers each year. Just try to make sure that you don't stock items that are too similar to those stocked by your competitors.

Estimating demand

Your knowledge of the art scene in your local area may be such that you already have a good idea of how much demand there will be for the work you are planning to sell and you don't need to carry out any further market research. However, if not, you may wish to assess local market conditions by:

  • visiting other galleries to see how busy they are and to see how swift the turnover of art is
  • talking to the artists whose work you are planning to sell
  • contacting your local tourist board to try to obtain statistics showing the number of visitors to your area, by month, if possible

Why will customers choose your gallery

Customers may choose to buy from you rather than one of your competitors for a number of reasons, including:

  • the artwork that you stock. You will have your own ideas of what will sell and hopefully the pieces that you choose will prove popular with your customers
  • the amount of promotion you do. Promoting an artist's work - through exhibitions, printed advertisements and so on - can increase your sales and introduce an artist to a new audience
  • your location. You should look to open your gallery in an easily accessible area, preferably with ample parking nearby
  • your premises. It is important that customers feel comfortable walking into your gallery for the first time and that they feel able to walk round and see everything you have to offer. Your interior should be clean, well-maintained and well lit so that customers can enjoy the art fully
  • the nature of any other services you offer. You can broaden your potential customer base by offering extra facilities, such as a café
  • your opening hours
  • your prices
  • your connections

Print out the Record sheet to note down the results of your market research.

Depending on the nature of your gallery your customers are likely to be predominantly members of the public, although you may also have some business clients.

Members of the public might include:

  • passers-by and tourists
  • art enthusiasts including artists, collectors and so on making a pre-planned trip to your gallery

Your corporate clients may include:

  • professional interior designers
  • businesses such as restaurants that purchase art to decorate their own premises
  • businesses that maintain an art collection
  • other galleries

Advertising your gallery

Whatever the nature of your gallery, you must make sure that your potential customers know about you and the products and services you offer.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • launch your own website, showing 'thumbnail' images of the pictures and pieces of art that you have in the gallery
  • use a blog and social media to keep in touch with customers and art enthusiasts and to tell them about upcoming events
  • organise exhibitions of local artists' work and try to gain as much publicity for these as possible
  • contact local colleges to offer art students a discount on art equipment (if you decide to stock such items)

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profile

Depending on the nature of your gallery your customers are likely to be predominantly members of the public, although you may also have some business clients.

Members of the public might include:

  • passers-by and tourists
  • art enthusiasts including artists, collectors and so on making a pre-planned trip to your gallery

Your corporate clients may include:

  • professional interior designers
  • businesses such as restaurants that purchase art to decorate their own premises
  • businesses that maintain an art collection
  • other galleries

Advertising your gallery

Whatever the nature of your gallery, you must make sure that your potential customers know about you and the products and services you offer.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • launch your own website, showing 'thumbnail' images of the pictures and pieces of art that you have in the gallery
  • use a blog and social media to keep in touch with customers and art enthusiasts and to tell them about upcoming events
  • organise exhibitions of local artists' work and try to gain as much publicity for these as possible
  • contact local colleges to offer art students a discount on art equipment (if you decide to stock such items)

Sources of income

Your gallery's sales income is likely to come from a number of different sources. These might include some or all of the following:

  • sales of pieces that you have created yourself. You may be intending to sell your own art, either exclusively or in combination with other artists' work
  • commission from sales. A large amount of your income is likely to come from the commission earned from the sale of pieces of art created by artists other than yourself. Set the level of commission you charge so that it is sufficiently high to generate enough income for you to cover your overheads (including your own drawings) but not so high that it scares artists away. Typically, galleries charge at least 20% to 30% commission and sometimes quite a bit more. Be aware that, although some commercial artists may want input from you on the prices they should charge for their work, many will want at least a say in the selling price. Of course it's up to you whether or not you're prepared to display their work at a particular price
  • sales of prints, posters and cards made from originals
  • entry charges. You may decide to charge a small fee for entry to your gallery, although you should give this careful consideration as it may put off potential visitors. If you plan to open a fully commercial gallery where the aim is to sell art works then an entry fee is probably out of the question
  • sales of gift items. You may sell items such as crafts, postcards, ceramics and so on
  • sales of art equipment. This may prove popular with art students, amateur artists and possibly professionals, depending on the quality of the items stocked
  • picture framing services
  • picture restoration and valuation services
  • artists' workshops
  • sales in a café or restaurant

Pricing policy

When deciding on how to price the pieces of art that you sell, you should take into account the following:

  • the amount of commission that you charge on other artists' work must cover your overheads, including lighting and heating the gallery and your drawings. Most galleries charge a commission of at least 20% to 30% (and often more - 50% is quite common and commission may sometimes be as high as 60%). Be aware that, although some commercial artists may want input from you on the prices they should charge for their work, many will want at least a say in the selling price. Of course it's up to you whether or not you're prepared to display their work at a particular price
  • the mark-up percentage that you want to achieve on the cost of any artworks you buy outright to sell on to your customers
  • what sort of prices your prospective customers would expect to pay
  • how much input artists will have when it comes to setting prices for their work
  • if competitors sell the same or similar pieces as you, will you set your own prices broadly in line with theirs
  • any reasons that could justify you charging higher prices than your competitors. For example, you may be well known within local art circles or your gallery may be in a very prominent location
  • will your prices be fixed or will you be prepared to consider offers. If you're prepared to haggle over prices you'll need to check that this policy is acceptable to any artists whose work you sell on commission
  • will you offer discounts to any customers

You will also need to give some thought to the pricing of any other services you offer. Some points to consider are:

  • will the level of local competition influence your prices
  • is it worth setting low prices for some things (such as greetings cards, small prints and perhaps drinks in a cafe) in the hope that an increased number of customers will be attracted to your gallery

Discounts

You may decide to offer discounts to certain customers. For example, if you sell art equipment you might give a small discount to art students. You may also give discounts to customers who spend a large amount or who buy from you on a regular basis.

When deciding on how to price the pieces of art that you sell, you should take into account the following:

  • the amount of commission that you charge on other artists' work must cover your overheads, including lighting and heating the gallery and your drawings. Most galleries charge a commission of at least 20% to 30% (and often more - 50% is quite common and commission may sometimes be as high as 60%). Be aware that, although some commercial artists may want input from you on the prices they should charge for their work, many will want at least a say in the selling price. Of course it's up to you whether or not you're prepared to display their work at a particular price
  • the mark-up percentage that you want to achieve on the cost of any artworks you buy outright to sell on to your customers
  • what sort of prices your prospective customers would expect to pay
  • how much input artists will have when it comes to setting prices for their work
  • if competitors sell the same or similar pieces as you, will you set your own prices broadly in line with theirs
  • any reasons that could justify you charging higher prices than your competitors. For example, you may be well known within local art circles or your gallery may be in a very prominent location
  • will your prices be fixed or will you be prepared to consider offers. If you're prepared to haggle over prices you'll need to check that this policy is acceptable to any artists whose work you sell on commission
  • will you offer discounts to any customers

You will also need to give some thought to the pricing of any other services you offer. Some points to consider are:

  • will the level of local competition influence your prices
  • is it worth setting low prices for some things (such as greetings cards, small prints and perhaps drinks in a cafe) in the hope that an increased number of customers will be attracted to your gallery

Discounts

You may decide to offer discounts to certain customers. For example, if you sell art equipment you might give a small discount to art students. You may also give discounts to customers who spend a large amount or who buy from you on a regular basis.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing art gallery rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

Check whether artists who currently sell through the gallery will continue to use it when you take over - make sure the seller is not planning to set up elsewhere and bring some of them with him or her, and that there are not currently any unresolved disputes with artists

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

 

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