I “met” Laurel as I “meet” many of my dear, good friends–online, geeking out over the stuff we are intensely passionate about. In our case, we wandered into each other’s orbits, over at the now-defunct sonic cosmos of 8tracks, constellations winking and shimmering excitedly in our shared tastes in music and art. This was in 2010 and I still recall the very mix that began our friendship–I went under a different internet handle at that time, and I was just on the cusp of becoming the ghoul next door that I am today– and in that initial encounter, Laurel introduced me to a strange and wonderful new-to-me artist (which I later wrote about!) and who remains a favorite today. Music and art. Two of the things that we continue to geek out over, nearly a decade later!
It was not a huge surprise to me then, that a few years later, Laurel opened her own art gallery! I was thrilled, amazed, and proud–but not a bit surprised. Laurel, an artist and designer herself, is a shrewd businessperson with a deep love of community and fostering connections, and believes in the vital importance of art and artists creating it.
And so, I am a heady combination of pleased, excited, and thoroughly honored that Laurel has shared her thoughts at Unquiet Things today, in our monthly installment of Ten Things:
10 Things I’ve learned from Owning an Art Gallery
Laurel Barickman is the Creative Director of the Austin, Texas based design agency Recspec, and for three years she’s also been the owner, operator, and curator of Recspec Gallery. She has put together over 20 shows for the gallery, working with local, national, and international artists across every type of medium, with a focus on uplifting new and unestablished artists – especially women artists, queer artists, and artists of color.
When I decided to start an art gallery a few years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I was looking for a space to have an office and also meet with my clients for my design agency, and when I found the right space, it had – prior to me moving in – been a gallery. I had always had an interest in curation, and had been in shows myself, and there was definitely a far-away dream in the back of my mind to one day own a gallery, but I definitely didn’t think it was the time or that I was ready yet! But I decided to take the leap based on the community around me and the amazing artists that I know. It hasn’t been easy, and a year or so ago, we lost our location – and it took almost a full year for me to find a new one, a task at one point I thought was impossible because of the rising rents in Austin. But the biggest thing I noticed during that time that we were closed was how much I missed it, and how much I wanted to do it again.
So here are a few things I’ve learned in the process. I hope that it might help any budding gallerists out there!
You will buy a lot of art.
As I’ve told my husband any time I announce that I’m buying ANOTHER piece of artwork, in order to sell art, you have to drink the kool-aid and buy art yourself. A gallerist who doesn’t buy art (which I doubt exists) doesn’t really understand the consumer-art relationship, which is so essential to be able to sell art in the first place. Understanding the other side of that relationship is important – what people are looking for, what price-points work for them, why they connect with certain pieces over others, what mediums are most popular, etc. If we don’t believe in the value of art, supporting artists, and buying art, how can we expect anyone else to?
Supporting your artists is the most important thing.
My main job as a gallery owner is to make sure that my artists are taken care of, supported, and have everything they need to fulfill their vision of their show at my gallery. Galleries take a split of every sale, and it is important to earn that split through our actions that support the artist. I handle all of the marketing for the show, getting the gallery space ready for their work, installing, lighting, I assist with pricing if they need it, photographing all of the works and getting them online for non-local sales, getting sponsorships and setting up our opening and closing events, and more. It’s a huge amount of work to put on a show, and it’s important to me that the artist only has to worry about creating the work. We take care of the rest, which is how it should be. I also encourage collaborations, and if an artist has a vision for creating something special for the show, I do what I can to make it happen.
Community is essential.
Without the attendees to our shows and visitors to our gallery, we would not exist. Building the community that we have took time, but without knowing that I had a dedicated audience who would show up for our openings and be supportive of what we do, I would not have felt confident opening a new location. I’m so appreciative of this community, and try to foster and continue to build it through talking to everyone who comes through the door, asking how they heard about us, thanking them for their interest, and building a connection. I am not the type of gallerist who barely acknowledges a visitor, I am right there to answer any questions or give any information they may need. As a natural introvert, it can be difficult to put myself out there in this way and spend hours talking to so many people, but I feel like it’s been a huge contributor to building the community we now have.
It doesn’t always have to make sense.
When we had our first ever show, I came up with a name for it – loosely based on a film quote, maybe? Just a saying I liked? It was The Eyes Have It — and I remember telling a few people about it and them telling me it didn’t really make any sense. I went with my gut and it was an amazing first show, that I left to my artists as an ambiguous theme that really paid off in the end. Art is weird. It often doesn’t make sense. Trust your ideas, your taste, and your artists. Magic will blossom from the strange ideas you may have.
Selling art is hard.
This is something that anyone who wants to start an art gallery won’t want to hear, but it’s true. Art – while it feels vital to many of us – at the end of the day, is a non-essential, and a luxury. Convincing someone that they should spend X 100’s of dollars on a piece of art for their walls is a challenge, and requires the right circumstances. There has to be a connection for the buyer, there has to be money involved, and you have to make it as easy and no pressure as possible. Sometimes I haven’t sold a single piece from a show that took months to prepare. Sometimes I’ve sold X 1000 plus dollar pieces. It’s a complete unknown, and very hard to predict. For that reason, I try to make sure I have a lot of different price points represented in the gallery and our shop at all times so that everyone can afford something, even if it is just a small enamel pin. Buying art is a privilege, and some people just aren’t able to. Making it as accessible to as wide of a range of folks as possible is important to me, and helps with sales in the end.
While I didn’t start my journey owning an art gallery with getting grants — I’ve realized that if there are some available to you, through your city, state, or country — its important to try to take advantage of those resources. It is a huge amount of work to do grant-writing, but as I said above, it’s hard to sell art. Money is needed to own and operate a gallery, so finding some help, even if it’s not a huge amount, can help immensely.
Develop relationships with buyers.
Remember the people who bought pieces, and remember what they bought. Maybe you’ll have another show and you’ll think “Oh, I bet so-and-so would love this.” Reach out to them personally, say hi, invite them by. They might not buy another piece, but they might.
Support other galleries.
Much like buying art, if you don’t go to other gallery’s shows, how can you expect them to come to yours? It all ties back into the community, and it’s important to show up and foster that network with other galleries. I’ve never felt in competition with the other galleries in my city because we all do different things. I try to remember what their openings are so I can tell people about them and create those conduits between us. And often I know that they, in turn, do the same for me.
It doesn’t hurt to ask.
I’ve been so lucky to show some incredible artists in my gallery — from Australia, to New York, to California — some with such big followings that it seemed silly to even ask. But I did, and they said yes. All you can do is ask, be confident, and make it easy. They’ll either ignore you or say no if they aren’t interested (which has definitely happened to me), or they will say yes and you’ll get to show your community an artist they probably never expected to see.
Art is important. And so are the curators.
It may seem obvious, but my biggest take away from starting a gallery, is that art IS important, collecting it in a space that is accessible to all kinds of people is important, and even if someone cannot buy a piece, just being able to show them that work, connect them with an artist, foster those connections, and hopefully help financially support artists in the process is important. It’s a ton of work. It’s hard to make money. But it is worth it.
Thank you for reading, and for any budding gallerists out there, if you have any questions feel free to reach out. firstname.lastname@example.org.