New Emissary

Want to Open A Gallery?

Owning an art gallery is tougher than it seems – literally. So there is one surprising skill that all aspiring gallerists should have.

I get a lot people asking me for advice on opening a gallery. I tend to respond with the usual platitudes: You have to know about art, you have to love dealing with artists and customers, you have to have a good eye for talent, you have to have money in the bank (for those months when nothing sells), you need to know about promotion and you have to be able to work with many different kinds of people.

Some think that running a gallery looks like such a clean and easy job: sitting at a desk, looking at the computer, wearing nice clothes, talking with clients, meeting fascinating people. Yes, it is all true, but that’s only the part you can see. I’m here to tell you that it’s tough work.

And if you really want to own a galley, the first thing is you’ll need, that may be surprising, is to be sure you’re in good shape. I never realized how much physical work is involved in being a gallerist. Think of a swan. This beautiful bird on the water looks so serene and regal, but underneath the surface of the water, the swan’s feet are working a mile a minute. It’s the same for the gallerist.

Behind the scenes in an art gallery, there is a lot of dirty work that is almost all physical.

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For example, to get ready for our most recent sale prior to our move, we had to deliver the announcement flyers to the newspaper companies for insertion. The total weight of the flyers was 26 kilograms and we had to bring a portion of them to four separate locations of the newspaper distribution companies. The routine was like this: run in with the flyers, pay the fee, get back into the taxi and go to the next location. On this particular day, there was a typhoon, so we also had to jump over puddles and battle the rain.

We are in the midst of moving the gallery to a new location and we have been packing more than 100 artworks for the new show. I also had to unload 500 copies of the inaugural catalog that we are sending out to our clients. 100 copies weigh about 18 kilograms and I’ve made multiple trips to the delivery service on my bike with catalogs for customers stuffed into my knapsack.

Once the works for the show have been selected and arrive in the gallery, we unpack them. Even if the works are packed in corrugated cardboard boxes, the large works require two people and a certain amount of dexterity. You have to get them out of the boxes without damaging anything. In some cases, there is un-crating. (Works from Indonesia and Vietnam almost always come in a wooden crate.) This requires special tools and a lot of strength and leverage to remove the works from the crates. This unpacking and un-crating sometimes is repeated 12-20 times since each show has at least 12 works—and often as many as 20. Then after un-crating and unpacking, the crates are broken up with a saw so we can have them picked up by a waste disposal company.

Want to Open a  Gallery

Hanging and displaying the artwork is next and when some of the works weigh more than 20 kilograms, I have to stand on my toes and stretch my limbs. The works have to be ‘straight’ and look good with enough space in between the works. Sometimes moving one work even slightly, requires adjusting and moving all of the others.

When an artwork is selected by a client, we repeat the same process in reverse: Take it down, re-hang some of the other works, pack up the work selected by the client, call FedEx or one of the local delivery companies, and then ship it or bring it to the client’s home or office.

We’re glad when we can place a work in someone’s home—that’s the goal, but when we don’t, we wrap it up and carry it into one of our storage areas. By the time I finish all the steps, I need a shower, but there’s always one more job that needs to be done that you might not like—like cleaning the toilets.

If you are thinking of opening a gallery, here’s my advice: get in shape, even hire a personal trainer first.

Being a gallerist also involves a fair amount of travel in selecting work, and over the next few months I’ll write about my recent travels in Southeast Asia to visit our artists and find new ones.