Gallery Representation: The How and Why

“Best of Chicago Art Magazine” series. Originally appeared on the site 11/22/2010

Jeriah Hildwine

[this is Part 1, in Hildwine’s series about gallery representation. Part 2 is here ]

A quick look at the Wikipedia disambiguation page gives some idea of just how many different meanings the word “representation” has.  Not found on that page is the use of the word to mean representation of an artist by a gallery.  It is easy to imagine that relationship as being similar to legal representation:  that the gallery acts as a lawyer, interceding on the part of an artist before a judgemental public.  This is similar to the sense in which an agent represents an actor, writer, musician, or athlete, acting as an intermediary between the creative or performing individual and the organization which directs the income stream resulting from their efforts.

Art dealer Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton) gives artist Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg) the recognition he's been craving, in this scene from the 2009 film (Untitled). Photo courtesy Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films.

But the word “representation” also has a meaning in politics, referring to the mechanism by which an individual can make his or her voice heard, shaping policy to reflect the way each person believes the world ought to be.  It may be optimistic, but hopefully not naively idealistic, to believe that a gallery can provide an artist with representation in this sense as well:  by providing a venue through which artists can exhibit their work, and by facilitating connections with collectors, galleries can enable the transmission of an artist’s ideas to receptive viewers, and hopefully allow the artist to make a living in the process.

Viewed in this way, it is easy to see why many artists are eager to secure for themselves representation by a gallery.  In addition to the pragmatic benefits of an exhibition space and the potential to develop a collector base, the idea of being represented by a gallery promises artists other, less tangible benefits.  Certainly it functions as a legitimizing gatekeeper, separating “real” artists from the wannabes, the dilettantes, the Sunday painters and amateur photographers.  This is of concrete benefit to an artist’s career, as being represented by a respectable gallery confers a certain amount of reputation if not street cred, but it can have other benefits as well.

Having a respected, commercial, for-profit gallery offer you a solo exhibition and/or representation is immensely gratifying for an artist.  It is a great emotional affirmation to have a gallery tell you that they believe in you, believe in your work, enough to invest in you and take the risk that they will be able to sell your work.  It is a greater, more significant achievement, benchmark of success, and affirmation of merit than the accolades of one’s peers, acceptance into a graduate program, inclusion in a group show, even selling one’s work.  It is like a great big warm hug from the entire world, gently stroking the back of your head and telling you that you’ve made it, that you’re good, and you’re worthy.  It warms the very cockles of one’s heart, and there is no better feeling in the world.

Actually, I wouldn’t know.  In the three and a half years since I earned my MFA from MICA, I’ve been living and working in Chicago, trying to work my way into the art scene in this city, with the goal of securing gallery representation for myself.  It remains, in corporate parlance, an “unrealized achievement,” at least for the time being.  I’m there, in the trenches, with you.  I’m fighting the same fight you are.  In this series of essays, I’m going to be asking the same questions you’ve been asking:  How do I get that solo show?  How do I get gallery representation?  Is it necessarily a requirement for a successful and fulfilling art career?  Are there alternatives?  I’ve contacted some local artists I know who have gallery representation in Chicago, in the hopes that they’ll share with me the stories of how they got their galleries, and how the experience has been for them.  I’m going to seek out the answers to these questions, and many more, and in doing so am going to do everything I can to help you get that show, that gallery…right after I get mine.