PPP: Making Your Mark: Galleries 101

Large vases by Jonathan Kaplan.

What should you do with the work you produce? Sooner or later, this is probably a question you’ll ask yourself. As you practice and perfect your craft, only so many pieces can be given or sold to your family and close friends, or be allowed to accumulate in your home or studio. When you feel your work is ready for greater exposure, it may be time to explore selling to stores and galleries. It’s a big step to take, and there are many questions to ask, the first being, “Is my work ready?”  More importantly, “Am I ready?”

Getting Started

While it is difficult to quantify in general terms, as the creator of your pottery you must judge your work not only by your own set of aesthetic standards but also by the work that you see around you. You may think that your work is the greatest thing since sliced bread in the context of your own studio. Viewed relative to the larger picture of other ceramic work, though, it might not be.

Visit other galleries and stores in your geographic area and see the work represented. Look at the ceramics and observe the details of the work: the form, the glaze, the finish, and the craftsmanship. What is it about this work that makes it sellable? What are the visual sensibilities that appeal to you and to the store or gallery? Can you develop pricing for your work that is fair, competitive with other ceramic work, and, most importantly, profitable to make? Would your work fit with the other work? Once you can answer these questions with a degree of confidence, you may be ready to begin selling your work.

Within the studio, you’ll need to address the issues related to efficient production so you’re prepared for increased demand. In addition, you’ll need to do some background work outside of the studio to start developing business skills. It’s a big step for many potters and ceramic artists to learn to use both the right and left sides of their brains.

Work by Ryan Mitchell.

Building Relationships

Developing relationships with galleries can result in a number of benefits. The obvious one is, of course, economic. In addition to potential monetary rewards, though, you could benefit from the satisfaction you’ll receive from gaining a wider audience, as well as appreciation and acceptance of your work. Selling to stores and galleries is not only about short-term monetary benefits; it’s also about building relationships that become long-term business partnerships that can grow and be nurtured from both sides.

Many outlets are available to sell work these days: specialty catalogs, the Internet, home shows and your own gallery, to mention just a few. All of these methods will provide a presence to help build a career. Galleries and stores not only provide this presence for you but also establish and help maintain your credibility, which is essential in ensuring that your work will always have that special cache for consumers. Going to a retail venue and being able to actually see, touch and feel a prospective purchase resonates quite closely with consumers, building recognition and trust.

While the dynamic of commerce has not changed, our economic climate has. Purchasing work might not currently be a viable business practice for some stores and galleries. Consignment might be a more advantageous method, but you need to look very seriously at the details of the consignment contract. What are the terms? Who pays for shipping to the gallery? How long after a sale do you wait to be paid? You may need to shoulder more of the risk with consignment, but be totally transparent with your gallery about what you expect and never abandon standard business practices.

Everyone’s economic situation is different. Reaching a comfort level in a business arrangement with a store or gallery may take some time. Discovering an agreeable business sense within yourself may also be time-consuming, but it is worth it in the end.

Do Your Homework

When approaching a new store or gallery, be sure to always present a totally professional appearance and manner. The first impression you make with a store or gallery is vital. Never assume that a cold call is acceptable, because oftentimes it isn’t.

A complete sales package surely needs to include business cards; images in print and digital form; a website; and a complete listing of your terms of sale: minimum order quantity, return policy, delivery time and payment requirements. These will vary from artist to artist since everyone’s situation and preferences are different. Including your resume, mission statement, and any other written or published material by or about you is very helpful. All of these details provide a prospective seller with the total picture of who you are while letting them know that you are committed to your work and career.

After researching which stores or galleries you might wish to approach, craft a letter that explains your work, why it is a marketable product and why you think that particular venue would benefit by carrying it. You may even want to include a CD with images and documentation. Remember that you are investing in your career as a producing artist, and the first impression the gallery has of you will be what they remember. Don’t be pushy or obstinate, and never grovel. You are a professional. The same considerations apply if you participate in major wholesale craft events.

Interior of the Plinth Gallery, Denver, Colo.

What kinds of ceramic work are stores and galleries looking for? Given the plethora of ceramics available from sources both domestic and foreign, there is certainly no lack of choice. What is unique about your work? Why is it different? What can you show a potential gallery or store that will interest them in your work? Thinking outside of the box about what you make may inspire new ideas for you.

Over the years, venues selling handmade ceramics have acquired a certain look. Galleries and stores are two distinctly different venues, and work that is appropriate for one may not be appropriate for the other. It is far easier to plug into an existing sales framework than to try to create a new one. If what you make is different in both style and content, there may be opportunities even in an economy that is changing.

Evaluate Your Potential

Take a serious look at your production capabilities. If you participate in any one of the larger wholesale exhibitions and are able to garner a large number of orders, determine if you have the kiln space available to fire all of the work on a timely basis. Are you disciplined enough to develop and maintain a work cycle that is organized and productive? Do you have the production capabilities to fill your orders (from making the work-decorating, glazing and firing-to shipping)? How will you maintain a balanced life with the demands of family and personal time outside of the work environment?

Our economy is shrinking in all sectors, and arts and crafts is no exception. However, while sales opportunities may diminish, new opportunities will arise and demand that artists and craftspeople be extremely creative with their ideas. The work must still be innovative, different and have an appeal that is beyond the mundane. Good work sells and good design sells, but, ultimately, you are the salesperson. You are the only person who can convince a prospective buyer to purchase your work.

Whether we are making handmade ceramic giftware, decorative pottery, sculpture or functional ceramics, it is important to understand that we are still part of a global economy. The economic shift has not eliminated the need for beauty and art, or the need to acquire fine craft. When handled properly, selling to stores and galleries is still a viable way to promote your career.

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