Artists generally try to put their work where art collectors go, which is why getting into a commercial gallery tends to be so important to many of them. However, it is never clear that all their potential collectors will go that one gallery, and then there are the people who might become collectors if only they went to art galleries. Many artists find that they cannot rely on one place to provide all their public exposure and all their sales but must continually seek out new and different venues to show and sell their artwork. Kim Osgood of Portland, Ore., has had good luck finding buyers for her monotypes at the Lisa Harris Gallery in Seattle, Washington and the Margo Jacobsen Gallery in Portland, selling 20 or so (at $1,200-1,400 apiece) at one-person shows and one every month or so at the galleries during the intervals between exhibitions. Those intervals can last up to two years, so it has proven quite welcome that, in the one year Kim Osgood has been exhibiting her artwork at the Seattle Art Museum's sales and rental gallery, eight works have been sold and some smaller amounts of money have shown up as rental income.
"There is a different pool of buyers -- especially, corporate collectors -- at the Seattle Art Museum than you find at the Lisa Harris Gallery," Osgood said. "I get another chance to make a sale."
The museum's sales and rental gallery was established in 1970 for the twin purposes of helping to create opportunities for artists and create additional revenue for the institution. It has accomplished the second by achieving the first, since the gallery takes a 40 percent commission on sales (more than 300 artworks are sold annually) and rentals, generating over $100,000 in income for the museum. The sales and rental gallery serves as a perquisite for museum membership, because only members may rent artworks or purchase them on a year-long installment plan (one needn't join the museum to purchase a work outright).
"There is a limited number of commercial galleries and nonprofit spaces in Seattle," said Barbara Shaiman, director of the museum's sales and rental gallery, "and this represents a way for the museum to support local artists, and the local gallery community, too. The museum is easy to find, and we tell people about the area galleries." In fact, it was gallery owner Lisa Harris herself who originally contacted Shaiman about showing the work of Kim Osgood -- the two galleries make a split of the commission from any sales of the artist's work. "A number of our regular clients were referred to us by the sales and rental gallery after they showed interest in an artist we represent," Harris noted, adding that she "may place a work at the sales and rental gallery that's been at our gallery for a while and hasn't sold."
Approximately 160 regional artists have consigned their work to the Seattle Art Museum's sales and rental gallery, and "almost all of them receive some money in the course of the year," Shaiman said, the majority of which is from rentals. Rather than purchasing pieces outright, a number of the museum's corporate members prefer to rent artwork for office decor, returning them after the three-month rental period in exchange for others. These companies may take 20 or more pieces at one time, paying the sales and rental gallery between seven and nine percent of the purchase price for the three months; that money is then paid to the various artists, less the gallery's commission. The amounts that artists receive is often low -- Carl Kock of Chicago and Nina Weiss of Highland Park, Ill., received checks for $20 and $35 per month, respectively, when their work was shown at the now-closed sales and rental gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago -- but may add up over time.
The price range for works in museum sales and rental galleries is generally on the lower side, $600-3,000 at Seattle, $500-5,000 at the Delaware Art Museum and $200-600 at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum in Mason City, Iowa, and the majority of sales tend to be in the lower to middle area. A higher price point may work against an artist whose market is strong, making sales and rental galleries a more appropriate jumping-off place for emerging artists.
There are a number of benefits and a few drawbacks for artists in showing their work at a museum sales and rental gallery. Certainly, there is the opportunity for considerable exposure, since far more people visit art museums than art galleries, and a certain percentage may stop by the museum's gallery to see what's on view. Museums tend to be less intimidating to the general public than commercial art galleries, which attract a more select group of visitors.
Most galleries don't have regular leasing agreements for the art they carry, which limits their ability to attract corporate clients (some of whom do eventually purchase the art they start out renting). In some cities, there may not even be many commercial art galleries where area artists can show and sell their work, making the local museum the main cultural venue. In 2000, the sales and rental gallery of the Delaware Art Museum was voted Best Gallery by the readership of the News-Journal, the state's largest newspaper.
Additionally, although there is rarely any curatorial involvement in the selection of artists or the operation of sales and rental galleries (they are usually started and run by a museum volunteer committee with, perhaps, one paid employee), artists recognize the value of being associated with an art museum. "My work was shown in a prestigious museum," Nina Weiss said, "so I'm happy to keep it on my resume."
However, it is for the very reason that some institutions do not wish to be associated with otherwise untested artists that they have closed their sales and rental galleries. "There is a belief at some museums that the artwork in the sales and rental gallery isn't at a professional level, that it's not in keeping with the rest of the museum," said Patty Howard, gallery manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's sales and rental gallery. "Even here, we feel a little insecure." When the Art Institute of Chicago opened its gallery in the 1950s, "Chicago was a much more sleepy place in terms of an art community, and there was a real need for the museum to do something for artists," a spokeswoman for the museum said. However, as more galleries emerged and the museum sought to focus its attentions on internationally renowned artists rather than perform a favor for locals, justifying the continued presence of the sales and rental gallery became more difficult. The space was converted into an architectural studies center in 1990.
Portions excerpted from the author's 'The Fine Artist' Career Guide'