I have had several galleries and spaces offer me the chance to pay for membership, join a co-op, rent a space or pay for a booth, and my answer to all of them has been the same, “I don’t pay to show my work”. As an artist if your work is good enough you will get shows, if not either look at the kind of work you are doing or the places you are trying to show your work. The truth is that once you start heading down that path to pay to show your work, there is no coming back.
Having said that, like anything else there are some exceptions to the rule.
1. Pay for entry to a competition or call for artist. many galleries are doing this these days, as a way to find new talent, but you have to be careful. There are three areas of this to look at.
a. Galleries. If a gallery does nothing but have pay competitions stay away from them, they will get you nowhere. However if a gallery has normal exhibits, and once a year offers the chance for artists to submit works to help them find new talent than they might be worth it. That does not mean to blindly enter, do your homework. See if the gallery is a fit for your work, but also see if the jurist has a liking to your kind of work. I once entered a exhibit where the gallery did not normally show my kind of work, but the jurist did. I did not get accepted to the show, because the jurist did not feel it was the right fit for the space, but they did introduce my work to a gallery friend of theirs that they thought would like my work, and I got a piece in a group show.
b. Art Associations and Art Leagues. It is good as an emerging artists to belong to one or two art groups. Again do your homework and see what they have to offer. Most will have a members show once a year, and some will even put together smaller member shows for a group of artists, some will even feature a member. While more than likely you won’t get a solo show, there are galleries and museums that go to these shows to scout new talent, and sometimes people in the group belong to galleries or museums and will talk about your work. Being part of groups has gotten me 30% of my shows, because people saw my work, and recommended me to someone else. The memberships are good for a year, and if things are going good, keep it, if not or if you want to spread yourself out some join a different one the next year.. but don’t over do it.. joining to many can be overwhelming..
c. Community centers, government organizations, state art programs. These are usually community based programs and public works. These are good if you want to get into public projects. I have done a few small ones, and have sold some pieces through them, I have also meet people who have introduced me to galleries and museums. Once you get accepted to one public project, the more likely you will get others.
2. While I have never rented a space, and don’t see myself doing it, I have made agreements to do my own advertisement for exhibits with the understanding that the gallery or space gets no percent of sales. I have not done this in NY, mostly Asia and once in Europe. It worked well for me, and the space was great. Again do your research.
3. The last has nothing to do with money. I have twice had a gallery state that they liked my work and wanted to add it to their collection, but instead of buying the work would give me a solo show and pay for everything, and let me keep 100% of the sales unto the price of the art in the collection. As an artist one of the greater things to hear is that someone wants to add your work to their permanent collection, and to have a show around that is great. One show I did not make much, the other I sold 10 pieces. While I did not make a lot of money on one, my work is in their collection for all clients to see, and I got some great connections out of it. I have also had people contact me long after the show to do a studio visit.
You may ask why some galleries have entry fees or ask you to exchange art for shows, remember that galleries have to make money to be open and to handle the entries for exhibits. This does not mean that they are not successful just that they are trying to reduce cost to themselves while staying in business.
There are those who will argue that well if you sell work at a gallery they get a percentage, so what is the difference between that and paying to show your work, the answer is simple. Galleries that ask for payment to show your work will usually take anyone that can afford it, galleries that take a percentage are putting up the money to hold the show, and putting their faith in your works ability to sell, it says they thing your work is worth the investment. Know that putting on a show is not cheap. The average show will cost anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 dollars to put on. Think I am wrong, think about this, the gallery has to pay rent (depending on the location can be expensive), pay their gallery staff, utilities, printing of invites, advertisement, postage, refreshments for opening, security, insurance, maintenance, handling of the art. When they are choosing an artist for a show they are putting more than money on the line, they are putting their reputation and possible business on the line. If nothing sells they are out all that money.