Questions to ask your curator

Questions to ask your curator

An artist asks:

I’m having my first exhibition soon. Are there any figures around what the average sales are for a first time exhibition? With hire fees, materials and framing being so expensive, not to mention all my time, I’m trying to work out how likely it is I will make my money back based on sales. Thanks!

This is an excellent question, and I wish more curators would have this discussion with their artists. We should be encouraging artists to think, ask and plan when it comes to their art and making money, rather than money being a dirty word.  

That said, an exhibition is not a zero-sum game, and while it would be great to cover your costs or even make a profit on your exhibition, there are other things to be gained from exhibiting, particularly when you are first starting out. This includes growing your reputation; gaining crucial experience in preparing for a show, creating a body of work and working with galleries; and building long-term relationships with gallerists, other artists and potential buyers.

When it comes to figures, galleries are traditionally quite secretive – there’s no readily accessible data that lists industry-wide statistics in terms of percentage of sales. The Australian Bureau of Statistics does collect data on galleries and museums, but that deals with visitation, funding, total sales and artist representation, which doesn’t help answer your question.  

Because there’s no industry-wide data, you will need to gather some data from the gallery you are planning on exhibiting at. Every gallery will have statistics that will help you benchmark your exhibition – that is, look at the results in comparison to other exhibitions in that gallery. The type of figures you might want to ask about before your exhibition include:

  • Average sales as a percentage per exhibition

  • Average sales in dollars per exhibition

  • Whether there’s a clear difference in averages between first time artists and more established artists

  • Whether certain mediums or themes tend to do better than others (although it’s likely the curator has already factored this in when booking in your exhibition)

This can provide a bit of guidance when you’re looking at your costs versus your expected income. Of course, an average is just that, and it’s not necessarily an indication of how well you will go. It’s totally okay to ask your curator these questions, and I’d be wary of any gallery that’s not willing to share this information with its own artists. 

In the interests of helping break open our industry’s secrecy, I’m happy to say the average sales in my gallery per exhibition is around 30%, but some shows sell nothing at all, while others sell 65% of the work. I think the more gallery owners share business information – with each other, if not more widely – the better our decision making will be, as it will be based on evidence, rather than our gut, and thus the better we can support our artists.

Gallery owners and artists alike should be gathering useful information all the time – whether it’s sales data, averages or industry trends. After your exhibition, feel free to ask the gallery for more data that can help you calibrate and make decisions about your future direction, such as:

  • How did your exhibition compare to others in the gallery?

  • Were there any notable buyers of your work, such as known collectors or other artists?

  • Would they be willing to show your work again? (and of course the reverse is also relevant – would you want to work with them again?)

Finding out your gallery’s averages will give you a guide but it can’t give you certainty, and there are so many factors that influence whether an exhibition will sell, including the quality of the work, the price of the work, the reputation of the artist, the marketing, and even external factors like the weather or the economy.

As an artist, there are many things that will influence what you make and where you show it, and no-one expects you to go into full business mode when you make decisions – you still need to be guided by your heart, your vision and your creative practice. But hopefully, knowing a little bit more about the inner workings of the gallery you choose to work with will give you more to work with and help you make good decisions.

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