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How to run an art gallery

An art gallery is obviously best suited to those for a passion for art, especially artists themselves.

Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet... Try and think of the most famous artists in history and the chances are British names won't be the first to come to mind.

But the UK is certainly no artistic backwater. London, Manchester and Glasgow can more than hold their own against Europe's most cultural cities in this regard.

There are thriving art scenes in a number of towns, too. In St Ives in Cornwall, for example, the streets are dominated by small shops-cum-galleries that have grown up around the Tate Gallery and the arts scene that has burgeoned there since the 1960s.

More people in the UK now go to art galleries than football matches, something reflected in the rise in the number of galleries over the last decade. 

Aspiring art gallery entrepreneurs often rent in post-industrial, inner city areas because they're more affordable than prominent retail locations

Virtual shop windows

Most galleries are a vehicle for groups of artists, who usually met at college and subsequently set up a collective to sell their creations. Thanks to the internet, those connections are increasingly virtual.

Websites such as and the charmingly named act as shop windows for artists. ZeroOneArt says it offers a "fine range of independent artists advertising their own artworks for sale", as well as "original art and reproduction prints which are available to buy directly, and securely, from the artists themselves."

Artshole, on the other hand, has a less obviously commercial niche and is backed up by a non-virtual gallery on London's Brick Lane. Art will always be something people want to see in the flesh.

Brick Lane, famous for Bangladeshi cuisine, trendy bars and the book and film of the same name, is a hotbed of activity for the younger, more bohemian art firmament. The Custard Factory, in Birmingham's post-industrial inner city, attracts a similar crowd.

Aspiring art gallery entrepreneurs often rent in these areas because they are more affordable than high street locations.

Mainstream artists, or those looking at selling art to the older consumer, might be best suited to market towns off the beaten track or quieter tourist resorts. Just be mindful that in tourist areas the seasonal nature of trade means revenues will fluctuate.

Once an area becomes established, costs shoot up, so it might make more sense to look at even more marginal areas, such as former industrial towns. Finding reasonably priced property is important because it is often quite hard to make a good profit from selling art.

Will Kemp of Benny Browne, an art studio in Congleton, Cheshire, says that the lack of competition and low rents in the area means that getting established is far easier than in London or Manchester.


"Status anxiety"

"It's easy to feel intimidated if you're surrounded by swanky, plush galleries," he says. "A certain 'status anxiety' creeps in, which is really counter-productive.

"I think it's liberating to live and work in a fresh and more open-minded area. Up here, you can be true to yourself and concentrate on your own vision, rather than on the supposedly better or trendier thing happening down the road."

Will has three key pointers for aspiring gallery owners: "First, make sure you have the capital and then the income to realise your dream.

"Second, make sure that the type and quality of art you want to show is actually being made and is available to you. And third, don't expect people to be banging on your door every day. Some days you see no one; some days it's busy. Don't let the slow days get you down."

Benny Browne has other sources of income besides the gallery, including design work, bespoke commissions and limited edition prints, as well as hiring out the studio space to freelance clients. Other, similar galleries sell clothing or have a sideline in graphic design to keep the books balanced at the end of the month.

It's worth bearing in mind that being in the art sector means you can apply for a host of grants and awards - most notably from the Arts Council and the National Lottery. Increasingly, city councils see art as key to regenerating run-down areas, so it's also possible to find initiatives that provide cheap space for creative industries. While this type of funding may not last for ever - and is by no means certain in the first place - it can be vital in bridging the gap between starting up and making a profit. But failing that, drawing up a business plan and approaching the bank is as essential as ever.

Running an art gallery requires patience, determination and luck, sometimes for scant financial reward - rather like being an independent artist.

The market for art, which is far from an essential good, is sensitive to recession - at least in theory. The market has been hit by the global recession, but some have suffered more than others.

"Where business is doing well is in artists that have established names. But people are looking for top quality and objects that have not already been on sale at other auctions recently," says Jan Scharf at Berne auction house Dobiaschofsky.

"The crisis has mainly hit contemporary artists - names like Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons."

Aficionados are still willing to spend big on a piece they've fallen in love with.

But art can also be a status signifier. Some people draw satisfaction from simply exercising their ability to afford an expensive piece of art.

Either way, margins on art can be high if you have a keen eye for the market.

Getting the right type of art for your customers can be difficult as there are so many styles - and this is about your customers' tastes, not yours.

Entrepreneurial art lovers will relish bringing their passion and knowledge to bear in gauging the market, sourcing appropriate art for their customers and pitching it at the right price.

As for artists, owning a gallery is a great way to get their work straight on the market.

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Adam Bannister

About the author

Adam Bannister writes for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other industry publications.


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