The Numbers: Why I No Longer Show My Work

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Photo by Cramyourspam.

I haven’t shown my work in galleries for a very long time. I haven’t had much luck in galleries. It tends to cost me more to show than I earn, so even though in recent years I’ve gotten a handful of invitations to be in group shows, I’ve turned them all down in favor of illustration work. Here’s why.

I got a $7,000 advance on my first picture book from a small boutique publisher. After my agent’s 20%, that’s leaves $5,600, which might not sound like much, but let’s break it down compared to a gallery show:

I did 12 spreads, end papers and a cover for the book. Let’s call that the equivalent of 14 paintings. The gallery owner takes 50% of the sale of each painting. You have to pay for mailers and more importantly (and expensively) frames. Let’s call the cost of those frames and mailers $1,200 (a modest estimate). It costs more if the gallery decides to put out a catalog and it doesn’t sell all the catalogs. If you work on canvas, you can get away with showing without the frames, but you still have to buy, or build canvases, pay for your paint, brushes and tools. And those tools are expensive, because there’s nothing that cries legitimacy like oil paint. Works on paper? You might as well be selling at a craft fair.

If you’re not selling work, what you have is a very expensive hobby.

If you’re very, very fortunate, your show will sell out, but typically this doesn’t happen. So let’s say you sell half of your paintings. Seven paintings of various sizes for an average of $1,000 each. From the $7,000, subtract $1,200 (frames and mailers) and the 50% (the gallery’s cut) and you take home $2,900. You also have to store the paintings that you didn’t sell, and you have the responsibility of trying to sell those, either at another venue, or at an open studio. If you don’t sell anything, you just eat that $1,200.

So, while my agent takes 20%, I get a royalty after the book recoups its advance. That royalty for this small-press publisher is 10% (and my agent still takes 20% of that). With a larger publisher it’s more likely to be 8%. If you’re just the illustrator (and not the author/illustrator) the royalty is 4% to 5%. I don’t know how well the book will sell, therefore I don’t know what that royalty might be, but the advance, despite my agent’s fee, is already much more than I would have made at a gallery show—and the whole time I haven’t had to leave the house, which for me, is a plus. Sure, eventually I’ll being making school visits, and maybe do a few book signings and whatever else is entailed in promoting the book. Throughout the process of making the book I had to negotiate with editors and art directors so it’s not exactly the same thing as sitting your studio and making a painting from start to finish without anyone else to answer to. Sort of.

Whatever you paint, you still have an audience and you still have to sell it. If you’re selling original work in the  $1,000 range, the people who buy it aren’t necessarily wealthy. How it will look in their home above their sofa might be more of a consideration than your unique vision.

It’s not easy to get into the children’s book market, any more than it’s easy to get into a gallery that can actually sell your work. But at this point, the book I’m making is my book, and is essentially the book I wanted to make. It was a collaborative effort with the editor and art director, but I think the book benefited from that process. It doesn’t need to hang over one person’s sofa, but instead will find its way to a few thousand readers. There will be no wine. There will be no cheese. Some of them will check it out of the library. Some of them will buy it at a flea market or a garage sale. Some of them will get it as a present from their grandparents. If that’s a compromise, I’m OK with that.

If you make art, and get paid for it, you’re running a business. There’s no pretending here. the gallery owner is your sales rep. If you don’t paint paintings that they can sell, they’re not going to continue to give you wall space on a regular basis out of the kindness of their hearts. If you’re not selling work, what you have is a very expensive hobby. Most of us don’t get paid that much, but I’d rather make an income from making pictures, than lose money schlepping paintings I can’t sell from gallery to gallery.

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