7 Tips on Owning & Operating an Art Gallery

Written by Bobby Baker

After years of paying a 50% commission on my artwork exhibited and sold in other galleries, I was determined to have my own gallery where I kept all the sales dollars from my art - and where my work was always the main feature. Yes, there are now plenty of expenses and other things to deal with, but my business background of being a retired executive who ran a 21-location retail company provided me with plenty of business chops to deal with running a single gallery. But there are always surprises!

Here’s how I maneuvered the process in Cape Cod, Massachusetts and a few tips I can offer other creatives contemplating their own gallery. Whether it be in a famous coastal community, a peaceful mountain destination, or a bustling urban environment, these techniques apply.

1. Wait for the Right Location-Location-Location

My wife Dena and I set out to find a property on the Cape that not only had a building adequate to house a gallery but also would include a house in which we would now live. The search lasted for more than 2 ½ years, but eventually we found an antique Cape house with a barn both built in the mid 1800’s. Even better, the property was dual-zoned residential/business, and the location had good visibility. Now we’re on our way to opening an art gallery!

After getting town clearance to have the business, comes the necessary commercial insurance and if you choose, forming an LLC. If you are up for a gallery-owning adventure, be sure to have a serious discussion with your insurance agent and/or your attorney. 

2. Give Visitors a Full Experience

The first big decision was what to do with the barn; completely update the interior to “vanilla” walls or keep it as original as possible. After speaking with numerous people in and out of the art world it was unanimous: KEEP THE BARN ORIGINAL! And so, we did. With the big-time help of my father-in-law John and his buddy Curtis doing needed structural repairs, and having a professional electrician install the needed lights to show art, the “art-barn” was born and ready to exhibit art. 

The barn is a conversation piece for many visitors, and in its own way, it is art. Many people have a strong love for antique Cape Cod barns, and ours definitely has a personality that connects with many from its wide plank floors, wooden beams across the ceiling, and even the aged paint splashed walls that all say “art.” It is pretty cool, and so Cape Cod!

3. It’s All About Presentation - Choose Wisely when Displaying the Art

Hanging art on anything but flat, even walls and expecting it to stay, is a challenge. The Gallery System Art Displays hanging system solved the problems with their easy to customize art hanging approach. We highly recommend it for business and home application. 

Also an important aspect of the presentation of the art is how it’s framed and the quality of the framing materials. My prints are finished with Frame Destination products, usually black Wood Profile 503 with Crescent 4 or 8 ply mats with glass glazing. This combo always presents a high quality, gallery ready, product for our clients. Foam Board Self-Adhesive Permanent 3/16 - Mounting assures that the fine art print will not ever curl under glass, and Kraft Backing Paper Dust Cover Paper adds a very nice finishing touch and keeps dust out of the framed print. 

I am also fortunate to have my wife Dena’s gifted merchandising eye to create great art displays with her “special touch” that makes people feel more “Cape” when visiting our gallery – and she also does an amazing job as our in-house framer.  

4. Offer Authenticity 

There are a zillion art galleries on Cape Cod, most are open only for the season (late spring to late fall) with very few staying open all year long. Tourism drives the Cape in “season” not unlike other seasonal destinations, and that is when you want to be ready to rock for business! Since there are so many galleries here, it’s important to be something special, something that sets you apart from all the others. Our barn does provide some of that for us, but it is my black & white art that is well-known, and that which people come to see in our unique Cape Cod setting. It does set us apart from others.

My work had become well established through other galleries, exhibits, magazines, etc. and of course would now be the featured art of our new gallery. For our very first Cape season we decided to be a gallery that also featured numerous other Cape artists; painters, potters, fiber artist. This was part of the learning process. With each year we learned more about what worked, and what didn’t. Space, especially wall space, is very valuable and you can’t afford to use it for extended periods of time for art that is not selling. Also, we learned the importance of being unique. No matter how talented an artist may be, if their work is in every shop, gallery, and roadside stand, you have nothing unique to show your clients – they’ve already seen it! Regarding any artist that you may represent, it is vital that you are well-versed on their “story” as it is so important to be able to successfully present that to potential clients.

5. Curate as Needed when Demand Shifts

Working with other artists is interesting as well. If their work is not selling, they look to you to be sure that you are promoting it, merchandising it properly, and doing all that you are supposed to do as a gallery manager to sell the art. There are so many reasons as to why a piece won’t sell or will sell. We had one very talented painter who we couldn’t keep enough of her work on the wall as almost every piece sold as soon as we got it. Conversely, we had another painter whose work would just not move, could not find the right “connection.” Their work got plenty of compliments but no dollars, and such is the way it goes sometimes. With each new season, we slimmed our artist roster and used more space for my work, which was selling well. Eventually we decided we needed the entire gallery just for my work to be able to show a larger selection as it became clear that people were coming to BBG for my work, and not a collection of others; there were plenty of other galleries on the Cape to see paintings, pottery, and other cool artwork.

6. Have a Flexible Advertising Plan 

Getting the word out about one’s business is also challenging as there is no shortage of avenues to advertise, but we have a budget to adhere to for what we can spend on ads. It’s so important to do your research and find out where your dollar can reach the most people - and the most appropriate audience. We get bombarded each spring with every magazine and tourist pamphlet outlet looking for us to buys ads. Social media can also be a help if you have cultivated a following for your art. 

As with any new business you are starting from “0” and working to grow each year, or season. By the year 2020 we had several years of experience and were nicely entrenched in the Cape art scene. We continually tweaked our presentation to best accommodate what our client base was drawn to. We happen to live in one of those states that overreacted to a virus with mandated lockdowns, closing most businesses. By the time there was even a little wiggle room for businesses to reopen with limited hours and crazy restrictions, our “season” had passed and we, like so many others, had lost a year. Losing a year’s revenue is pretty damaging, but the negative effects of being closed for an extended period doesn’t just end. In many ways, you are starting over again rebuilding an awareness of your business’ existence. Just another challenge of having your own business in this day and age. 

If there was a positive to come from the dormant 2020, it would be the creation of the Bobby Baker Gallery online store ( www.BobbyBaker.Gallery ) which provided access to our art 24/7 for everyone, not just Cape residents and visitors. We shipped art across the US and Europe by way of the online gallery. I really didn’t want to have an online gallery/store, but as the days went by without any sales while being closed, it sure made sense to get the online version of BBG up and running ASAP!

7. Stay Positive

By the time the summer of 2021 rolled around people had had enough of being constrained and were ready to hit the beaches and live again…and yes, the Cape “summer people” and the tourists visiting us were ready to buy art! In so many ways, art can lift one’s soul. I have seen the look in a client’s eyes when they connect with a piece as the image takes them to a special time or place…its very cool. And it felt as if many people wanted a piece of the Cape by way of my art. It was a very good year for our gallery. 

As I write this article, our 2022 summer season on Cape Cod has begun. All signs point to things being closer to “normal” than they have been the past few years, meaning lots of summer tourists and hopefully a lot of art lovers. There is no question that the Cape is a special place. It has its own distinctive vibe, its own style, and it lends itself so well to creating art. Once you come “over the bridge” and spend a little time here, you’ll know what I mean…and once you feel that Cape magic you may never want to leave!  

About the Author

Learn more about the author and see more of his work in our Artie’s Eight Artist Spotlight featuring Bobby Baker.

Last Updated July 12, 2022