When artists shop for a gallery to represent them, it's helpful if when they first visit they avoid acting or looking like an artist and instead take on the behavior of a collector. This can help you to learn how attentive a gallery’s staff is, and it allows you to assess how much they know about the artists whose work they carry. If the staff suspects you are an artist, you may be written off or even ignored—a bad sign, as many artists are also avid collectors.
While on a plein air painting trip a few years ago, a fellow artist and I visited a gallery after painting. It was obvious that we were artists—we had painting clothes on. While we were looking at the artwork, the gallery manager came over to us and said, “You're just here to play, right?" I was insulted, not only because this member of the staff was suggesting that artists are not viable collectors but also because I had actually purchased a painting at this gallery a year before through this same fellow.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a few passionate art collectors who are not artists, and I’ve observed that they do not look at paintings in the same manner as artists do. When artists enter a gallery (often in groups), each artist tends to begin at one end of the gallery and look at every single painting (and then the price) while practically putting his or her nose to the artwork. Then the artists talk about how the artwork is painted and what they think of the skill level of the painters. This type of behavior will certainly identify you as an artist.
The typical nonartist collector walks into the gallery, smiles at the gallery personnel, and then surveys the entire gallery at once, glancing in every direction. When something catches his or her attention, the collector will proceed toward that one piece for a closer look, but mind you not a close look—I mean about five feet back from the painting. If the painting is large, collectors stand 10 feet away. They're trying to get a feel for how it would be to live with the painting. They usually don't care about how it was painted. Collectors typically are not interested in every piece of artwork in a gallery. If a painting strikes a chord, they’ll look at the price tag.
When I'm shopping for a potential gallery to show my work, I avoid looking like an artist by visiting with my husband (we are collectors) or a nonartist friend who doesn’t know diddly about how to paint. It helps if my friend is also a collector. When scoping out a gallery, if you see a piece that interests you, ask about that artist. See if the gallery's staff is doing a good job of selling. Personnel should know quite a lot about each artist the gallery represents.
I visited a New England gallery a few years ago and did not let the owner know I was an artist. A couple of the artists represented by that gallery are personal friends of mine. A painting by one of my friends was leaning sideways against a stair rail. Another friend’s artwork was sitting on the floor. Although this gallery was in a good New England arts district, I certainly wouldn't recommend it to any of my artist friends or even collectors.
So make a day of it, gather a nonartist friend or two, and go gallery shopping. Practice looking at paintings like a collector rather than like an artist. Eventually, when you're looking for a gallery to represent you, you'll know which ones do a good job of showing and selling.