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Galleries: The Case for a Cover Charge
by Stephen Becker 14 Jul 2009

Glasstire.com has posted the second part of Road Agent Gallery owner Christina Rees’ State of the Union essay. (If you missed the thought-provoking first part, read it here.) To summarize a bit, Rees writes about the struggles that she and other gallery owners are enduring in the face of the current economic situation, about the […]


Glasstire.com has posted the second part of Road Agent Gallery owner Christina Rees’ State of the Union essay. (If you missed the thought-provoking first part, read it here.) To summarize a bit, Rees writes about the struggles that she and other gallery owners are enduring in the face of the current economic situation, about the importance of galleries in a city’s cultural and intellectual scene and about the collector’s duty to keep them around.

In Part II of her essay, she writes:

    “There are people who come into my gallery and call themselves collectors, and at first I believe them, and they take up lots of time and energy. They come to my openings and network with my other guests for two hours and drink free wine and ask me to take them into the back to pull things out of my flat files to show them and they give me their business cards and request jpegs (and more jpegs, and more jpegs: “Not minimal enough” or, “Why does the artist have to put a rat in it?”) and not once in three years have they purchased so much as a catalog or tiny drawing. They are the time wasters, the tire kickers. They’re the people who make gallerists feel like charging an entry fee at the door.”

Which got me wondering: why not charge an entry fee at the door?

Museums do it all the time and it doesn’t seem to keep people away. A part of the gallery’s function it to serve as sort of a feeder system into museums, discovering all those future big-time artists. Just a chance to see those artists on the rise should be worth something.

Of course, the main function of the gallery is to sell work, and putting up any barrier between customer and sale sounds counterproductive. But galleries aren’t like other businesses. Shoppers don’t get any takeaway value in walking down the aisles at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Those who walk into a gallery do. Some of those tire kickers that Rees mentions are obviously interested enough to look at the art, but not interested enough to buy it. But are they interested enough to pay, say, $5 to see it? Possibly.

My point is, if charging $5 keeps those people who were never going to buy anything in the first place from coming in, what difference does it really make? On the other hand, someone willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a piece is unlikely to think twice about spending a few bucks for the tour. And hey – maybe a purchase gets you free entry into the gallery, or even a network of galleries, for a year. Think of the Vegas model, in which the whales stay at the casino hotels free, but the small-timers pay for the same privilege.

I’m sure that there are all sorts of holes in my logic, and I would love for gallery owners out there to carve it up like so much Swiss cheese.

But all I am saying is: it’s worth thinking about.

  • nmlhats

    Instead of an admission fee, how about a cash bar for the wine?

  • nmlhats

    Or does a cash bar bring up all kinds of TABC issues?

  • Stephen Becker

    Yep — the giving the wine away helps to get around some of the liquor license issues.

  • Jason

    What about a pay “something” approach, where it is expected that as a visitor I will contribute, but I determine the amount based on my experience?

    Restricting gallery access to only those that can purchase the art seems counter-productive to extending the reach of art to those of us outside of that elite economic circle. Is art only for purchasing?

    Galleries are a valuable experience, and I suspect that asking people to contribute “what they feel” would achieve a similar result monetarily to a cover charge. It doesn’t solve the problem of your time-wasters, but it does reinforce that your gallery is an experience…and hopefully covers the cost of the wine.

    And one day, when my wife and I can afford to, we’ll buy the art.

  • Lori

    My husband is a browser and an eternal looker. He takes the War and Peace version to everything. I have seen him study labels at the grocery stores for 15 minutes to get the best deal. Drives me crazy. $5.00 will deter him!

  • jleon

    I believe the only problem with this is that it keeps out the casual art enthusiast, the tire kickers and those who just like looking at tires. It doesn’t keep them out per se, but charging money for an unknown quantity is always hit or miss. I refused to pay a $5 cover just last week at The Amsterdam Bar. Why? As much as I wanted to sit outside at a bar I enjoy, the band playing wasn’t the reason I went there. I went to have a good time with my friends. We would have listened to the band we didn’t know if it was free.

    I would venture to say most people go to gallery openings to see new art and to visit with old friends, not to buy art. There’s a nice festive atmosphere at a good opening. A cover charge would keep away a lot of your casual art fans, which detract from the whole evening. Less people attending would create a dull atmosphere, which isn’t conducive to selling to those few who are looking to buy. If you’re looking to thin the herd, I believe a cover charge is a great idea.

  • Stephen Becker

    An old pal from my past passes these thoughts along:

    “Charging admission seems especially counterproductive, since the gallery relies on the creation of demand for a scarce good (ie the works of art) in order to create a market for the good. Putting up barriers to the creation of that demand by cutting back the number of people who will see it/think it’s great/make it desirable would only hurt sales prices (and the revenues from such charges wouldn’t likely make up the difference).

    “I know, we’ll charge for it!” isn’t a silver bullet (for galleries or news organizations). It seems like there are some more fundamental problems the author of the post to which you linked has, such as the inability to better distinguish between “real” collectors and the time-wasters.

    And in any case, what’s any city’s art scene without the hangers-on and time-wasters that make up 75% of gallery openings’ attendance :D”

  • Stephen Becker

    An Art&Seek reader passes this along via e-mail:

    Great article. Makes sense. Tire kickers… love it.

    I think there is an argument though, sadly, that running a gallery is like running a business. Period. It takes a great deal of money to upstart one and maintain one through economic downturns. It takes a lot of money – as you most likely know.

    Of course, many “artists” decide to upstart “Mickey Mouse” galleries (I question the motive other than self-promotion for some) convinced their hipness and middle finger to the establishment will PBR their way to success and notoriety. But buyers see through that. They can smell the body odor when they enter some joints for the openings. Not enough Chanel 5.

    There is a reason galleries pop up and disappear a year or three or five later, regardless who the proprietor is. Not enough loot. Over-saturation of spaces. Bad art. Not enough quality material being offered. Or the gallery director just isn’t cut for the pushing the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” variable enough to intimidate the buyer to pursue and walk out with something.

    Some buyers really do go out just to be seen. And buy in private.

    Oh. I am a broke artist who lived in Dallas and has worked for many galleries as a preparator.

  • Stephen Becker

    Another commenter passes along this thought:
    “i would pay a cover charge specifically to attend a show that keeps out people who are there for free wine in plastic cups and warm cheese.”

  • c

    I can’t afford to ba a collector but I am an “appreciator”. i would gladly pay admission on certain days/ times. as a matter of fact, i’m often reluctant to go to some galleries because i feel guilty for not buying. paying admission would eliminate the guilt and i would be more likely to go frequently.

  • The internet is a wonderful place to vent frustrations. I run Kettle Art, which may or may not be considered a “Mickey Mouse” gallery depending or your degree of snootiness. I never really cared much for that aspect of the ‘fine’ art world and a primary reason for why we exist, to be ‘inclusive as opposed to exclusive’ for our local arts community..

    The current state of the economy has hurt us too. We’re still barely breaking even, give or take, and as broke as a joke as always. However what we do at Kettle is heartfelt and passionate for our artists, our neighborhood. and our city. This is not an easy task but something we chose to take on and not one we’re about to give up just yet.

    One major aspect we’ve banked on since beginning in 2005 is that once Deep Ellum bounces back, we play a major role as the premier upcoming ‘local art’ gallery to visit. Since the economic downturn I have hoped for a financial counter balancing as this area shows signs of return. Not sure if that’s working for us but we keep trying just the same.

    I too get frustrated w/ the folks who come out just for ‘the party’ and not support the gallery. They do indeed take up time and space. At Kettle we pay those who work our openings only the take via our tip jar and this too has dwindled in the last year or so. Several recent shows we’ve done actually cost us more in alcohol than we made on sales / commissions but I strongly believe it is not time to give up.

    Hang in there but do not charge a cover. Giving away alcohol is risky enough but changing an entry fee and giving it away could be considered ‘bootlegging’ by the TABC.

    Stay focused and best of luck,

  • Marie Martin

    I like the “pay what you feel” approach.

    Every time my mother the photographer visits from Alabama, we go to her favorite of the local galleries (PDNB). She interacts with the art and talks about it with me, and she always walks out with one or two books she can’t live without. By contrast, we don’t go to museums nearly as often.

    The cover for something unknown bears a risk of turning away some walk-bys, although they may be the walk-bys like me that are less desirable. Perhaps an opening could be by invitation or at least RSVP, if the goal is to contain the number of people there for the food.

    As for me: I can not often afford to buy art. The only art hanging on my walls that was not made by friends are things that got under my skin for months until I went back and asked about them for myself. I didn’t seek them out when I first saw them and was surprised to have them under my skin. But being able to look around and explore (and not necessarily at an opening) made me an eventual buyer. It let me see the range of what was possible.

    Each gallery is a business. Each choice is a business decision. It’s perfectly valid to discourage the people who are outside your core audience, and perfectly valid to ask them to pay something to support the space. It’s considered polite at a bar to support the bar if you’re there for the music. If there is an etiquette and a clear way to support the art space one appreciates, here’s hoping people will.

  • Stephen: As a working artist showing in two Texas galleries (Conduit here, Hooks-Epstein in Houston), I prefer the accessibility of free admission, mostly for the benefit of those who find the whole art world thing intimidating enough already (I don’t know how many times, when inviting even a good friend to one of my shows, they’d even ask about the dress code). But giving anyone a reason not to walk into a gallery, no matter how small the obstacle, only hurts both the gallery and its artists.

    To your point, “Museums do it all the time and it doesn’t seem to keep people away,” I would suggest that’s because most museums are to the casual art viewer an imprimatur, maybe even a Good Housekeeping Seal of It’ll Be Okay. That $8 is term insurance.

    So when he visits the Dallas Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he can pay at the door and go forth boldly, confident he’ll not be confronted, though he might secretly want to be, by the John Currin-style figure studies he could encounter in a contemporary art gallery. At least not without plenty of yellow-and-black-striped danger signs and ah-oo-ga ah-oo-ga warning sirens.

    Even my young artist friend, Yen-Hua Lee, earned a little black-and-white warning sign just outside the sequestered side hall where her Mix! show at Dallas Contemporary was moved. Her Taiwanese version of Precious Moments was considered potentially offensive by nature of the naughty bits, actually tiny diagrammatic genitalia, rendered so symbolically as if for a road sign on the Autobahn, and so inconspicuous I completely missed them for several years. Now they’re right there on the Internet for the whole world to see, in that piece I wrote, and which you referred to recently, over on Dallas Arts Revue (http://bit.ly/vTw2v).

    But no, while to serious art collectors, “a chance to see those artists on the rise should be worth something,” both the casual art viewer and the casual art collector neither want to live that dangerously nor pay for the privilege.

    But my point is, while they may both show art in hushed halls, galleries are not museums, and its interesting how we confuse the two. One of your early commentors did it best, when he wrote “running a gallery is like running a business.” Not only is it “like” running a business, it IS running a business. In fact, it’s a store. An art store. Maybe sometimes more like Armani than Macy’s, but either way, can you imagine a store with the chutzpah to charge at the door, or even to have one of those clear plexiglass boxes half full of guilty dollar-bills?

    And while we’re on that point, have you noticed how it’s been almost four days and you have yet to be carved up by a single gallery owner? That’s because they’re too busy working their fannies off to get people in the door.

    Just the same, thanks for caring. And I think it’s especially noteworthy that so many people jumped in to discuss what I would have thought was an issue of marginal interest to the average Dallasite. Maybe all that cool Arts District architecture is working after all.