"We love your work...or your wallet."- What happens when a vanity gallery approaches you?

I am always looking for opportunities to showcase my work in new places. It has become an almost involuntary reflex to submit to sites that have open calls that are good opportunities for exposing my images to fresh eyes and audiences- yay, new people!  Every once in awhile this automatic reflex stumbles across a site or an opportunity that is a little too good to be true or, later, I find out there is a undisclosed "catch" that makes it unsuitable. Maybe I'm just picky, but if that's the case... why am I finding all these warnings about vanity galleries?

Last year, I received a phone call from a place called Laguna Art Online, saying I had been accepted among their spring applicants from a "very strict" jury process. I was told I would be getting an email on how to proceed with getting my art onto their database where it could be broadcast on hotel screens and sent to collectors, and I would be able to show in Orange County at their big posh events. I was curious if they even knew I was in Oklahoma, although I do vaguely remember them in a round of quick submissions to several online gallery-type sites (facepalm...this is gonna be awkward).  I thanked the very professional and kind woman on the phone and said I would await the email for the terms.  Checking my inbox what could have been a half hour later, there was an email from Laguna- not the lady who called me. It was a "membership agreement" ....with a monthly fee schedule.

A Vanity Gallery or Vanity Publication is a term often used when the artist has to pay a fee to show their work. This can be misleading, because there are exhibition expenses in many shows and juried contests, but this applies when the gallery/publication is profiting primarily from the artist fees and not from the sales of the artist's work.  The artist has paid, therefore the gallery/publication needs to do no other work for them- if their show is a success, good for them, but if it is not, they have already made their money. Renee Phillips of Manhattan Arts International wrote this very thorough advice on paying to show your work.

"My objection is to the opportunistic gallery owner whose intention is to profit from the artists' fees rather than the sales of art, and who pretends to have the same distinction as a legitimate gallery. Legitimate galleries focus on producing buyers and recognition for their artists, not preying on the vulnerability of artists who desire a gallery exhibition at practically any cost.
Consider this: If you pay a dealer a sizable fee, which covers a substantial part of the overhead expenses, how much incentive is there for the dealer to sell the work?
Remember, the gallery's commitment to you lives only until the next group of paying artists arrive."

So, what did I do with the Laguna membership fee schedule and agreement? Well, I may still have a copy floating around my inbox, but after sending a very basic "no thank you, the fee information was not disclosed to me over the phone", I still receive quite a few emails from them. Spam filters are good.  
But they are not the only vanity galleries and they are not the only way that artists are asked to pay to exhibit. 

Great questions to ask when faced with what you feel might be a situation like this, courtesy of Renee Phillips (they are not always so obvious as Laguna):

Can I really afford to spend this money at such a risk? 

If I pay a fee, is there any incentive for the gallery to sell my work? 

How does this decision fit into my overall career objectives? 

Do I want to exhibit with other artists who were chosen primarily because they had the money to pay? 

What false illusions do I have about galleries regarding my career? 

What steps can I take to attract the interest of legitimate and respected galleries? 

How else can I invest my money and time more wisely with little or no risk? 

Has this gallery received any attention from leading art writers and critics? 

Does the gallery in question regularly advertise "Artists Wanted" or lure artists through juried competitions? 

When you attend the gallery's receptions, are most attendees the guests of the exhibiting artists? (*this is a great one for opportunities that require artists to buy/sell tickets!!)

Does the gallery offer testimonials of satisfied artists and their names? 
How many artists have remained with the gallery for more than two years? 

So...these are great questions to ask of any pay-to-show type situation. Not everything will be cut and dry, and I have actually spoken with a small number of artists who have benefitted from situations where they take care of all costs and fees, because for them and the way they do business, it is easier to just pay someone else to do their own thing than approach another gallery. There is nothing wrong with investing in your art, but make sure you know where the money is going!


Thanks for posting Amanda, this is an important issue that professional artists need to be aware of, especially when they are starting out. Pay-to-play opportunities are not universally bad. Artists jsut need to be aware of all the details, and weigh the costs and risks against their career goals.

These are all great questions to ask!
Yes, Sarah, I have run across artists who have had very different experiences, and have done well in those situations- in a better financial situation I might be more inclined to spend more on the promotion end of things, and I have seen some lists (I posted one the other day on Facebook) that included magazines/publications where there were fees, but they were rather small compared to the usual "vanity gallery horror story".... so it would be just like getting an ad...