Is the Fine Art Photography Gallery System Cracking?

Are selling photographs online a paradigm shift, leaving photography galleries venerable?

Is the Fine Art Photography Gallery System Cracking?
Is the Fine Art Photography Gallery System Cracking?

Much has been made of the recent attempt by Amazon to offer fine art online, which was greeted (correctly) with derision by the gallery world. But there was a giant sigh of relief, too. The online behemoth didn’t get it right—not yet, that is.

But someone will, and soon, and this could leave “brick and mortar” galleries in the cold, especially when it comes to fine art photography.

Because it is usually a digital file already, photography lends itself perfectly for online display. Unlike unique work such painting, sculpture and even prints, which are usually editioned, requiring careful inspection and color reproduction that a small 500×800 pixel image could not provide, photographs on the web is familiar and accepted.

Some web sites are doing a good job selling work and Saatchi Online comes to mind. They charge a 30% commission—not 50% as galleries do, deposit payment directly (!) into the artist’s account within thirty days, and pay for shipping and insurance. What’s not to like? Not worrying about being paid should come as a relief to those that have experienced long delays or have not received payment at all (I know one painter that sold out their show but did not see any of the $300K netted; he later had to produce work for a whole other show a year later, which did sell out).

The disadvantages of the gallery-less system for artists are many, of course. The main challenge is that there is no one championing your work to collectors and curators. Also, there is no sales person or director helping to build careers or negotiationing on the photographer’s behalf. Instead, the artist is left as a “free agent”, hustling for work. But if you have some social media where-with-all, as every artist should, you might do well with this model.

Since trust and reputation are a major part of what galleries provide, the selling site could be at a major disadvantage. To make up for the personal touch and handshake guarantee, they must develop clearly stated policies. Saatchi Online, for example, makes artists complete a Letter of Authentication and offers a seven day return policy.

Young collectors, however, might find galleries intimidating or uncomfortable, and would prefer searching trusted sites at their own pace. After all, this is an all too familiar process they already do for most purchases.

Is the Fine Art Photography Gallery System Cracking?
The artfairs are "merch" central

Some artists and collectors might feel squeamish about web offerings: selling a Warhol on Amazon next links selling soap reduces art to “merch.” (Okay, may soap boxes are a bad example). But if you just returned from Art Basel Miami Beach or the other art fairs, you’ve experienced “merch” central.

Fine art landscape photography Steve Giovinco
Fine art landscape photography, Steve Giovinco

Where does this leave photo galleries? At a disadvantage, I think. They will soon have to compete against well funded internet presences. Artists might forgo the gallery and sell direct, cutting out the middleperson. Of course, placing something on the internet does not mean it will sell, and requires extra effort and time by the artist, but the current model is slowly eroding towards that direction.

  1. I see some typos in your piece you should correct. The first is a misspelling in the very first sentence. I’m assuming you mean the word “vulnerable” rather than venerable. Having this right up front could drive people away from reading the rest of the article which makes some good points.

    In discussing Amazon you should say “maybe soap boxes are a bad example.”

    There’s a grammatical issue where you say “photographs on the web is”. That should be “photographs on the web are”.

    Andrew Raimist

  2. Reading your article, it really hit me that; yes the days of the true “Gallery” are almost a thing of the past. The pompous attitudes, upturned noses of the sales reps. It was part of the experience and we expected no less. So we all migrate to on-line galleries and make the shift. The days up setting up an opening well, maybe for this photographer, great memories and a thing of the past…like roll film backs.
    Aloha, Tosh

  3. Thanks for the review. It will be very useful for those who don’t want to manually configure things.

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