How to Act Like an Art Collector

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.

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The Artist's Life Blog
Lori Woodward

About Lori Woodward

Lori Woodward earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education from the University of Arizona. She has studied with Sondra Freckelton,(watercolor) Jack Beal, (composition) and currently is mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik as a member of the Putney Painters. As a writer, Lori has authored articles for Watercolor Magazine since 1996.  Lori authored a chapter on artists' web sites for Calvin J. Goodman's Art Marketing Handbook. She is a regular author on Fine Art Views, an art marketing online newsletter, and she has instruction art marketing and watercolor workshops at Scottsdale Artist School.

13 thoughts on “How to Act Like an Art Collector

  1. Well, I’m also a collector and I have indeed escaped them knowing I’m an artist. The reasons for my looking at art like a collector is two fold: One, I am often dismissed by the gallery personnel when they know I’m an artist – this irritates me because I have a pretty darned good collection, and I want to be treated with respect as an art buyer.

    Way too many times, when the gallerist realizes that I’m an artist, the staffs totally ignores me. This has happened in some nationally known galleries. Big mistake on their part coz many artists are avid collectors.

    Secondly, I want to truly see how well they sell the work in the gallery – how much they can tell me about the artists they carry. I get way more respect when they think I’m not an artist. I’ve hung out with major collectors who’ve come to Putney and also managed the gallery there for a couple of months – where we showcased Schmid/Guzik works along with the Putney Painters. That’s where I learned about how collectors look at artwork.

  2. Well, seriously, they know artists are going to come in and check them out, but no way are they going to accurately predict who is and who isn’t an artist if you’re making an effort to blend in. What, do we smell different? I have met so many people who were fantastic artists, but I didn’t know it at the time. They were just like “real” people. And I have been in galleries and been approached by salespeople who obviously thought I might buy something. So I really this this is good advice and practicable.

  3. Great article! I started employing this tactic myself last year when looking for coastal representation. It’s true, they *do* treat you differently if you make it clear right from the get-go that you are an artist.

    When I go in, I’m scrutinizing the staff. Did they acknowledge me when I came in? Did they even bother looking up or getting out of their chair? I’ve seen some that remain as stationary as the works around them, that’s not a gallery I’d want to be in. As I begin asking questions about this piece or that, how knowledgeable are they about the artists they represent? How engaging are they when they are talking to me? Are they cheery, enthusiastic, do they try to assess what would work well for me as a buyer?

    When I enter, I do so as a tourist with my husband. I have *not* been suspected as anything else when doing so.

  4. This past summer I was looking at some galleries in Carmel, CA. I went through quite a few of them, deciding which ones I would submit samples to. I had some really nice conversations with people who obviously love the world of art, care about artists and are genuinely interested in talking about paintings and artists. This is even after I admitted I was an artist.

    On the other hand, there were a few galleries where the personnel were rather cold and unwelcoming, especially when they realized I probably wasn’t going to buy anything. It struck me that these people could be selling just anything, that it wouldn’t matter if it was a painting or an appliance. I know I’d want my paintings in a gallery that makes you feel welcome, whether you are an artist or collector or both.

  5. Really good point Elizabeth – thanks for everyone who has taken the time to share their thoughts this Friday morning. When I’m up in Maine this weekend, I’ll visit with Amy Sidman, owner of Argosy gallery. She and I usually go out to breakfast or dinner and talk up a storm about art and art marketing.

    Amy has admitted that she gets over 300 artist submissions a year and yet only adds one artist a year to the gallery. I guess if I were in her place, I’d be a little apprehensive when artists come into the gallery as well. I can understand both sides.

    Gotta run friends, have an article to finish. Been great hearing from you!

  6. Lori,

    Great reminder. I have had similar experiences. One day I entered a very reputable national gallery. I looked like an artist and was ignored. The next day I was dressed up in shirt and tie and entered the very same gallery. I was greeted and treated well. They paid attention to me and treated me as if I were a potential client. It is true that they treat artists differently.


  7. I find it odd that gallery owners often forget that many artists also are potential buyers. Most of my artist friends have great collections. One of the best aspects of being an artist is being able to appreciate the process a fellow artist goes through to complete the artwork. A haughty attitude by gallery personnel inhibits the viewing experience and would make me less likely to purchase.

  8. I love browsing through galleries and collecting work. Who knows if it seems if I am an artist to them or not. I think the wallet is what counts in this economy to so many galleries. Why do you think so many of these galleries in big cities dismiss artist collectors?
    I have also found numerous artists on this forum who’s works I would enjoy collecting. Making comments on other artists works is a sure sign of interest.

  9. I have to say one thing about when choosing a gallery. If you have paintings that you are trying to sell, do not put them in the gallery that mainly represents glass work. I have made a mistake of doing that, and sold none. And now that I read the article about CHOOSING the GALLERY correctly, I have realized all the warning signs that i have missed when I was looking to put my work out there. But what else would I have done, I was younger and just out of college.
    Thanks for the great deal of experience that you’ve shared with us!
    Y. Sokolov

  10. After I read your article it was obvious to me that you identify with a stereotypical perception of an artist (artists go in groups or scorted by a husband or non artist). Like some artists I know some very accomplished and some not. They do not go in groups and actually identify themselves as artists at the Gallery. I am an artist and a collector. My point is get out of the box of the group and what your notions of Galleries are. Be a real artist, free of hang ups, judgments, and to a hierarchical structure of art, galleries and the world. Thanks!

  11. Owleagle, Oh, I am a real artist… just have my own point of view.

    My “group” is the Putney Painters, led by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik. My friends are Jeremy Lipking, Daniel Keys, Clayton Beck, etc. However, I write for the artworld of the bulk of artists who are trying to get into galleries – not those artists who are already working with them.

    I’m also a collector – glad to hear you are. As a collector, I’ve entered galleries, and when the gallery staff marked me as an artist, I got completely ignored and one time even made fun of. This was a gallery where I had previously purchased work… it was in Tucson. I have more than often found that as soon as I identify myself as an artist (and I am not well known), the staff dismisses me.

    Now if I walked in with Nancy Guzik or Richard Schmid, you bet I would get some attention. In fact, as soon as I let the staff know that Richard is my mentor and friend, they sure change their tune. It’s happened too many times. It’s just too bad that I have to establish my connection with well known artists to be taken seriously as a collector or artist.

    Thanks for your input… because I’m not recognized, I have had an different experience – one that I don’t want unknown artists to experience as they check out galleries to apply to.


  12. I don’t belong to any groups or know any of the people you know, Lori, to give me any credibility as an artist or a collector.

    But I do know this: any gallery who doesn’t treat every customer with respect unless they drop names isn’t representing their artists very well. Who wants to just park their work somewhere where it will only be shown if the customer is “connected”? Or shows themselves to be wealthy?

    My cousin walked into a Jaguar dealership wearing casual clothes on his way home from work in one of his work trucks. They took one look and never bothered to speak to him. He drove to a Jag dealership about a half hour away and an hour later wrote a check for his wife’s birthday present.

    Doing some “mystery shopping” is a great idea, Lori!