A friend recently said to me that he wasn’t sure how to visit a photography gallery. He doesn’t think of himself as an art collector or fine art connoisseur and he didn’t know if he’d be able to appreciate the work on display, or if the salespeople would be patronizing or not. I’ve seen a similar hesitancy with customers outside my own gallery. People love to look through the windows, but there appears to be some intangible barrier that prevents them from opening the door and coming inside.
It made me realize that visiting a photography gallery can be intimidating. Are you supposed to dress nicely? Are you supposed to know something about photography before you go in? Are there good questions to ask the artist?
All of these uncertainties can feel a little scary, so I wrote this introductory article (first in a series to come) about how to visit a photography gallery.
1. Just Go In!
First things first, just open the door and go on in. A gallery is a shop just like any other store. You should feel free to browse, look around, and enjoy. There’s no need to dress up, so don’t be self conscious if you’re wearing flip flops and a tank top. In fact, when I took most of the photos I have hanging on my gallery walls, I was covered in dirt, sweat, and sunscreen swatting at mosquitoes somewhere in the Sierra. I am not a high-fashion kind of person! Similarly, other artists and photographers know what it’s like to get dirty in the process of creating art, so don’t worry too much about looking nice.
2. You Don’t Have to Know Anything About Photography
There’s no need to be shy if you don’t know much about art or photography. Artists LOVE to talk about their art, why they make it, and what it represents. Even if you aren’t an art person, simply talking to the photographer can give you a deep appreciation for what you see on their gallery walls. So just walk on in and say hi, and I guarantee the conversation will flow from there.
And in terms of appreciating “good art,” you don’t need to be an art critic. Landscape photography is one of the most accessible art forms there is. When you look at a print in a photography gallery, does it move you and make you feel something? If you find yourself being drawn into a specific photo, that’s a strong sign you are emotionally resonating with the piece. And from my perspective, I can tell you that there’s nothing cooler than seeing someone fall in love with a moment that was also so special to me that I printed a huge photo of it for my gallery!
3. Don’t Worry About a Sales Pitch
Walking into a photography gallery can feel like a high pressure situation, especially if you are the only customer inside. It’s common to feel apprehension about whether the people working at the gallery are going to try to “sell you.”
The truth is that a high end landscape photography print is not a spontaneous purchase like a magnet or a smoothie. Nor should it be. An experienced gallery salesperson knows that it’s rare to sell art to someone who is visiting the gallery for the first time (of course there are exceptions like cards, calendars, books, and smaller prints). So instead of a sales pitch, you should expect the artist to talk to you more about their process, the quality of the prints, explain why they are special, and to show you their beautiful work. And only if you are interested will a good salesperson bring up the subject of selling you prints for your walls.
In my gallery I only have large format prints. No cards or small prints. So what this means for me is that instead of selling, I am more focused on creating a relationship with my customers. I love to hear about their Sierra adventures, favorite places, and special moments. And only if they are drawn to a specific piece will I talk to them about buying a print.
Even then, a sale typically comes only after multiple interactions in person, on the phone, and over email. During those conversations I am doing everything I can to ensure that my customers are getting the perfect piece for them. I provide different print ideas, design consultations, and even create mockups of different prints in their homes. I want to know that every customer is 100% happy with their purchase and will love their fine art print as long as they have it. So I would never pressure someone into buying a piece they’re not sure about.
I would much rather have a genuine conversation with someone about the Sierra, hiking, and photography then have them walk away than use a bunch of sales tactics to send that person home with a piece they don’t really want. So don’t stress about getting sold when you visit a photography gallery.
(Full disclosure: I have heard stories about high pressure sales tactics being used at big name galleries Las Vegas and other destination cities. But those galleries are being run as corporations where the bottom line is more important than customer satisfaction. And they are not representative of the experience you’ll get when speaking to independent gallery owners.)
It’s normal to feel some hesitation about visiting a landscape photography gallery, but trust me, there’s nothing to be nervous about. The artists you encounter will love to share their world with you, and you will likely learn a lot in the process. You may even come home with a piece of art you love.
The next time you are driving highway 395 through the Eastern Sierra, stop by my Mt. Whitney Gallery in Lone Pine and say hi.