Q. What is a “gallery”? My friend says it is a shop that has a strong crafts presence, but I say it is more like a museum, where the items are for sale? Who is right?

—Charity H., via e-mail

A. This question addresses a semantic problem that arises when people use “gallery” and “shop” interchangeably. In our field, they’re very different venues, with radically different points of view and modes of operation.

A crafts shop is a store, and it operates on the same principles as, for instance, a grocery store: buy at wholesale, mark up, sell at retail. The owner attends wholesale shows seeking items that fit the mix and price point of the shop. The wholesale price is determined by the maker; the retailer chooses to purchase at the offered price or to pass. “Purchase” is the key word here; shops purchase the product they sell.

Once the items arrive, the shop owner determines the retail price. In the past, the industry standard was to double the wholesale cost to determine the retail price. This is called “keystone.” However, it is now more common for a markup to be 2.3 to 2.5, or in rare cases even more. That means a $10 item would sell from $23 to $25, or perhaps even $30. The maker has no input in determining the retail price.

Often, once an order has been placed, the conversation between maker and retailer ends until it’s time to place another order. (Although a smart maker would keep the retailer apprised of new items, and the smart retailer would share information about what’s selling well.)

A gallery, on the other hand, doesn’t buy anything. This business is totally based on consignment and trust. Gallerists don’t shop for artists; typically, the artists are shopping for a gallery. However, a gallerist is always on the lookout for new artists to represent and may find them in a graduate show or hanging on a friend’s wall. An artist may send images on his or her own or be recommended by friends who are already represented by the gallery. A gallery doesn’t need a large number of artists, which makes it harder to get gallery representation.

Once the parties decide to work together, they often negotiate a contract that sets out the terms of the partnership—and this really is a partnership. The gallerist and the artist agree on a show schedule and typically work together to choose the pieces for a show. Establishing the prices is also a joint project. The artist has a price in mind; the gallerist has the beat on the marketplace; and a final offering price is established. The typical split is 50/50. The artist provides the gallerist with background information, and the gallerist uses this to promote the show and the artist’s career. I believe career building is as important to an artist as sales.

You now have a sense of what these venues look like from behind the scenes. Up front, a gallery may look like a museum because of the way the work is displayed, but that’s only a small part of this scene. On the other hand, a shop that sells tires is a tire shop, and a shop that has a strong crafts presence is a craft shop. The shop will have a wide range of merchandise for sale and much denser displays.
So you are both somewhat correct, and I don’t have to pick a winner. You’ll each enter a gallery or a craft shop with a fuller understanding of what goes on there.