Photographers, Beware of Vanity Galleries

On my quest to be brutally honest in this blog, I have a secret to tell you. In fact, it’s something which for me is slightly embarrassing to discuss…

In the past year, I’ve been “scammed” by a Vanity Art Gallery in London. Nothing fraudulent, but close to…perhaps just a rip off, although it could have been much much worse. Read on and I’ll explain what happened so you can hopefully avoid making the same mistakes.

First of all, what’s a Vanity Gallery?

Basically, a Vanity Gallery is an art/photography gallery that charges artists fees to exhibit their work. Their business model is based more on extracting up-front fees from artists to exhibit their work than actually selling artists’ work. Should there be a (rare) sale, the gallery then charges a hefty commission. For the above reasons, it’s quite difficult for an artist to break even.

The vanity part comes from those artists who aren’t thinking about the business side of selling their work, but instead they’re looking to satisfy their vanity that their work is being shown at a gallery. Then post on social media.

Who do Vanity Galleries target?

Predictably, these galleries pray on the naivety and enthusiasm of emerging artists that are pushing to have their work exhibited to the public. Savvy salespersons at these galleries know how difficult it is for most artists to have work displayed at brick and mortar galleries.

I was such a person who was targeted since I’m actively trying to get work seen by buyers and had some spare cash to invest in my photography business.

What do these Galleries promise?

Hypothetically, many of these galleries promise the world and then fail to deliver. Such promises include networking opportunities with well-known clients and “guaranteed” sales. They’ll even name-drop a few big buyers. If it’s too good to be true…

Now, I’ll discuss a real-case scenario of a Vanity Gallery.

How did I get “Scammed”?

I put scammed in quotations since everything that was done was legitimate, although questionable from an ethical point of view. As stated before, it was more like being ripped off.

In mid-2016, one of my images was shortlisted for a photography prize in London. It didn’t win, but was shown at a gallery event where I sold two editions. Nice experience and met interesting people.

A few days after the exhibition, I received an email via website with the following message (I’ve removed confidential information and replaced with XX):

“Hi Alex,

It’s XX from XX, hope all is well. I had a pleasure of viewing your work at the XX last Thursday. I’m writing because I was really impressed and would like to offer you a collaboration with our gallery. What we can offer you at this stage is to enter one of our shows below.

16-23rd November 2016

Cost: £280 per artist/ 3-4 works

35 % commission on sales

Three Person Show (1 space left)

1st – 7th December 2016

Cost: £720 per artist/ 10-12 works
35 % commission on sales


We like what you’re doing and we would like to collaborate with you on a regular basis.

I look forward to your reply.”


The list was quite long and many many shows for the next 8 month with average price range of £400-500 per artist/ 4-5 works.

Immediately, I carried out some due diligence to see if this was a legitimate gallery, or a scam. After I was satisfied that it was legitimate, I replied that I was interested. There were a few negative reviews but nothing to really discourage me from proceeding, at this stage.

I subsequently sent my portfolio to the gallery with some 20-30 fine art photographs, and asked the gallery to indicate which types of images would have the best prospect of success. After a day or so, I received the following reply:

>> “Dear Alex,
>> Thank you for your message. After reviewing your extensive portfolio I
>> would strongly suggest the Three person show as this exhibition would
>> give you a greater exposure. Please confirm your interest and I will
>> select the images for you.”

At this stage, I could sense that I was trying to get up-sold and didn’t appreciate the likely fake pressure tactics (only one place left – see first email). I was still interested nevertheless.

I replied that it was over my budget, after all we’re talking about $1k and printing/shipping costs associated with 12 images (at least another $1k), so needed to sell quite a few prints just to break even. Those are a lot of subs at Shutterstock.

Signing the contract

I settled for the least expensive show costing me £280 for 4 prints and was up sold for another show for a total of £500 for those 4 prints. I figured that if I was going to get those prints done, I might as well have two go-s at selling them. If they’ve done really well, then I could make more prints. Oh the imagination takes over!

After a bit of admin to fill in contracts, I sent in payment. Then, I commissioned Metro Imaging, a reputable printing company in London to print, mount and ship the images. So far so good. I was excited!

By the way, these were the four selected prints:


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Gallery Opening Night

I booked my flight from Milan, got all dressed up and made my way to the event on a cold November night. Friends and family showed up.

However, to dampen the spirits, the first thing I noticed was that my prints were not in the main gallery rooms, but instead on a narrow and cold stairwell in-between floors.

Secondly, I tried to speak with the gallery director many times and she always seemed “too busy”. I would have liked to have been introduced, at the very least, to some potential buyers. Did she know that I booked a flight to the show or didn’t care?

Thirdly, on the event’s brochure, my name was spelled wrongly and I was suddenly from Denmark. Huh?

At this stage, I was annoyed. However, the exhibition would go on for another week so there would be a good chance for a sale, I thought. Then the prints would remain on the wall for a further few weeks.

My gut was telling me to pull out – there were just too many red flags. I went back to Italy and put my thoughts into other projects, such as publishing the Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography!

New Years (Nothing Changes)

On my way back from Ecuador in late December, I wrote to the gallery director, addressing my concerns about my prints being on the cold staircase and suggested that they would have be more appropriate in one of the main viewing rooms (duh). I also asked about whether the prints had any interest/offers, remaining patiently open to do what I could to assist with sales.

I duly received the following reply:

“Dear Alexandre,
> Thank you for your message. In general we’ve had a lot of interest, and the feedback is that most people declined after considering the price. I know ths is a common problem for photographers, however, I feel that we just need a couple more months to build up the interest.
> We are currently in a process of updating our website and I will be adding your photographs to our shopping page in order to start promoting them online.
> With regards to the subsequent exhibtion due to technical reasons we need to use mainly our staircase but we will be moving the pictures up and down. The advantage of the staircase is that it’s almost always open for the public even if we are closed. Upstair there is a doctor’s clinic, estate agent and mortgage broker so we have a regular footfall passing through the staircase every day. We’ve been also making sales from there and we currently have about 35 works on the staircase itself.
> Our shopping page should be ready after New Year and I will keep you updated on that.”

What did I say earlier about (false) promises?

This email reassured me a little bit and I was willing to be patient, after all these things do take time. I had paid for another exhibition and the prints were there, hopefully being seen and desired. What else could I do?

I replied and showed interest in having my images being sold on the online shopping page and inquired when I should send in high-resolution prints. After a few months and some follow-ups, no reply.

Springtime, I grew a pair

Three months had passed since the last email and still with no updates and obviously no sales. At this time, I went on their website and saw a list and biography of artists without mentioning me (no big deal although worrying), but the straw broke the camel’s back was seeing that an online shopping option had been set up, but no mention of my prints. Not even one attempt to have my prints on there.

That’s when I had to tell them to fuck off, finally, but since this is the UK, it’s fuck off, please.

More Frustration

From the day I asked for a partial refund of the second exhibition to receiving a reply took a few weeks, despite numerous emails and phone calls. Fortunately, I studied English contract law and knew how to handle this sort of dispute.

To make a long story short, I only got my refund last week (November 23rd), almost 5 months since my first request for cancellation. I rather not get into the nitty gritty, but it was annoying as hell and worst of all, I think the strategy of this gallery was to keep promising and delaying payment so I would eventually give up. Haha yea right!

In the end I got my money back, but more importantly, I learned my lesson.

Key Takeaways from my experience

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth and I’ll have to carefully think twice next time I’ll consider accepting displaying my work at a live gallery again. To be honest, I rather just stick to online Print on Demand sites such as Fine Art America.

Here are some key takeaways from this experience:

  • Know the gallery that is pitching to you. Are they reputable…do your due diligence carefully. What is the standard of the images on display? If they look like crappy pics, then stay clear;
  • Keep in mind that exhibiting at some Vanity Galleries may harm your reputation when pitching to top-tier galleries;
  • Don’t pay money up front to exhibit. If the gallery believes in you enough they’ll be willing to share some of the risk with you.
  • Keep track of all the promises made and not fulfilled. Three strikes and you’re out!
  • Keep track of communication lines…are they ignoring your emails and phone calls. If so, that’s a big red flag.
  • Lastly, what does your gut tell you? Learn to listen to it and don’t just ignore the red flags…things will not necessarily suddenly “be alright”.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, fuck off….please!

Until next time.







  1. […] I just read a very detailed and honest account, by Alex Rotenberg, of how he was taken in by people pretending to be interested in showing his work in a gallery, when what it is really about is getting up front payments and keeping the pretense going to get even more money with next to no chance of your work being seen by interested buyers. Another cautionary tale! […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your brutal honesty – as always – it would be easy to get taken in by the promise of big $$$ and the prestige of being shown in a gallery.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing, Alex. I was approached last year and mentioned it to my son, who’s a full time artist. He knew the gallery in question and advised me to avoid it. Fortunately I listened. I’m still hoping to be ‘discovered’.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, that’s a sleazy business model on the part of vanity galleries. I hear that there are vanity publishers who do the same thing.

    My spouse had an aunt who tried to publish a country music album. They insisted that she was great as long as her husband kept paying them. They lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars and she really wasn’t that good.

    Close save on your part there.


  5. Sorry about your experience. This happens all too often to young artists just beginning their career. The reason that many of them fall for this is that they really do not understand how to recognize a legitimate gallery. A legitimate gallery will invite an artist to show work there on the expectation of sales. That is how they make their income that pays for the gallery operation. They have good incentive to work hard at selling and marketing artist works. Exhibiting is just one part of the overall process.

    On the other hand a vanity gallery is all about showing and NOT marketing. That is why they ask for your money up front. You are just renting space. You provide them the income to pay for operating expenses. Hence promotion is 100% up to the exhibitor. Moreover to sustain themselves these galleries work at attracting artists who are desperate for a place to show their works and are willing to pay for it. And artists are willing to gamble on it believing that if they get their works out and seen by the public their works will sell. But unfortunately this rarely happens.

    Now if you are just looking for a place to show your work and are willing to pay for it then a vanity gallery is certainly an option. But if you want to build a career and reputation in the art world and sell your work then the vanity gallery is not a good way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the honest story. I just got approached on Instagram by a gallery wanting to display my art. It’s in Milan, in fact. Have you heard of M.A.D.S. art gallery?
    And yes. I’m an emerging artist so trying to do my research so I don’t fall for a vanity gallery scheme.

    Liked by 1 person

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