A vanity gallery is an art gallery that charges artists fees to exhibit their work and makes most of its money from artists rather than from sales to the public. Some vanity galleries charge a lump sum to arrange an exhibition, while others ask artists to pay regular membership fees and then promise to organise an exhibition with a certain period. There is debate as to whether galleries that ask artists to contribute to expenses, e.g. by arranging for announcements of the exhibition themselves, fall into the same category.
Vanity galleries are an offshoot of cooperative galleries (also called artist-run initiatives), galleries which are operated by artists who pool their resources to pay for exhibits and publicity. Unlike cooperative galleries, which carefully jury their members, vanity galleries will exhibit anyone who pays. In 1981 Village Voice reporter Lisa Gubernick posed as an artist and "within 20 minutes" of contacting the Keane Mason Woman Art Gallery was handed a contract for "$720 for 16 feet of wall". Occasionally a vanity gallery will appear to have a selection process. This is because "if every participant is promised a one- or two-person show every two years, the number of artists on the membership roster cannot exceed the available time slots for shows."
Commercial art galleries derive their profit from sales of artwork, and thus take great care to select art and artists that they believe will sell, and will enhance their gallery's reputation. They spend time and money cultivating collectors. If the artwork sells, the gallery makes a profit and the artist is then paid.
Vanity galleries have no incentive to sell art, as they have already been paid by the artist. Vanity galleries are not selective because they don't have to be. Many professional artists recommend new artists avoid exhibiting work in them, primarily because professional critics and reviewers tend to avoid them.
However, the term "vanity gallery" is also a negative expression often made from within a modernist framework and not a postmodern one. The growth of these galleries also demonstrate the philosophical changes that have occurred within the arts as postmodern notions of the problem of objectivity have come to the fore. The theoretical underpinning of this was first discussed in the mid-1980s by Jacques Derrida in "The Truth in Painting" (1986) and later by the art historian Donald Preziosi in "Rethinking Art History" (1989). It is contested in these texts that works of art can be "selected" in any meaningful objective sense other than from within a purely modernist and subjective framework. This then leads to the question of the power structures and politico-aesthetics within the traditional arts system that underlie the selection procedures. To embrace the "vanity gallery" can also be perceived as a rejection of the traditional art system power structure.
- Kathy Gulrich (2003). 187 Tips for Artists: How to Create a Successful Art Career - and Have Fun in the Process!. smART Business Coaching. p. 57. ISBN 0-9746533-0-6.
- Sylvia White. "Vanity Galleries, Artist Co-ops, Slides, Announcements, Juried Shows, Advertising... Just how much do I have to pay to be an artist?". artspan.com. Retrieved 2007-06-05.
- Michels, Caroll (2001). How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul. Henry Holt and Company. p. 112. ISBN -0-8050-6800-7.
- Gubernick, Lisa ([October 7–13, 1981). "I Was an Artist for the Village Voice". Village Voice. p. 71.
- Debora Melz (1995), "Vanities: Caveat Exhibitor" in Getting Exposure: The Artist's Guide to Exhibiting the Work. Art Calendar Publishing, Inc., p. 182. ISBN 0-945388-04-7.
- Vanity Galleries by Lenny Campello, 10 August 2004.