Running a Gallery on a Shoestring Budget

Mike Brenner's Hotcakes tattoo

Had I sat down and written a business plan first, I may not have opened my art gallery, Hotcakes. In a post I wrote for Art21 in April, I broke down my monthly expenses to roughly $1600. After a couple years though, I was forced to find creative ways to scale that back to a much more manageable figure. At closer to $1000, even if I had a couple months of slow sales, I could cover my nut (the gallery’s fixed costs) with freelance design work and the meager stipend I was getting paid as Executive Director of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network. I pushed every boundary I could to make my budget work, but a lot of months, I couldn’t afford much more than the gallery’s expenses, which lead to some tough decisions and bizarre experiences.

I remember being in line at McDonald’s one afternoon when a homeless guy came up and asked if I could spare a dollar. I just shook my head and laid $2 of nickels and dimes on the counter to pay for my Extra Value Menu meal. I ate so many McChickens and double cheeseburgers while I owned the gallery that it got to the point that I would gag if I even smelled a cheeseburger. One summer day though, I was in line in the drive-thru and overheard a guy order a double cheeseburger “plain but with Big Mac sauce.” I was so overjoyed with my discovery that I mentioned it in a lecture to a bunch of art students. Two weeks later, McDonald’s started charging extra for Big Mac sauce.

In Wisconsin, the utility company can’t shut off the power or heat in the winter, and every year I would put off paying that bill as long as I could. One Friday in April, three hours before Milwaukee’s quarterly, city–wide Gallery Night, a WeEnergies employee came and shut off my power. I immediately sped to their offices and paid the bill. The woman behind the bulletproof glass smiled as she told me they wouldn’t send anyone to turn my lights back on until the next day. I sat in my gallery for over an hour imagining how I would explain a gallery opening by candlelight. Luckily, I had a very handy friend and neighbor who was able to yank out the circuit breakers and run live wires from the breakers of my apartment (which was in the same building) to Hotcakes’ electrical panel. The building didn’t burn down and nobody was the wiser.

The last year I owned Hotcakes, I slept on an air mattress in the backroom so I wouldn’t have to pay rent for an apartment. I actually went through seven air mattresses that year. Every three or four weeks my “bed” would develop a leak, and in the middle of the night I’d wake up on the hard floor. I always kept the receipt and all the packaging materials though so I could exchange it for a new one. If you ever bought an air mattress from Target with a leak, it was probably my fault. Sorry.

Mike Brenner does what it take to entice bidders.

One February during a somewhat risqué Valentine’s themed group show, I decided to auction myself off every week to the highest bidder to raise money for the gallery. The rules were simple and intentionally vague — whoever bid the most got to do whatever they wanted with me for four hours, but had to cover all the expenses of the “date.” When the first auction opened, the bids jumped to $50 pretty quickly, but then stopped. I really started to freak out about what I was going to have to do for only $12.50 an hour, but after the local papers printed a photo of me reclined on the gallery sofa in a high school wrestling uniform, bids shot up until at the last second a woman swept in with a winning bid of $201. Long story short, the first auction date involved a forty-five minute car ride blindfolded (the driver got lost) to a downtown hotel where I was fed Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza and then instructed to flog the winner with a cat o’ nine tails. The winner of the second date took me out for Italian after having me get the gallery logo (a stack of hotcakes) tattooed on my right butt cheek. The third date was to one of Milwaukee’s favorite custard stands where the winner fed me sloppy joes while I played her songs on my accordion. I ended up raising a little over $700, but I haven’t auctioned myself off since.

my grandma

If you own an art gallery, most of these stories probably aren’t foreign to you — except maybe the one with the cat o’ nine tails. Most gallery owners I’ve met have at least one other job or a wealthy spouse, and I know at least one other art dealer who’s lived in her gallery and showered at a gym. Artists and art dealers are all in this together. It’s definitely a labor of love on both ends. So, before you complain about a 50% commission or go behind a gallery owner’s back to screw her out of that 50%, think about the look on my poor grandmother’s face when she saw a picture of my tattoo in the newspaper.

  1. Megan says:

    I wasn’t living in Milwaukee when Hotcakes was around and this post makes me heartbroken that I missed it. I will be front and center at opening night of your next gallery; I truly hope there will be a next!

  2. nothing better than self solicitation and people paying for your gallery and tattoo needs.

  3. ben will says:

    I couldn’t agree more with everything that you’ve said. While I’ve never gone to those extremes to get cash, supporting art you believe in is most often a losing financial situation. Its sad that in this country (and the world for that matter) so much money is wasted on useless mass produced crap.

  4. Viv says:

    LOOOOOOOOL An absolutely hilarious and well-written article about the trials and tribulations as a gallery owner – who knew!! 🙂

  5. Karen says:

    Thanks for the article…many of us have been there. The rent is to high, the sales to low. When you run an in-house artist private studio gallery where they hang, show, sell and teach their creative skills… such as I operate… very little thanks is given to the manager who spends mega time and money making other artists happy. Being creative is one of the most enjoyable times anyone can spend in their lives. If you open again please put me on your list of people to see and get to know…from one artist to another…life is short and art is too enjoyable to not have in your home or office. I get up in the morning looking at the art hanging around me and it gives me a great way to start my day!

  6. Ingrid says:

    Do you still have your art gallery?

  7. eric polise says:

    Hilarious story. Thinking about starting an art gallery myself in a big city and trying to survive. Sounds like a wild ride. Let me know if you gallery still is open.

  8. shelley says:

    thank you so much for posting your story. i’m I’m the middle of relocating a gallery and silversmithing studio lower alabama where none buys art. i appreciate and connect with your story and thank you for sharing.

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