The easiest way to grasp this is that we sell art, get money from it, and use that money to pay the people who worked to sell that art. This makes sense logically, but the problem is that we often do not sell enough art, or at a high enough price, for that to be the main income source. So this model works mainly for galleries dealing with established names and a steady stream of clients - think David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, etc.
[Fig. 1] A well-lit, well-decorated booth at the Independent.
Smaller galleries are a different story.
Independent galleries are struggling and always have - they come and go in a matter of years. Aside from sales of works, these organizations have various creative ways up their sleeve. Small donations, now easier with the advent of online crowdfunding, is one of them. Another is running a side-business, selling catalogues, small products (posters and ceramics) or even a cafe set-up. And most importantly, the city provides them with many, many grants opportunities, private and public, targeting nonprofit organizations. This sometimes leads to a nesting-doll situation where a big nonprofit supports a small nonprofit that gives a fellowship to a curator at another nonprofit...
[Fig. 2] Inside The Chimney, a space for multidisciplinary arts on the attic of a building
You know what’s also a great way of economizing?
Cutting down on manpower. I guarantee you, any gallery around the size of an apartment flat is being run by an average of 3-5 people, some of them part-time. LES and Bushwick galleries are now converting to only opening by appointment, or opening no more than two days a week (Friday and Saturdays usually). Here’s the point where I also send out a hug of infinite camaraderie to millions of “unpaid interns” performing the very important grunt work in some of these places.
[Fig. 3] Who says gallery work is all computer and brains?
When all fails, we prepare ourselves a failsafe for the ups and downs of gallery business by keeping a side hustle going. There are so many talented people in this business with skills that apply out of the art world - design, computer programming, writing, administration, you name it. People with an academic interest often hold teaching positions.
The instability of working in this industry comes from the fact that you have to rely on a variety of income sources and often the "benevolence" of others - both the government, nonprofits, and private donors.
But it's also remarkable that amid these challenges, thousands of young people still enter the art world and stay there because...well, it's just worth it. Proving that, yes, we all need to be fed, but sometimes the profound existential satisfaction from a job overrides all the practical downsides.