1) Identify your target galleries. Do NOT just send your portfolio to every gallery you see advertised. Look in magazines, look online and identify several galleries that might be possibilities. Each gallery you decide to target should meet the following criteria:
a) Sell the medium(s) that you work in (i.e. Photographers should not approach galleries that sell only paintings)
b) Represent artwork styles that will draw buyers who would also be interested in your style (i.e. Abstract artists should not approach realism galleries)
c) Must be reputable. You may have to ask artist friends and do some digging to determine this.
d) Should promote themselves and have obvious strategies for generating leads. This may be magazine advertising, but could also be having a high-traffic location, a targeted direct mail campaign or even email campaigns. This may be difficult to determine in advance, but you will see advertisements and other artists may know how a given gallery generates leads.
After you've identified your target galleries, you.....
2) Honestly assess the level and quality of your artwork and the artwork carried by your target galleries. Is your goal realistic? Are you targeting a gallery who represents master painters and you've been painting for a total of six months? This is a difficult step, but you definitely need to target galleries who are at the same "level" as you.
Once you're comfortable that you're ready to show in your target galleries....
3) Go through each gallery's roster of artists, looking for artists whom you personally know. If you really are at the same "level" as the artists in your target galleries, chances are you will have at least met some of them.
4) If you don't know anyone represented by any of the galleries, you probably need to do some networking and meet more people. You could also try sending a letter to some of the artists you respect and ask them if they would critique your work. You might be able to take workshops with some of them (that's a great way to meet master artists and get your work noticed). You might know someone who knows them. You'll do better by giving something first, perhaps a collector of your work would like one of the other artist’s works. Call the artist and tell him you have a collector who might be interested in his work and make a referral.....an artist will remember someone who sends him a possible sale!
5) Ask your artist friend about the target gallery. Once you've identified some artists whom you know and/or have developed relationships with you're ready to continue your quest. Ask your friend what it is like to work with such and such gallery. Do they pay promptly?
If you start hearing positive things then . . . .
6) Ask your artist friend if the gallery would like your work. Just ask. This is someone who knows you and the gallery....they'll give you an honest answer. It will be easier to accept & hear the truth from your friend than it will be to get a rejection letter from the gallery. (You can still approach the gallery even if your friend doesn't think you should, you just won't have the advantage of the referral).
7) Ask your friend if they would tell the gallery about your work. (Only if they were positive in step 6).
If your friend agrees . . .
8) Check the gallery's exhibition calendar. Identify a time when they are not overwhelmed with some huge show. Your friend will probably know what timing is best.
When the time arrives. . .
9) Have the friend call the gallery and casually mention you and your work. This will peak the gallery owner's interest about you. The goal of this call should be for your friend to let the gallery owner know that you'll be sending a portfolio and following up with a phone call.
10) If possible, have your friend send the portfolio. Simply give the portfolio to your friend, ask him to write on a post-it note "this is the artist I told you about" and send it. (Make sure you pay for postage). This way the portfolio will have your friend's name on the outside, and will get opened more promptly....this step is optional because the gallery should be expecting your portfolio at this point, so just send it yourself if it will be an imposition to ask your friend.
11) After the portfolio arrives at the gallery you will probably get a phone call. You've "primed the pump" and the gallery will likely feel obligated to at least give you a call. If you don't get a call after about a week, then you need to call them and make sure they actually received the portfolio, let them know that you are the artist that "so-and-so told you about...."
12) At this point a dialog should open with the gallery. They may still turn down your work, but your discussions will be relaxed, casual and friendly. If they do turn you down, ask them if they know of any other galleries where your work might be a better fit. (We often provided other gallery names because it is difficult to "reject" someone and we did truly want to be helpful. We've had many artists thank us for pointing them to other galleries who accepted their work....and that is gratifying).
Is this too much work? No. Every career is a lot of work and being an artist is no different. If your career is worth it, then the work is worth it.