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Why Do Galleries Use Red Dots?

L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao. Image used with permission.
L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao. Image used with permission.

Ask Rose, Katie, Kevin, and Raquel in the Gallery what their favorite office supply is. Then, ask them what question visitors have most often. The answer is the same.

Red dots!

Vital stats

Why do you see these spots around The Art League? Red dots on a gallery wall mean simply mean that a piece has sold. Hence why they’re our favorite! By using the red dot, we can indicate a piece is no longer for sale while still leaving it on view for the remainder of an exhibit.

Katie and Rose
Katie and Rose

The red dot has a bit of a history. They’ve been used for decades in galleries around the world. Some use a red marker, and some use the sticker. Online, the red dot has mostly disappeared, and pieces in image galleries are just marked “SOLD” — how utilitarian!

If you ever see a yellow dot, by the way, that means a 24-hour hold has been placed by a prospective purchaser.

Our happy wall
Our happy wall

For all that history, the dot’s origins are mysterious. None of the gallery owners we contacted knew why we use red dots — and not, say, a gold star. But we do have some theories!

  • Red stands out on white gallery walls
  • Red markers and labels are common and easy to find
  • Red intuitively means “stop, it’s already sold”
  • Somebody used a red sticker one day and it just … stuck (sorry)
  • The red dot archetype has been passed down from our ancestral artists

Robert-Jean Ray, curator at Red Dot Gallery in Sacramento, reports it’s an American gallery tradition that can probably be dated to the height of the art market back in the late 1950s. Colin from the Red Dot Gallery in Norfolk, England shared his experiences in Japanese art galleries, where sales are conducted differently and red dots aren’t used. You also won’t see them in high-end London galleries, which may simply remove the information card or not use one in the first place.

Any theories from our readers? Happy memories of red dots? We’d love to hear them! Whatever the reason, now you know why red dots make galleries everywhere feel warm and fuzzy.

“Red Dots” was Shanthi Chandrasekar's 2011 exhibit at The Art League.
“Red Dots” was Shanthi Chandrasekar’s 2011 exhibit at The Art League.

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