Gallery Beat

By F. Lennox Campello

I once read a piece written by a gallery owner which noted that she “often wonders how other galleries are dealing with artists who have gallery representation but continue to self-promote.” She then noted that she had “been known to secret shop gallery represented artists. I contact them through their emails on their personal websites and inquire as to whether they have any studio pieces available. Not once has an artist directed me to his or her galleries for purchases.”

This fine, but important point, is more often than not a deal-killer between gallerists and artists. But what is the solution?

The key to all secrets to this issue is the contract between the gallery and the artist and how well artists and galleries communicate with each other.

The relationship between a gallery and its artists should always be a complimentary relationship: they both need to work together to ensure that both the gallery and the artist succeed. And, at the risk of repeating myself for the millionth time: There must always be a written contract!

An established artist who “hides” his established collector base from his gallery and the gallery which does not give the artist the name and contact info of new collectors who acquire the artist works are really saying to each other: “I don’t trust you.” The artist is saying “why should I pay you a 50% commission on a sale to a collector that I bring to you, when I can have him come directly to me and I keep the full 100% of the sale? The gallery is saying “why should I give you the name and address of the client that I sold your work to, when all you’re going to do in the future is approach him directly to try to sell work to him and bypass me?”

That’s a relationship doomed for failure and constant suspicion.

There are galleries which demand citywide, statewide or even worldwide representation of the artists’ works. In return the artist should be able to ask the gallery: “what are you doing for me and my work in between the 2-3 years that I have a solo show with you?” The answer for most artists may be a combination of things, such as placement in group shows in other venues, web development, alternative marketing, taking the artist’s work to art fairs, etc. For a small group of artists the answer may be that the solo show every 2-3 years does so well in sales, that it keeps the artist a wealthy and happy camper in the interim period.

I know many artists who voluntarily give their art galleries a 10% cut of all sales made by that artist, regardless of the gallery’s involvement in that individual sale. In the positive angle for gathering the logic for this scenario is related to the excellent work that the gallery has done over the years in building up the artist’s presence in the arts community, is adding to the artist’s resume, in placing the artist’s works in known collections and/or museums. The opposite would be a gallery which demands a 10% commission on all sales made by the artist, when that gallery does nothing to promote and disseminate the artist’s work. See the difference?

That’s why contracts and communications are important.

Imagine that you (the artist) gets picked up by the gallery and they offer you a solo show. The gallery then spends a considerable amount of time, effort and money (if they’re doing their job right) in promoting your work and giving you and the art an opening reception and then manning the space for a month while your show is up, taking care of rent, salaries and continued communications and arm twisting with curators and news media critics to come see the show. Let’s further imagine that, especially in this austere fiscal environment in which we live these days, nothing sells. At the end of the month, the artist walks away with all his work, and perhaps (if the stars have aligned and the gallery has spent a couple of golden bullets) with a review. In any event, the artist walks away with at least one more line in their resume. Plus all the “invisibles” that are so hard to account for, but also so important in developing an art career. Key amongst these invisibles is the exposure of the work to a diverse set of eyes which otherwise (had it not been for that gallery show), may not have been exposed to the work: collectors, writers, curators, etc.

The potential pay-off (a sale, a review, etc.) may still be years in the future, but the seed has been planted into what at first sight appears to be a failure of a solo. It is only a failure in sales; no solo show is a full failure; it is always in fact, a positive accomplishment – even one with a bad review.

Let’s make the above scenario a bit more complex. Now let’s say that a couple of months after the solo has closed, a client comes in to the gallery and is still interested in the artist’s work, and so the gallery either refers him to the artist’s studio or has the artist bring some work to the gallery in order to show it to the client. What happens as far as commissions in either of these two cases?

See what I mean about contracts and communications?

It gets more complex as the degrees of separation between the sale and the relationship between gallery and that sale spread, and that is why it is important for communications to be clear and constant, but more importantly trust.

Years ago, when I was a Sotheby’s Associate Dealer, I managed a sale of a painting by a Louisiana artist to a collector in Texas. This all happened online and I never met the collector or even saw the painting in person, but the artist was under contract to my gallery and understood all the various parts of that contract.

Months later, someone visited the collector, saw the painting that I had sold, and liked it. He then contacted the artist directly and explained that he had seen the painting at the Texas’ collector’s home and was interested in seeing more work.

Question to the readers: If the artist makes a sale directly to this collector, would the artist owe me a commission?

It’s all in the contract!

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