The Art Ethicist: Your Relationship with your Gallery
I have long been interested in writing a column in this vein, and so will answer a question every now and then here on my blog. I welcome questions for future posts.
Q. I have finally been able to place my work in a good private gallery in my area. Some things are laid out in the contract (when I will be notified of a sale and paid; how we split the sale; what percentage the gallery can discount the work; and so on), but I understand from conversing with other artists that there are a number of other points of consideration that are just understood. Could you discuss what my ethical obligations are, and what I can do to help make this a successful relationship?
Congratulations! You are now, as an artist, represented, entering into a complex yet potentially fruitful relationship that can build your reputation, confidence, and sales record.
There are two parts to your question, so I will discuss the ethical obligations first.
The issue of studio sales is very important. If we begin from the understanding that your gallery needs to make sales to survive—something that you want as well—it follows that they need to be included on any sales that result from having your work in their gallery.
Collectors who have discovered you at your gallery will come to you directly for several different reasons, and with artists’ websites displaying work and contact info, this is now made very easy.
Some buyers will approach the artist because they expect a deal, assuming that the artist will charge them a price that discounts the gallery commission. This is strictly a no-no (though sometimes suggested in complete innocence), unless, maybe, it is your sister who is asking. Once an artist has any gallery representation and/or track record of sales, prices need to be consistent for any show, gallery, or studio sale, and can move up across the board as a sales record is built.
There are several reasons for this. First, if someone has purchased your work for X, they don’t want to see or hear of a same-size piece being offered or sold for less than X. Second, if you attract buyers to your studio by undercutting your gallery, the gallery really has no reason to keep you aboard. A collector who has bought work at half price from your studio will never buy anything from your gallery. So, if the gallery is working hard trying to advance your career and your pocketbook, and you essentially hoard collectors and steal sales from them, what is in it for them?
Studio sales, therefore, to anyone, need to be done at full retail price or whatever discount might be acceptable at your gallery.
The second reason folks come directly to the artist is that they want to see work in addition to what’s at the gallery. Some will ask the gallery to arrange a studio visit or snag a piece that is on the artist’s website, but others will contact the artist directly with the idea of going to the source. They sometimes (not understanding the relevance) neglect to tell the artist how they discovered the work.
When anyone contacts you from out of the blue, it is important to find out how they became acquainted with your work, something that you would want to do for your own information anyway. Sometimes this takes some gentle pressing, maybe even after they have arrived to look at work. If they did indeed find you through your gallery, it’s best to work into the conversation that the gallery will be looped in. I have found that folks have often absorbed many artists’ complaints about galleries and their commissions so I usually express my sincere gratitude to my gallery, as well as pointing out that without those commissions, they will not be in business. It is a professional and reciprocal relationship, but often folks just haven’t looked at it in that light. If pressed (for example, they will sometimes promise to keep a discounted price a secret!), I will point out that I have agreed to these conditions with my gallery, and would therefore be lying to them if I broke that agreement.
If they want to purchase a piece, you can refer them to the gallery to pay, but if they want to do the sale through you, you will gracefully accept, and work it out with your gallery later. Sales from the studio usually require a somewhat smaller commission to the gallery (unless the dealer brings the collector over personally), often 40%. On other occasions, where the artist has worked extensively with the buyer (sending jpegs of work, a studio visit, perhaps a delivery) the gallery commission might be as low as 25%. This needs to be worked out with your gallery with transparency all around, though the buyer doesn’t need to be bothered with these details, as you are charging them the same price regardless.
Exclusivity agreements are another point of ethical conduct. If they are not outlined in your contract (that you will show exclusively with them within a certain radius) then common sense and good communications apply. You really don’t want to show down the block, and the gallery should be notified of any shows, especially those that are nearby. They are, again, representing you, and so should be kept apprised of career developments and not be left to be informed of your activities by some other artist or collector who wanders into the gallery.
Even if you have an exclusivity clause in your contract, it is always worth asking your gallery for an exception under certain circumstances. These might be a group show mounted by a national organization of which you are a member; a museum show; or a town-wide artists studio tour.
If you have multiple galleries, even if you have left ample turf geographically for each gallery, they will inevitably end up stepping on each other’s toes via the internet. Many galleries will work with a split commission if one gallery has the piece and another the client. Sometimes a collector will call or email inquires all over the place and get everyone sending out jpegs of available work (often getting them from the artist), and the artist is usually the one to figure it out when it’s all the same person. When confronted with the confusion that the internet can cause (which is, of course, far outweighed by the benfits), keep the lines of communication open and try to maintain a sense of humor.
This creates a good segue to the next part of the question, which has to do with steps that you can take to create a successful relationship with your gallery.
Taking work back from your gallery can make for a touchy situation. Most galleries specify in their contract how long they expect consigned work to stay in the gallery. Many try to be flexible if the artist has pressing needs—-a show going up in a museum, for example—and sometimes the gallery is just ready to let a piece go back to the artist. What is frowned upon is when the artist snags a piece to sell elsewhere and does not share with the gallery (though this does happen, especially when there is no contract or the stated duration has expired); when an artist cleans out the inventory of one gallery to show in another: or takes a piece that the gallery has a nibble on. The ideal policy is just to leave work until the gallery is ready to give it up.
It behooves the artist to send collectors to the gallery. I always argue that while with a studio sale the artists makes more money, a sale through the gallery will have much more ripple effect, leading to future sales. The galleriest will not fail to notice that you sent a client, beginning a bond of loyalty; they can speak of the sale or point to the red dot with prospective collectors; and you have shown your willingness to share, helping them keep their doors open. This is likely to be remembered when they are deciding on their show schedule, or selecting artists to bring to the next art fair.
One good time to refer folks is when someone not affiliated with another of your galleries approaches you about a purchase. You can give them the two options—come to my studio or visit my nearby gallery. I have noticed that some folks really prefer to work through a gallery, while others love to deal with the artist. In a relationship of trust, you and your dealer can refer folks back and forth as appropriate.
Artists who are easy to deal with and show understanding of the collaborative nature of the relationship tend to have more solid and long-lasting tenures. Several of my galleriests have explained this very clearly to me—while choosing from all of the talent that is out there, they would prefer, as a quality-of-life choice, to work with artist who are also responsive and can keep an even keel while working through the occasional conflict or stressful situation.
Otherwise…show up when possible, respond promptly to requests for work or jpegs or your resume (or anything), check in occasionally to express interest, forward gallery evites to your own list, mention your gallery on Facebook—all common sense attentions. Also, speak well of your gallery to others, ask questions when you aren’t sure; don’t be a pest; and (barring any unethical conduct on their part) stay the course—it takes time to build a solid relationship and a collector base for your work.
A possible topic for future discussion— What you can expect from your gallery? What are their obligations? (Let me know if this interests you!)