Blame it on the economy. Many galleries are turning over a new leaf--changing how they do business, typically because of diminished staff
or funds. It's a good idea to check in with your gallery to see how things are going, to learn of any changes in the way they're operating and--since we're in this together--to see if there's anything you might do to help in the promotion of your work and, by extension, of the gallery itself.What follows are some examples of the ways those leaves are turning.
1. A small New York gallery has dropped its insurance. "Like most of you, I have had to cut back in many areas to keep my doors open. I can no longer take responsibility for insuring the full retail value of the work I have here on consignment," says this dealer. She gave her artists the option of removing the work or keeping it there. Most wish to remain with the gallery and will take the chance for now. Some may retrieve the larger work and allow the gallery to hold onto a few smaller pieces. (The gallery website can show larger works, which the artist and dealer can arrange to have delivered to the gallery if need be.)
2. A New York-area gallery no longer calls the artists to say a work has been sold. Delivering good news is one of the most pleasurable aspects of a dealer's job, but with staff cutbacks those individual conversations with artists may no longer be possible. While no artist is unhappy with the arrival of a check for artwork sold, one artist posed this question: "If I'm not notified when the work sells, isn't it possible that the money from the sale could be used by the gallery to pay its bills? I could be getting that check months after the fact." Well, yes it's possible. But why assume the worst if your relationship with the gallery has always been good? Communicate! Press for an e-mail notification. (If you can't get at least that, then consider a red flag raised.)
3. Smaller staffs mean more chance for inventory snafus. I keep a visual inventory--a digital contact sheet for each gallery, so that I can see at a glance what the gallery has. At the end of the year, I confirm that the gallery and I have the same information. It happened recently that a painting had been sold during the year but I was never notified or paid. I know the gallery; I've worked with it for years. The dealer paid me as soon as s/he realized that the painting I was asking about had in fact sold. There was no deception intended, but I see more of this kind of thing happening as there are fewer folks to do the administrative work.
4. An out of town gallery is no longer paying to have artists' work shipped to or from the gallery. This is a temporary measure until the economy picks up, I'm told, but what concerns me is the cumulative result all of these changes have on artists. Collectively we're having to assume a greater insurance load or risk, having to pay to ship or deliver, assuming ever greater administrative responsibilities, and operating without knowing if work has sold and thus when we might expect a check. With sales down and foot traffic in the galleries almost non existent, I'm wondering how feasible it is even to show right now.
5. A gallery out west is closing its bricks-and-mortar space and going cyber instead. In a letter to her artists, the director wrote: "The internet will allow us to access a more diverse, global client base throughout the year while dramatically reducing our carbon footprint. Flexibility within our site will permit us to easily introduce new work, present more exhibitions, respond more quickly to the needs of our artists and our clients."
I have no affiliation with this gallery so I feel free to say that while the spin is upbeat, I'm not buying. Carbon footprint or no, this trend makes me nervous. If the gallery does art fairs, OK; the artists' work will continue to be shown in a tangible way. But the Internet is no substitute for the experience of viewing art. The gallery also mentioned running profiles of its artists, and linking to other cultural institutions. Hey, I can do that, and I'm no dealer! What would make this cyber gallery any different from, say, a consultant? And will the dealer continue to take 50% on sales? In interesting turn, for sure.
On a more positive note . . .
6. Curate a gallery show. If you have a collegial relationship with your dealer, propose curating a show. You may not--probably won't--get paid much (or at all) to do it, but the curatorial experience is great. You'll think about art and exhibitions in a more encompassing way. You'll have a good reason to give yourself time to make studio visits. The art karma is great. And with you working on the project, the dealer should find a few extra hours to cultivate collectors, research art fairs or other projects that may ultimately benefit you. You'll have a new category for your resume, too.
7. Curate your own "blogallery." It doesn't have to be about sales so much as keeping your work, and that of artists you respect, in the public eye while your dealer and the economy in general catch their breath. I mean if a former b-and-m gallery can go cyber, so can you. (An interesting related project is Minus Space's Viewlist. I did something similar myself with, Cold? Come Stand Next to These in January, and Armory Fair: Salvage Operation in March.)
Not yet with a gallery? If your e-mails and presentation materials are getting no response, and even your visits to the gallery to see the exhibitions result in no personal interaction, it's entirely possible that in this economy the dealer you're interested in isn't thinking beyond the current lease period. Be patient but active. (See the "blogallery" item, above. )
Consider this an open forum for discussion. How is your gallery changing and how are you adapting to your gallery's changes? Don't tell me gallery names; just discuss the situation. And if you feel more comfortable responding anonymously, that's fine.
Image from the website Delight.com