Marketing Mondays: How Long Do You Leave Your Work With a Gallery?

Lisa P. writes in with these questions: How long should you leave the work in a gallery if it is not selling? Six months? A year? Can you ask for it to be shipped somewhere besides your studio?

This is a timely question because sales these days are slow. On the one hand, a dealer may want to hold onto the work in the hopes of selling it (collectors in this economy may be taking longer than usual to commit to a purchase). On the other, the dealer may not want to retain inventory that has no likelihood of selling any time soon.

.Your work: Should it stay or go?

I think a year is reasonable. It gives dealers ample time, and a fair window, to sell through a show. After that, I find that an artist's work (OK, my work) tends to disappear into the back of the stacks as newer work comes in. I'd prefer to retrieve the older work and send something new. Or, something I've been doing recently: Moving the work around so that each dealer gets a few new pieces along with work that's "new" to them but not necessarily new in the world. (My feeling: Solo shows get new work; general inventory doesn’t have to be hot off the griddle.)

Check the terms of your consignment form. You don't need a contract, but you and the dealer should each have a signed sheet that lists what work you have consigned to the gallery and when. It's useful in so many ways: so that the gallery knows what's on hand, so that you know, so that sales can be tracked by both of you. And in case of the unthinkable (fire, flood, theft), there's a paper trail for insurance. This form typically lists the duration a gallery expects to retain the work.

. If the consignment doesn’t specify length of consignment, open a discussion: Ask what terms the gallery prefers, and let your preference be known. Then you can add that to the consignment, or agree verbally, after which you would send a letter (not an e-mail) stating the agreed-upon terms. Keep a copy for yourself. This is not a legal document so much as it is a clarification of the terms you have agreed upon, so that when the time comes to pick up the work or have it sent back, everyone is literally on the same page.

. If you don’t have a consignment form, generate one yourself and ask the dealer to sign it. (Some dealers just aren't good with paperwork. Rather then being offended that you have generated a form, they should welcome it. That's been my experience, anyway.) Include the terms of retention that you and the dealer have discussed. This might be a legal document; but I'm not a lawyer so don’t take my word for it. At the very least it spells out what work of yours the gallery holds and the length the gallery will hold it. I prefer a list that includes thumbnail images; it's much easier to identify the work.

In this economy, some dealers are holding onto work just not to have to spend the money to send it back. That's a bad idea; not only is the work going nowhere saleswise, it's literally going nowhere. If the dealer really can't afford to send the work back, I'd prefer s/he send it back on my Fed Ex account with the idea that when times get better, the gallery will pay for both-way shipping, or reimburse. The economy may not be great, but sales are still being made. I'd rather pay to move my work to where the sales are. It's not unreasonable to ask Dealer A to send work directly to Dealer B. And if Gallery B is keen to get some "new" work, see if you can have the shipment put on their account. As for commissions, while I feel for the galleries that are struggling, I don't believe Gallery A should expect a commission on work sent to Gallery B unless the two galleries have been in discussion about the sale of particular piece.

Those of you who have been at this for a while: What do you think is a reasonable retention time? And, dealers, please weigh in here (anonymously if you prefer), noting especially how the situation has changed as a result of this economy.


Caleb Taylor said...

I know Joanne asked for responses to people who have been at this for awhile, so as the experienced collect their thoughts, how about a bit from the fresh meat....I intend to build relationships with galleries until the arrangement is not progressing or feels unwanted. I recently pulled my work from a gallery b/c they repeatedly stated that abstract art (in general) doesn't sell. Having work there for 5 months without a bite and their refusal to cycle in new work while trying to hold me to exclusivity was not conducive to my progress. I felt the dealer didn't understand my work and therefore couldn't explain it to clients. The gallery was interested in medium work (3'x3'), no works on paper, no small work, big work was too much to handle...on and on.

All the blame for the failed relationship was pushed on the economy. Our situation is impacting artists and galleries, but I prefer to not use it as a crutch. When they damaged a work (the economy's fault) and asked me to sweep the repair costs under the rug (he offered to buy me lunch but forgot), I left and the freedom is good.

Donna Dodson said...

I was with 2 galleries in the past and then I took a break- now I am working with 2 new galleries- both of which I joined in the past year at their invitation. I do all of the suggested things that Joanne mentioned like keep an inventory list with prices, discuss commissions, discounts and length of shows, but shipping is not an issue since I am delivering my work to galleries within driving distance and I have to inventory my pedestals for the gallery since they are essential to the display of my work. In terms of moving stuff around, I have had to turn shows down that wanted certain pieces that were unavailable but in general, and with alot of communication, things work out and I make the galleries and dealers happy with what they get. It is a juggling act, for sure and a delicate negotiation sometimes to make decisions about who to give first pick to and which show is a priority and what risks I am willing and unwilling to take. I dont know how the economy is really affecting what I do since it is just coinciding with a change in my overall strategy and having new opportunities come to me this year.

Kim Hambric said...

I think an open, friendly discussion with the gallery owners will be welcomed, or at least tolerated.

I do think that the party that will lose the most during this time will be the artist. Perhaps I'm wrong, but the art world food chain seems to be Gallery Owner, Collector, Artist. Janitorial services just might come in ahead of artist. While a gallery might be willing to trade and ship, they are not going to want to pay for it.

I can't imagine that most galleries wouldn't want a change out of work after a year.

If you've had a good relationship with a gallery, I think approaching them with "new" work and new ideas can only be refreshing and will open up the channels of communication. And if you don't try it first, another artist will.