Marketing Mondays: When Your Dealer Won't Tell You Who's Bought Your Work

Q: “The gallery that represents me does not want to give me the names of, and information about, the people who have bought my paintings. It's gotten so I am afraid to even ask. I understand their rationale but am wondering what you think of that practice. I have lost track of my work.” –Susan M.

A: I think it’s a terrible practice! I write a lot on this blog that we’re in the same boat, meaning the artist and the dealer. When I hear of a situation like this, I realize that some artists and dealers are traveling not just in separate boats but on separate oceans.

A good and reputable dealer should create an invoice with the name and contact information of the person who buys your work. There should be three copies: one for the collector, one for you, and one for the gallery. In some states, this is the law. In other states it’s up to the gallery owner. An attorney affiliated with Volunteer Lawyer for the Arts can tell you what the law is in your state (Google that name as well as the name of the nearest big city near you).

Even if a dealer is not legally bound by state law to reveal the name of the collector, it's a shitty practice not to. This is your artwork we're talking about!

The best artist/dealer relationships are built on transparency. It's not only common practice for the dealer to give you the information, it's often the case that she'll introduce those artists and collectors at openings, perhaps even host social events that bring them together. That has been my experience, anyway.

I consulted Ed Winkleman's book, How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, and here's what he had to say:
"There is a big difference of opinion throughout the industry on the importance of guarding your collectors' information. I fall on the side of advocating transparency but understand how having been betrayed can make some dealers more cautious. Trust and credibility on both sides remain as important a part of the dealer-collector relationship as they are of the dealer-artist relationship."
(I know this is not just theoretical. At an opening of mine a few years ago, a cockily self-assured type who identified himself as a collector proffered his card and said, "Call me after the show comes down and we'll talk." I've also received email from collectors who state their desire "to work outside the gallery system"--or as one more honest person put it, "I make it a policy never to pay retail." Dude, go to Loehmans.)

Not to get all Dr. Phil on you here, Susan, but if your dealer won’t give you the name of the folks who buy your work, he doesn't trust you. How can you trust him to work on your behalf? It's a bad relationship. If you can't resolve this issue, you may want to look around quietly for other options. I think you know what you have to do.

Now I'm going to turn to my experts: you.
. Artists, have you dealt with this issue successfully?
. Have you left a gallery because of this problem?
. Dealers, do you divulge or not divulge?
. Collectors, your thoughts?
. Do we have any lawyers reading who want to weigh in?



Susan Roux said...

I'm in some very reputable galleries in New England and the policy has always been secretive. I thought it was standard procedure. They work hard to get their clients and their mailing lists and don't feel its public information. They see it as their own private information.

I just never questioned it. Didn't like it, but just followed the rules...

I can understand the galleries side too. If they gave it all away, eventually they would weed themselves out! Like being able to buy products over the internet. Big companies and stores have gone out of business because of it. Who wants to pay the middle man? But the galleries do have a way of bringing buyers to our art. And many big tag buyers want to see the art in person before buying.

I don't know the answer...

lasuki said...

After my first NY solo at a downtown gallery I had a similar experience. The gallery owner refused to give me a copy of the guest list from the show. This ruined an otherwise productive relationship. The problem for me at the time was that it felt wrong, yet I really had no idea what the protocol was. Now I trust my instincts, as with any relationship, and expect trust and transparency. P.S. I have been following your blog for months and appreciate your writing immensely. I include your link on my syllabus and the students who partake are getting real art life lessons. Thank you, Joanne!

Anonymous said...

I had a gallery director call me and tell me he didn't want me to put any of my contact information on my inventory, which consisted mostly of cards and small reproductions and a few originals. I told him that if I was ever contacted by anyone who came from the gallery, I would either pay the gallery a commission or route the sale through the gallery and that I had no intention of trying to make sales behind the gallery's back. They do not share buyer information with me either, but sales are small anyway. I have another gallery that shares the collector information and is a dream to work with. I am probably going to move on from the first gallery when I have a few more additional galleries. (It's always easier to get into more galleries when you already have representation.)

On a similar note, I'd like to know what your thoughts are about handing out cards, or getting email addresses, etc. from people when you are at the gallery. I have done demos for my galleries and I always have people ask for a card or if I have a website, etc. Do you think it is appropriate to hand out your personal card or get people's emails for your art newsletters or would that be perceived as soliciting clients away from the gallery?

Sarah Winkler said...

I left a gallery recently who did not share a buyer's contact information. In California it is the law to share this information. He lied about being unable to find it and offered me a physical description of the buyer instead! Yes, that should help with the provenance of the painting for future documentation.!

Unknown said...

I‘ve had this experience with most galleries, dealers, and exhibition sites that have sold my work over the years. Consequently I've lost record of those works of art and the potential to foster a long-term relationship with the buyers/collectors. I expect the reason for secrecy is that dealers feel threatened that artists will circumvent the gallery process and offer sales on the side, cutting out the gallery all together. I know this is done and I am often approached "on the side" by buyers, but after being in business for over 30 years and relying on sales reps and dealers to make the sales connections while I'm in the studio, my experience is that it ends up cutting your nose to spite your face if you hawk work on the side. Eventually it will become known and that will mark you for future gallery/dealer relationships. I prefer an open and trusting relationship with the gallery/dealer, one that is a partnership and each contributes his/her part toward a positive outcome.

KRCampbellArt said...

A few years ago I had work in a gallery and each time a piece of mine was sold I was sent the name and address of the purchaser and asked to send them a note expressing my delight over their purchase. I just felt a bit odd about doing this. In this case the gallery owner was being very transparent and I appreciate that but is this the artist's responsibility to follow up after the sale?

Hrag said...

I wonder how long you have been working with your dealer. Maybe that trust is still building?

Anonymous said...

This is complicated because the buyer is a client of the gallery and sometimes, they (the client) don't want their personal information to go to anyone, including the artist. At the gallery I worked at, we were quite happy to share the name of the person or company the work sold to but not the address, phone number etc. especially if the client requested this information be kept confidential.

Trust is the most crucial aspect in the relationship. If the dealer won't let the artist know about ANY collectors, then perhaps something is out of whack and as an artist you need to be careful. If you have no idea where your work is going, you don't have enough control over your situation.

Most of the time, collectors WANT to meet the artist and want to establish a relationship with them, and dealers are usually quite happy to oblige because this often leads to further sales, and the collectors introducing your work to their friends. Makes the dealers work easier.

Transparency might be the ideal, but its not always possible.

AndreasDT said...

Oh yes. I remember some time ago, a small gallery in Boston asked me to prepare about a dozen images from Greece for a 2 week showing. I got them ready, and everything was great.
On opening night, I walked in with my guest book. Not that I had to use it, but I figured "just in case." The owner was adamant that she does not allow it, and instead pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen !!!

Needless two say:
(a) people were not signing in; and
(b) the gallery is now more of a souvenir shop than a gallery.

Well, most gallery owners are smart and realize that we all work together. Those who do not, well...., they lose.

-- A. said...

I've always been transparent with my galleries. I have had personal (earlier) clients come to a show and buy my pieces from the gallery. I have sold pieces which were out at shows to clients and given the gallery their full share. Early on, I even gave my 400 personal mailing list to a gallery. Not once have I been told who bought my paintings, even after a gallery has closed and gone out of business. I think this is a great question to ask any gallery before entering into a new partnership.

I would have been thrilled to send the buyers a thank you.

Anonymous said...

Joanne - thanks so much for posting this question - I see I am not alone! Very interesting commentary...Susan M.

Joanne Mattera said...

Great comments, everyone.

Thanks to the anonymous dealer who commented that some collectors don't wish to have their contact info given out. That's suprising, but as this anon points out, most collectors enjoy the interaction. (Indeed, at the recent art fairs I ran into an artist, her dealer, and a client of the gallery who is one of that artist's collectors. They were taking in a fair together and were planning to go out to dinner afterward. They're all friends, brought together by the art. The dealer sets this collegial tone, I would add.)

A different Anonymous asks: "What are your thoughts are about handing out cards, or getting email addresses, etc. from people when you are at the gallery."
At an opening, I'd say probably not. But if it's a demo or other situation where you might be contacted to teach, setting up a mailing list or having cards available makes sense to me. Talk with your dealer.

I have on occasion given out my cards at an opening when a visitor asks about my blog. Rather than spelling out the URL for each inquiry, I hand out my card. My dealers understand the reason. And they know, from our years of working together, that I'm always going to be on the up and up with them.

Re Kristine's comment that her dealer asked her to send Thank Yous to the collectors: That strikes me as odd. I would think the dealer would do that. But just as artists are different, dealers are different--and collectors, too. As Marion points out, those Thank Yous mean the work is selling.

Kim Matthews said...

I always thought that dealers were required to provide detailed sales data to their artists; thanks for this discussion. The lack of trust is the disappointing point about this, IMO.

Somewhat related, what do you all think of dealers asking their artists to hand over their mailing lists? Aren't dealers there to bring in new clients, and not to get a piece of an artist's existing clients?

Larry said...

I've never experienced a secretive attitude from a dealer. On the contrary, I've had dealers introduce me to their artists; I've had dealers bring me to artists' studios; one dealer I know well hosts monthly dinners where artists and collectors can get together. I don't get the secrecy thing at all.

patty a. said...

I have a question. Artists have website where they post work for sales, but no prices. They ask you to contact them for the price. I am on a limited budget and I won't contact the artist because I don't want to take up their time buy asking the price. I figure if they don't post their price, I can't afford it. Why don't they just post the price?

Pamela Farrell said...

This is so interesting. I am fortunate to work with a gallery owner who is transparent about collectors.

Regarding the issue of handing out cards at openings, etc. In addition to cards that have just my contact info, I have cards that have my contact info printed on them along with the gallery info. I have these available to the gallery owner and carry them myself.

They have come in handy when I've met folks who express an interest in my work, and makes it a convenient and subtle way to direct them away from my studio and toward the gallery.

Joanne Mattera said...

I don't have prices on my website because I don't sell from there, so I can't respond from experience. But if you're interested in an artist's work, how hard is it to send an email? What a good opportunity to become more engaged!

LXV said...

Joanne, Again, the voice of reason! I don't list prices on my website either. I want the experience to be about my art and my vision, process and journey. It's an archive as well as a place to present new work and ideas. It's not about selling. But I always welcome feedback, queries, dialogue.

I also don't want it looking like Etsy or ebay. Selling is something I let a dealer do when I can't do it myself. Besides, not everything is for sale, and I'm not always ready to sell a piece until the right person comes along, or the right situation presents itself. So, communication about larger issues is vital.

As to your main topic today, I have not had any luck learning the names of my collectors from one of my galleries. They have done quite well for me in the past, but I think we may be parting company before long, for a number of reasons. I am encouraged by your post and all the revealing & thoughtful comments to try to make transparency about collectors an upfront issue in future negotiations.

Larry said...

Responding to Patty A., I have found this tendency more pronounced on dealer websites than on sites where the artist sells direct. It seems to be a holdout from the brick-and-mortar gallery tradition of not showing prices next to the art lest the price somehow "interferes" with looking at the art. Usually you can get a price list at the desk, however. I believe providing a list is a requirement in New York, though I can think of several Chelsea galleries (no names) where a price list is not available unless you "ask."

But I don't see any good reason for a dealer not to list prices on their website. Some already do so (and here I'll name names: Mixed Greens, Kathryn Markel, UGallery are some) - and it creates a sense of greater transparency and openness IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing this topic Joanne. I asked my former gallery to provide the names (and city only) of the clients who purchased my work for the sole purpose of keeping track of my work after learning that some of my colleagues were provided this information by their galleries. Although I'd been with the gallery 3 years and I always directed sales inquiries I received to the gallery AND the gallerist agreed to my request, I NEVER received one name of any collectors. I've had several gallerists tell me that the relationship between artist and gallery is based on trust but I say get it in writing from the beginning. Needless to say I left this particular gallery and found new representation with galleries who up front provided me the aforementioned information without me ever having to request it. I've also been a bit surprised by the fact that when I've donated and sold works to some high profile non-profit art organizations' auctions they too have refused to provide the name of the buyer.

Claire Roderick Keerl said...

In the 80's and early 90's, I was a dealer and worked in several "high-profile" galleries in NYC. We always told the artist who bought their work, and it was never an issue because the artists did not want to jeopardize their relationship with the gallery. I think every artist and gallery or dealer relationship should be documented with a contract that spells out stuff like this along with commission rates, etc. It's just good business.

Amber George said...

My galleries are very open about who has purchased my work. One gallery even gives me a copy of the client invoice. I have been contacted directly by collectors and I always refer them back to the gallery where they purchased my work, something that is impossible to do if the gallery doesn't tell you who is purchasing your work. In one instance I was contacted by a collector for specific information about the painting they purchased. I forwarded the request to the gallery, and was given the okay to respond and cc the gallery. It's about openly communicating so that you can build trust about this issues.

One important issue that I have not seen brought up is that as an artist you still maintain the copyright to all of your work unless you explicitly assign them to someone else. For this reason, it's critical to know who has your work.

A V said...

Citing a dealer: "you do not know who they are, but they do know who you are". The right to signature is cast in stone [perhaps the signed reproductions is where this gets obvious?] the rest... I have the feeling that art buyers in different parts of the world have different preferences about letting dealers give away their names: unthinkable in some parts, blurred / personal in most, indifferent rarely. The deciding factor is somewhere among the ends of art buying - whether hedonism and connoisseurship have much in common thereabouts.

The anonymous clients may find it reassuring - or otherwise useful - to have their belongings exposed to accolades publicly pre- AND/or post-purchase [i.e. on the gallery's wall, not the buyer's]. I am not sure whether US galleries indulge such requests, but other art's dealers must yield to services amounting to maintaining the profile of something sold 'out there'; some love it, some loath it. As such the private / public standing of the work has an opportunity to be maintained slightly shaded - at its owner's behest, whoever that owner might be.

Just a thought from an economist with a taste for IP & legalese. All in all, however, I do not believe that the big picture of such 'transactions of notoriety' is something practical to know - something self-evident in one place is still bad manners in another. Just as well.

Jesa Damora said...

While I acknowledge that relationships and situations come in many shades, it is really helpful to know for yourself what your expectations are in any encounter. For any place I show, I have a contract I give the person I've been talking with. We negotiate it. Whatever the outcome, at least I'm clear about it. I can say yes or no. I've said 'no' perhaps more than some, but maybe this has led me much more quickly to people that I feel really happy working with.

No 'policy' is written in stone, and its easy to be run by what you don't know, or assume. If you don't question the rules, don't dare to ask, you do a disfavor not only to yourself, but to the many others who come after you.

Thank you, Joanne, for such a terrific blog.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post/thread to read. I'm a gallery owner in the UK and over here it would be illegal for me to pass on the name and contact details of the buyer without prior written consent, due to data protection laws. Besides which, for most purchases small enough that they don't need us to arrange delivery it would be very unusual for us to ask for their contact details in the first place. It works more like a general purchase in a shop than anything else. I keep information about each artist (eg their name and artist statement) on file which I can give out but this would never include an artists contact details either, again due to Data Protection.