Marketing Mondays: When Bad Things Happen to Good Dealers

See updates at the bottom of the post
Artists often talk about the very real difficulties they’ve had with dealers or consultants—late payments, non payments, damaged work, suddenly closed galleries—you know the list. Well, it’s not only artists who get the go-around. Recently I received an email from a European gallery that I’ve blogged about in my reporting of the art fairs. The dealer was at his wit's end, and it was clear he was asking around wherever he thought he could find help.

Was I familiar with the XYZ gallery in ( . . . a city outside of Manhattan)? Apparently the European dealer had lent the owner of this gallery half a dozen paintings for a group show, at the latter’s request. Now, some eight or nine months after the show, the European dealer was trying to retrieve the work. There had been no news of a sale. Indeed, there had been no news from the American dealer at all. Calls and faxes had gone unanswered.

As a courtesy I contacted a few art friends in the region where this gallery is located and asked if they knew the erstwhile dealer or the gallery.

“Bad news,” said one. “He’s known for not paying.”

“His gallery is empty and he hasn’t been around,” said another. This person offered the names of a few dealers in the more immediate vicinity of the rogue and suggested I pass them on to the European dealer, which I did. There was even a private cell phone number passed along.

As far as I know, the artwork has not been returned.

There are many things I don’t know about the situation:
. Did the European dealer know the American dealer before sending or relinquishing the work?
. If not, did the European dealer exercise due diligence about the American dealer and gallery?
. Did the European dealer take a credit card as a deposit? (Is this even done between dealers? I know it’s often done between dealers and consultants, or between dealers and clients taking the work on approval.)

So this is a post with no answers, just a caveat: Artists, if it can happen to a dealer, it can happen to you.

A few suggestions for artists:
. Don’t send your work to a stranger
who promises to put it in a show. Sure it feels good to be contacted by someone who professes to love your work, but understand the nature of the contact. A lot of smaller-city dealers and consultants are surfing the web to find art that interests them. While many are totally legitimate (I know, because I have worked with a few), others are just interested in the quick fix; they're looking for a particular color or size to go over a client's sofa. You might break your neck to deliver a work on time, but if it doesn't serve the purpose, it may be a long time, if ever, before you see it again.

. Ask around: Do you have artist friends in the area who know the dealer in question? Do you know anyone in the gallery city who either knows the gallery or would be willing to check it out for you? Don’t be afraid to ask a friend of a friend who shows (or used to show) with the gallery what his or her experience is (or has been) like.
. . . . . I was contacted by a dealer in an American resort city who said he loved my work and wanted to purhase it up front. Hmm. I knew the city but not the dealer or his gallery, so I asked a few friends in the area to check it out when they were in town. "Nice space and good light, but not the quality of art you want to show with," said two collector friends, citing mass-produced pictures of sailboats and matadors. Eek. "Cheese factory," came the succinct report from a fellow artist. That was all I needed to know. And, indeed, when I happened to pass by the place several months later, it was everything my friends had described. And less.
. Exercise due diligence. Is the gallery a member of the Art Dealers’ Association in that city? Have you seen ads from the gallery? Have its shows been reviewed, either in the local papers or in the national magazines? Does it have a web presence? Is it listed in the annual Art in America guide to galleries? If the gallery doesn’t turn up in any of your research, that's a red flag.
. Use the artist information network—i.e. email, Facebook, or other informal communication. That AiA guide lists the names of artists involved with each gallery (it's a list provided by the gallery)
. Don’t consign a lot of work the first time you do business with a new gallery (unless, of course you are familiar with it, or you know others who have worked with the dealer to good result).
. Get a signed consignment form. If the gallery doesn't give you one, make up a list and give a copy to the gallery. You want two signatures on the consignment: yours and the person to whom you are consigning the work on behalf of the gallery. Make sure it's dated.

. Go to the opening.
Take photographs of your work on the wall, of the dealer with your work. This is the part of your due diligence that's fun. Or at least it will be fun if your due diligence has been duly diligent.

And heed that funny feeling in your gut. If it’s telling you to not get involved, don’t.

Good readers: Have any bad gallery things happened to you?

Update: Donald Sultan's lawsuit with the Bill Lowe Gallery in Atlanta

Update 7.13.10: New York Post reports that Chelsea dealer Harry Stendhal is accused of swindling two well-known artists


Anonymous said...

This is perhaps off subject but I ask for indulgence in venting about a gallery opening I attended this past Saturday night. Doing due diligence, I attended. It was a juried group show and was touted as a premier venue. A far distance to attend, I knew I needed to make the effort. It took awhile for me to pick my jaw off the floor once I entered this "gallery". The show was so poorly hung with no cohesiveness or "story" to tell. Someone in charge decided that all genres should be grouped together. An extremely naive approach for sure! When I got to my piece, I nearly fainted with anger as it was hung so low only a height challenged person would have appreciated the full impact of my piece. I have learned a lot from this experience. Not all shows are worthy, do not believe what people tout, check it out more than twice, and be wary of group shows.
I do feel robbed. My piece has to stay there until the show ends (or until a height challenged person buys it) and I think how much more value it would have just hanging in my studio. I want to say more but unfortunately, I am not at liberty politically and having to say just that, sucks big time! This is a time when being involved in the art business just doesn't seem worth it at all.

Joanne Mattera said...

Part 1 of due diligence is to check the venue before you send in your submission. What is the gallery's history? If the gallery doesn't have a website, that's Red Flag #1. Assuming it does, what's the gallery's exhibition history? You should be able to see images from the previous shows. If that's not available, Red Flag #2. Who is the juror? It should be someone who has a good reason for jurying--a curator, a gallerist, a critic, a writer, or an authority on the topic or theme.

So it's not the group show that's a bad idea--summer shows in the New York galleries are usually group shows--but the quality of the group show, which is reflective of the quality of the gallery.

BTW, MM has two related posts that might interest you, both in 2009. See sidebar for links: Juried Shows, 2.2.09; and The Vanity Gallery 5.18.09

Finally, email personally, would you? I'm maintaining a list of rip-off galleries. Everything will remain confidential. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience as Anonymous I, the difference is that the gallery did not hang up my work, it was on a table. The show was poorly hang as well, having even 3 to 5 rows of works been display from the roof to even works sitting in the floor leaning against the wall. I learned later that it was the gallry owner custom to display works that way always.
This was supossed to be a charity auction where 50% was going to the charity and 50% to the artist, so I decided to participate with 2 works in paper and test them.
One of my works was sold and I got back the other one. I never got my payment on the work that was sold ($50 USD)
The gallery invited me to participate with them several times but after reading your article about "vanity galleries" together with my experience with them, I declined. After my experience a fellow artist participating with them sold a couple of his works and never got paid joining a long list of artist that had been ripped off and ending his contract with them sourly.
It was an inexpesive way for me to find out what I needed from the gallery.

Jhina Alvarado said...

I am currently seeking the help of a lawyer who is helping me get back 4 paintings from a gallery in Canada. They seemed pretty reputable. I talked to another artist who was also there and had friends in the area that checked the place out. All seemed well...until she stopped answering any of my emails. It's been over a year of my trying to get my work back and hopefully I will receive them once the lawyer gets a hold of them.

Also, years ago (14 years ago so I was really young and naive)I was represented by a gallery in San Diego. It was a good relationship for the first two years and then she also stopped answering calls and emails. I had to hijack my own paintings to get them back and many were missing and I was never paid for others. She also once sent a shipment of my work without telling me, it was sent to the wrong address and never seen again. This gallery is now out of business and rumor has it, she owes a lot of artists money and artwork.

Needless to say, I have learned my lesson and am better about sending workin out, getting contracts, and lots of references!

Anonymous said...

Some years ago, I worked in an art gallery and this is when I realized that art dealers can be every bit as eccentric as artists, maybe more. The gallery has been around for years, and the dealer is pretty well known in art circles, so if an artist were to be invited to a show, they would likely be thrilled and flattered, or at the very least, not likely gain any information that would steer them away from it.

Among his missteps, some of them were: not keeping inventory of work (sold or otherwise); no actual bookkeeping system; giving artwork instead of pay to his assistants! (and likely never giving a cent to the artist); an erratic personality which often put off potential clients, if he was ever around to even take their calls. Once, he even called Christies and cussed them out because he had sold some artwork to one of their scouts who hadn't paid after 2 weeks(!) Although he is notorious for being a pain even among other dealers, his client list keeps them from writing him off entirely. His treatment of assistants was no better.

As an artist with a previous career in the legal field, I say cover yourself at all times and don't be afraid to call and inquire, or even go in person if possible to check on your artwork. The longer an item has gone missing, the harder it will be for anyone to remember what happened to it.

Oriane Stender said...

Silk Road 131 (at top of page) is gorgeous!

Diane McGregor said...

Very good post, Joanne. I was approached by the Bill Lowe Gallery (Atlanta) recently. Their contract made me suspicious, although I love the work they represent. I asked a few friends, both in Atlanta and elsewhere around the country (including one of the artists her reps) and the opinion was the same: the guy has a great eye but is a crook. Recently there was a local TV spot on the gallery -- at present, being sued by Donald Sultan. Very interesting piece, worth watching:

Joanne Mattera said...

@Diane: It's important to stress--just so that you don't leave yourself (or me) open to libel-- that you are repeating what you heard people say about Bill Lowe. I have heard the same thing. From many artists.

@Oriane: Thank you for noticing and commenting. I like that piece, too.

Joanne Mattera said...

Oh, hell. I'm posting right on the blog the link Diane McGregor sent. In the news report Lowe admitted that he hasn't paid artists, and the reporter said that some artists had agreed to a payment plan (!) Donald Sultan is suing. If I can figure out how to get all of the URL to embed, we'll have the video link right there. Otherwise. it's a click. Thanks, Diane! said...

I am in the process of trying for six months) to get a small work on paper returned from a gallery in Boston who has had it on consignment for a year and a half. They have not sent me confirmation that they have it or not. I do have a consignment sheet with an image of the piece on it. My documents are in order.I am going to have to show up in person and stand there with a smile on my face asking for it back. It does amaze me how unprofessional and un-business like many professional galleries operate.

Happily, I have been saved from difficult gallery situations through contacting artists of galleries for references. Often the artist will call me and pass on pertinent information verbally. A big thank you, with great gratitude, to all the artists out there offering honest assessments.

I need orange said...

I would like to say that doing anything without a contract is probably not wise.

I did some work for a friend, who used my photographs (taken for that purpose) in some advertising.

Has she paid me?

Well, no, actually, not.

A relatively cheap lesson for a newbie.

No contract, no work..........

Anonymous said...

About 5-6 years ago I was asked to show work with a new transplanted gallery in Miami's Design District. There had been some buzz about strange money exchanges and double billing to collector credit cards, but some quietly vouched for the gallery. Rumors of drug use seemed so cliche I ignored them. It is Miami. I installed the piece and in a few days it sold. I was happy. I met the buyer and he suggested a show in his Boston gallery. After a few weeks I collected my portion of the sale from the gallery. I signed the back of the piece and went on my way. About 8 months went by and I was asked to come into the gallery and sign the piece so it could be shipped to the buyer in Boston. I was confused. I recalled signing it but went to the gallery to make sure. Again, 8 months had passed. It had been signed and was still sitting in the racks. I pointed this out to the assistant and went home. In the months that passed the gallery closed in the middle of the night amid much talk. No one really had a handle on the reasons but many had solid gossip and reputable collectors had been stung. I got an email from the buyer, now over a year after the sale, and was told the piece was never shipped. I had my portion of the sale but the buyer was empty handed. The dealer had vanished. He literally dropped out of sight. I wanted to be angry but everything I had heard panned out. The buyer/Boston gallery owner was willing to give me a show but "had to basically insist" (his words) I do the type of work he wanted. I threw my hands up and thanked him for the almost opportunity.

I keep looking for a moral here but the bottom line is doing your homework may pay off. Get it in writing and keep your fingers crossed. Don't feel like you are asking too much to get signed documents. This part of the art world is simply business. It doesn't detract from the magic of art-making nor collecting. When a gallery basically insists you do anything think that over too.

Anonymous said...

There is a gallery in Los Angeles...somewhere around the Atwater Village that did the same.

The husband, an aging artist, had persuaded his wife to open a gallery. It went well at first 2 years. But they did not run the business very well. Then they just closed all of the sudden. Most of the artist I know who showed in that gallery complained about non-payment and lost consigned pieces.

The owner is now out of the country working while the artist/husband is still in town trying to rescue an obviously dying art career.

It's very sad because they lost most of their artist friends as well as their collectors. Also, some employees are still owed of their salaries.

Anonymous said...

I have been with a very well respected gallery in Berlin for many years. It is only in the last 6 months that I discovered Galerie Caprice Horn has been selling artists works and not telling them for many years. What started out to be a seemingly good gallery has now turned into a fraudulent operation. I can vouch personally for this and I have taLked to several of her artists who are also in the same sold and artists never paid. Artists place their trust in these people and unfortunately artists are easy targets. We need to break the silence and make bad art dealers accountable. It does seems to be a common global phenomenon probably escalated by the current economic situation and the desperate and delusional state of the gallerists.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old article, but does anyone have an update on the Lowe Gallery situation. As a spouse of one of the unpaid artists, I would like to know if there are any updates. I am sure a contract to keep things quiet has been signed if this was settled, because there isn't information anywhere.

Anonymous said...

anonymous .....
Here is your update on Lowe as of the last two days... and as a art dealer of over 1/4 of a century... I am sorry that so many have encountered problems with dealers... The blog writer is completely correct however... please do your research... no one will protect you like you.

Anonymous said...

It is a fact that Bill Lowe Gallery owes me over $50,000. He quotes on one of the Fox News interviews that he "has never not paid anyone." The truth is he has never paid many artists everything he owes them.
Artists I personally know say they are afraid to speak up because they are afraid he will ruin their reputation among art collectors. In the past it seemed he had enough power and influence to do this. I hope more artists will step forward to tell the truth about this gallery.

Anonymous said...

Okay I have a gallery owner in Atlanta that has told me for almost three weeks that she has run out of checks and that she is embarrassed by it. Now what do I do from here. She currently has no work of mine in her gallery. I have emails stating that she will send me the check for the sold piece. I have pictures of it in her gallery (the sold piece) was even on the gallery announcement. Sorry I did not listen to the initial gut feeling. I guess every now and then we have to re-learn the lesson of why we are usually gruff and demanding and I must say utterly distrusting of any gallery owners in Atlanta (or anywhere these days.) To me the web and your own website is the key!