Marketing Mondays: The Art Consultant

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Q: Would you devote some time to discussing art consultants? I've been contacted by one who came into a recent open studio. It's an interesting opportunity but a completely new market for me. Do you have any experiences that you could relate regarding benefits or pitfalls that you'd be willing to share?

A: Art consultants play an integral part in how art gets placed in private homes, in corporate collections, and in public and private institutions. Unlike dealers who typically focus on placing the work of artists from their own galleries, consultants move freely to acquire art for their various clients, taking work on consignment from a range of galleries in different cities, for instance, buying directly from artists or art fairs, or sometimes commissioning artwork.

Some consultants work freelance, while others may be hired as independent contractors for specific private or institutional jobs. From this point of view, they are unique in the way they are able to see a lot of art and to connect the dots widely.

A Few Scenarios
. One does not need a degree or license to be an art consultant, just an interest in selling art and some people to sell it to. So for many women particularly, art consulting is something that can be done from home while the kids are in school. This consultant may have gone to art school and then stopped making art to raise a family, or she may be well connected socially and see a way to “do something” with her passion for art and design. I’m not dissing the woman who finds a way to be entrepreneurial within the parameters of familial obligations—indeed, a smart and ambitious woman may develop quite a nice business for herself. But . . .
Beware: There are many dilettantes in this category. If something else more important comes up, art consulting will become as passé for them as last season’s Gucci bag.

. The art consultants who are making a serious business of it have a dedicated office space (even if it's in the home), regular hours, and a more developed clientele because of their greater focus. Sometimes art consultants maintain a space that’s open by appointment. These are the consultants who are likely to look beyond the sofa, to work more in the way art dealers do--to help a client assemble a collection that's about the art, and not about the way it goes with the decor.
Interesting gray areas: The consultant with a gallery space and regularly mounted, if unadvertised, exhibitions; the private dealer with a small clientele and a space that’s open by appointment.  And, of course, many bona fide dealers consult on all kinds of projects with individuals and corporations. There are many ways to show, sell and acquire art.

. Some art consultants work more with interior designers than with the clients themselves--or with clients accustomed to thinking about art as an accessory. Here acquisition seems to be less about art than about decoration. The search is often to match artwork to color schemes or swatches, and to “find something” that "goes with" a particular spot in the fuchsia hallway. Everyone approaches art differently, but this is the approach that drives serious artists and dealers up that hallway wall.
Beware: This is often the scenario in which the artist will be asked, "Can you make it in chartreuse?" or alter an existing artwork. In a difficult economy such as this, you may say yes and then hate yourself in the morning.
. Effective art consultants develop a roster of clients—private and corporate—and a roster of artists. And they develop courteous and professional relationships with galleries as well. You’ll see them where art and artists are: at open studios and at art fairs, as well as at gallery openings and exhibitions. You’ll also see them where potential clients are: at benefits and fundraisers, the sky-box parties at sports events, and at the numerous private parties where conversation may be about the suburban home that’s being built, renovations to the East Side townhouse, the newly acquired beach house, or the pied a terre in Chelsea.
Nice: A consultant who is one of them has easy access to them, which can translate into placing your work in a number of collections.

. Some art consultants vet the options and then bring clients to specific booths at specific art fairs, to specific galleries to look at particular works, even to particular artists' studios. Others may bring artwork directly to the client. For clients used to being served, this kind of personal service may get your work on someone’s wall.
Note: If your work is fragile, develop a way for the work to be easily transported. And make sure the consultant insures the work from the time it leaves your studio to the time it is either sold or returned to you.

Due Diligence
How do you find a good art consultant? Ask around at openings. Artists are your single best source of information. The consultants who act professionally, place work well and pay promptly are always noted with pleasure and respect, while the bad apples—and certain names invariably come up again and again—are noted with disgust. If you’re approached by a consultant (many use the Internet to search for artists by category or region), carry out your due diligence with a web search of your own. And don’t be afraid to ask for the names of a few clients and artists they’ve worked with. In the Comment section of my Red Flags post, one artist suggested running a credit check on the business. Smart.

Speaking of red flags, one such for me has been the contract (see here and here). While I think it’s smart to work with a contract that spells out expectations for artist and dealer, or artist and commission client, or artist and art consultant, beware the document that goes on for five pages with paragraphs and sub paragraphs limiting your opportunities while giving the other party carte blanche. You’re not buying a corporation; you’re looking to have a consultant sell your art. They need to agree to be financially responsible for the work from the time they take if from you to the time it is either sold or returned to you. They need to pay you promptly. And they do not have excusive dibs on your ability show show and sell elsewhere, even in their region, because they are not a gallery. See? That didn’t take five pages.

The Downside
. Unlike a dealer, who develops an esthetic program and has a working relationship with each artist represented by the gallery, the consultant has no such program or relationship. Yes, consultants may have favorite artists they like to work with, but ultimately, they are serving the client. An art consultant, then, is not looking to develop your career but simply to sell what you make. And what s/he is selling may not actually be about the art but about how well it goes with the sofa.  

. If the consultant wants 50 percent of the sale out of an artist’s studio—and some have come to expect that—the artist may getting little in the way of visibility. Ask: Do you have a website? Do you identify the work of artists in the installations? Do you publish a brochure of recent projects, and are the works identified by artist? These features will give you some of the visibility you need. And if you are visibly represented elsewhere, having an art consultant working on your behalf can be a bonus. (It’s dicey to work with a gallery and an art consultant based in the same city, because they may be going after the same clients, so broaden your geographical scope.)

. Also, as I mentioned in The Art Consultant Who Doesn’t Pay, it’s harder to get paid from a rogue consultant. You are not so desperate that you need to enter into a relationship with a person who has a record of not paying on tme, or at all. You will not be the exception.

The Upside
. If you are not gallery represented, working with a consultant—who typically works with a number of artists on an ad hoc basis—is a great way to make some sales. You may also find your work placed in a variety of venues. If you have a good working relationship with the consultant, and your work fits the bill for her clients, you may find yourself with plenty of commissions, too. (If you’re going to work on a commission, read this.)

In the best scenario, you have someone who’s passionate about art, respectful of the artist who made it, and eager to make a connection between artist and client. This is the person who places work well, gets paid by the client and then pays the artist quickly. Win/win/win.

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Anonymous said...

I'm overwhelmed by all these versions of art consultant. How do I know which kind of consultant I should be involved with?

Nancy Natale said...

As usual, an informative post written from the artists's point of view that touches on the many considerations of working with art consultants! For many years, I only worked with art consultants and only one of them was a problem. The others provided a reasonable return for a limited amount of work on my part other than making the paintings.

The one problem consultant had held onto three works on paper for about seven years. Yes, I had asked for them back a few years ago (although I didn't really care about the work) and they had promised to send them back several times. I never wanted to waste my time asking for them again and just kissed the work goodbye. Then, suddenly last week a FedEx tube with my work appeared out of the blue for some unknown reason. It was just the unfathomable ways of the inconsistent and unbusinesslike, I guess.

Victoria Webb said...

Informative, but beware of online only consultants. Recently I was approached by a new online arts consultancy that juried work into their 'stable'.

The contract was ridiculous; a 50% commission with an exclusive representation required for the work chosen, I was to ship paintings before receiving payment, wait at least ten days while the client made a decision and then if in 9 months the work did not sell, it would be discounted by 15%.

Not a great deal for the artist and certainly not worth the risk for the tiny audience this site generated.

Richard Bottwin said...

This is just a art consultant anecdote: I was having an open studio during the Dumbo art festival in Brooklyn several years ago. My sculptures, with carefully painted surfaces that were magnets for fingerprints, were on the walls alternating with "do not touch" signs. A woman came in and began to fondle each piece, ignoring my signs. I asked her to please not touch the works and she responded, importantly "but I'm an art consultant". I asked her again and she left, miffed.

Joanne Mattera said...

That's thing with annoying people. They make wildly entertaining stories. Hope your surfaces made it through intact.

Mead McLean said...

Anyone have any experience working with architecture firms?

I've made myself a few very large pieces, and they aren't feasible to put in a house. I was thinking that a good way to go would be to contact some design firms to be able to place the work other than in my storage unit.

Susan Schwalb said...

I have worked with a number of art consultants over the years and most are honest, and pay quickly. I try and ignore the swatches of fabric or paint colors that they are matching to the work. But selling is all they do for you, no shows, no pr etc. Try and negotiate a better than 50-50% split especially if they contact you. If the consultant worked through your gallery they would only get 20-25% of the sale as the dealer would get the balance and you would only receive 50%. But without a dealer, you should hold out for 70-30 or 60-40 even in these hard times. Working with consultants is just about money and lowering your inventory. Sometimes a commission can come out of it as well.

marc said...

Thanks Joanne, this is very helpful, I never really knew what atr consultants did before reading your post...

Ira F. Cummings said...

Thanks Joanne. I really appreciate you addressing this aspect of the art work. It really is a poorly documented area of the contemporary art field. So much has been written about galleries, and while each one has its own nuances, there is often a lot of commonalities in how they are run. There seems to be a lot more variety in art consultants, and really no common baseline on many aspects of the business (eg. on contracts, standard commission, physical space, etc.).

Thanks for shedding some light on your experience and starting some discussion about the topic.

Wendy Froshay said...

Most artists are not aware that California and New York have a law that makes the relationship fiduciary between an agent and an artist.

This means that the agent is required by law to have the artist's best interest at heart and that they work FOR the artist and NOT the people buying the right to use your designs.

Of course, the artist should be sure that the contracts signed are NOT exclusive, that they retain all copyrights, there is an out clause and a time limit - among other things. (I'm not a lawyer and I always recommend artists run a contract by a good art lawyer before signing).

Anonymous said...

eggsCan you please tell me what the proper commission is for an artist to give an art consultant?

Liron Sissman said...

Great post! And, you are right. Most artists don't know enough about art consultants, how they work, and where to find them. As someone who often sells through art consultants, I have written about it and also shared my Rolodex of qualified contacts; those consultants who work on major projects, do not require work on consignment, and often buy in multiples. I find them easier to work with nationwide than out-of-town galleries. Part of the beauty is that I don't need to ship art until and unless it has sold. Another plus is that these consultants sell into the corporate market and while I don't list my individual collectors, I do list my corporate collectors. My book is available at:

Unknown said...

I am in Seattle and looking for art consultant for my art business. Any recommendation?

Pratibha Singh said...

I am in Fort Worth and looking for art consultant for my art business. Any recommendation?