Marketing Mondays: Don't Fall For It


P.T. Barnum was not thinking about artists when he issued his famous maxim, “There’s a sucker born every minute,”  but sometimes artists get sucked in.  We are not gullible—if anything, we tend to be a bit cynical, given the circumstances under which we labor—but we want so much for good opportunities to come our way that occasionally we may find ourselves in situations that are not in our best interest. When I read “information” of the sort described in the first example below, or the “opportunity” like the one in the second example, my back goes up. Then a post goes up. So . . .

Sell it once. Pay a commission . . . twice?
This is from an artists' group whose members are apparently operating without much real-world gallery experience. Their information, specific to juried shows, starts out logically enough:  “It is vital that all work you enter in a show be available if the work is accepted."
OK, so far so good. What’s the point of entering a juried show with work that’s unavailable?  But here it starts to get complicated:  “Your entry is a commitment.”  
Uh, no. A contract is a commitment. A juried-show entry is just an entry—this is your work we're talking about—but read the fine print before you sign and submit the entry form to make sure you’re not being suckered into something.
Now for the Barnum: “If you hang work in an exhibition and it has been sold prior to the exhibition, you will still owe the gallery its full commission even though they are not the ones who sold your work.”  
So let me understand this: Merely by entering a juried show--presumably one to which you have paid an entry fee--you have contractually committed to participating? And if a work sells before it is shown in the juried venue, you would still have to show it and have to pay that venue a commission on the sale made by another gallery (or on your own)?  
Are you effing kidding me? It's one thing for two dealers, working together by agreement, to share in the commission, or for a gallery-represented artist to share a commission with her dealer if she makes a sale on her own (though it's better she let the dealer handle the sale). But no artist should be entrapped by an organization or gallery into showing work she has already sold and then be required to pay a commission on it. This is not just unprofessional, it's exploitative, possibly even illegal.  
My suggestion: Any organization claiming to support its paying members by suckering them into a situation like this is not supporting its members.  You might ask the leadership why they are working against your interest as an artist. Who exactly is benefitting here? Precisely what are you paying dues for? Find a group that really supports its artists with projects that benefit all its members.
Your Work in a Book!
This one is from an international book publisher: “I visited your portfolio and I liked your work, so I would like to invite you to submit art for inclusion in Volume VI of International Contemporary Masters, a leading juried annual art publication presenting noteworthy artists from all over the world.” 

First thought: Mmm, sounds good. Hey, everyone wants to have their work be recognized and included. The "international" part is particularly enticing. Who doesn't want to be considered an international contemporary master?
Now for the Barnum: “Please note that this is not a free inclusion.”
A lot of opportunities come with a financial requirement, so what's the big deal? Let’s examine the opportunity, shall we? One page will cost you $985. Gulp. Six pages--a feature, essentially--will run $5910. Discouraged?  You can pay in 10 monthly installments. That’s right, close to $600 a month for almost a year. Want the cover? It’ll cost you $9800. Now tell me: Have you ever heard of International Contemporary Masters?
My suggestion:  If you have $5910—or, you money bags over there with $9800, or you Baby Buffett with the dough for six pages and a cover, to the tune of $15,710—to spend on a publication, why not put together a killer catalog raisonné of your work? Hire a designer. Hire a great art writer to place your work in context. Have your work photographed fabulously. And with the money left over visit an international art fair in Miami, London, or Basel, or the galleries in New York City, Los Angeles or Berlin, to see where your work might fit in. Bring a few catalogs with you. (Note I just corrected my math, which showed lower figures in the first posting.)
Or, in more modest and realistic financial terms, consider a good  and legitimate opportunity such as New American Paintings, which runs several regional competitions a year. Yes, you have to compete for a spot, but not only are the jurors at the top of their field, the publication is on the bookshelves of dealers, curators and artists. This is a publication of proven worth, with visibility, currency and stature. 

I've talked about  getting suckered before. Here's a short list:

The Barnum: Visibility and sales
The Reality: Maybe. This post presents a range of views of artists who did participate in one such fair. But consider the costs: The room fee will run you about $2000 (read the fine print) and your expenses could go as high as $6000 if you have to pay for a flight, hotel and art shipping.

The Barnum: Visibility and sales
The Reality: It will cost you thousands for the gallery, plus a flight, hotel and art shipping if you live out of town, which is likely, because in New York City especially, no New York artist is going to get sucked into a pay-to-show situation--aka a vanity gallery. On the other hand, co-op galleries have potential, depending on the quality of the gallery and where it’s located. New York City co-ops offer many artists the opportunity to show in a community of like-minded participants, and in Boston co-ops get reviewed along with the commercial galleries. But vanity galleries anywhere have no reason to sell anything once they take your money.

The Barnum: Visibility and the opportunity to show with established artists
The Reality: If you have a relationship with an organization, sure, donate a small piece once a year. And points to those organizations which offer you 50% of the selling price; they understand the sacrifice you are making with your donation. But when institutions that have never given you a second look ask you to help them out, you might ask why. Or you might just say no.

What questionable advice or practices have you encountered?

If you have found this or other Marketing Mondays posts useful, please consider supporting this blog with a donation. A PayPal Donate button is located on the Sidebar at right. Thank you. (Or click here and scroll down the sidebar.)


Michelle said...

I've heard about vanity galleries and the pay-for-space publications... but the "pay a commission even if we have never seen your work of art" is a new one! Wow!!!

Anonymous said...

"Are you effing kidding me" is right. Is there no end to the ways artists can get ripped off?

mira M. White said...

Joanne- This happened to me last week - and its not so much about galleries as about printing rights.

I got an e mail from a man who had loved a painting of mine that someone else purchased 10 years ago. that piece was on the cover of a brochure advertising a national exhibition in Colorado.

Well, this guy writes me for permission to use this image on his kindle book which is already on Amazon. I have a freak-out and go to Amazon only to find that the image is already printed- horizontal ( Its a vertical piece- flying figure) I tell this guy he does not have my permission, but I would give it for a one time printing fee with the stipulation that he change the direction of the piece. He asked for Pay Pal- fine- I send the invoice. At this point he e mails me that he took my image out and replaced me with a Goya....... And so goes the world of the internet.....

Paul Behnke said...

You do a great service Joanne! Thanks for posting.

Ben Stansfield said...

Paying-to-show, vanity galleries and art fairs are fairly common here in Toronto, which, while not bad for Canada, doesn't have the robust art culture and networks of NYC.
I decided last year to limit my participation in outdoor shows to the one good, big outdoor show here in town, and I've pulled out of a collective of fellow painters where we pay for vanity galleries, get virtually no exposure and almost no visitors that aren't from our own mailing lists. sigh.
I still belong to a small group of four painters and we pay small fees to put on our own shows/sales, including a second annual holiday sale this year. I have mixed feelings about them. I get out of my studio, meet people, do demonstrations, make some small profit, but it doesn't feel like it's progressing.

There have also been great rashes of 'fund-raising' shows in Toronto, where there are jurying/entry fees (usually low, $30), and either a full donation of the sale, or 50%. the benefit I keep hearing about is the exposure, the exposure! My response, who the hell is seeing my stuff, especially at 12"x12"?

I've applied to the best large, indoor fair, which is well produced, pulls fairly big crowds, and seems to work well for many artists, but costs 1500-2000 for the smallest booth. electricity costs (gasp) about $200 for three days. Needless to say, I can't always afford to do this show, and consistent presence seems to be a big deal to Canadian art buyers.

I've appreciated your candor about these behind-the-scenes topics, and you've been one of my influences behind wanting a better body of work with which to approach decent galleries.

I like the non-traditional, DIY aspect of some of these ways of getting my work out there, especially for a, so-far completely local painter. Unfortunately, I often end up being a weekend stroll for punters, entertainment rather than a meaningful and productive exercise.

Thanks Joanne.

K. R. Seward said...

I don't want to mention any names, because I don't want to offend anyone who genuinely thinks this is an opportunity. But I just saw a listing for a (co-op) gallery that is charging artists $250 for the privilege of painting the walls of their bathroom. (!!!!!)

Peggradyart said...

Then there's the email I got congratulating me on being accepted into the Venice Biennial. HA HA...right. Surprise...there was quite a hefty fee involved. And some magazine that was having a gallery show and would sell me space in it and in their special insert for $1,900. Or the online gallery that millions would check soon as I sent them my check. I could go on. All these people were so impressed with my work. Except they never mentioned how they found my work and what pieces in particular interested them. I'll have to wait until that guy in Nigeria sends me that check for the inheritance my long lost uncle left me before I can invest in these fabulous offers.

Anonymous said...

I have fallen for a few of these schemes. Out of all of them, it is the first one, sell it once, pay a commission twice that buggs me the most. I believe that I was juried into the show that you are talking about. Only it really was not being juried in because everyone who was attending the event got in. Then, I got that mail that suggested I pay twice, and I was finished. I wound up not even sending my piece because I felt so let down. I had been juried into a previous show of their's and found the quality to be not good. So this time, I just decided to not send my painting and not even say anything about it. They never even noticed. For me, the big thing is that I find I don't need to enter every little show to build my resume. It isn't the biggest resume in the world, but it is substantial enough. Somewhere along the way to now, I decided that I don't need to lower my standards to get more resume points. I am less likely to wander into bad spots to boost my self worth.

It is sad that while arts professionals are not selling so much work these days, they find ways to make artists anxious for exposure, and sales, pay a big price for so-called success.

Stephanie Sachs said...

I agree with your advice. The best investment I ever make is creating catalogues of my work.

Lee McVey said...

Our pastel society has a rule for its national show that if an accepted painting is no longer available at the time delivery of paintings are expected, then the artist must pay the society's sales commission of 30%. The reasoning behind this is many are vying for wall space in the juried exhibition and someone else might have been able to get into the show, plus the society hopes to make some money from sales, and this would be one less opportunity to sell if a painting is no longer available.
They expect artists will hold work back so it is available if accepted.

Regardless of whether or not this is a good practice, I'm just presenting their rationale. Believe me, there have been many discussions around this in board meetings over the years. Many agree with the policy, some do not. Our society is not the only art society to have this policy.

Artists have to be aware of the rules of the show and decide for themselves if the rules are acceptable to them.

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for this info. It's the first time in 30 years I have heard of such a thing (besides the situation I mentioned in the post). I think there's a message here: These organizations and societies are not supporting the artists; they are supporting the institution, which is getting fat off of membership dues.

I agree that artists need to be aware of the exhibition rules. But I'd go one step further and repeat: If a group is forcing you to pay extra, do extra, or somehow receive less, then it's not a group supportive of artists.

Peggradyart said...

I agree with Joanne. There is no reason for an artist to pay a commission to an art group simply because his/her painting is no longer available. There could be many reasons for being unable to deliver the sold, it got damaged, the artist is in the hospital, there was an emergency of some kind, whatever. For an art group to have a rule such as this screams "give me money even if I did nothing to earn it." It's sad that artists could be so desperate to show their work they would agree to an arrangement such as this and it is disheartening to hear of an art group that would take advantage of such desperation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I received an email titled "Invitation to appear in International Contemporary Masters volume VI" googled that same sentence and your blog came up. Awesome service you are providing. Thank you again.

patricia belyea said...

I love your idea of creating your own catalog. Did you know that it costs very little money to purchase an ISBN number so you can create a "real book" very readily? With digital publishing so inexpensive these days, it is all within reach, if you so desire.

Terry Ward said...

an artist i know was alllllmost suckered into a CASHIER'S CHECK SCAM payment for one of her paintings. it could have been really costly to get 'paid' that way. luckily she learned about the scam-type and halted things. the scam is usually done to those selling cars or lawn-mowers online, but as she found out, any high-value item being sold is at risk.

Ivan Tirado said...

Well, I went to ARTEXPO NY and made a great deal of investment on that with no results. I accepted the invitation for the book in which I am and almost immediately even before the book was published I was getting results that paid for both, the book and the fair.

VanGoghGirl said...

It seems there are plenty of people who are making a lot of money on artists without delivering much in return. I'm talking about many online entities as well as some national "shows" and the plentiful fund raising organizations that cash in on art and artists
They sound so... professional... organized... serious... It seems to be an exciting opportunity for... what? The implication is that in return for creating a great art event, the artists are benefited. But you often don't know; who is sponsoring these events, what their effort or art marketing expertise is, or if your work will make it any further than their email in-box.
But the $30 to $50 entry fees is certainly piling up in their paypal account along with dozens and hundreds of other equally enticed hopefuls across the country.

These promoters have little if any accountability, particularly the on-line type. I have to admit, it's really very clever. Joe anybody can create the illusion of substance and respectability on the Internet. All the they need is a website, a logo, some competition or show "theme", and they're in business. There is no way to know if they have anything to offer an artist in terms of collectors, or even a legitimate viewing audience. There is no way to know if there are sales or contacts. Some are so flaky no juror is even identified. The 'juror', could be any arbitrary, non-qualified person and no one would be the wiser.

The, supposedly prestigious show I was accepted in, this past year, appeared to be focused on the reception which was attended almost exclusively by the participating artists. And they were a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds whose work was not accepted. I did not get the idea that many buyers were in attendance, or that the gallery was even concerned about sales. It was a show for artists, and basically paid for by the throng of artists that did not get accepted. The lucky few that won awards made money but for the rest, it's all expenses.

I've started asking myself a very uncomfortable question about who these events benefit. "But hey (some promoter says), don't you know you get EXPOSURE!?"?" Oh yeah... "exposure".... I forgot about that.... Well, my dear, if exposure paid the bills I'd be sitting pretty... as it is, I've been exposed to death over for the past year! I get invited. I've even won awards... but I'm not seeing any marketing or salesmanship connected with these events. And frankly, I am tired of tying up and then taking home the paintings.

On a positive note I really appreciate some of the alternative ideas in the comments here for success. Thank you!

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks for responding here. The botton line for all of us is DUE DILIGENCE. If an opportunity seems too good to be true, it is exactly that. But there are good organizations out there, ones that offer community, collegiality and opportunity for artists. It's up to us as artists to research them, which is pretty easy with the Internet. Look for history, good jurors, good location, good word of mouth; talk to artists; post a query on Facebook.Good luck!