Marketing Mondays: Under a Dealer's Thumb?

An artist emailed  recently to say: “Your Marketing Mondays posts have given me the courage to walk away from a gallery that was taking 50% but not marketing me, not even putting me on the gallery website, even while demanding an exclusive on everything I did, including collaborations with other artists and projects that had nothing to do with the gallery. It didn't dawn on me that the owner was taking advantage of me. I thought all artists started like this.”

Another artist I know works with a gallery in a small city that demands a 30% commission if she shows with another gallery anywhere. This makes it tricky for the artist to get her work shown, even when other dealers want to include her work in group shows, or possibly represent her.

The Pressure is On
“I understand my dealer’s point of view," says this artist. "She doesn’t want to promote me only to have me sell elsewhere. I'm not going to sell out of my studio or behind her back, but this is a small town, and I want to be able to show around the country, maybe even in New York. I am not the only artist she represents. She shouldn’t have to be the only gallery to represent me. I’m feeling oppressed.” Needless to say, our artist friend has one foot out the door.
New York galleries tend to function as an artist's primary gallery (the one that has the big shows, makes the big sales, produces the catalogs and generally promotes the artists is the biggest way), so they may ask for and receive a 20% commission from the sale of a gallery artist's work that is shown and sold in another show. That is, the two dealers split the sale 20 percent and 30 percent respectively, with the artist receiving the usual 50 percent. Many dealers know one another and routinely work under these terms, which might be for a fixed period, such as a year, or forever; it depends on what the artist and dealers work work out. It's a good deal for the "lending" gallery, which ideally has been promoting its artists and getting them placed in museum shows and collections of all types and at all levels. It's also a reasonable deal for a second gallery, which gets to show the work of an artist who is well promoted and has a visible presence. But 30 percent to the primary gallery? Not likely. 
There are many shades of gray here. Some dealers don't ask for a percentage. “It’s a big art world out there. I love when my artists create a place for themselves in it. The visibility my artists have out in the world will ultimately benefit my gallery, says a dealer I've been with for well over a decade. On the other hand, another dealer with whom I have a relatively newer relationship, wanted “exclusivity” in a large region, an impossibility given the network I’ve cultivated for many years and now enjoy. We're working out a respectful and reasonable détente.
Do You Trust Your Dealer?
I've heard this situation before, many times: An artist finds that while the dealer claims to have offered a sustantial discount to collectors, there is no discount. The dealer sells the work for full price and pockets the extra money. It's a shocking abuse of the artist-dealer relationship.

One artist found out about the discount scam when she was talking with her collectors and, by chance, the conversation got around to price. "I guess this is why my dealer likes to keep his artists and collectors apart,"  she says.

So what happened? The artist asked to see the dealer's records on the sale. The dealer said they were not available. "Thinking back over our conversations about discounts, and reviewing a number of small checks I've received on a retail price that was considerably higher, I came to suspect there was a pattern of cheating me," said the artist. "I couldn't prove it, but the one confirmed discrepancy made me feel I couldn't trust him."

Knowing she was going to leave the gallery, the artist said to the dealer: "I will contact every single artist you represent and tell them my story. I suspect you'll have many such inquiries." Without admitting anything other than "a bookkeeping error," the dealer produced a check for the percentage in dispute. The artist retrieved her work and left the gallery. (Fearing the same for her friends still with the gallery, she quietly recounted the story to several of them.)
Let me say clearly that I am not anti-dealer. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the average dealer is out to screw artists. Artists and dealers are—or should be—natural allies, contributing equally to the equation of make + sell = income for maker and seller.
But it's not a perfect world. So today I'd like to ask you:
. Has a dealer made an unreasonable demand on you?
. What was it?
. Have you ever suspected unethical behavior
. How did you deal with it? 
. How did things turn out?

In the interest of fairness, next week we'll look at some of the ways artists and others in our community treat each other.

As always, it's fine to leave an anonymous comment if it adds to the conversation--and particularly on a topic such as this, where anonymity may be the more prudent route--but I won't publish hit-and-run remarks that insult me, the commenters, or the topic. If you don't have the courage of your convictions, don't post.

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Anonymous said...

I've turned down a few shows with commercial gallery dealers because they expected that I pay for framing. In one case with a NYC gallery, they "paid" for my framing for a show with them by buying eight or ten smaller drawings that had gotten water damaged while in their care. I only accepted this agreement because the show was scheduled to go up in three weeks. . . but they only offered this option after I flatly told them I would go ahead and pin the drawings to the wall if I was expected to pay for framing. The experience definitely left a sour taste in my mouth and I did little to maintain the relationship with the gallery after the exhibition.

(Nothing from that exhibition sold and only months later, when all of the work was back in my studio, were they able to move a large drawing. I found out several years later that the sale was brought about my a fellow artist getting my work in front of a collector and the gallery had little to do with the sale but still took their 50% commission. I'd have rather had the gallery split the commission with the fellow artist, you know?)

(In addition, the gallery in question refused to agree to the 20/30 split with my primary gallery in a large, midwestern city--and my primary gallery had set up the meetings and studio visits with NYC gallery, stating that my primary gallery "wasn't in a position" to ask for that split. Very classy.)

Anyway, back to my main point. Most recently, I turned down a exhibition opportunity in the south because the dealer wanted me to pay for framing and shipping to (but not from) the gallery. Unquestioningly, I own all of the expenses of being an artist--the costs of studio rent, supplies, insurance, self-promotion and all of the endless unpaid hours of studio time--but when it comes to commercial galleries, my costs stop when the work goes out the door. If the gallery doesn't put a little investment into the work up front, what is their motivation to sell the work? Yes, I know things are very tight for many galleries but I also understand they have multiple revenue streams (a stable of other, supposedly salable artists, art fairs, etc.) where as artist generally have one revenue stream (their day jobs) plus whatever else trickles in from sales.

Joanne, artists and dealers: do you agree or disagree with me? Am I being unrealistic? What do you think?

Michelle Arnold Paine said...

Kudos to the artist you mention who had the courage to stand up and walk away. That took a lot of guts and must have been a bit frightening. Well done.

Gary J. Noland Jr. said...

Joanne, thanks for another great article. The artist-dealer relationship is a tricky one to navigate. One dealer that showed my work for a few years loaned three of my pieces to a restaurant without my knowledge or approval. I asked to have some of my work returned, but kept getting the old "I'll ship them to you tomorrow" story. Finally, after two months of excuses he admitted that the restaurant owner had loaned the work to one of his customers and he was having a hard time getting it back. I did get the paintings back, but the relationship had been ruined.

joel c said...

I live in a big southern city. After my gallery here closed due to the economy, I have been looking for another. As an aside, local galleries tend to look at local artists as local yokels. After a submission a local gallery wanted to see the work. After showing the work he asked how much I asked for work. When I told him he wanted to reduce it over 25%. I said I can't do that but I make smaller ones (photographs) for that price, that should work for your clientel. He not only didn't want to do that but he wanted me to provide framing at my cost without splitting the framing cost. I told him I'm not a framer & only sell prints. As far as I'm concerned it's better to not be represented than be represented by someone who beats up their artists.

Robin said...

I think the "good" galleries are few and far between!

I was in a gallery for five years, until this past spring. The gallery accepted my slides to keep on file initially (this was over 5 yrs ago) which eventually led to her wanting a few original paintings and then her wanting a complete series of my prints to keep in the gallery. She was also an art consultant for several large hospitals and because my prints were reasonably priced she focused on selling those, always taking half of the sale, and sometimes with my permission discounting the prices even more. A warning sign - she never wanted to hang framed work on the gallery walls. This was OK with me at first, but over time she only wanted to keep unframed prints and eventually she didn't even keep my prints in her gallery (they were in storage). It took months of me hounding her for her to eventually make the time to locate and return all of my print inventory.

The warning signs right from the start were the fact that she was nearly impossible to reach and I dealt more with her manager than her. I was not paid promptly, and the book keeping records were not always in sync with my records. I admit now, I just wanted to be able to say in was in this gallery in a great location, plus in the first year she did me a great service by selling my work to the hospitals, but I was never in a "healthy" gallery relationship. I think too often as artists we are desperate to get our work out there and we are willing to sacrifice too much. I know not all galleries are like this one but I repeat, "good" galleries are few and far between.

Philip Koch said...

In my experience it is very rare for a dealer to pay for framing. It would be nice, but it just isn't going to be the usual experience for an artist.

Another thought on framing, as so many artists do work that can be shown unframed, or show work that just can't have a frame, is that damage to the artwork becomes much more likely. Even with careful handling, scratches end up on the corners of one's pieces. It maybe a hassle and a huge expense to frame one's work, but your work is a whole lot safer if you send it to the gallery framed. Nobody buys scratched work.

Robin Sherin said...

About 5 years ago I was approached by someone opening a new gallery in Philadelphia. The little voice in my head was saying "don't" but my desire to exhibit and have gallery representation won out. At issue was pricing, but in general I had a growing discomfort with the owner. He wanted to list works at a discounted price. I explained discounts were acceptable to me if needed to negotiate a sale, but that he could not initially offer works below my stated prices. They're my market value, collectors had paid those prices, and at the time another gallery had work on consignment at those prices. I thought we had negotiated an agreement--our solution was for me to send him small works which would be in the price range he was looking for. And so, I shipped the work. While it was in transit I visited the gallery's website--there my images online, but at discounted prices. I decided to listen to my inner voice and quell my growing unease. I told the dealer to pull my work off the site and not to open the shipment that was due to arrive the next day. I did a round trip via train to Philly and lugged my work back home--good thing it was just small pieces! For a time I was ambivalent about my decision, however after not too long an artist who did exhibit with this gallery and had work on consignment with it, contacted me to ask what my experiences with it had been. It seems it had closed, not returned works to artists and the owner could not be found. I regret that I didn't trust my intuition right away--it would have saved the time and expense traveling to Philly. I'm relieved that ultimately I did, "rescuing" my work.

I guess sometimes you just have to trust your gut.

Anonymous said...

I recently severed ties with a gallerist in the city where I live. She was a blamer, and was constantly bad-mouthing all the artists she worked with behind their backs. Of course, I found out from others that she was doing the same with me.

Last spring, she invited me to be in a small group show. She told all the artists to send an image for the postcard, which I promptly did. I didn’t hear anything back, so just assumed everything was fine. Several weeks later, when I happened to be out of town at the Encaustic Conference, she left a hostile message on my phone stating that she had been sending me emails for “ten days” (more like four) and that she needed an image for the postcard by the next day. Since I had no internet access while at the conference, I had not been checking emails, but she certainly could have contacted me many days prior to this. The original image I had sent her was perfectly fine, but she just didn’t like the piece. I told her that I’d be back the next day and would send her some other images. I did so, and explained that they were lo-res files and that she should tell me which one she liked so that I could send her a better resolution file. But no, she skipped that step and designed the card using my very lo-res image (I should add that I had given her many tips regarding designing a card since the first one she did was absolutely atrocious—she used to hire someone to do it but she probably had a falling out with that person). She said it was too late and she had already sent it to the printer…late Friday afternoon so you know it wasn’t getting worked on until the next week. She told me “the postcard is not very important” and that I was making too big a deal out of it.

When I saw the finished card, my image was out of focus and looked quite unprofessional, so I didn’t give it to anyone I knew, and the one I sent out online was the one I had designed. At that show, she sold only one of my pieces at a reduced price, and on an installment plan, so it took about half a year before I received full payment.

This is just one incident in a series, so getting out of there was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my art career. My advice to any artists looking for representation is not to feel so flattered when a gallerist asks to represent you that you ignore the red flags! If the gallerist is not a professional, then you may be perceived as also being unprofessional. said...

It's tough for the even good dealers out there.They don't know what is going to work in this environment. I feel for hem.
So artists, just beware. Assess all risks, do your homework,get references, know your own limits for loss. It's all a gamble. My rule of thumb is to avoid anything that will cost me sleeping at night and restrict my earning a living. For example, I stay away from "exclusives".

Christian Sarono said...

Simple but useful, this is the post that I’ve always been looking for. I’m really in need of searching complete information that will help my site improve. And since I’d visited your page, I’m really fortunate that I made it here. said...

Just a little end note to my post:
The Victoria Munroe Gallery is closing/ Boston has lost anther great gallery.

Allen C. Smith said...

Great subject Joanne. As a curator, gallery owner, and artist, I’ve seen all sides of the challenge. I don’t defend the incompetent dealer, but…

Running a gallery is no picnic. It’s more than recruiting artists, massaging patrons, and executing sales. The complexity of real estate, financial management, accounting, government regulations, shipping, branding, marketing, cleaning the toilets, shoveling the sidewalks, HR - you name it - can be overwhelming. Once behind in one or two of these areas, unprofessional gallerists may take it out on their stables.

Remember, there is no required qualifying program for the art gallery owner!

The gallery business is dog-eat-dog. Mean or dishonest competitors vie for artists and clients. Patrons love to circumvent the gallery for direct-to-artist visits and “wholesale” deals.

As artists, we all know how challenging we can be. Have you ever blown a deadline? Have you broken a promise? Have you forgotten to make meetings? How’s your ego? Ever had a tantrum in front of your dealer? How often have you shown up with wet paint, causing damage to the gallery or the clothes of the staff? Have you truly been loyal to your galleries? Do you promote their efforts for the benefit of all?

I continue to search for exhibition inclusion and representation for my artwork. Each time I get close, red flags are tripped. It is rare that a commercial opportunity is accompanied by a signed contract, insurance, or shipping. I like to politely and carefully call a few of the artists in the stable for a discreet background check.

A final thought: Frame your own artwork unless you are at the top tier. When your art is properly framed, the patron has only one decision to make, yes or no. If it’s a piece of paper pinned to the wall, there are too many decisions to be made before the cash register rings.