Before you seek out gallery representation, you need to do your homework on yourself and the galleries you’re interested in. Let’s talk about you first. As an artist, you never want to put all your art in one basket when it comes to sales. That means you should never rely on one gallery, collector, art consultant or dealer to provide 100% of your income. Rather, you should work with multiple galleries and consultants in several markets. In Colorado alone, you could be in four or more markets: Denver, Fort Collins, Aspen, Salida, the list goes on. Just because you live in a particular place doesn’t mean your art has to. Your income should be spread out so that a dip in one market won’t drastically affect your income therefore jeopardizing your entire art practice. You’ve got to understand the amount of money you need to make as well as how best to make that number. At NINE dot ARTS, for example, we are client driven, which means we select work tailored for each client’s needs and goals. We could present and sell your work three times in a month or it could be months or even years before your work fits with a client. Moral of the story: be proactive and self-reliant. Set yourself up for success by diversifying your representation and collector base.
Now, let’s talk about galleries, specifically commercial ones, which, lest we all forget, are for-profit businesses. Really, they are! Yes, they choose art based on its potential commercial success but they also care deeply about the work they sell, the artists they represent and the overall health of the artistic community. They’re passionate about art and artists first and foremost. But like artists, gallerists have to eat. And, to keep themselves in house and home, they sell art. They make their money by splitting the retail price of an artwork, usually 50%, with the artist. For a refresher on the art of art pricing, check out our post here. Before you throw up your arms and start complaining about the 50% split, think about what a gallery actually does. Not only do they take care of the costs to mount an exhibition like installation, insurance, publicity, marketing and hosting an opening party but they also work with individuals and curators to develop collections and other exhibits. That work can take weeks, months and even years in some cases. A superb gallerist will develop deep and lasting relationships with collectors and help them hone their collections over a lifetime. And finally, they help you take your career to the next level whether that means having a museum solo show, getting into a top collection or earning a feature-length interview in ArtNews. If you ask us, that’s a pretty sweet deal for you because even if they only sell a single piece from your exhibition, they’ve still done all the work.
Jackie Battenfield, in her book The Artist’s Guide, says to start your association with a gallery by asking these questions:
- Do you like the gallery’s program?
- Do you share similar values and goals?
- Are you comfortable with the relationship?
- Do you like how they represent your work to others?
- Are they open to listening to your concerns and needs?
Some other questions we would add:
- Does the gallery understand your work and what you do?
- How well can they explain your work to others? Since they are going to be the ones presenting it to potential buyers, you need to know they can explain it accurately and succinctly with 110% confidence.
- Are they going to invest in you as an artist to grow your career?
- How are they going to promote your work? Ask for specifics. Is it through individual collectors, museums, art fairs, etc.?
- What is their average annual revenue per artist? What about for their top three artists? Once you have this number, you can estimate how many other galleries you’ll need to be represented by to make your income goals.
- What do other artists say about their gallery? Get references from the gallery as well as others in the arts community.
- What will they do to support the collectors and buyers you already have? This could include art consultants, individuals or corporate clients.
- What are their payment terms? How quickly do they pay you after a sale? Get their payment terms outlined in writing.
- What is their shipping policy? Sometimes a gallery will ask that an artist cover shipping to them and they’ll pay for shipping back to you; other times, they’ll ask that the artist cover all shipping expenses. Don’t ever assume!
- Do they have a consignment system? You should always have a paper trail for all work that leaves your studio whether it’s through a gallery, consultant, nonprofit or potential buyer. A consignment form protects both the artist and the consigner in the event of a dispute or loss or damage of the work.
- Determine the geographic territory as well as the time frame of the gallery’s sales exclusivity. You may want to establish a 50-mile radius or that sales within 6 months of a show will go through the gallery. Be very wary of world-wide or nation-wide exclusivity. If a gallery demands any type of exclusivity, it should have some serious skin in the game. Find out why they want exclusivity and what you can expect of them in return.
After these initial questions have been answered and you’re comfortable with the answers, it’s time to negotiate. This is your art and your career, so you need to take it as seriously and devote as much thought, time and effort to it as you do your artwork. You have the power to determine what happens with your work and to yourself, meaning that everything is negotiable. Start by objectively and pragmatically identifying what you want out of the relationship (i.e. a solo show every three years, an expanded collector base, your work in a corporate collection, access to museum curators, etc.) List any exceptions you want to make. Present your goals and exceptions to the gallery and listen carefully to their answers and to your own physical responses to those answers. Chances are, if you feel a sinking in your gut, your shoulders tense up or an uncontrollable eye twitch starts, this is not the gallery for you. Listen to your instincts and work with people you trust.
Next, get everything in writing. A contract doesn’t equate to mistrust on each party’s behalf; rather, a contract protects both parties. It lays out the terms of how each party works together. It establishes the ground rules and paves the way for a successful partnership. Once you have the contract, read it carefully. The language should be clear and concise and not full of so much of legalese that you need a translator to decipher it. Ask any questions you don’t understand. If necessary, seek legal and professional advice about the terms. You should never settle or jump too hastily into a situation, especially one you don’t 100% understand.
We know this may all seem overwhelming. But think about all the emotional and creative energy you’ll conserve by being proactive and up front from the get go. You’ll be free to angst about form, composition and color instead of when you’ll have your next show or when you’ll get paid for a sale. Galleries are your allies, champions and even your friends. Watch out, Starving Artist Myth, galleries will crush you! Why? Because galleries make a life as a career artist viable. Notice that’s not an evening or weekend or whenever-you’ve-got-free-time artist but career artist. As in 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Now, that’s our idea of art heaven!
Even so, Battenfield reiterates: “Representation does not mean all your worries are solved and you can hand off all the business aspects of your career to someone else. You still need to be in the driver’s seat. What you have gained is a skilled copilot.” You’re already the maker of your artistic destiny, so why not be the maker of your business destiny, too?
Photo by Wes Magyar from the 2014 COLLECT exhibit at the Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities