I’ve written a ton of articles over the years about the protocol for artists– what to do, how to do it, how to approach this situation or that, how to price your art, how to write or speak about your art or present it to potential buyers, how to make sales, how to approach galleries, how to get shows, and on and on and on. Why? Because being an artist these days is way more complicated than holing up in the studio and tapping into whatever creative impulse happens to inspire you at the moment. The studio is your sacred space and whatever happens there is yours and yours alone, but the instant you’re ready step out into the art world, knowing what to expect can make your art life far easier and save you all kinds of pain and heartache as well.
Now the large majority of my writing takes a decidedly pro-gallery and pro-dealer approach because galleries so often play critical roles for artists who want to get somewhere in today’s art world. But you know something? In the art gallery and art dealer realm just like in any other profession, there are exemplars and there are terrible people who should never own a gallery or represent artists– there’s not a lot of them mind you, but enough to make life difficult for any artist who happens to get mixed up with one. To complicate matters, the overwhelming majority of artists will do just about anything to get their art into galleries, and less-than-honorable dealers being well aware of this know exactly what to do in order to take advantage… and how far they can go.
Regardless of what drives bad galleries or dealers to do what they do, they can be real trouble and artists would do well to not to get involved. So in the interest of all artists everywhere who are under the mistaken impression that galleries can do no wrong and that if someone offers you an opportunity to show your art you automatically accept, I’m here to tell you they can do wrong… and they do… and it can be a real nightmare. The following is a quick tutorial on how to spot and avoid that bane of banes– terrible art dealers
Perhaps the number one tipoff you’ve encountered a malignant practitioner is when you begin to get the feeling they’re important and you’re not– like for instance they’re doing you a huge favor just by giving you an audience. Or they go on and on about how much money they have or how prominent they are, how great their galleries are, who they know, what boards they sit on, how many big deals they’re working on, etc. Pomposity like this is an instant giveaway. When the order of the day is for you to defer to them like royalty while they don’t even have the courtesy to treat you professionally or with respect, you’re in trouble. When you have to grovel just to get them to look in your direction, when they decide if or when they’ll respond to even your slightest request, when it’s all about them, then it’s time for you to evacuate the premises– and fast. These are not people you want to do business with.
Another indication that caution may be in order is when a gallery you’ve never done any business with makes monster promises right off the top like enticing you with prospects of a fantastic solo show, exposure at art fairs, insider access, impressive selling prices, and of course, sales, sales, and more sales– in spite of the fact that they don’t even know you, you don’t know them, and they have absolutely zero experience representing your art. Be aware that galleries are in heavy competition with each other, particularly in major art centers, and if you happen to be regarded as an artist with the potential to make a gallery look good (like maybe you’ve got a profile, a big online following, or you can sell your art well), then consider yourself a prime target for all kinds of offers– good as well as bad. Regardless of their motivations, be aware that less scrupulous dealers will have no qualms about doing whatever they have to do to sign you on– whether they have any inkling about being able to follow through on their promises or not.
Artists are particularly vulnerable to grandiose overtures when they come from trendy new galleries, fresh on the scene and attracting lots of attention. Though these venues may be the artland darlings du jour, they’re often undercapitalized, inexperienced, have tenuous (if any) collector bases, and have no idea what it takes to survive the long haul. In the real world, great galleries and great artist/gallery relationships evolve slowly over time– never overnight. Get all starstruck and place your fate in the hands of someone who talks a great game if you want, but don’t be naive about potential outcomes, and be aware in advance that the chances of their promises fully materializing may not be anywhere near as for-sure as they sound.
In other words, don’t get caught up in the hype. If you’re one of those artists who’s fortunate enough to be receiving offers, sometimes it’s better to go with an experienced gallery, an established track record, and a long-term game plan than it is to go with delusions of grandeur, mirages of prosperity, or the flavor of the day. FYI, it’s not all that unusual for fashionable new galleries to be huge one month and extinct the next. In this business, staying power beats chic approximately 100 percent of the time, so be careful about gambling on glamour or the heat of the moment.
Now let’s say you interview with a gallery you’ve just recently met or been introduced to, hear all the right stuff, the prognosis seems sweet, and you’re ready to sign on. Here’s where a terrible art dealers can get oppressive really fast, particularly with respect to what might be required of you in terms of art and obligations. For example, watch out for galleries requiring you to sign agreements making them your sole and exclusive agents or representatives over large geographical areas or online. Being asked to sign on with a new gallery for an extended period of time, say longer than a year or so– even though they have absolutely no experience selling your art and your business relationship is entirely untested– is generally not recommended.
A surefire deal squelcher would be if you’re asked to either end all of your existing relationships with other galleries or to pay the new gallery a percentage of any works of art either you or your other galleries sell no matter how longstanding those relationships (it happens; believe it). Don’t allow these levels of control no matter how badly you want to get involved with any new gallery. Being forced to restrict or even sever established working relationships before having any idea whether the new gallery can successfully sell your art is tantamount to artistic suicide. If things don’t work out the way you hope they will, not only will you have burned all your bridges, but even worse, you may also end up having to go legal or buy your way out of suffocating contractual obligations.
Speaking of excessive controls, avoid galleries that are secretive or refuse to talk about how they expect to represent or sell your art or pay you when they sell it, and instead insist on totally dictating and dominating the relationship. If you’ve already signed on, warning signs include pretending not to know or refusing to tell you who buys your art, not telling you in a timely manner when your art gets sold, being vague about when you’ll get paid, preventing you from meeting your collectors, or otherwise deliberately keeping you out of the loop. Some dealers actually treat their artists like children, like they don’t understand, and attempt to subjugate and convince them that the dealer always knows best. These situations are pure poison, and the instant things start moving in this direction, get to work on your exit strategy.
Returning to contracts or agreements for one brief moment, if a gallery wants to show your art, you absolutely positively need some kind of formal agreement, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It’s that simple and no more complicated. No matter how charming, well healed, delightful, persuasive, reassuring or important a gallery owner appears to be, a casual handshake is never enough unless, of course, you’re OK with risking whatever art you have on consignment as well as any prospects of getting paid any outstanding balance on sales if for any reason the relationship goes bad. In fact, a dealer’s reluctance or refusal to draw up a contract is almost always a warning sign of a of sorry times to come.
As far as getting documentation from a gallery on what art your consigning, it’s just like the contract. Either you get it in writing signed by both parties or you walk. Beware when a dealer gets casual or tells you not to worry and that everything’s going to be OK. Careless, airhead or nonexistent record keeping ends up ugly approximately 100 percent of the time, and is a great way for a devious dealer to victimize an artist. Rest assured that if a gallery plays loose or has a laid back approach to the way they do business that sooner or later you’ll be plagued by mind lapses about how much of your art they have on consignment, what they’ve sold, whether you’ve been paid, how much they owe you and so on. Especially watch out when a gallery is selectively clueless– like they’re extremely on top of their overall business, but when you ask for any sort of accounting about your art, they come down with instant amnesia.
Regarding selling prices, the worst dealers often seduce artists into coming onboard by promising to bump their selling prices on up into the ozone (with no experience selling it of course, and no idea whether they actually can). While all this tall talk may sound great in theory, it’s dangerously shortsighted, greedy, mainly in the dealer’s interests and rarely in those of the artist, particularly over time. An artist’s prices have to rise in a deliberate and orderly manner, commensurate with that artist’s accomplishments; no dealer can arbitrarily inflate an artist’s prices before their time, and especially before career accomplishments warrant it.
Galleries who raise artist prices too high too fast frequently outstrip their collectors’ appetites for risk and end up pricing themselves right out of the game. And then there’s the pressure to validate those prices with success after success. If an artist whose prices are constantly at the absolute top of the market happens to stumble or have a soft show, the fallout can be significant. At worst, sales can fall off a cliff and the resulting collapse will be almost like having to start over. Galleries may also be reluctant to show you because your prices got so far ahead of what they can sell your art for. Remember– big price promises often come with big potential downsides so watch out when someone claims they can make you rich and famous for no rational reason.
OK. Time to broach the bottom line– getting paid when a gallery sells your art. Hopefully, you and your gallery have agreed on when and how payment is to be made and you both have it in writing. If you don’t, then watch out. The art business is tough and getting paid can be challenging. Worse yet, getting paid by duplicitous dealers who could care less about you and more about their own personal financial obligations can really be challenging. Since this article all about them, let’s talk warning signs so you can diagnose a bad situation before it’s too late, hopefully recoup as much of your art and money possible, and then get out.
Dealers commonly stop paying artists because their galleries run into financial problems. Reputable ones will approach their artists, tell them what’s happening and try to work through difficult situations; less reputable ones have no qualms about taking whatever profits they can get before the ship sinks. So a really good idea is to regularly speak with other artists they represent and keep tabs on how things are going in terms of getting paid. If you don’t, you might not realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Equally important is to monitor your gallery’s financial health, and a great way to do that is to keep tabs on the consistency of their expenditures. If they start cutting back, this could mean they’re running low on funds, and if that’s the case, consider yourself on notice that getting paid for your art or even getting consigned art returned to you might get difficult. For example, let’s say a gallery agrees to give you a show and they’re totally supportive of your work, but when show time rolls around, they balk at doing what’s necessary to present it at its best– like suddenly they won’t even pay for the hardware to hang it. When a dealer’s agenda appears to be changing from making money to just staying afloat, the time has come for the two of you to either talk it out or if for some reason that’s not an option and the dealer refuses, to start planning your escape route.
Whether a dealer is having financial difficulties or not, continual excuses about why they can’t pay you also fall into the seriously bad omen category, especially when the tall tales have nothing to do with your art. Like maybe their “investments” are tied up, or they promise you’ll get yours as soon as the second mortgage is finalized or the Mercedes sells or the lawsuit settles, etc. “Not right now but soon… the deal’s almost closed.” Some even add insult to injury by framing their delay tactics like they have all this big buck stuff going on– all way bigger than you– and that when the cash comes through, you’ll get your little pittance.
This stuff sure isn’t pretty, but it’s pretty necessary for you to be aware of from a prevention perspective– spotting the warning signs and knowing when to get out before it’s too late, or better yet, knowing when not to get involved in the first place.
As in any profession, the large majority of art dealers and art galleries are totally reputable, responsible and considerate of everyone they do business with. Unfortunately, a despicable few are anything but. So in honor of that small but sleazy cadre of scoundrels, what follows is a list of behaviors to watch out for and hopefully to avoid, regardless of whether you’re an artist or a collector. Knowing how to identify and avoid deceitful dealers keeps them from infecting your life. Thanks to all the artists and gallery owners who provided the following information. And now for the list…
* Terrible art dealers constantly remind artists how important they are and how important their galleries are (the inference, of course, being how unimportant the artists are). They rarely pass up an opportunity to proclaim their magnificence.
* They tell artists they’re doing them huge favors by representing them or showing their art.
* They insist on controlling and micromanaging the careers of their artists even to the point of making creative decisions for them, aka telling them what their art should look like. This may even include interfering with successful or longstanding pre-existing business or personal relationships. When an gallery owner doesn’t allow you to make you own decisions, that’s trouble.
* They are either reluctant or completely refuse to provide or sign any contracts, agreements, itemizations, consignment lists or other documents formalizing any arrangements between them and their artists.
* Bad art dealers want a cut of everything– past, present and future– even transactions taking place within previously established relationships.
* They refuse to negotiate and instead dictate everything. If they have this attitude with you, they likely have it with other artists, dealers and collectors as well. Inabilities to compromise or be flexible are often detrimental to the success of a gallery… as well as to its artists.
* They’re almost always too busy to meet or speak with their artists, often coming up with pathetic or insulting excuses like they have “much bigger deals” they’re working on.
* They give evasive answers to matter-of-fact questions about gallery policies, about who covers shipping, whether they’re insured against loss or damage, how and when artists get paid, whether they’ve sold any of an artist’s work, how much they’re selling the art for, where an artist’s unsold works of art are being kept, and so on.
* They don’t pay their artists on time. Always interview artists who are represented by any gallery you’re considering showing with before you sign on and no matter how desperate you are for a show. If you find out they owe money to either one or more of their artists, ask those artists why. Nonpayment is almost always a bad sign, unless within the accepted guidelines of a contract. Nonpayment coupled with refusal to either negotiate or discuss the matter is typically a terminal sign. And don’t think the situation’s going to be any different for you than it is for the other artists.
* They don’t tell their artists in a timely manner when art sells, but instead wait until the artist asks, and even then they’ll still try to put off telling them for as long as possible.
* Without telling their artists, they either keep pieces of art for themselves or sell them, and then instead of returning them when the artists ask for them back, claim they’ve already been returned. (In other words, make sure you have complete written records of all consigned artworks and that both parties sign off on every single sale or transfer.)
* Terrible art dealers secretly raise prices beyond the amounts agreed upon with their artists, and then pocket the extra profits for themselves.
* They ask artists to substantially reduce their prices for no specific reason, but are either evasive or refuse to discuss if or how that affects the commission split with the gallery. You want to make sure price reductions are equally split between you and the gallery, and not that the gallery makes the same amount on a sale while you agree to make less.
* They sell an artist’s art for below the agreed upon price without telling the artist first or asking whether it’s OK to give an additional discount. Or after a discounted sale, they either ask the artist to take less money for the art or simply pay the artist less.
* When bad art dealers get into financial trouble, they keep selling their artists’ art but stop paying the artists for it. If you stop getting paid for any reason, act immediately and get something in writing from the gallery about how and when they intend to pay you. If they won’t give you that, prepare to evacuate.
* Even though the artists they screw often leave those galleries, unscrupulous dealers will keep those artists’ names on their websites, making it seem like they still represent them. Before getting involved with any gallery, always check with a good number of artists on their website to make sure they’re actually represented by that gallery. If they’re not, find out why– or better yet, watch out.
* They trash artists who leave their galleries, even though those artists may have had excellent reasons for doing so. If an art dealer badmouth’s one or more artists, it’s best to contact those artists for their sides of the story. Far too many artists take everything that comes out of art dealers’ mouths as gospel. You need as much information as possible from all parties involved in order to make intelligent decisions. By the way, if they badmouth other artists, they’re perfectly capable of doing the same to you.
* They don’t know how to handle art or they handle it carelessly. Make sure you watch how a gallery handles art. Do they know what they’re doing? Are they careful? Do they have a casual attitude? Do they know how to pack and ship it? How a gallery handles art is not only a key indicator of their experience in the business, but even more importantly, of their respect for art and artists in general. That said, if you make fragile or difficult-to-handle art, be sure to provide specific instructions on how to pack, ship and care for it. Don’t expect the dealers to know everything especially if your work is unique or unusual in some way.
* A corollary to the above is that terrible art dealers have a history of returning unsold art to artists in worse condition than they received it. As if that’s not bad enough, they often say nothing about it to the artists, and never suggest that either they or their insurance companies will pay for the damage (assuming they’re insured in the first place, which you had better be sure of before getting involved).
* In order to get new artists to sign on, the most contemptible dealers tell them everything they want to hear, regardless of whether they have any experience showing or selling their art, or have any idea how much they can sell. They promise the moon, tell artists they’ll make them famous, talk about bumping up selling prices way beyond what they are now, or whatever else is necessary to convince the artist to say yes.
* A corollary to the above is that after making huge promises, bad art dealers don’t follow through– or can’t follow through. For example, they double or triple your prices (or more), nothing sells, they give you your art back, and you’re stuck with an overpriced inventory and a bruised or damaged reputation.
* Unscrupulous galleries often require artists to sign oppressive long-term contracts giving the gallery either substantial or exclusive rights to represent and sell the art everywhere– before even selling piece number one. If you meet with a gallery owner like this who wants to give you a first show, tell them they can have their rights for three months or six months, or some other reasonable period of time– and never nationally or internationally– maybe regionally or even statewide, but not beyond that. Never sign away the rights to represent your art for extended periods of time– no longer than a year– unless the gallery proves after a show or two that they can sell your work and are honest and easy to work with. Even then, take it step by step. A gallery has to prove they can make good on their promises before you enter into any serious long-term business relationships or agreements.
* Bad gallery owners have a history of getting involved in legal actions– from either side– either them going legal on their artists or their artists going legal on them. Or they regularly threaten legal action or talk about what they’ll do to anyone who doesn’t go along with their program. Litigation is expensive, time consuming, and hardly ever pleasant. These are not people you want to do business with.
* Even though bad art dealers may be brand new, basically untested and have little or no track record of success, they act like they’re really important, a going concern, and will have no problems selling your work.
* The dealer has a reputation for strange or eccentric behaviors or for making life difficult for their artists. Again– don’t think you’re going to be the exception, no matter how wonderfully they treat you at the outset.
* Bad art dealers often give ultimatums. For example, they’ll tell an artist what to make, how many to make, how large it should be, and so on, the implicit message for the artist being not to make what they want to make, but rather what the gallery thinks they can sell the easiest. Dealers can certainly suggest what might have sales potential or what directions an artist might explore, especially once a good working relationship is established, but they should never insist that artists make particular types of art. There’s a major difference between being demanding and being supportive.
* Bad art galleries (and these days, art speculators or “flippers”) offer artists artificially low stipends or advances to create or buy their art, then take control of that art outright and give the artists nothing more for it, no matter how much they might end up selling it for.
* They tell artists they’ll take care of the numbers, inventory, payments, and all other business matters and not to worry. You better worry! And you better keep track of every single work of art you consign as well as its current status. Anytime a dealer is cagey about providing this kind of data, that’s a sure sign of problems down the road.
* They’re either reluctant or refuse to give consignment sheets or any forms of receipts itemizing and detailing each individual work of art they receive from an artist. They refuse to put monetary details in writing including agreed upon selling prices, how discounts are handled, commission splits between the artist and gallery, payment schedules, and so on. Verbal agreements on these issues are never enough!
* They provide consignment agreements or contracts with stipulations or requirements that were never mentioned or discussed in meetings or conversations about the responsibilities of each party in the artist/gallery relationship. For example seeing, “Artist shares cost of shipping, framing, insurance or promotional materials such as advertisements and PR” when nothing like this was ever talked about in advance.
* And last but not least, they sexually harass their artists or employees or make persistent, inappropriate or unwanted comments, remarks or advances that have nothing to do with art.
So there you have it. It’s certainly not everything, but hopefully enough to get you started. Remember– be vigilant and attentive at all times, trust your instincts, and the most important part: Don’t ever let any dealer or gallery ever push you around.