Galleries, Dealers, Agents, & Consultants
There is no “one way” to be represented. Although most artists do not have personal managers or agents, many artists are now looking for these services. Increasingly, people are calling themselves art agents, consultants, or coaches with little or no experience in the arts. You need to understand the pros and cons of doing business with agents like this. Most consultants charge by the hour, and will tell you things you could have learned for free, or by reading the GYST materials and information in this manual. Agents tend to be more expensive and complicated than other resources open to you.
Many artists have dealers or full time managers who represent them either through an art gallery or as consultants. Some dealers work out of their home instead of having a commercial gallery open to the public. Most of their clients are fairly well established and can afford these services. If you have multiple galleries, or are overwhelmed by managing your career, engaging the services of a manager might be a good way to go. If you are an emerging artist and you just want someone to make you famous, think twice about how feasible this is as it may cost you a fair amount of money. These services have a time and a place for many artists, be sure you are ready for them before agreeing to anything.
If you decide to work with a private dealer, an agent or a consultant, make sure you check out their references and reputations. Agents have been known to resort to unethical practices, like buying out the shows of their artists (without the artist knowing) in order to create a buzz about the artist that increases the selling price of her/his artwork. If buyers are made aware of such market manipulation, it can kill an artist’s career. So do your homework, and ask yourself if you really need to be paying for an agent. If so, be sure that she/he comes highly recommended, has outstanding references, and professional practices.
If you are only showing in one or two galleries at a time, a single dealer is usually adequate to handle the detail work of managing your career. A good dealer will act as an informal agent for the artists they represent by giving them advice, organizing future shows and commissions, and publicizing their work. Many artists who develop a long-term relationship with a gallery or dealer usually have specific agreements that allow agents or representatives to act for the artist on a limited basis. Be sure to notify your dealer if you become interested in adding an agent or consultant.
If you are an emerging artist, getting involved in the art scene, developing relationships, and networking is probably a much better bet than going with an agent. If no one knows who you are, the agent will not get very far either, and you will have paid a lot of money that could have gone into making your work.
Private commercial galleries are in the business of selling artwork and hopefully supporting artists in the process. They can offer artists a one-person exhibition, the possibility of reviews, public exposure, publicity, an opening reception, etc. Galleries generally take 50% of sales for the privilege of representing you on an exclusive basis. Exclusivity is usually defined in one of two ways, either by the geographical area covered by the gallery, or by the length of time the agreement will remain in effect. Although 50% may seem high, this is the industry standard. Galleries can justify this percentage due to overhead costs of their space, promotion, art fair fees, etc. A responsible and professional gallery will promote you, support your career, and potentially generate progressive sales of your work. Irresponsible galleries will fail in one or more of these tasks and therefore make your business partnership imbalanced. Either way galleries make their living by selling work, so your work must be sellable in order to maintain a long-term relationship in most instances. A profitable and rewarding relationship is possible as long as all parties, yourself included, puts in the time and effort required.
Private art consultants usually specialize in selling artwork to corporate collectors, such as banks, law offices, and hotels, but they also work with interior designers, collectors, and public art projects. They generally do not offer exclusive representation or an exhibition, but they can sell work in large quantities. They usually work out of their home or a small office, so there is often little or no public exposure for the artist. At the same time, consultants usually take a smaller percentage because they do not have the operating expenses of a regular gallery. You might think of commissions to galleries and private consultants as a “fee for service. “ Consultants’ degree of professionalism and experience is varied, so check them out carefully and get references.
Companies and individuals are increasingly targeting the art market to turn a quick profit. Agents offer a wide range of services, and charge a wide range of fees, as well. Like everything else, there are good and bad agents. Get a clear picture of what the agent will do in exchange for your hard earned cash, and do lots of research before you engage in a contract. Be sure to understand the agent’s back room policies and make sure that the contract stipulates both what she/he will and will not do. While there are many similarities between a consultant and an agent, an agent usually takes a percentage of anything you sell and may consult with you less on how you can do things yourself. Usually you might also be charged a monthly fee.
Non-commercial Galleries or Artist-Run Spaces
Non-commercial galleries are in the business of educating the public, and are usually nonprofit. In most cases they may be less concerned with selling the work and more interested in the work itself. They usually offer good exposure for an artist if the space is reputable. Some examples include museums, college and university galleries, cultural centers, community centers, or artist-run spaces.
The best way to approach these spaces is to submit proposals for review. If you know of three or four other artists whose work seems compatible with your own, gather all the work samples and bios to propose a group exhibition. Proposals are often reviewed by other artists, which is particularly helpful if you are an emerging artist because they can give good feedback, should your proposal be rejected. Most of the staff is open to chatting with artists, but be sure to use their preferred method of contact. Give them a call or check out their website to find out the submission guidelines policy. Many of these spaces pay an artist fee or honorarium to the artist for exhibiting the work, and often you can also sell work through these spaces. These exhibition opportunities typically require a lower percentage for the sale of an artwork (usually between 10-30%).
How Galleries Work
Many artists want to show their work at art galleries for various reasons, some with preconceived notions of the desire for fame, money, or stability. It is important to remember that galleries and art consultants only work with artists whose work they can sell. They may take you on because they think your work will sell (or perhaps you have proof of a sales history), but if it does not, they may reconsider the relationship. Simply put, galleries are in the business of selling art. You should be an active partner in determining how to sell your work, and who the buyers may be. The gallery is not in a position to do all of that for you. However, an advantage of having gallery representation allows for the artist to make work rather than focusing on selling it. A responsible gallery will promote you in such a way that will mutually benefit its and your best interests. One of the most important factors to consider, is that every gallery will work differently. There are no specific requirements to open a gallery other than legal business practices.
Basically, a conventional art gallery works like a regular brick-and-mortar store, with inventories (art), suppliers (artists), sales launches (openings), regular clients (collectors), and discounts. Additionally, good galleries participate in active public relations and marketing campaigns, just like any other business. Similar to most boutiques, the majority of galleries work on a consignment system, where you consign your work to the gallery and they have the job of selling it. If the works sells, you split the sales figure with the gallery (usually a 50/50% split). If the work doesn’t sell, the gallery can either keep it in their inventory or return it to you. This basic relationship has infinite variations from gallery to gallery.
Remember: Selling art is a hard job.
Making a living by the sale of your work is even harder due to fluctuations in the market and buyers’ desires. If you want to make a living selling art, you have to be an equal part of the process. You should look at representation as a partnership. Never assume that the gallery will take care of everything for you. Just as the gallery should be checking in on your productivity and professional practices, you too should be actively involved in the exhibition, shipment, storage, and sale of your work.
Some artists are notoriously unaware of how the business end of the art world works. Most art schools do not provide this information, as school is generally about learning to make good art. Art schools do not traditionally function to get you a career. A degree, even an MFA from the most prestigious institution, will not guarantee or entitle you to financial success. Still, if you do experience a dramatic bump in sales make sure you don’t quit your day job until you are sure you can make it on your own. Markets go up and down all the time, and when the market is down people spend less money. It is not always your dealer’s fault if your work does not sell.
Never underestimate the importance of being a savvy business collaborator. Be proactive and productive so your gallery won’t have to be on your back all of the time to get things done, such as getting them appropriate information on time or making sure they understand your work.
You don’t need to go to art school or have any credentials whatsoever to be an art dealer. Some dealers are professional and know what they are doing, and others have little to no experience running a gallery. You may need to train your dealer on how to function professionally.
It is very important to keep track of all of your own records and finances with the gallery. If your gallery closes without telling you, and all the paperwork is in the office, you may not get access to the records without a fight. Keeping your own records is crucial. Make sure you know who bought your work, when, for how much, and where the work is at all times. (See Visual Artists Rights Act)
Never forget your job as an artist. Even while working with the gallery remember to focus on art-making by getting into the studio and having studio visits with colleagues and peers. While you are making work and talking about it with other artists, you need to keep developing professionally. Volunteer at a local nonprofit, go to art openings, read art publications, go to local lectures/symposiums, get out there and engage with the community. Along the way, you will meet plenty of people, make connections and open the doors to many opportunities. This is a tried and true way to get galleries, sales, teaching referrals, and all kinds of other good stuff to happen for your career. The art business works on connections and referrals. So be on your toes, be generous, and above all, be a professional.
Preparation and What Galleries Look For
Do your research! Before approaching a gallery, see if it has a website where you can find a list of the artists it represents and images of past and current shows. While browsing the site, does it do the following?:
Does the website project a certain feel? Is it restrained or colorful? Is it stylistically designed or is it poorly constructed? Does it have a mission statement or description?
What kind of work does the gallery typically show? Is the gallery roster of artists mainly abstract, figurative, or conceptual?
Stylistically or formally, how does your work fit into the gallery’s focus?
Are the represented artists in the same general career range as you? Does this gallery show only emerging artists, mid-career artists, or established artists? An artist’s biography will show you her/his career track record.
If the gallery lists past exhibitions, how often does it exhibit group shows or shows organized by outside curators?
Once you’ve explored the website the next step is to visit the space.
While there, ask yourself:
Is the gallery located in an accessible place? What is the neighborhood like and are there other galleries in the vicinity?
Is this gallery large enough to accommodate my work? Is it small enough to achieve a sense of intimacy?
Is the artwork shown at the gallery in the same general price range of your work? Ask to see a price list for price comparison.
Is there proper lighting and wall space? How has the gallery been maintained? Nail holes? Floors? Wall paint?
Does anyone greet guests or offer to talk about the work? What is the reception area like?
If, after visiting the space you are still interested in forming a relationship with the gallery, the next step is to attend an exhibition opening.
At the opening you should ask:
Are the openings well attended?
Has the gallery scheduled the opening to coincide with other gallery openings in the neighborhood?
What is the atmosphere at the opening like? Is it a party scene or a networking scene?
What kind of people are at the opening? Artists, collectors, dealers, writers, curators, hangers-on?
Are people having fun?
Is the gallery director and featured artist/s accessible?
How do people talk about the work at the opening? What kind of language do they use?
Once you’ve experienced the gallery firsthand you will want to do a little more research. Ask yourself:
Does the gallery take unsolicited portfolios? Is the gallery taking on any new artists?
How often is the gallery reviewed in local and national publications? Are the reviews more often positive or negative?
What is the reputation of the gallery? Ask other artists, collectors, or curators.
How far in advance is the gallery’s exhibition schedule filled? Why pine after a gallery that is booked three years in advance when you are ready NOW?
If you continue to go to the gallery’s opening receptions, and visit the gallery during office hours, you may have a chance to meet the gallery director. One of the best ways to get in good with the gallery is not to be too pushy. Start by complimenting the show. Only do this if you actually like the work on the walls. State clearly and intelligently why you like the work. The director will appreciate your honesty and interest. Make sure to introduce yourself and leave your business card. Follow up with a short email stating you enjoyed your conversation at the gallery.
No gallery owner, director, assistant director, or intern will do a bunch of free busy work for you, including critiquing your art or website, making suggestions about how to have an art career, and connecting you with her/his collectors/clients/curators. A dealer will only do the above after representing you as an artist in her/his roster and after a business relationship is established. Otherwise, why would a dealer suggest someone to her/his business clients without knowing who you are, what you are capable of producing, how you are to work with, how you handle deadlines, and what your reputation is? Regardless of what a dealer thinks of your art, she/he will not jeopardize her/his existing business relationships and reputation by referring a complete stranger.
Listen to the advice of collectors, curators, critics, and artists. If you are interested in showing with a particular gallery you will want to make these connections first. Remember that it is improper to ask an artist for an endorsement if she/he is unfamiliar with your work, and if you are unfamiliar with her/his gallery. Maintaining an excellent and organized practice is the best way to ensure a good gallery relationship. Perhaps most importantly, do not burn bridges! The art world is a very small place, and word travels fast. Don’t be an art diva or a gallery-world gossip. Be polite and generous with your time.
Once you have done your research, and talked briefly with the gallery director, you might want to send an introductory letter expressing your interest in the gallery and your desire to learn more about the program. Again don’t be pushy. This is not a letter requesting a show, representation, or even a studio visit. Never send out boilerplate letters or requests for representation. Always address correspondence using the persons’ full name and title—never use Dear Sir or Madam. As always, double-check your letter for typos. Graciously inquire about the gallery’s current portfolio review policies. Often, review procedures can be found on a gallery’s website. If the gallery says it is not accepting submissions, respect that and don’t ask to submit your work.
If, and only if, the gallery says it is looking at submissions, make sure to follow the application instructions very carefully. Make sure to include a self-addressed stamp envelope (SASE) for the return of any submission materials. If you don’t send a SASE, galleries will throw away your materials, especially if the submission was unsolicited. Methods of review vary and some galleries will only review CDs, DVDs, or your website.
Timing Your Portfolio Review
Depending on the review procedures, call or write several weeks ahead of time to request a portfolio review or studio visit. If writing, be sure to include a SASE with a reply card. Always address your request to the decision maker (curator, committee, gallery director). If you are not sure who that is, call the gallery and find out. Form letters are frequently sent to galleries and typically are not well received.
Never expect anyone to stop what she/he is doing to review your portfolio if you make a stop by the gallery. If you are only in town for one or two days, have the courtesy to schedule an appointment ahead of time. Galleries are busy with the artists they represent, and you will want the same consideration when you gain representation.
It is a good idea to call or email to confirm a meeting time. After all, you want their full attention.
Be on time! If a scheduling conflict arises, cancel and reschedule as soon as possible. If you are running late, call ahead and let the gallery know. If they are in the middle of installing a show or another event, they might not have time for your meeting to run over. Timing is very important for a successful meeting with any professional arts administrator.
Being late should not be an issue. If you are new to a city, leave early, look up the directions, and know where you are going.
Be polite and considerate. You are asking for something from them, and their time is valuable.
If at all possible, visit the gallery beforehand. Go early and look at the work on display. Show an interest in the other artists in the gallery. Know about their programs and the history of the exhibition space. If you care about them, they may just care about you.
Send a thank you card or email to the person(s) you meet. Follow-up in four to six months or when you have new work or images to show, especially if they asked you to keep them informed.
Keep track of correspondences with galleries you have studio visits with, and keep track of what transpired. You should include the name of the reviewer, the name and address of the gallery, phone number, email address, when you met with them, what work you presented, and any comments or suggestions you want to remember in the future. Write down how you will follow up and then do so.
Patience is a Virtue!
Developing a relationship with a gallery takes time. Be patient. Hounding people is not professional and chances are this behavior will completely disinterest gallerists. Remember they are busy with the artists they currently represent.
A gallery might not have a slot for you at the moment, but they may be interested enough in your work to ask you to keep them posted. By all means follow up, but be nice about it. Don’t hound them. Wait a few months, or until you have a new body of work, to schedule a new studio visit.
It takes more than just good artwork to become a successful artist. You must understand how the business works, create a good portfolio, and master your presentation. Although timing and luck are part of building a successful career, your business and personal relationships will always make a big impact. This is the part you can control, so be really good at it. Even then, it is not a guarantee that you will succeed securing gallery representation, but without these it is even less likely.
Working out Representation
Once a gallery has decided to represent you, make sure you are prepared with a contract that has your best interests in mind. Read through the GYST contracts, and compile a list of issues and questions you need to talk with the gallery about before signing anything.
You will also want to talk with other artists represented with the gallery before deciding on representation. Ask them what it’s like working with the gallery, if they are paid on time, if they are happy with how the gallery represents them. If you can talk with artists who have worked with the gallery in the past you might want to ask them the same questions.
When dealing with a gallery always try to get agreements in writing. You can use GYST’s sample contracts as a way to develop your own contract with the gallery. Some galleries will not work with a contract, and it is important to know why this is the case. If nothing else, be sure to write down the agreements and information offered by the gallery. Then, send a letter with the information back to them with a request to correct any misinformation. This is a good business practice.
Make sure you ask every question necessary. You might use the exhibition checklist to remind yourself of things you need to ask. For example, who pays for shipping? When do you get paid? What are your responsibilities as an artist, and what are the gallery’s responsibilities to you?
Referring to the Gallery Representation Contract, you will need to decide on the scope of the gallery’s representation. Will they represent you only in your city or nationwide? How many shows will they offer you, and how frequently? What will the commission be? Are there any shared discounts offered to buyers?
It is a good idea to ask about these issues for all opportunities, not just commercial gallery representation.
Working on a Stipend with a Gallery
Although less common, working with a gallery that offers a stipend can be a good way to spread out your income.
When money is being exchanged over a period of time, a contract is crucial. In order to avoid miscommunication about stipend agreements, create a contract ahead of time and do not rely on a verbal agreement. To create a productive business relationship, both parties must be clear, honest, and forthcoming about their needs, expectations, and requirements. A good contract includes payment schedules, penalties for late payments, what types and amounts of art are to be produced and delivered within what periods of time, penalties for late art deliveries, the time period during which the contract is enforceable, and all other specifics that both parties agree upon.
Both parties should address the definition of the stipend, which will ideally be designed to finance artistic exploration. One of the reasons that dealers may offer artists a stipend is to acquire art that can be sold to cover expenses, or to spread out the payments to an artist instead of giving a lump sum. Remember that a commercial gallery is there to sell work. Dealers should not place restrictions on artists, but expect critical feedback from the dealer. Understand the “give and take” dynamics of the relationship. Know what you expect from your gallery and what is expected of you.