ethics for artists


Treating Colleagues with Respect

Contrary to what some artists believe, curators, galleries, funders, and the art world are not merely a support structure. They are partners in your creative pursuit. One unflattering aspect of many art “professionals” is their attitude of entitlement. They think the world “owes” them support, but it is simply not true.

If you are perceived as self-important, you may get a reputation as being difficult to deal with, and curators will lose interest, even if your work is strong. Respect their space. They have opinions and ideas of their own, and are not in the business of giving deference to ego.

Having good relationships with colleagues is important, and a collaboration is much more gratifying for everyone when all parties act in good faith, and with goodwill. Listen to what others have to say, and consider your role in the relationship. 

Dont Be Selfish

Many artists are secretive about what they know and actively avoid sharing their knowledge. If you know an artist whose work fits the prospectus of an exhibition, by all means, let them know about it. Keeping information to yourself only hurts you in the long run. Artists who share information with each other get much further and develop excellent reputations. It is hard to be an artist, so be generous with your friends and professional colleagues.

Dont Intrude on Other ArtistsSpaces

It is inappropriate to solicit interest in your work at someone else’s event, or at a party. Handing out postcards to your show at someone else’s opening is tacky. It is okay to give one or two to a friend, but do not stand at the door and hand out your announcements. If you share a studio with other artists, don’t invade their studio visits while they are meeting with curators or other artists. That is their time. It’s OK to say hello, but don’t drag the curator to your own studio to look at your work. This behavior is not only damaging to your art career and reputation in the art world but it will also damage the reputation of the other artist whom you are taking advantage of.

Leaving a Gallery

How you leave a gallery can be really important. If your gallery has been supportive, treat it with respect and dignity. Show appreciation for your partnership. Leave in a way that honors your own integrity. Many artists leave newer galleries to partner with bigger galleries that have established reputations. Often artists thinks the latter will help them advance their careers, but some smaller galleries will work harder for their artists than a gallery with a large roster. Do your research because this may not be the case for you, and gallery hopping will not strengthen your résumé.

Reasons to leave a gallery are: 

Not getting paid

Your dealer/gallerist is not actively pushing your work

Other artists on the roster have lowered the quality of their work

Other artists on the roster receive more support causing an unfair advantage

Personality conflict with the gallery or its staff a breakdown in communication that cannot be rectified

The reputation of the gallery changes for the worse your work may change and no longer fits with the         gallery’s direction

You stop making artwork for a number of reasons

When you decide to leave your gallery, make sure you have all the right paperwork and agreements in order, and that the gallery returns all your work in a timely manner, pays you for any pending sales invoices, provides accurate records of all sales transactions of your work, and returns any materials, portfolios, or other items you may have at the gallery. Depending on your relationship with the gallery, you may need to reconcile bills you owe to the gallery, such as charges for framing or fabrication expenses. Whatever the reason for leaving the gallery, never burn bridges. Even if the gallery has treated you poorly, it is not in your best interest to bash it or leave on a sour note. This will only come back to haunt you. Remember the art world is very small, and everyone talks about it.

Galleries That Tell You What To Make

Many artists have faced the dilemma of their gallery dictating what kind of work they make. If a gallery encourages you to paint like another artist, or asks you to make five more of those yellow paintings because they sell well, you may be shortchanging your career. This kind of production decreases the value of important work and makes it appear as if you are just making work to sell, instead of making work because it advances your practice. Think carefully before you go into production as a commercial artist.

On the other hand, if you have entered into an agreement with a gallery and the agreement stipulates that your work maintain its current conceptual and material attributes, you may need to renegotiate your contract or consider working with the gallery to make it better understand how your practice is shifting and evolving. Be true to your own vision, and change galleries if this persists.

Using Other Peoples Images

An ongoing problem, which has increased dramatically because of the vast resources and databases available on the Internet, is that artists use other people’s images without giving the author any credit, or not changing the image enough to make it distinct from the original. Copyright infringement is actually quite serious, so if you are not sure of what is legal and what is not, be sure to check out the GYST Copyright section. 

Also, while not illegal, making work that looks like someone else’s is unethical. Sometimes this happens unknowingly, but if you saw a great image in Artforum, and then you remade it as your own, you are charging into unethical territory. It is, of course, permissible to give homage to another artist and to demonstrate your influences. However be aware of the grey areas of appropriation and the responsibility that follows.

Dont Steal Other Peoples Ideas

Here is an exemplary anecdote. A visiting artist came to CalArts and did a lecture and studio visits. He met with a young artist whose work was very specific and distinct. A few months later, the visiting artist opened a show in New York that was a direct copy of the student’s work. Since the visitor was a quite well-know artist, and few people knew the work of the student, the established artist got great attention. That is, until the students and faculty at CalArts made sure that the art world knew what had taken place. Needless to say, the established artist’s reputation has suffered irreparably. Whenever you start a new project, be sure to do your research to avoid inadvertently stealing another artist’s work.  

If you are teaching, don’t steal other people’s classes without first getting their permission. It is inevitable that more than one artists with come up with similar ideas for classes, but be considerate and don’t steal someone else’s syllabus for your own.

Giving Back

Showing at nonprofit organizations, which are generally supportive of emerging artists, is a good way to start out an art career. Non profits also tend not to require a percentage or take a small amount of any sales. If work does sell, it is smart for you to donate part of the sale of the work to the nonprofit, as it has spent time and money to support you. Once you are more established, consider giving back to those organizations that supported you at the beginning of your career. This way they can continue to support other emerging artists.

Do What You Say You Are Going To Do

If you say you are going to do something at a certain time, do not be late. Other people have busy lives too, and if you do not show up with your work on time, you throw a wrench into everyone else’s schedule and they are forced to work around you. If you are running late, call and let the other person know, and give him or her the opportunity to reschedule. You never know what kind of trouble you can generate when you do not follow through.


A gallery owner or a curator can smell a desperate artist a mile away. Some commercial galleries thrive on desperate artists, asking them to pay fees for submitting work (see vanity galleries and juried exhibitions). Some galleries are now telling emerging artists that they will need to take 90 percent of the sales, giving the excuse that it is costing them a lot more money to promote them as an emerging artist. Steer clear of any agreement giving you less than 50 percent of all sales!

Avoid appearing desperate. Don’t send unsolicited work to galleries. Don’t rush to sign contracts without reading them and having a lawyer look at them. Remember, all careers go through ups and downs. The trick is to stay smart and level-headed in both good and bad times.


Exuding bitterness about your career is unhealthy and unproductive. It’s hard to work with artists who constantly complain. If you are bitter, it is best to keep it to yourself.

The art world is a tough place, and you need to constantly work around obstacles, whether it is your health, a family issue, or a job that gets in the way of being an artist. Instead of complaining, change your tactics, look at your career in a different way, and be pro-active.

Keep a diary, visit a therapist, talk to a mentor. These are appropriate places to productively state and address your personal problems and flagging career.

Dont Talk Sh*t

Although we have said it before, the art world is a teeny tiny place, and if you talk shit about other people at art openings, it may get back to them. Be wary of how you come across to others when you engage in this activity. Your personality has a direct effect on whether people will want to work with you.

Be Professional

Your opening is an important time to have your sh*t together. Do not be unreasonably late. Most viewers come to see you, not just the artwork. If someone drives across town and she/he can only come early because she/he has somewhere else to be, and you are not there, she/he might not do it again the next time you have an opening. Also, do not get drunk at your own opening. Be alert and calm.

While it is tempting to only talk to your friends or family at your openings, be aware that this is a time for you to talk to people uninitiated to your work. If you are showing at a commercial gallery, the gallery director will probably want you to talk with critics, curators, and collectors in attendance. So say hi to friends and family, be gracious, but also promote your work, meet people, make connections, and talk to strangers.

Never assume someone in attendance is more important than others or a person not worth your time. These assumptions may lead to a miscommunication, a disagreement, or worse, an insult.  Treat every viewer with respect and give him or her equal time to say hello, explain your process, and answer any questions she/he may have regarding your work or your practice. Even if you know the person you are talking to at the moment, you may have no idea who she/he knows and what she/he will say about you. 

Criticism and Rejection

Remember that if you are not getting rejected, you are not applying enough. Contrary to the typical emotional reaction, rejection should not be taken personally—and may not even be a reflection on the quality of your work. Always try to get feedback on your proposals. Some funders do not allow this, but most will offer comments and, even if it is not their policy to provide explanation, they will respect the question. It may simply be that they are still unfamiliar with your work, or they have recently done too many shows of work similar to yours, or there was not enough information in the application. It is also important to know that most funders have a committee of your peers (other artists, curators, etc.) who rotate with each review panel. Hence, the makeup of the review committee can greatly influence how your work is received. It could be that you just need a little more experience. Do NOT give up applying for grants and other funding. Do NOT give up on applying for shows. Doing your research and making sure your work fits the application requirements is one of the most important aspects of getting grants and exhibitions. If you find out why you were rejected, you may be able to make changes, and reapply next year.

 When you make a follow-up call, especially following a rejection, make sure that the receiver has time to chat with you. Many employees in the arts sector are often understaffed and very busy. Some foundations only have one or two employees. Be courteous, and if she/he is busy, askwhen would be a good time for you to call back. Never argue, just listen. The purpose of the feedback is not to reverse his or her decision, which is impossible. It is to get valuable information regarding your application in order to make improvements. You may ask a clarifying question, but remain professional at all times. You can learn a lot from the experience.


Deception can ruin a career. Don’t lie about your past achievements on your résumé. It will come back to haunt you. Don’t make sales behind your dealer’s back, and don’t lie to collectors about work. If you make art out of materials that will decompose, disclose this to your dealer, the curator, and the museum. Do not misrepresent the materials. Getting sued over a good joke is no laughing matter.

Artwork on Public and Private Property

Graffiti and tagging may be a valid art form, but painting over and cleaning up is expensive—and it is at the taxpayers’ expense. Public property is not your personal playground or canvas, so think about how your work will affect others in the community.

Always be respectful of private property. Unless you have the property owner’s written permission, do not create artwork on someone’s fence, house, or other property —it is illegal. 

Dont Take Advantage of Other People

Making art that hurts others—such as hurting people to get a good image, or making children cry to get a great shot—should be considered carefully. If you are working with adults, get permission and make sure that they understand what you are doing. Get them to sign a model release form. If you are working with children you will need a parent or guardian to sign a release form, and the parents should be aware of exactly how you are using children in your work. Do not exploit children or adults for your own personal gain. If you do work with kids or those who are challenged in some way, be very careful when using manipulative tactics. Be honest and considerate.

Eco Art

When making landscape art, take care not to damage the flora and fauna. Making an ecological statement, while at the same time destroying the environment you are working with, is a contradiction. This seems obvious, but it happens all too often. Floating 1,000 plastic ducks down a river to make an environmental statement is just plain counterproductive.


Any work that affects the privacy of an individual should be cleared with that person before being shown. Also, consider what it means to use someone else’s image in your work, and how it may affect the author, personally and professionally. Always get a signed release form to avoid getting sued.

Audience Safety

Do not use materials that are harmful to you or your audience. Certain chemicals, mold, and other materials may severely affect people with allergies, people with weak immune systems, and children. If you need to use something that might be potentially dangerous, make sure you inform the audience and the gallery with noticeable signage. (See Experimental Materials section.)

Documentation of Your Audience

It is important to notify your audience if you document your show and record interactive relationships with your audience. If an individual’s likeness is clearly identified, get them to sign a release form.

Graphic Images

If you are showing work that is not appropriate for some audiences, such as at a space where families gather, you need to consider how to present the work. Use visible, well-placed signage to warn visitors that they are entering territory that may be unsuitable for some.

Thank Those Who Support You

Everyone likes to be thanked. Be sure to thank curators, dealers, or funders. You should at least thank them in person, but a nice note is really special. If you are in an exhibition that publishes a catalog, consider using this as an opportunity to thank those people who helped you with the exhibition. If you get rejected for a grant, or a show, writing a thank you note for allowing you to apply might help them to remember you in the future. If you do not get the teaching job, thank them for the interview. You do not have to be extravagant, just make sure that they know you respect their support and opportunity.

Asking for Things

From time to time, you will need someone to write you a letter of recommendation. When you ask someone to write a letter, do NOT wait until the week it is due. If the recommender says yes, be sure to send her/him all the pertinent details: who the letter should be written to and the description of what you are applying for. Make sure to give the recommender plenty of time to write the letter. Be sure to include information about yourself, particularly if she/he has not seen your latest body of work, or if you have additions to your résumé, which may be helpful in a letter. It is a good idea to keep in contact with those whom you may request a letter from. Consider how selfish it will appear to request support from someone you have not reached out to in a long time. Be generous, and others will reciprocate.

Be considerate about asking for someone’s mailing list or other item as it may have taken considerable work for him or her to generate. Consider an exchange or a fee to use it instead.

How To Treat Teachers and Established Artists

It is not the job of your former teacher or other artists to get you into a gallery. If you ask someone to recommend you, do not do it out of the blue. Make sure that your colleague is comfortable with supporting your work, and do not expect her/him to say yes. Artists have a limited number of recommendations that they can use with the people they know. Do your homework, have him or her over to your studio, and try to wait for him or her to bring up the subject.

Art Agents

Beware of dealing with art agents. They may say they can help your career, but consider this:

An up-and-coming artist who was starting to do quite well in his career was contacted by an agency. The agency offered to help secure shows, do PR, and basically make the artist’s career. What the artist may or may not have known is that the agents were buying out the shows before they opened. The artist became so desired because of this market manipulation that he had shows set up all over the world. Once it was found out that the agents were dealing in fraudulent practices, it destroyed his career. As with anyone you work with, be aware of your agent’s practices.

Most art agents are self-defined and charge artists for basic career management and doing things like writing artist statements or résumés—in general, reorganizing the things you have to tell them in the first place. Some art agents have quite a bit of experience, others are just starting out. It is a good idea to balance the costs of an agent against what you cannot do yourself. Many will charge you a substantial amount of money up front, say $3,000, just to set up the basics. Lots of artists report that their agent did the bare minimum and then asked the artist for more money for marketing, etc. Be sure to ask an agent exactly what she/he will do for you in exchange for what amount of money. Finding out much later that the agent will keep charging you for every little thing, may not work for you. It is fairly easy to ask anyone you are considering to provide you with three references from an artist whom she/he has worked with.

Write up a contract that spells out all the terms of your agreement with an agent. Asking other artists to recommend someone might be a good way to start, although be sure to talk to someone who has been working with the person for over a year.


There are laws that govern editions. Editions must be declared at the time they are made. Buyers must be notified of the number of editions in writing. DO NOT make additional prints or photos after you have declared the edition size. Be aware of the consequences of such actions and read up on the legal issues you need to know before creating an edition. You cannot for instance, make a print that is an unlimited edition, unless you are forthright in letting the client know. Collectors are mindful of the number of editions you create, and a certificate of authenticity which lists the edition size is often required by the buyer.

Blind Submissions and Approaching Galleries

Less-informed artists tend to blindly submit portfolios or packages to galleries or art professionals in the false belief that they will achieve some sort of instant fame. That is tantamount to sending a message in a bottle out to sea. Most success in the art world is made through being active in the art community and through its extensive referral system.

Never just send a bunch of work to a gallery and expect it to be taken seriously. Contact the gallery and find out how it likes to see work. Never ask a gallery to look at your work by walking in the door and interrupting the work day. See the Galleries Section for more details.

Shady Collectors

Some collectors may try to negotiate with you at an opening to try to get a price break. Beware of this practice, as it may violate your contract with the gallery, whether written or implied. Send the buyer to the dealer and let them work it out. After all, it is the gallery’s responsibility to sell at its venue.

Some “collectors” may artificially inflate their importance to get steep discounts. Never sell yourself short. It’s OK to give small 10 to 20 percent discounts for known collectors and museum collections, but anything more than this is unnecessary.


Feel free to share this article with other artists.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.