Be Smart About Art

Don't bite the hand that feeds you: Navigating art sales and their temptations

written by: Susan Mumford Feb. 2, 2014 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan Mumford + Chris King's Blog 6953 views

Don't bite the hand that feeds you: Navigating art sales and their temptations

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I was recently speaking with a gallery director who was moaning about what a ‘problem’ the internet has become. His gallery regularly participates in fairs and has noticed that visitors will closely inspect art work labels and jot down details, yet have no interest in talking with the gallery, at all. What’s happening?  Many of these people are searching out the artists online and making direct contact.

You can understand that this is immensely frustrating to dealers who have forked out many thousands of pounds to get in front of potential clients, with an aim of selling work by the exhibited artists. Buyers (plus interior designers, writers, and so on) would not have known about an artist or their work if it weren’t for the gallery’s efforts.

Yet at the same time, you can also imagine that an artist is totally over the moon when they receive an enquiry. You can just hear the thoughts, “YES! People I don’t even know want to buy my work!” The consideration that the new enquirer might have resulted from the gallery’s event might not have occurred to them. It’s also very tempting, since the artist doesn’t have to pay the gallery any commission.

Artists need to understand when they work with a gallery that sales which arise as a result of the gallery need to be directed… to the gallery. The gallery has costs for what they do, and these need to be covered. This isn’t to say that artists can’t know collectors, for this is a fantastic upshot of the internet. Collectors can personally get to know artists. They can exchange messages online and meet at private views, soirées and dinner parties. The artist’s relationship with the collector can concentrate on creative interests, while all money matters are handled by a third party, the art dealer. (Having a third party negotiate sales often works a treat.)

This is a very hot topic in the art world, and getting it ‘right’ can make all the difference in maintaining an artist-gallerist relationship. 

Here’s a current example. My photographer partner Chris is taking part in a group exhibition. He received an email from an established client upon receipt of the printed invitation, who is keen to purchase a photograph, “if it hasn’t otherwise sold by the end of the show.”  So, who should handle the sale, the artist or gallerist? Think about it for minute...

Many people will say artist, however it is the gallerist, since it was the show that prompted the enquiry.

Here’s the bottom line - artists with dealers should consider these two questions upon new enquiries:

In regards to new contact enquiries, ask the individual: “How did you discover me?”

From existing contacts, ask yourself: “What (events, promotion, etc) prompted this new enquiry?”

Understanding and honestly acting upon the answer is paramount. For it is in your best interest not to bite, but nourish, the hand that feeds you.  

Have your say! Share your comments below - and we will provide a link to your site / blog (if you so wish...).

Let other readers know about your personal experience of this, and what wisdom you have to share.    

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Photographs © Chris King.

user name

Last year i had exactly this problem when i was showing at Bosse and Baume Gallery , when I was showing there. I had enquiries directed directly at myself , but I chose to be extremely honest and deal with them through the gallery.
Partly because i had read an article of Susans last year and partly because it was the honest thing to do.
I am so glad I did. I feel good about it because should I ever work with the people in that gallery again, they know me to be straight forward.
And another thing that can happen is that the buyer who has directly contacted an artist is often hoping to get a picture cheaper by "saving the artist the commission", so the painting has not sold for it's true market value as decided by artist and gallery. Then it can all get into a huge muddle.

user name

This is such an important topic and I'm really glad that you have opened this up for discussion Susan, thankyou. I have been a gallery-represented and selling artist for over 20 plus years and one thing that I have learned about the business of art sales is that loyalty is King in the art world. I have always sought to ask who/where the client has heard about my work from in the first place and if it is through my Rep or Gallery Director then the sale is proudly handed over to them. Better still, I like to send any inquiries straight to my Rep to make sure that he gets the best deal for me. I am more interested in talking to a collector about the reasons behind the creation of the artwork, my inspiration and the things that I stand for and believe in. I really am not interested in negotiating money deals in regards to my own art creations.

I do love meeting my clients and having lunch with them, talking about my art with them etc but one sad fact is that some galleries don't allow that and I will never know my client's from those galleries. However, I don't blame them, its those artists that disregard the bond between their Rep and Gallery Director who spoil it for the rest of us.

When total trust is there between the gallery and the artist it truly is a magic partnership. An artist who breaks that trust is not considering the long term consequences of his/her actions. I am sure that a whole band wagon of artists will start to abuse me after writing this but it is my opinion and I feel strongly about it. Its not us that makes our won reputations in the artworld, its the Reps, the Curators and the Gallery Directors; those that are telling the world our art is great. Just because we can create great art does not automatically mean that our art is going to be recognised. Without great people behind us, willing to share it with the world our art may as well stay locked in the garage gathering mold and warping.

To sumarise my opinion (from an artists point of view) this is just a clear cut fact; if the sale was in any way stimulated either through the kudos from being a gallery-represented artist, or as a result of the client actually seeing the work (in an exhibition or website supported by that gallery) then the sale belongs to that gallery. Not just the first sale either....all consequent sales to that client should go through the gallery. I don't get how artists could possibly think otherwise.

It is an honour these days to be represented. There are so so many great artists out there in the world but we are the lucky ones who were there at the right time in the right place (divine connections:) to be chosen for representation. Our Art Representatives and Gallery Directors 'choose' to represent us over choosing other artists to work with because they believe in us. They work their butts off for us and to think that we should even consider 'not' including them in on the deal is ludicrous.

But it also works visa too should an artist receive an on-going royalty-right when the work is then on-sold. The artist should receivve a percentage of the sale. This shouldn't be too hard to track in this day and age with correct systems in place.

This is not just about the immediate term of exchanging a sum of money between parties, it's about principles and respect which in turn fosters those all-important long term relationships. That's what successful art sales is all about...developing relationships. A successful relationship involved in the exchange of art from the artist to the collector is based upon a beautiful circle of integrity and respect that should go like this.....' Artist, Representative/Curator, Gallery Director, the Collector and then back to the Artist again:)

user name

Great post, Susan. It really all comes down to the quality of the relationship between the Artist and Dealer/Gallery. Both parties have to view the relationship as a partnership and have a strong desire to see the other succeed. This of course means that they both succeed.

The two questions you propose for artists are perfect. Artists should always ask how a collector or potential collector discovered their work. From that point, it is really just a matter of doing what is right for the partnership.

I like Simon's points on pricing being the same regardless of the purchasing channel. Especially with the internet, it is critical for pricing to be consistent. Referring to the partnership model, there should be no advantage going direct through the artist. I do feel that artists should direct enquiries from gallery viewings back to the gallery. It's just good business. If an artist executes a direct sale resulting from a gallery viewing, they are in breach of contract. (Note: I'm not a BSAA member.)

user name

As an artitst, I think the best thing is to talk to the gallery and ask them what they expect. There are so many different artist-gallery type arrangements from exclusive representation to one off group shows, that it would depend on the circumstance. As a struggling early career artist, it can feel extravagent to phone up the gallery to offer them some commission on a sale they haven't had anything to do with, but it has to be seen as an investment in the relationship which you hope will last. I have offered particular percentage commission of any studio sales that are to existing clients of mine to a gallery that I don't have a formal relationship with but who have definitely invested a lot in me already.

user name

Yes - as an artist I'm being contacted all the time by clients enquiring after pieces, my response is always the same, if they've seen me in the window of a gallery I enquire which one and contact the gallery, if it's sold through me I pass on the agreed percentage to the gallery - having alerted them that I've received an enquiry. It helps that all my work is sold at a set price so no confusion. I'm actually meeting a client this week who insists on coming to the studio having seen my work elsewhere, have contacted the gallery and agreed this is the best way for a sale. I don't have contracts and work in good faith with my galleries.

user name

I had a similar experience with my show that starts this week: a friend (who had already purchased one of my paintings from another gallery) contacted me to reserve the drawing used for the invitation for the show. I told him I'd let the gallery know. This changes nothing for him, and the gallery will have their commission. The bonus is that there is a sale before the show is even hung: my friend is happy, the gallery is thrilled, and I get to pass for the super-powered artist that they definitely want to work with again in the future. Everyone wins!

This is a very live issue for me at the moment, Susan, because I've been exhibiting work in a couple of coffee shops where the labels haven't always been as clear as they might be that potential buyers should either purchase the work from the coffee shop manager or contact me. Twice in the last month an artist has called me to say they've sold a work to someone who saw it in the coffee integrity does exist!

But it does make me wonder, regardless of any confusion on the part of the buyer, if people think they're going to get a better price by going direct to the artist. Perhaps they think it's like buying furniture from a high street store...the best deals are online! Or perhaps they think they can negotiate harder with the artist and beat them down. My arrangement with artists is that my wall prices are the same as theirs. Indeed, most are anxious that I should not undercut their advertised prices by doing some sort of 'special offer'.

I shall be interested to hear from BSAA members whether they agree that the contract between an artist and a gallery should make it clear that any enquiries originating from a gallery viewing should be directed back to the gallery and not to do so could be a breach of that contract.