Be Smart About Art

Lawyers. Better sooner than later

written by: Susan Mumford June 4, 2017 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan Mumford + Chris King's Blog 1427 views

Lawyers. Better sooner than later

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The greatest teacher of all is (sometimes painful) life experience. And in the case of a gallerist I mentored once upon a time (let’s call her Jane), a situation that unfolded with an artist resulted in a useful change. It has changed the way she’s handled working relationships ever since.

She’d been working with a painter (let’s call him Dave) for well over a year when things started to go wrong. Like so many such professional relationships, it started as casual one-off project basis and organically developed from there. Jane was given the opportunity to commission an artist to create a piece for the lobby of a prestigious hotel in the West End of London. Dave immediately came to mind, so she reached out, did a studio visit and put together the pitch. This project led to taking other commissions from clients, and ultimately to a one-man exhibition with multiple events.

They had an agreement for the initial project and subsequent commissions. When it came to showing pieces at the gallery, consignment contracts were signed in association with individual paintings, drawings and books that were available for purchase. However, there was no over-arching agreement in place to address the working relationship itself.

Dave and Jane had multiple ongoing commissions and furthermore, and there were plenty of hot sales leads to close. Yet Dave had decided it was time to bring the working relationship to a close, which in his mind also meant that he would take control of all active commissions and would retrieve all pieces on consignment, not enabling Jane to finalise sales.

What became clear when I heard the story was that the more professional and formal the dealer became, the more the artist was driven in the other direction. They were speaking different languages, and whereas she was being business focused, he was being emotionally focused. This is not to say that one way or the other is correct, either.

The conclusion of the relationship was not only painful, it ended far less profitably than it could have done (for both parties). And one solution was painfully easy, in non-lawyer layman’s terms: have an over-arching agreement for the working relationship between the artist and gallery, which specifically addresses what to do if the relationship should break down. This can include a set period after formal ‘notice’ has been given, for the representative to conclude ongoing business as well as hold onto stock to attempt closing active sales leads.

While this seems straightforward enough, challenges include thinking about the need for this measure and then actually making the time to do so. Easier said than done, in short.

The takeaway?
I’m an advocate of being preventive when it comes to all things legal, rather than waiting around until something dire happens and you’re forced to move into reactive mode. It’s worth investing a bit upfront, whether that’s paying a lawyer or spending your own time coming up with DIY agreements, to create a solid foundation to working relationships that cover eventualities that might not otherwise come to mind as possibilities. 

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