Monday, May 25, 2009

Dealing with dealers

I am again illustrating tonight's post with the art of Franz Xavier Winterhalter, German portrait painter to the European royalty. Images are courtesy art

I am planning another reader critique. If you would like your art considered for a crit on this blog, e mail it to me at If I use your painting I will photoshop your signature off of it, and I will tell no one whose painting I am critiquing. This has been a regular feature on this blog, and if you would like to see some previous crits , look under "critiques" in my sidebar.

I need to do the photography while I make some painting panels and I will do that early in the coming week so I can show you how I make a painting panel. So tonight I think I will write a little bit about art dealers. I intend to do a number of posts on the business of art and I really haven't written about that much , so this will foreshadow a longer series of posts yet to come.

People ask me how the art business works and I tell them this. "I lend my art to dealers in hopes they will sell it and pay me. Its a consignment business like used clothing" The dealer and I split the price paid for the painting. Years ago the commission on a sale was sometimes as low as 33% but in recent years it has crept up to about 50% and that seems now to be the industry standard.

Some artists I know feel that is unfair and they should receive a larger portion of the proceeds from the sale. I owned a small art gallery in Rockport, Massachusetts for about fifteen years and I know how much work it is. There is lots of overhead for the location, electricity, advertising, insurance, payroll if you have employees, and you have to be there, almost all the time. That's even on days when you don't feel like it. It is a whole lot of work, and when it doesn't make money, all those costs just keep on coming. So I have been on both sides of the equation. Now, I only handled my own work, but if I handled someone else, I would want half.

However, for that 50% I have a number of expectations. Here they are.
  • The gallery needs to have a brick and mortar location with a plate glass window full of art, in a location frequented by likely buyers. I used to get lots of phone calls from corporate art ladies. They would ask me for slides (this was a while ago) of my best paintings and they always seemed to have some important showing coming up right away, so they had to have them ASAP. I used to run around getting the photography together and send it to them. I would never hear from them again, not even a thank you. corporate art ladies, if they haven't got a REAL gallery I don't show with them.
  • I expect a gallery to be open, clean, well lit, and staffed by someone who greets clients in a professional and welcoming manner. Generally I want that person dealing with the clients to be the owner. Remote control owners who aren't there, never seem to sell my art. You can hire someone to be present in the gallery, if a client walks in and points out a painting and says "I want that", they will ring it up. That's not a salesperson, that's a clerk. Clerks don't sell my art, they generally sell the bottom end stuff and their friends paintings. There are exceptions to this but not many. Most of the exceptions are older, and experienced retail sales people.
  • A gallery should advertise, I hope they will advertise my paintings once in a while but no matter who they feature in their advertisements, I want to be in a gallery that has traffic and is known in its area. That takes advertising. In print. In major art magazines, or at least magazines aimed at visitors to the area where the gallery is located.
  • I expect the gallery to handle my art and frames with care, and take responsibility for seeing they are not damaged.
  • I expect the owner of the gallery to be knowledgeable about art and to know what I am about artistically, so they can speak authoritatively to their customers. Most people know zip about art, they go to a dealer looking for an expert they can trust, to guide them through the process of selecting a good painting. So a dealer is selling expertise and integrity.
  • I expect a gallery to pay me promptly. That is a few days after the sale, enough time for the clients check to clear and to know the sale has "stuck'. About half my galleries do this, I stock them first, here's why. Say I just made a great painting, and my wife says to me "while your up dear, you wanna make another 10,000 dollars?" Where am I going to send that special new painting. Now if I have two galleries that have a reasonable chance of selling the picture, which one am I going to give the painting to, the one who will pay me at the end of the coming month, or the gallery that will pay me right away? I have tried to explain this to some dealers and they have said to me that they have so much book keeping to do, that it just isn't practical. The do however want another painting from me right away...that's practical. Their competition, the other gallery knows how things work and they will get my best work and they will get it first. That's not because I am vengeful but because I have got to have the cash flow.
  • I prefer to be in a gallery that carries mostly the kind of art I make. If they are hanging everything from abstract, to marine painting, I don't see how they can value what I do, it is just another sort of product to them. Many of my best dealers have been people who have dealt mostly in dead artists. My work is extremely traditional and often appeals tot the kind of clients they already have. Recently, "dead" art has gone up so much in price that things that used to sell for 10 to 50 thousand dollars are now 50 to 200 thousand dollars. Many dealers have plenty of clients in the first price range, the successful local doctor or businessmen, but they haven't got to many in the second category. They are out there but they are a lot fewer of them. I have often been useful to those dealers by giving them something to sell that isn't quite as expensive. More and more of the dealers of dead art are starting to call up living artists that they wouldn't have been interested in handling a few years ago. Back then they would have said, "come back when your dead, kid!"
This is the Empress Eugenie and her handmaidens. This is the work that made Winterhalters

  • A gallery should be showing my work on their walls. I have closets at home. If I walk into a gallery that has my art and nothing is showing, I reclaim my paintings and go somewhere else. People won't buy what they can't see. So I don't show in galleries that do one man shows often, I want to be in a gallery that shows the works of its stable all the time, if they do one man shows, they need to have enough room so that they can show my art while that show is running.
  • My work should be shown on the premises, that means no lending it out to restaurants or real estate offices. I am not in the business of providing free decoration for restaurants.
Now, lay down with your arms at your sides, and I will be back tomorrow with more.




Great post. It seems like I was just having this conversation...I would add to your list with these

I don't deal with galleries where the owner or their spouse has work in the gallery. During hard times they will not push your work.

If the gallery takes fifty percent I don't discount my cut, they can discount their whole comission if they want, but I want my net price.

Beyod that I don't think galleries deserve fifty percent. Every other retail establishemnt on the block has all the costs you mentioned and they buy their inventory. Galleries don't, in most cases which means they don't participate in the risk, which allows them to carry more crap.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That a good point about the spouse, I have seen that happen.

Your not discounting your cut is OK, unless it costs you sales, for instance decorators generally expect and receive a 10% discount,If the gallery has to eat all of that, they will sell someone else's work if they can, and make the difference.

You could show only in galleries that take less than 50%,(there are some),have your own gallery, as I did for years, or you may be able to negotiate a better commission with a dealer, Showing in a gallery is a business transaction, you can choose to enter into or not, or negotiate terms that you will prefer.

I know at least one highly sought after artist who, like you, feels 50% is too high and negotiates a better deal for themselves. You have to have the clout to do that, and I think it hurts your sales, that is, unless demand for your work is so strong that it makes no difference. There are people for whom that is true.

If you think a gallery isn't worth a 50% commission, you could go upmarket,until you are in a gallery that IS worth that.

Galleries in New York often take more than that,there is where I personally draw the line. I won't play when the wheels on their side of the cart are larger than mine.

Galleries carry crap because they have customers who want to buy it, if it didn't sell,it wouldn't be there, except if it were by a spouse! I have fired a gallery rather than hang with crap.Often they don't even know its crap. I will talk more about the gallery thing tomorrow.

jeff f said...

Great post, and very informative.
It seems in Italy that a lot of galleries buy the work from the artist. Then recoup the cost on sales.

Another thing that is also a dubious is how some galleries will take a percentage from work sold outside the gallery. Some galleries want to have an exclusive right on your work for an area, such as New England.

I recently heard a story about a gallery in Boston in which the photographer who had the show had spent his own money, over $5000 on a very nice catalog of the work.
He brought them to the gallery to sell for $20 a pop. The gallery owner took 50% of the take from these without asking. I find this pretty presumptions and being that the artist spent his money, 50% is way to much.

Jeremy Elder said...

Stape, do you physically tour each gallery to make sure it meets your criteria, or just take their word for it sometimes? I would assume it is best to be in galleries somewhat near you so you can physically drop in know and then.

Jesse said...

Great question Jeremy. I've been wondering that as well. I have a list of about 30 galleries that look ok from the web, they range 1-10 hours from me. I'm not sure if I should go give a looksie before emailing interest. That is a lot of driving.

Stapleton Kearns said...

New York galleries sometimes want a commission on everything their artist sells, whererver. . I would never agree to that. A lot of the artists in New York are college professors who only show with that gallery and in academic environments where sales are rare.They don't mind that sort of an arrangement,and they don't live or die by sales anyway.
They guy with the catalogue is a odd situation. I can see both sides point of view, The dealer would be thinking, If your selling something out of my shop I get a cut. That is the sort of thing that should have been negotiated up front. I would have called the dealer and asked how that deal would go. If he said that he had to have a cut I would have put him in for half the PROFIT and not half the retail price. I think most reasonable dealers would agree to that. If he wouldn't and I was then in a position where I had to bring them I would bring about 10.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I absolutely visit a gallery before I put work in it. I will blog on this and related matters tonight. It looks as if this next series is about galleries. I need to know what questions you guys have. Ask em, Please.

JAMES A. COOK said...

I am getting ready to start looking to find a gallery . I am new at this . Should I try to do craft fairs first to sell my paintings to see if the people like my work and to show as proof to a gallery that the public wants to buy my paintings? I am scared as hell of rejection and I am putting a lot of butter in my shoes latly. I do not have a clue on how to start selling my work. HELP!


Jana Van Wyk said...

this is a great list, but you forgot one thing. more and more art is sold over the internet via a website, especially repeat sales. a gallery should have a good website and should have at least a few of your more recent paintings on it along with your bio.