Yesterday, Richard Brady of Maynard, Massachusetts wrote, “I’ve begun a working relationship with a friend. He’s taken the initiative to introduce my paintings to potential clients. I’ve given a 10% finder’s fee in the past to a person who made a referral which led to a sale or a commission. Not much effort for him. Beyond just an introduction, is a higher percentage appropriate if the intermediary makes phone calls and sends e-mails to hard sell the work? Is the finder’s fee to be paid for additional work the client may purchase later? If the intermediary puts a higher price on the work than I initially sought, would that additional money belong to the intermediary?”
Thanks, Richard. First, the term “hard sell” makes my teeth squirm. Art should never be hard sold. A good agent shares the magic of his connection with you and looks after the interests of your clients.
Second, a “friend” who represents you in a decent manner is certainly worth the 10% finder’s fee you mentioned. A really good friend who is truly effective may be worth the 50% you would normally pay a gallery. The standard rate for agents or “vest-pocket dealers” is between 20% and 40%. These intermediaries may not have art-related overheads, but they are still often responsible for framing, shipping, hanging, collecting, etc. Friends who do this sort of thing are friends indeed.
The best way to deal with ongoing sales is to have an agreement with your friend for a specific period of time — say two years. You might agree to pay him the agreed percentage on everything that comes your way via him during that period. This includes new customers who are friends of the customers he has found for you. If the two of you still like the system and are still friends, you can renew for another time period — even change the percentage — but each should have the option to unilaterally withdraw.
No agent, intermediary or friend has the right to put a higher (or lower) price on your work without consulting with you. The consistency of your retail prices is a sacred covenant made with all your collectors. To let someone muck with this is shooting yourself in the foot. To let your “friend” inflate your prices and keep the change is out of the question.
PS: “The person who reps you is golden.” (Nick Farbacher)
Esoterica: Artists need to keep busy while they’re waiting for something to happen. At the same time, artists don’t want to be careless when it comes to business, but they do need to be free to concentrate on their craft. Good galleries, good dealers and good friends make the fully-engaged creative lifestyle possible. Richard Brady’s work is time consuming. He commands relatively high prices and is well regarded in the field of hyper-realism. Readers who might have other advice or experience are invited to pass it along.
An unknown friend
by Martha Vanoni, Cody, WY, USA
Your letter reminded me of an experience of my own. A nationally renowned painter lives in the same town as I do. I have gone to him for mentoring on occasion. I was in his home one day and saw a beautiful oil painting of a waterfall in Yellowstone Park, approx. 4′ x 6′. I’m guessing that the asking price was around $40,000. A few weeks later I ran into some wealthy friends of mine who wanted a large vertical painting to go over their very large river rock fireplace. I told them this is what I had always envisioned would be perfect for that spot and said they must see it. Well, they did and bought it. I was happy that I could make the two parties happy. I never thought of getting a percentage. After reading your letter I feel that it would have been nice if I’d gotten, at least, a heartfelt thank you from the artist.
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Trusting your own value
by Linda Anderson Stewart, AB, Canada
I think we artists have a tendency to be a bit uncomfortable with the financial end of our business. We start by being so grateful when someone likes our work enough to buy it, we’ll sell it for ridiculously low prices. Then, when we do actually develop our craft and have earned some respect and some gallery representation, we are embarrassed by what prices our work commands in a more public forum.
I believe we all need to learn to believe that what we do is actually of real value and not just in a monetary way. They unfortunately get tangled up together and become a catch 22. We need to keep working, as our passion dictates. We need money to facilitate that, so we put our work in others hands to sell and bite our nails the whole way feeling we are not worthy of the prices being asked. When we don’t sell like hot cakes we get the jitters and go back to selling our work for peanuts, ergo undervaluing not only our work but who we are as professional, competent painters.
Please, dear painters, I know we run the risk of starving. However, we need to stand our ground. We need to command respect in a way that folks understand. Set realistic, well researched prices for your work and stick by them. If they don’t sell right away, take them back and let them rest for a while and put them out again, at the same price. Galleries will learn to live with what you have asked… and will sell to that price. The cream will rise. You need to trust and respect your own value, and that of the work you produce.
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Finder’s fees for gallery art
by Kathleen Eaton, MI, USA
What happens if a friend or relative deserves a finder’s fee, but my work is currently shown in a gallery whose commission is 50%? On what price do I pay the finder’s fee? Do I have to price my art higher to allow for this possibility?
(RG note) Thanks, Kathleen. Under no circumstances change the price to accommodate an extra fee. I’d say works of art that are already in galleries are off limits for finder’s fees. Perhaps your friend or relative might like a sketch or drawing in exchange for his or her good will. Finder’s fees and vest pocket dealer commissions are generally given to associates or friends who make connections for you before the piece goes out to your regular galley system.
The death of watercolour
by Tony Kampwerth, Knoxville, TN, USA
Last weekend we had a plein air event as a fund raiser for the art museum. We had a guest artist who is an oil painting plein air artist to do a demo and dished out some awards at the reception. All of the awards were for oil paintings even though there were a fair number of watercolors completed as well. It seems that the artist magazines feature mainly oil or acrylic media artworks. I’m wondering now what to do with all of the framed and unframed paintings that I have accumulated over a 40 plus year period of watercolor painting. I am now changing over to acrylic painting in hopes of being accepted as a “quality” artist even though my heart is still with the watercolor medium. I wonder how many others like me are experiencing the same “trend.”
(RG note) Thanks, Tony. The practice makes my blood boil. It’s so important that exquisite watercolours not be passed up in juried shows. Balance of media makes a show richer and more interesting. A few connoisseurs know the difficulty and winning charm of watercolours. Temporarily, in my experience, everything under glass is being neglected, but it’s my firm belief that their day will come round again.
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Buying paintings back
by Susan Meyer, Tucson, AZ, USA
I just had a lady call and inquire about selling three paintings back to me. The reason behind the question is that her husband died (he had bought the paintings) and she apparently can use some extra money. I have never done this, so I am not sure if I should do this or how much to offer if I do it. Any thoughts/advice would be greatly appreciated.
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. I have, on occasion, bought work back in similar circumstances. It is difficult, after paying dealer commissions and particularly after a short time, to give them their money back. In the case where customers have bought from me directly and no fee has been paid, a return is easier to make. I generally find that a painting, once sold, can generally be sold again, often, as prices go up every year, at a higher price. All the more reason to have top quality work go out in the first place. On the other hand, folks who have owned work for a long time and have seen a considerable increase in value from what they originally paid can be directed to auction houses and dealers and take their chances in the secondary market.
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Who writes your script?
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Like many people over 50, I have been on a mission in the last year or two. I want to improve my success in life and to this end I have read dozens of pages of advice from ‘life coaches’ and gurus of all sorts. You could say I’ve been saturated with their theories. Here is a summation of what I have gathered. Between the years of 0-7 we take in all the information provided by adults in our life and in the environment around us. We have no filter to discern whether what we are being told is in any way accurate. We must simply download it like a computer into our subconscious mind. If we are told that ‘money is the root of all evil’ then perhaps we will never see the good in making any of it. If we are told that the world is a place full of evil and evil doers, we may end up very pessimistic. All of this subconscious data forms a ‘script’ for us, the basis for our actions in the big play of our life. The problem is that others have written the script for us. If it is a good script, we are on a good path. Unfortunately most people’s scripts mirror the flaws of their parents and might not be so good. If our totality is looked at like an iceberg, our subconscious accounts for 2/3 of what is under the water where our conscious mind is a smaller part, the part we are likely to see. Many of us are sunk by our unconscious programming. To change this programming is not easy. One must battle against it as the most formidable enemy we will fight in life. Only after changing these negative ‘scripts’ can we control the part we play in our lives and make the best of our god given abilities. Seen in this context, the shadow you speak of is our unconscious mind: a turbulent stream of flotsam that is stored in our brains and brought to the surface by thousands of external cues. It’s a wonder any of us can produce anything!
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by Dave Paulley, Osage, WY, USA
We have a situation that I’m sure other couples in the art business have or have had. I have been painting some 45 years and have done reasonably well with it up until several years ago. I never really worked with galleries that much and consequently never made a name for myself in the art business. Most of my work in the earlier days was by commission. Now, years later and much older and somewhat wiser I find myself unknown and unable to do much traveling to have those that might be interested to take a look at my art. I recently joined what I thought was a road to success at least to some degree. It was a western art organization that seemed to hold some promise but after the big show we find some 70 or more artists and over 240 art pieces hung in a area not suitable for that many pieces so it turned out to be a fiasco, cost a lot of money and not much sold. Now that I have ceased whining, my question to you is: Do you think it is possible to find a reliable agent that can do something with my art to work toward the mainstream with it. I have heard lots of horror stories about agents but possibly there are some good ones out there. I am 81 years of age and my wife is 75. We are still on our feet at least to a degree but like I say it takes a lot more now to do much traveling like we should have done years ago.
(RG note) Thanks, Dave. Going from commission to commission means that your work gets tucked away in homes and nobody knows about you outside the immediate bailiwick. Operating through galleries exposes you to thousands who may not buy you but who become aware of you. Galleries are the best route, but my experience with independent agents has also been first rate. An agent, while working directly with clients, can also represent you to galleries. The best way to set this up is to have the galleries work directly with you and pay the agent only a small one-time finder’s fee. A well-motivated agent can often work with clients to provide a variety of work. Perhaps Osage, where you live in the upper right hand corner of Wyoming, is not such a large market, so you need to find agents in other cities. I would attempt to find a person who might carry your flag to galleries all over the lower forty-eight. Give him a decent commission for everything he starts for you. Base it on cash flow.
Respect and collaboration
by Marilyn Harding, Canada
I was such a ‘friend’ and the experience was costly and extremely painful in the end. However, here is what I learned: The art world is entirely unregulated and working with an artist who understands the scruples and costs of doing good business is as important to an agent as a caring and diligent representative — gallery or agent — is to an artist of integrity.
I did not set out to be an agent but was a collector. I was passionate about art and the relevance of quality art in a harmonious and happy living or work environment. I do not see art as a luxury. However, what I see is a world awash with ‘art’ of every calibre and a public that is so confused it is reluctant to buy.
As you wrote in a recent article, Robert, 4% of the population creates art and 2% buy it. If the market was truly laissez faire then the art of quality would rise to the top and be self-evident, but the market is entirely contrived and what is marketed is what sells. And as a consumerist society we equate sales with success and ‘if it sells it must be good.’
So where does that leave the professional artist who produces quality work? Galleries can’t accommodate the number of artists producing, and hard sell agents just contribute to the gulf between the artist and the buyer. Art fairs are a free-fo- all and do as much to undermine as they do to promote. On the other hand, artists can’t afford to be exclusive either, I don’t think. And this calls for a very deep commitment to self-regulation and the honour system.
Artists who give paintings away, deal directly with clients at a discount, who price inconsistently, produce inferior work or deal with other agents/galleries without disclosure, betray the trust and investment of time and money that was made on their behalf by the initial gallery or agent. They also undermine the integrity to their past buyers who bought at the established market price. Commissions aren’t ‘give-aways’ by the artist or ‘rip-offs’ by the galleries as so often stated. Often, they barely — and sometimes don’t even — begin to cover the hard costs of rents, advertising, PR, print materials, receptions and the like, let alone the time and goodwill expended.
Through the T & E process, I now have gathered a small coterie of artists with shared values on art and business. We work as a community, each with our own expertise. We have a mutually non-exclusive agreement with expressed parameters of overlap. I prefer a Letter of Understanding which we are presently crafting as a group. Ours is a relationship of respect and collaboration. Friendship and success thrive in this environment.
I consider myself an art liaison rather than agent because I am as committed to promoting art of quality, in general, as I am to artists of excellence, individually. In this way, I see the 4:2 ratio of artists to buyers adjusting by the filter of excellence on the one side, and expanded awareness and trust on the other side to bring that statistic into a more beneficial ratio for all parties.
I do this through collaborative efforts with various stakeholders — but that is a story for another time.
Robert, thank you for your clear voice and heartfelt sharing. I am an avid devotee of your Twice-Weekly Letters and, while not an artist, benefit from the wisdom in every post.
Too good to be true
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
This guy is an idiot! NO friendship started out as a ‘working relationship” and it is possibly the fastest way to end a friendship, by being a cheapskate and giving the guy 10% of potential sales. If someone comes along with the “come with me I’ll make you a star” and makes a few phone calls, yet mysteriously doesn’t have a business plan or any sort of credentials as an agent, they are usually just a phony who needs their ego filled. Trust me, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
An artist/agent relationship is a serious thing and not something to be entered into lightly. I have more clients who own art they bought from pushy and aggressive sales people and were told it was “important” to buy this. Art is a luxury item and is the last thing people buy. They should buy it because they love it, not because of a hard sell!
A business relationship should be well established before a single client comes across the artists’ doorstep. An agent isn’t just calling up people they know, although that is a good place to start, but someone who will pound the pavement, keep their ear to the ground promoting and moving an artist’s work, lining up sales, commissions, interviews and “call to artists” competitions. An agent needs to look into potential showings and follow an artist’s work as it grows and changes.
Making a few calls to clients is one thing, understanding an artist’s voice is entirely another.
A business plan is a good place to start out and establishing the split between sales is crucial. Having a few goals to see where each party wants to be in a year, two years or five years is a good thing as well. What happens if a big gallery picks this artist up and really doesn’t want to deal with their agent? Or what happens when the artist wants to donate to a charity, give a painting away as a gift or just stop painting for a while. What is the agreement on those issues? And finally, there should be an understanding if and when either party wants to dissolve the relationship.
Artists handing all the pesky business decisions to another person so they can just paint while the other party is out “reeling in the clients” is an exercise in sheer futility.
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by Peter Fox, BC, Canada
The Tricycleasel has electric drive in the front wheel and is handy for lanes and driveways
particularly on flat ground. The roof pops up but not the back. The picture was shot at Trout Lake in East Vancouver. There is plenty of room for equipment and paints as well as for Annie, 12, the beagle.
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. I’m a bit concerned about your dog — she doesn’t have a helmet. It’s bad enough that dogs don’t wear pants. Do we need legislation? Mosey on easy…
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Enjoy the past comments below for A friend indeed…
giclee, 11 x 14 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Roger Cummins of London, UK who wrote, “Perhaps we are changing from a gallery-based system to ‘getting along with a little help from our friends.’ ”