Huffington Post art critic Mat Gleason thinks the art business is stuck in 1966. “Artists have traditionally consigned artwork to galleries,” says Gleason. “When the artwork sells, the gallery and the artist split the sale 50/50. When the work doesn’t sell, the artist gets the art back. This is the way the game is played and it is ludicrous. The artist literally loans the gallery collateral at no risk to the gallery and with no interest on the loan. Galleries should just buy the art from the artist. How hard is that? If the gallery cannot afford it, either they should find an artist who will sell them work for what they can afford or they should get out of the gallery business. Of course, when galleries buy art, it works for the benefit of the gallery too — they can mark up the work 200 percent if they like. They can buy 10 paintings for $100 each and sell them for 20 grand each.”
Mr. Gleason may be an art critic but he doesn’t understand anyone’s best interests. His system guarantees that artists stay poor. It’s not good for the dealer either. Dealers who buy art from living artists tend to go broke with weighty inventories of stuff they can’t sell. But the main reason artists shouldn’t sell their work to galleries is that artists lose control of their work.
Believe me, Mat, artists are getting smarter. More and more artists are their own best handlers — they manage their distribution, their retail prices and their futures.
Consignment is by far the best system. An artist’s efforts can be taken back and moved to other galleries — perhaps to ones with a more favourable commission structure. Not everyone is hanging out at 50/50 these days. With consignment you can even get stuff back and send it up the chimney.
On the other hand, Mark Kostabi is one of the current breed of artists who seems to have successfully closed out his dealers altogether. He claims to make a handsome living using eBay and other inexpensive venues.
While dealing direct with collectors and through the Internet may have its virtues, I prefer letting someone else tell people how good I am. Besides, I like moving around and doing the work much better than standing around talking about it. Artists with a stable of motivated galleries are free to follow their noses, limit their commercial thoughts and contacts, and deliver at will.
PS: “Ending lending is beginning winning.” (Mark Kostabi)
Esoterica: Particularly since the 2008 financial shakedown, I’ve noticed a lot more art buyers are contacting artists directly. Internet savvy and well-informed, they are often people who seldom go to commercial galleries but have a particular desire to get to know artists. Pleasantly, they are not necessarily looking for deals. It may be that more people are trying to “think smart” these days — similar to the millions who now do their own research and buy stock and bond investments online. In real estate, commission-free “For Sale by Owner” is popular once again in some areas. Among art collectors and artists alike, individual empowerment and self-management might be the new normal.
Don’t consign, sell outright!
by Ian van Zyl, Durban, South Africa
The word “consignment” sends ripples of incandescent rage up my spine, through my head and down to my trigger finger! I have an infallible solution to this problem — I do not supply galleries, dealers or agents at all. Simple! Why should I finance another business by supplying work on consignment? What incentive does the gallery have to even hang or display the work when they get it for nothing? Artists should make a stand on this issue and insist that the galleries purchase work, just like any other retail business has to buy stock. The standing and reputation of both the artist and the gallery would increase immeasurably and there would be no waiting to get paid, excuses, my granny died, etc., etc.
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Benefits of consignment
by Gwen Meyer, Pinetop, AZ, USA
I’m the former owner of the Joyous Lake Gallery, Pinetop, AZ. Consignment gives galleries a chance to show work they otherwise could not afford to — and sell it! Not all gallery owners are rich. I didn’t have a lot of money when I opened my gallery, but I had a great location in a tourist area, and an understanding of both the artists and the customers, since I was one (of both) myself. Consignment enabled me to sell a lot of artists’ work to a lot of buyers who would otherwise not have had a chance to see the work.
Some artists sell well off their own sites or through their own efforts and, indeed, I almost never carried an artist who did not have a website. I only asked that images of the paintings that were at my gallery direct the viewer to my site. I also asked that my prices be in line with what they published, not be undercut by artists who felt they could sell directly “for less.” Not all artists are wonderful marketers, nor do they always have someone at home that will do that for them. I didn’t, which is partly why I started the gallery… then I found out I loved the gallery business. I loved artists and customers, but most of all, I loved writing checks to artists for work that sold, something I was lucky enough to be able to do promptly and often.
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The valued art agent
by Ingrid Wypkema, Vancouver, BC, Canada
What about the advantages of having an art agent working on the artist’s behalf, and helping to fill the clients’ needs? Many artists are not comfortable selling their own work, and may not be inclined to deal with the business aspects of art sales. Being able to simply focus on their creative process is likely much more appealing. As an art agent I can also act as a liaison between galleries, artists and clients, helping to find the best possible match for what a client might be looking for.
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What about framing?
by Barrett Edwards, Naples, FL, USA
I agree that Mat Gleason is a bit “off the wall” in this thinking. However, there is one aspect of gallery consignments that I do wish could be modified. I’m in four galleries and each one follows the 50/50 split. I used to think this was just peachy, for the reasons you mentioned. But that was back in the day when I could buy a lovely frame at a reasonable price. Now, however, frame prices have zoomed, but in this economy, my prices have not. Moreover, two of my galleries are routinely giving 10% “discounts” to all comers. Call me greedy, but if the artist pays for a lovely frame, I think the gallery should absorb the 10% discount. I’d love to hear your undoubtedly more seasoned take on this issue.
(RG note) Thanks, Barrett. You need to encourage your galleries to do their own framing and put their frame price on top of the unframed price of your painting. Galleries can double or triple their money if they supply their own frames. And they can suit their customers better when they are able to offer a variety of frames, rather than the one you supplied. Further, galleries are notorious for damaging artists’ frames. I was once told by a gallery that they would like to take me on provided I framed my paintings for them. I said “No, take them unframed or you don’t get my work.” They decided to try framing and they turned out to be one of my top galleries and they vastly improved their bottom line. And as far as I know they don’t ask any other of their artists to frame any more.
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The power of direct sales
by Frank Gordon, Giggleswick, North Yorkshire, England
Much of what you say about direct sales seems to be true here in England as well. I sold around 25 pictures in 2011. Only one was sold through a gallery. The rest I sold from home, either through my annual open studio weekend or through previous buyers coming back for more. It’s a winning situation all round: I can sell directly at lower prices (no gallery commission) so the buyer gets a good deal and I make more profit. Galleries here routinely take 50% these days — it used to be 30% (prices were in guineas in those days!) but the cut has deepened as the years have gone by.
(RG note) Thanks, Frank. Watch your discounts on home sales. The fact that you sold only one through a gallery may be because you discounted at home. Keep your prices about the same across the board and things will get easier, even though you may miss a few sales at home.
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Gallery couldn’t work without consignment
by Jean Armstrong, Portage la Prairie, MB, Canada
Thank you for your words of support for ‘consignment.’ We are a small gallery (and gift shop consigning with local and regional artists and artisans) and we take only 25% of sales. Part of our mandate is to promote public interest and understanding of the arts and provide exposure to a cross-section of artists from our area and beyond. This would not happen if we had to purchase outright. Fortunately we get some public funding or we simply would not exist. We also offer art and dance classes to help pay wages, etc. Although artists’ exhibitions are the main focus of what we do here, we support each other using the consignment method and can, therefore, feature emerging as well as established artists.
Lots of work running a gallery
by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA
It’s often the labor of love that drives galleries. Some artists grumble to me that when they go to art fairs themselves or sell from their studios they receive “100%” of the profits. Somehow they fail to calculate in their preparation time, rents, travel time, gas expenses, booth or studio rental, time spent being a sales person, packing and unpacking and all the other time and money involved.
I do both: I create, sell and also show the work of other artists. I also take less commission than is usual, because I am an artist too, and I know it from both sides. Giving up real estate to others in the form of wall space and providing my time to talk to the public, show work, make sales, take care of sales taxes, pay credit card processing fees, advertising, time spent with each artist to hang new work, discuss the art and other matters and interrupt my own work time for the benefit of others is really worth more money than I receive in the long run. But it’s a labor of love of the life of the artist, and the desire for everyone to make art a part of their lives. Do the Math!!
Art Fair surprise
by Rosemary Cotnoir, Essex, CT, USA
I wanted to add my experience regarding your recent letter about consignment. I live in a rural area of Connecticut and was with a gallery for the last 3 years. During that time I sold 6 paintings, mostly to people from out of town, and also my own collectors. The gallery closed last June. At that point I didn’t know what to do. I knew I was going to continue making art and figured they would just pile up to be left to my heirs.
I really wasn’t interested in participating in art fairs. You know, dragging tents and “stuff” all around the country. But a nearby art center had one in Oct. so I thought I’d give it a try. My work sells for between $800 – $4000 so I figured I wouldn’t be selling anything. But I knew I wasn’t going to go down the giclee/greeting card route. I mean I do have my standards :-). To my surprise I sold a painting for $2,500 and the buyers came to my studio a week later and purchased another one. That certainly changed my attitude. I found out about another art show over Thanksgiving weekend. I participated and this time sold two paintings, one for $3500 and another for $800. Both venues were fund raisers so they took 20% but I was fine with that since the gallery took more. So the bottom line… I almost sold more in two months, and at a higher price, at these two shows than I did in 3 years.
My game plan for 2012 is to apply to 3 or 4 local outdoor art shows that are geared toward fine art (some of them are juried). Even if I don’t sell at every show my work is getting exposure plus I can increase my email list. As much as the money is great, just “getting it out there” is good, too.
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‘Too much on the street’
by oliver, TX, USA
Consignment works when the gallery is honest and returns the work. Over the years, I have had galleries not return the work that didn’t sell, say the work was lost or damaged and they tossed it — etc. Hard to say if that is true or they sold it and pocketed my share. Most do return unsold work. That said, I’ve gotten more careful about to whom I consign work.
Consignment galleries also often want an exclusive territory. This can be an issue — how big, when do you drop someone for another or do you just say, “You find the buyer, you get the sale”? I’ve had some galleries say, “Take down your web site, don’t put your URL on the work — I don’t want you to undercut me.” I respond, “Hey, I’m loaning work to you and I don’t know how long you’ll be in business or want to carry me.” Only seldom does this work with such a gallery. I tell them, “It’s in my interest to support a distribution network of galleries but, at the end of the day, I need people who like my work to be able to find me — I’ll return sales in your area through you as long as you represent me.” This usually doesn’t carry the day, and I point out I’ve taken my plate signature with the Web on it down to needing a magnifying glass to read. I haven’t regretted this decision, because occasionally I’ll get an email or call that says, “So and so has gone out of business or has stopped selling your work and…”
I don’t know if the Web, eBay and other channels will supplant or replace the gallery system, but if it is going to it’s going to be a while. The relationship between the gallery system and the museum system, serious critics and academics is very well established and I think it will take a while, if ever, for serious art. EBay seems to be a good place for certain types of collectables, and art for people to buy and decorate, not caring about investment or gallery worth. However, eBay and most art and wine festival sales may help to build a sales history, a following, a mailing list and other things that, when presented to a gallery they will say, “It will sell — it’s time to come into the gallery.” However, I’ve seen and heard some gallery owners say, “It has been too much on the street — it’s not gallery art.”
Changing dynamics of gallery sales
by Marie Martin, Fountain Valley, CA, USA
How art is viewed, interpreted, used, enjoyed and bought/sold has changed forever and, along with it, so has the traditional gallery-artist relationship. The old paradigm was that an artist was to consider her/himself lucky that a gallery would ask an artist to show. With few other options for visibility, this was true. The process has been a three-legged stool: artist, distributor, buyer. Gallery owners, or distributors, wanted to make money but also used to want to be known for developing a stable of quality artists.
Artists wanted to make money too, but typically were hoping to develop an enduring narrative. Buyers wanted to purchase enjoyable art reflecting personal taste transmitting the notion of an “intelligent” purchase. In recent years, dynamics of the three parties have changed dramatically. Today, gallery owners want disproportionate cuts, artists want to sell fast, and too many buyers want pretty things to match the sofa like pillows without understanding what “good” art is. It’s hard to pin down exactly why these changes have occurred, but much of it is associated with “I want what I want, and I want it now.”
In recent years, the process has become intrinsically entwined with the Internet. The Internet has become a prominent fourth leg on the stool because it has its own voice (comprised of Everyman’s Voice) and is an amalgam of all the components. The Internet has become a marketing and distribution vehicle. It’s become a way to create art and to create the artist’s narrative. It’s become a way to buy art, and a way to disseminate dialogue on the subject of art. As with many innovative technologies, it’s a blessing and a curse.
On the positive side, it’s provided an avenue and a powerful vehicle for artists to exhibit, and to develop their own relationships. It’s provided a way for art lovers, buyers and collectors to have unimaginable access to an unending supply of talented people. On the negative side, the Internet has become a way to trick people. It’s created a way to hawk fast and easy “stuff” by wanna-be’s. It’s encouraging more of those buyers who match their sofa. I’m putting my money on the hope that the Internet and art will be a good pairing.
Art/Artists and the Internet is a concept in the making. In the long run, it seems it’s never a bad thing when more (rather than fewer) individuals are able to speak for themselves. Perhaps that’s ultimately what went wrong with the traditional gallery model: important voices — and ideas — were not encouraged.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Consignment blues?…
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 John Ferrie of Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Being an artist and going after that brass ring of success with a gallery is an urban myth that can destroy an artist. It is ironic that native galleries buy the works from the artists and then sell them. As far as I know, this only happens with indigenous peoples.”
And also Jane Walker of Canterbury, Kent, UK who wrote, “Artists who regularly sell through their Internet page can get into difficulties with gallery sales. Customers get fed up when they see these price inconsistencies.”