Do I need a contract?


Dear Artist,

An artist wrote to ask if he needed a contract. “Just trying to get my act together and be professional as I try to work with more galleries,” he said. While an agreement sounds obvious, it’s not always the case for a gallery to push a piece of paper across the desk when offering to take you on. Like us, dealers are often dreamers, constructing a mystery and magic in a business sometimes still joyfully held up by a parcel of paintings, enthusiasm and a handshake.


Portrait of Adeline Ravoux” 1890
oil on canvas, 50.2 × 50.5 cm
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

My only possible explanation for this is that ours is a special venture — part business, part collaboration, part symbiosis. There will always be interlopers spoiling the fun, but my experience has been that most of the apple carts are handled by sweethearts. In over two dozen years, I can think of only one who was a bit of a downer. She had many wonderful qualities; just settling her accounts wasn’t one of them and we had to part ways.

Perhaps watching my dad form long-lasting and intimate friendships with most of his dealers has created in me a kind of trust and appreciation for them and their special skills. “They’re each unique and individual,” he’d say. “Let them do it in their own style; they know their wheelhouse, and they’re sticking their neck out for you every day.” Taking their input and encouragement on board has spurred me to try for better and better work myself.

With the idea of setting an intention, knowing your own business and honouring theirs, here are a few ideas:

Set a commission structure for consigned work.

Consign individual paintings to one gallery at a time. (In other words, avoid sending images of already consigned work to new galleries, exhibitions or competitions.)

Provide professional digital images, written support material and a signed list of consigned works upon each delivery. Keep your own records.


“The Schoolboy (Camille Roulin)” 1888
oil on canvas, 63 x 54 cm
by Vincent van Gogh

Standardize pricing across all galleries and review it annually.

Give the gallery at least a year to sell consigned work.

Agree with the gallery on a fair geographical territory.

Decide who’s responsible for framing. Galleries that frame offer their clientele an added service and supplement their business with a second retail arm, but not all galleries are set up for it or are interested.

Generally, the artist is responsible for the delivery of consigned work. The gallery is responsible for returning unsold work.

The gallery should have adequate and insured storage.

Generally, the gallery is responsible for marketing and promotional costs, though artists and galleries can get together at times on extra efforts if they choose.

Each gallery owner and artist is an individual sharing a unique venture and a common goal. We’re in it together and there’s plenty of creative room to reinvent and advance our partnerships. “As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration,” wrote director, producer, writer and actor Amy Poehler. “Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.”


“Dr Paul Gachet (2nd version)” 1890
oil on canvas, 67 x 56 cm
by Vincent van Gogh



PS: “I lost my job as an art salesman. It was the customer’s fault. He wanted to buy the wrong paintings.” (Vincent van Gogh)

Esoterica: “One of the things I like about our contract is that you have relieved me of a great deal of personal interviewing and corresponding, among other things, which allows me a lot more time for painting,” wrote artist E. J. Hughes from his home on Vancouver Island to his dealer Max Stern in Montreal. For E.J. and Max, their alliance worked intimately, with Max steering E.J. in the creative and technical direction of joint professional achievement. Artist-gallery relationships run the gamut from almost totally hands-off to an in-each-other’s-pockets love affair. We’re all unique in this way and if we’re lucky, we find our match, based on our creative and professional needs. “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” (Epictetus)


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“All my dealers are the best of people… They earn every dollar of their commissions as they are in full partnership with their artists. I can sit in my studio and do nothing but paint pictures.” (Harley Brown)



  1. Catherine G Uffen on

    The answer is ‘Yes, you need a written plain English contract.” A reputable gallery or agent will have one. The contract will document the terms: you or the gallery owner can be hit by a car tomorrow and be rendered incompetent or die. There has to be evidence of the terms of your agreement.

    If the gallery doesnt want one, and you still trist them, after you negotiate, write a letter setting out the terms of the agreement. Have the gallery sign an acknowledgement of having received and read the letter. Here is a simple format.

    This is just to confirm what we agreed today:
    1. Time Period:
    2. Commission:
    3. Use of works:
    4.Gallery Insurance:

    Let me know of anything is missing or is incorrect.


    I X, owner of X Gallery acknowledge having received and read the above letter of agreement .
    I am authorized to bind the gallery.

    In Canada any agreement to provide services that goes more than a year must be in writing.

    • I think that’s very good advice. While both parties are living and competent a handshake may suffice, but life throws us many curveballs and it is best to be prepared. I would hate for my relatives to have to sue a gallery to get my paintings back (not that I have paintings IN any galleries as of yet!).

  2. Most my experiences with galleries and art dealers nationally and internationally have been very favorable to all concerned, Have painted during the last 70 years about five thousand works, made donations to museums and charity groups too.

  3. It would be very helpful to know what happens if a gallery becomes bankrupt. I have gone through that twice. In the U.S. at least, what happens to the unsold work depends on the state involved, in spite of the fact that the bankruptcy is handled by the national court system. In one case I lost the paintings that were still in the gallery’s hands. That work became part of the settlement with gallery’s creditors. In the second case I did get unsold work back. The miracle in the second case is that I also eventually got a percentage of what was sold just prior to the bankruptcy. Both of these situations happened three-plus decades ago. If anything has changed since then I am unaware.

  4. I have been through it all with galleries but it is by far the best way. Paintings disappear, paintings get damages, paintings are whispered away and forgotten…but thank heavens I have galleries. I walk in there every time smiling, wearing my finest clothes and jewelry, all while doing my latest dog and pony show as I drop more off new work. I think it motivates them, and it works! Be positive, be your self, and don’t let the bad dogs get you down.

  5. The only thing worse than not having an agreement or acknowledgment of terms is having one that you haven’t read or understood reasonably well. Having a standard contract can be a sign of a good professional gallery or it can be a sign of a disreputable gallery. This depends entirely on the terms in the agreement. I haven’t had a bad experience to date, thank goodness, but have heard terrible tales from other artists.

    One key term to look for is copyrights – what rights you as the artist are granting to the gallery for use of your images. It is very reasonable to grant them the right to use your images for marketing your work or you or the gallery, but not unlimited or exclusive copyrights. These kinds of clauses can provide the gallery a right to profit from your work without any commission or royalty to you, or lock you into a relationship with them when you might want to part ways. So read these terms carefully.

    Reading and understanding contracts/agreements can be daunting, but they exist to protect both parties from misunderstandings. The are a good thing!!

  6. James Pineault on

    I have two galleries showing my work presently. I have an iron clad contact with one of them, the other one I work with on a more loosey goosey basis. So far so good with both as they have been honorable up to this point and the cheques are rolling in slow but sure. Worst case scenario, I lose some paintings, so I am not too worried – on the other hand, I have a “day job” so I have backup so to speak – if art were my sole source of income I would probably be more concerned with the no-contract situation. The way I look at it, I can always make more art without too much fuss or cost (as compared to the retail price) – I’ll make it anyways, whether it sells or not. I have been known to give works away when friends or family really like a certain piece. I guess it comes down to whether or not you really care if you sell your art – I just want to see it out there hanging on people’s walls and enjoyed. Am I alone in this respect?

    • Sharon Tillinghast on

      There must be something said about, “all artist are in this together in the sense of how we present ourselves and how we work/paint and sell our paintings.” If we as artist encourage gallery owners to provide a simple straightforward contract and it is a win win for all, there will be no bad feelings about damaged, lost, stolen or misrepresented art. No contract or accepting a poorly written contract puts all of us at risk and says, “He/she isn’t a serious painter and does not care about the details.” Please let us remain professional in all of our dealings with gallery owners, our patrons and our fellow artists. I strongly believe you must care about your inventory and represent it as having value so others will think of it this way.

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