After the last letter, Fred Hulser of Houston, Texas, asked if I might write about the business of accessing the commercial gallery system. Thanks, Fred. I’ll cover protocol and the actual dealing in another letter. Right now, here’s a selection of “Artist’s Keywords for Gallery Joy.”
— Consistency: Galleries and markets prefer consistency, particularly at first. An artist’s natural tendency toward irregularity may be developed later, when earned.
— Imagination: Art dealers themselves have “imagination in another way” which puts them in a position to admire yours. A dealer’s main job is to share your magic. Have magic.
— Reliability: The artist delivers, meets deadlines, doesn’t switch horses. Her word is her bond.
— Production: The artist is a worker and a producer. There are few blockages, fewer stoppages. If you want to be an apple vendor you need apples in your apple cart.
— Quality: Work of poor quality requires expensive hype and ballyhoo. It’s difficult to sell. Dealers prefer art that pretty well walks away on its own.
— Saleability: This does not mean catering to the knuckle-draggers among the art-buying public. It means unique art that generates its own interest, enthusiasm and connection.
— Marketability: Beside the art, there’s the artist. An artist may be an introvert but should also be a true believer. He or she has a life, a personality and a willingness to participate in the game.
— Loyalty: The artist protects a gallery’s turf. If direct sales are made, they are discrete and are at or near current gallery prices.
— Patience: Artists needn’t pester their dealers. They should give them a chance and just pull the plug if they don’t work out.
Your dealers are the rowers of your boat. Inevitably, some will be laying back on the oars, others will be pulling strongly. With generally happy relationships with your rowers, your ship will come in anyway.
Esoterica: Just as different artists have different expectations, so too do different dealers. This alone is good reason for back-and-forth communication within the symbiosis. This does not mean that your soul will be sold to the devil. Share your goals and aspirations — dealers can help you get there. Good relationships mean good business and good fun.
That sinking feeling
by Gail Siptak, Houston, TX, USA
I agree with your points of artist reliability in the artist-gallery relationship. However, occasionally, the gallery-rowed boat sinks and the artists are cast afloat. In my case, two weeks before my show. I accepted the calamity with grace, but I’m still dog-paddling. Twice in the past, I left galleries myself when I felt they didn’t believe in my work. That was painful too, but necessary. We must be professional, but we must expect that of our galleries as well.
by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA
Please let readers be aware of the downside of gallery dealing so they can ask some important questions. I just returned from Chicago and the National OPA exhibit. They had a forum on art marketing. I was made aware from the hosting gallery owner that their monthly bills are paid first before they pay you, even if they have sold your work a few months before. That can mean waiting for long periods of time before the check is in the mail. Also, this top gallery owner said, “We do business with a handshake.” I also heard a top plein air painter from California who sells in the Santa Fe and Taos market say the same thing. Lastly, and probably not all, if a painting is stolen or damaged, they are not responsible for the loss.
Small print editions in galleries
by Ben Novak, ON, Canada
The gallery primer was of considerable interest. What about very limited edition prints? I use mixed media ink-watercolor-collage-wax-pencil for near representative work of old city scenes (mostly Europe). These come out best as reproductions. I have a style. Are galleries interested in very limited reproductions numbered and signed by the artist?
(RG note) Thanks, Ben. My experience has been that prints don’t tend to sell in my galleries — even very small edition ones. Gallery owners don’t like them — their main business is in originals and prints often confuse and get in the way. In the heyday of print profiteering a few years ago prints needed to be sent to galleries that specialized in prints. A high percentage of these print galleries do not exist any more. While the situation is different in some geographical areas, and there are specific promotional systems that effectively sell prints to neophyte collectors, this polarization is not likely to change soon. The high-end market for hand-pulled prints by mostly dead artists is still robust.
Signature on works
by Donna Kerlin, Crown Point, IN, USA
I have been painting in acrylics for about a year now, still trying to develop my own technique. My biggest setback right now is the signature on my paintings. How do most artists sign their paintings? Is it in the same medium they paint with? I have a great cursive signature but have been unable to reproduce that signature in paint. Advice please.
(RG note) Thanks, Donna. Generally paintings are signed in the same medium as the work — permanently and under the final varnish. You may have to modify your signature a bit in order to get it around your brush. I have a theory that you should write or letter your name — your whole name — clearly. It can be unique and distinct, but it ought to be consistent.
Keep checking in
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’ve found that success with my galleries depends largely on me. I promote my galleries constantly in my e-painting newsletters. I make sure that I’ve found that success with my galleries depends largely on me. I promote my galleries, have my current brochures and information. I keep new work rotated whenever they ask for it. It’s a partnership. Dropping off your work and leaving it for them to sell without checking in and rotating work is shortsighted in my opinion. It is important that you understand your dealer’s market and the work that would be popular in that area. I don’t send palm tree paintings to my Alabama dealers.
What to expect from art dealers
by Elizabeth Wiltzen, Banff, BC, Canada
What about what we are entitled to expect from our dealers? I realize that each and every gallery owner is different (I currently am represented by 3 different dealers), and that there must be some flexibility from one to another. But what are the absolutes? One of my dealers consistently pays me two weeks to a month late, has discounted paintings without my approval after agreeing this would not happen, is readily available to me when they have requests but very elusive when I do, and has shown a small degree of carelessness with my work (small scratches, holes in the side of gallery wraps when framing, lost one painting for 3 weeks). I have overlooked all of this because they have sold fairly consistently for me, but the latest issue with them is hanging me up:
I am aware that a gallery must have your work in their possession for a reasonable amount of time in order to have the opportunity to move it, but I also feel it is important to rotate stagnant work into other galleries after a certain period of time has passed (6 months seems reasonable to me). I am open to the idea that any work that is taken should be replaced with new work so as not to deplete the gallery’s base inventory. What I have come up against is a dealer who is of the opinion that it is their choice when to return work (they quote a minimum of 15 months), and that I must give 60 days notice anytime I wish to have a piece returned. I have given them no reason, in a year of doing business together, to believe that I am selling out from under them. They currently have 25 of my paintings, and I have only asked for two back, the last one while delivering 6 new works. Your thoughts?
(RG note) Thanks, Liz. Galleries are all over the place as to how they act and react. For some their integrity is so high that you just never worry. Others are control freaks who have rigid rules and need to get their way. My policy with these sorts of folks is “neither an ogre nor a patsy be.” A lot of the time I just let them have their way — it’s their problem, not mine. Eventually you need to make clear to some of them when you want your stuff back, reasonable payments, and other basic decencies. Galleries may feed you, but they’re only custodians of your stuff. Gently and firmly be the captain of your ship — and don’t lose any sleep over it.
Enemies of art
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
In Russia we have also enemies of art: Decreasing of public cultural level because of increased percent of labour business time — changing percent of art consuming in overall list of bought goods; increasing of overall cost of living and decreasing possibilities to buy any art at financial deficiency background; machine that takes from artist hands all simple forms of art and enforces him/her to make more complicated art than only machine can do it; false advertising activity defrauding public understanding of real parameters for each kind of art pieces price; grants instead art credits at noble credit percent and credit aims; tax systems that demands from artist tax payments at the usual labour rates of large scale industry, sometimes absence of a separate law for certain fields of creativity. For example, for us in the Russia in 2005 there are no separate laws for the activity of free artist, composer, writer. These must be “businessmen” to be legally working.
Galleries doing something right
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
The artist usually does more for the gallery than the gallery does for the artist. With the internet and more “savvy” clientele in this day and age, buyers are finding alternative ways of buying art. The galleries are here to stay and some of these dinosaur galleries that have been in business for decades are doing something right. Here is my list of things to watch out for when dealing with a gallery:
1. Get everything in writing. It is hard to piece back together what you agreed to six months later when there is nothing in writing.
2. Learn to be patient. It takes about a year for a gallery to get your work selling.
3. Have an open line of communication with a gallery, like a phone call once a month. Behave like a professional when you are at the gallery. Nobody wants to meet a drunken artist at an opening.
4. If the work is not selling, have it returned and move on. No sense flogging a dead horse.
5. Have honesty between a gallery and an artist. Don’t sell out of the studio behind the gallery’s back. Don’t sell the artist’s work at a deal and under cut the artist.
6. Artists should realize they are dealing with a business. Galleries should realize they are dealing with artists. There are few similarities.
7. Artists should never give up. The road to fame and fortune is paved with all sorts of potholes and bumps in the road. Nothing is the end, nothing is the beginning, and it is all part of a journey.
8. Don’t pin all your hopes on a gallery to make you famous. We all cannot be Damien Hirst.
How much patience?
by Deborah McLaren, Norwich, CT, USA
So what do you consider patience? Three months? Six? A year? The relationship should go both ways. If I tie up my art at a gallery, I should expect them to do all they can to sell it. Then, after it’s sold, I should be paid according to our agreement. Nothing frosts me more than calling my gallery after several months and being told something “just” sold, when there have been times I know it had been sold weeks earlier, but since I wasn’t “pestering” them, I didn’t get paid until I showed up on the doorstep.
(RG note) Thanks, Deborah. If you have enough galleries you can forget about some of them for a year. It may be weak-headed of me, but I just think of some of my galleries as places to store paintings. Practically every professional artist can tell your doorstep story.
Consistency in your work
by Jane Hinrichs, Harrold, SD, USA
Regarding being “consistent” — are you saying all your artwork should be a certain type? I work in watercolors but have discovered a different approach that I enjoy. I have a show coming up in September. Would you say it is okay to put both styles in the show or should I just stick with one?
(RG note) Ideally in a serious gallery you might plan to limit your work to one direction for the time being. It’s difficult because an artist often does not know which foot to put forward — and you know that it’s your ability to multi-track that makes you, in your opinion, an interesting artist. If your gallery people are sensitive and on top of their game they can often advise you on this sort of decision. Consistency is a gallery ideal, variety is your ideal. See letter below.
Do serious and whimsical work together?
by Andrea Cooper, Whakatane, New Zealand
As with most artists I have changed my subject matter from time to time. I’m presently composing works of our national sport — rugby football. These paintings are from my personal observations and drawings. I like to make up my own people and try to give them personalities. As I’m not painting portraits as such, there is no pressure to create a likeness. Players from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland have just arrived to tour New Zealand. I’m wondering what readers of these clickbacks might think if I treat a subject such as this sport in both a serious manner and a whimsical manner and exhibit them in the same exhibition in a commercial gallery?
by Dawn Smith, Panama
We’d all like to do consistently excellent pieces. For me, even “consistently good” works. I’m talking basically good art, good aesthetics, good technique, workmanship, etc. But what many art dealers want, besides this, is sameness — same media or subject matter, lots of things done in a similar style. They call it “signature style”. It is easy to sell, since the client doesn’t need an education to see that the artist did it, and does it well.
One of my college ceramic teachers said about my year-end project: “make about 50 of those and you’ll have a style”. His goal was to teach me to be a “consistent” potter. But my goal wasn’t about doing 50 pots in the same style. My style was already there, if he’d looked through the whole body of my work to date. My goal is communication using several media — and my signature style and worldview naturally come out when I honestly do that. Sameness doesn’t mean signature style, nor is it another word for consistency. Consistency to me means high quality with an understanding and mastery of media, in the overall body of an artist’s work.
I work in a variety of media, often mixed, 2 and 3 dimension, sometimes combining media from other disciplines. I have a distinctive style in each of the media I work in, and a prevalent philosophy throughout all of them. But dealers find it way too confusing to sell that idea to their clients. They just want the awards or training “related” to that piece on the CV — “not all that other stuff.”
The dominant paradigm that dealers (and many art professors) seem to believe, is that you can’t be good at any one media unless you devote your life to it. And this is simply not true. Some of us are quick studies. Some of us want to immerse our lives in one medium. Neither is superior in terms of virtue; and assuming consistent quality, both are equally valid.
As for your statement, “a natural tendency toward irregularity” and “earning the right” — do you mean mistakes, like bad perspective or composition? I agree with basic skill mastery, but rarely see a natural tendency towards variety. I see just the opposite. Most artists I’ve seen keep their media or style in a controlled comfort zone, unless pushed. Many artists and students do the same sorts of things over and over, irregardless of ability or desire, because it sells. They get an “a” on their portfolio, or sell their painting. That’s their goal, but it shouldn’t be considered a rule or a virtue.
Experimenting for me isn’t an irregularity; it’s the core of being an artist. I don’t sell my flops. I do, however, stand on the shoulders of giants. I have absorbed lifetimes of their studies and discoveries through modern technology. I didn’t earn it, I just learned it, then played with it. If I’ve mastered “the basics” of each media enough to communicate, I am content. The skeletal structure of good, basic skills is still there, under the mix. A signature style can be seen throughout the body of my work more as a unifying philosophy than a series of strokes or media use.
I contend that gallery owners and dealers need to realize we are in a rapidly changing age, where people can be exposed to art and technique quite young. You’ve discussed abysmally trained students, but many of my students mastered skills and media quickly, thanks to television and web resources. Dealers should be looking for “the story” that sells the art, or the validity of synthesis and/or variety, instead of relying on “sameness” as a definition of mastery.
The fact that a signature style can be a philosophy or principal, as well as a brushstroke or a color palette, is something that art dealers need to learn how to sell. This starts with us practicing artists, defining what “consistency” actually means. There is a new world full of young artists who can write an aria as easily as a watercolor, and equally well. What happens when they start synthesizing disciplines? We can’t rely on “sameness” as a definition of mastery or consistency. If we’re smart we’ll pass our careful definition along to the schools and gallery owners. This has exciting ramifications for the art world, so we should be ready for the ride.
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Marilyn Brown who wrote, “Paul Dorrell has written a great book for artists Living the Artist’s Life that deals with methods of getting their work into galleries.”
And also Kiyra Macklin who asked, “I’d like to know if there is such a thing as “Artist’s Protocol.” I feel I have it — it is respect for others.”
And also Dave Wilson who wrote, “The Lord is my agent, I shall not flaunt.”