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Selling Your Artwork: Avoiding Problems
When Choosing a Dealer or Gallery
Q: I've tried all kinds of ways to sell my artwork, but have avoided galleries so far because in my opinion, far too many artists have problems with them. Sometimes artists have trouble collecting money for sold work, sometimes they have their artwork lost or damaged, sometimes they get fooled into thinking more art will sell than actually does, sometimes they're told no artwork has sold when some actually has. Why do things like this happen and what can we as artists do about it? I'd like to show at a gallery and not have to worry.
A: You sound like you've been swapping a few too many nightmare tales with fellow artists. Just about any artist can come up with at least one problematic dealer or gallery experience when put to it, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of gallery dealings are positive. Never lose sight of this fact and, more importantly, don't let a few bad incidents color your beliefs and attitudes about art dealers in general. Viewing all art galleries as evil is exceptionally hazardous to your art career because the fact is that practically all of them are reputable and upstanding. If they weren't, they'd be either out of business already or on their way out soon.
As is the case in any other business, problem dealers and galleries do exist, but never be too quick to judge. With experience, you'll learn to identify them ahead of time and eventually avoid them altogether. In the meantime, first meetings with gallery owners are always important in clueing you in to the quality of a potential or impending working relationship. When you don't know someone very well, you tend to react more on an instinctual gut level in many ways and make more accurate observations-- so pay special attention at the outset.
Initial negotiations with any dealer or gallery interested in selling your artwork should be smooth, clear, unambiguous and comfortable for both you and the owner or director. Watch for warning signs like minor differences of opinion, disagreements or even arguments. These may not seem like much at the time, but as a relationship progresses, what you might dismiss as insignificant can sometimes grow increasingly serious. If interactions are already touchy during the first meeting or two, that may not bode well for the future. So no matter how excited you are about having a show and selling your artwork, don't ignore signs that the relationship has the potential to get a little rough down the road.
In addition to monitoring how you're feeling during your first several meetings, check out the gallery's reputation in the art community, particularly among other artists. With the state of social networking and online search capabilities these days, there's absolutely no reason not to do due diligence ahead of time. See what dealer or professional organizations the gallery belongs to, how long they've been in business, whether their shows get reviewed in local media, on significant art blogs or websites, or better yet, in regional, national or international art publications.
Speak with artists who've had personal experiences or shows with the gallery and find out how well their artwork sold, whether there were any problems and if yes how they were resolved, how promptly they got paid, how well the owner responded to their concerns, and how straightforward the overall relationship was. Sometimes you hear a variety of stories during the course of your research, both good and bad, in which case you have to weigh the plusses and minuses and decide for yourself. Usually however, the consensus opinion is pretty clear cut.
Do your best to substantiate any claims or promises dealers make about how much artwork they think they can sell, how fast they expect to sell it, and what they tell you they can do for your career. Once again, ask artists who've shown with them whether similar promises were made and if so, how accurate they were and whether they turned out to be true. Younger artists are particularly vulnerable here. They get so excited at the prospect of having any kind of show at all that they often don't bother double-checking anything they're told and barge blindly ahead. They may feel great for a while telling everyone they're having shows, but if they've made poor choices, they may end up paying for those moments of elation for months to come. If, based on your research, an outcome begins to look a little dicey, saying "no" might be painful in the moment, but in the long run it's usually the best way to go.
On the flip side, some artists try to protect themselves against every possible negative outcome by making a myriad of demands or talking about legal requirements or restrictions that a gallery must abide by before they'll agree to let their art get shown. This may be acceptable behavior once you're famous, but if you're not that well-known or established, it's a sure way to reduce the chances of ever getting a show. Your best approach, especially when you're early in your career, is to make as few demands as possible (preferably none), keep things simple, and leave the legal references out of all conversations.
There has to be trust somewhere, especially at the outset, and unless you have obvious cause for worry or concern, let the gallery run their business without any interference. They want to sell your art as much you do-- and as much of it as possible-- and will do whatever they think they have to do to maximize that outcome. The closer you can come to a handshake, a smile and some form of written agreement, the better. Get a reputation as someone who's difficult to work with or who's willing to go legal at the drop of a paintbrush, and very few galleries will dare work with you. Always remember that regardless of the circumstances, getting involved in legal actions should be an absolute last resort.
Increasingly in today's art world, artists have the option of foregoing galleries altogether by establishing profiles online, cultivating followers and selling their art direct. They can also opt to sell out of their studios, show at alternative venues, put on their own private events, take space in artist cooperatives, rent storefronts with other artists, and so on. Any or all of these options can be great opportunities to get your art out in front of the public, but just as you should research galleries or dealers in advance, speak with other artists who are already involved with selling art in whatever ways you're thinking about selling it before jumping in with all fours. You want at least some indication that you stand a reasonable chance of selling, either at alternative venues or online before abandoning the gallery scene altogether. Seeing your artwork hanging on display at places other than galleries or going the social networking route may be great for your ego, but unless something comes of it, neither the experience nor the investment will likely do anything for your career or your bank account. Regardless of what direction you take, go slow, learn to do it right, and always keep your options open.
But getting back to galleries and dealers, make your choices based on a combination of their reputations in the art community, the degree of sales or exposure that artists tend to get as a result of showing with them, feedback from other artists about how easy they are to work with, and on the level of rapport that you personally develop with them in your initial interactions. If you decide to go with a dealer who's known as being somewhat difficult from time to time, but other benefits outweigh possible negatives or inconveniences, that's fine too. At least you know what you're getting into ahead of time.
(art by Tom McKinley)