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 it actually has. Why do things like this happen and what can we as artists do about it? I'd love 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 problem dealer or gallery experience when asked, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of artist-gallery relationships 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, upstanding, and can do plenty for you if the art you show turns out to be art they can sell. Galleries that take advantage of artists are 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. Even if they're quickly resolved and don't seem like much at the time, as a relationship progresses, what you might dismiss as insignificant at first can sometimes turn serious later. 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 choppy down the road.

At the same time, be careful not to misinterpret gallery requirements as potential problems. Any artist-gallery relationship involves responsibilities on both sides, which for you means more than simply dropping off your art while the gallery does the rest. In order for a show to be successful, you have to actively participate at every step along the way. This can include discussions over the types and numbers of artworks the gallery would like you to show, settling on reasonable selling prices, providing photographs or writings about your art, presenting your art and promoting your show on social media, having all work completed by a particular deadline, being on time for meetings or phone appointments, appearing at your opening, and generally being responsive to gallery concerns.

In addition to monitoring how things go during your first several meetings, research the gallery online and check out their reputation in the art community, particularly among other artists, and especially among artists they show. With the state of social media 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 social media, 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 they are to work with, 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 harmonious the overall relationship has been. 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 working with less-established galleries 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 a show, 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 already established or that well-known, 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 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 your show to be a success, to sell as much of your art as possible, and will do whatever they think they have to do to maximize that outcome. The closer you can come to complete agreement, which includes having some form of written document that outlines the terms of the show or period of representation, the better. Get a reputation as someone who's flexible and easy to work with. Be the opposite and very few galleries will dare to work with you. And always remember that regardless of the circumstances, going legal 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 on social media, 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 and make sales, but just as you should research galleries or dealers in advance, get input from artists who are already selling direct before swearing off galleries altogether.

You want at least some indication that you stand a reasonable chance of success, either at alternative venues or online before bidding farewell to the system. Seeing your artwork hanging on display at places other than galleries or going the social media route may be great for your ego, but unless something tangible 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.

As for galleries and dealers, make your choices based on a combination of reputation 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. As long as you do your homework, at least you know what you'll be getting into ahead of time.

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(art by Tom McKinley)

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