Artists, Galleries, Exclusivity and More

Working Together in the Online Age

The Internet has forever changed how artist-gallery relationships work, particularly with respect to exclusivity (who has the right to control and sell what). Back in the good old days, galleries pretty much handled all publicity, exposure, shows, and sales of art by their artists. Artists were generally OK with that because they had few if any alternatives to present or sell on their own. Now things are different. Due primarily to social media, accessibility of artists, artist websites, and other online opportunities for exposure, artists are able to establish and control their careers to a far greater extent than ever before, sometimes even more so than galleries can. This situation not only requires galleries to rethink exclusivity, representation and the degree of control they require over their artists, but also for artists to rethink how they delegate their art and maintain good relationships with galleries while at the same time not limiting themselves in terms of career opportunities and getting the word out about their art.

How do you as an artist approach this? First of all, exclusivity still has to be a significant consideration in terms of who has the right to sell your art. If you allow your art to be for sale in too many places, both online and at physical locations, as well as directly through you, that not only reduces the incentive for galleries to sell it, but also any interest they might have in representing you in the first place. No matter what sellers you work with, whether they're galleries, online platforms, representatives or consultants, every one of them has to have some sense of confidence that they have the rights to exclusively represent or sell specific works or bodies or types of your art.

So the first thing you have to do is figure out who has the right to sell what art and under what circumstances. Even more importantly, if you also want to sell direct to buyers online, you have to provide some kind of assurance that doing so will not compete directly with anyone else who represents your work, especially galleries. The good news is that it's possible for everyone to have their art and sell it too, but establishing that delicate balance between who controls what can sometimes get tricky.

One way to work things out is for certain galleries or sellers to each have exclusive representation of particular series, groups, or bodies of your art, preferably ones that are clearly distinct from all others. For example, one venue might represent your larger more major works, while another represents the smaller pieces. One gallery might handle only art above a certain price range while you sell your more inexpensive art direct. Or maybe one gallery represents the current work while another represents the older work or vice versa. Or maybe one gallery represents the paintings and another represents the sculpture. And so on and so forth.

Whatever the allocation system is, you want to do it in such a way as to allow each gallery or representative as close to complete control as possible over whatever you give them to sell, and that usually means giving them pretty much the exclusive rights to sell it for agreed upon periods of time. That way, collectors who are looking for one type of work have basically only one place to buy it, and specific sellers don't have to worry about competing with other sellers offering the same or similar art. The closer you can get to this kind of balance, the better. It's also one of the best ways to establish trust between yourself and those who represent you.

As for holding up your end of an artist/gallery relationship, if you are having a show at a gallery and they're publicizing the event, you have to be loyal during the course of the show, and likely also for an agreed-upon time period after the show ends. Artists are almost always able to tell how people find out about them and their art. If you believe someone is contacting you because they heard about or saw your art at the gallery, and you sense they want to go around the gallery to buy directly from you, refer them straight back to the gallery for any and all business. Period. The more you respect and honor the gallery, the greater the motivation they'll have to sell your art and keep on representing and showing you. No matter how tempting an offer might be to sell your art direct, whether online or otherwise, if you want to maintain any kind of mutual trust and working relationship at all, you have to abide by the guidelines.

The better known you get as an artist, particularly online, and the more in demand your art becomes in the marketplace, the more control you'll have over who sells your art and under what circumstances. For you artists who are less well-known or relatively early in your careers or don't have great online profiles, you'll likely have to be more willing to abide by the rules of galleries in more favorable positions than you are, and who may be interested in selling your art. In other words you will have to make more concessions than better-known artists. In the end, you decide how far you are willing to go on a situation-by-situation basis and how much control you're comfortable with letting a gallery have over your art.

At the same time, galleries also have to realize that artists have more options than ever for presenting and selling their art. For instance, if a relationship with an artist is untested and just starting out, you can't ask them to sacrifice too much control over their own destiny. Placing additional restrictions on your artists is fine to talk about later-- as long as you've established that you can consistently sell enough of their art to keep them happy. Until that point, you'll have to reach agreements that allow them certain freedoms to sell their art too, or to look for opportunities with other galleries. Unless you can adequately advance their careers, it's in nobody's best interests to restrict your artists from moving forward on their own. So be willing to sit down with them from time to time, assess the relationship, and do what's necessary to keep everyone reasonably satisfied.

If you're a gallery interested in representing or showing known artists who are largely capable of controlling their own destinies or have impressive online profiles or followings, you may have to relinquish significant amounts of control or give them certain freedoms to act on their own while being represented. The more successful the artist, the more flexible you'll have to be. No matter who the artist may be, the less sure you are about how much art you think you can sell, the more flexible you'll have to be. Never mislead an artist about what you think you can do for them just to get them to show at your gallery. Be realistic and forthcoming, and show as much concern for their well-being as you do for your own. And never insist that anyone sign overly demanding agreements or contracts if you're at all unsure about your ability to deliver.

As for you artists, make sure you know who you're involved with before saying yes. Always research and evaluate any offers you get in advance. Watch out for galleries or dealers who want to control most or all of your art right from the start, as well as how it's offered for sale. No matter how badly you might want a show or representation, if a gallery presents you with exclusivity agreements or arrangements that seriously restrict your online activities or abilities to get your art out in front of the public on your own, you really have to think through the possible adverse consequences. Sometimes it's best to say no. At the same time, you have to be willing to compromise and give your all to every gallery you decide to work with.

If you're being asked to sign anything, make sure you read and understand every single word, and know exactly what you're agreeing to. Never ignore or dismiss the formalities just to get a show. If there's anything you're not absolutely sure of, have an attorney explain it to you. Be especially careful about getting into arrangements that demand oppressive levels of exclusivity, are difficult to get out of, have no escape or "sunset" clauses (where either party has the right to end the arrangement), or worse yet, that you have to buy your way out of.

In a great working relationship, everyone should be happy with who has the rights to sell and promote what art, and under what circumstances. For galleries, allowing artists to advocate for themselves while representing them can easily work in everyone's favor. For artists, getting the blessings of their galleries before taking any kinds of actions on their own is always recommended. For either side, restricting anyone's abilities to spread the word about the art makes no sense. Whatever increased exposure anyone can get benefits all. Having ongoing dialogues in combination with trusting that everyone is working for the greater good leads to the kinds of relationships that go the farthest in the online age for all parties involved.


In case you're interested, I consult and advise artists on all matters involving their art and careers. If you'd like to make an appointment or have any questions about what I can do for you, call 415.931.7875 or email me at


(art by Tamra Seal)

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