I graduated from art school in the early 1980’s and since then I have been in and out of a number of galleries. Like many artists, I was young and inexperienced when I first entered the market, but eventually I learned my way around, and developed some good tools for working with galleries: organization, good record keeping, punctuality, all things that made me a good member of what I consider a team. In 2006 I was showing in five galleries around the region and could count on sales from most of them regularly.
Without that feeling that you are working on the same side, for the same ends, (which is, of course, to sell your work so that you can continue to pay your rent or mortgage and not have to live in a dumpster,) the artist/gallery relationship can be filled with misunderstanding and resentment.
I’ve had good relationships with most of my galleries, at least in the last 25 years of a 35-year career of showing and selling my work. Well, until recently, it seems. The down-turned economy (I can’t bear to use the word recession, even though that’s what it is) has caused several of the galleries with whom I have had long associations, to behave…well, I can only call it strangely.
I have hesitated to talk about these things on my blog, or even in public, because it feels a lot like failure, and who wants to admit that? My work has supported me for the last 25 years, so I figure that I must have been doing something right. Two years ago, a gallery where I showed for almost ten years dismissed me with a letter, about which there had been no previous discussion. My work sold moderately, if not wildly well, but for the last several years (the first years of the recession) there had been few sales. And now, another gallery with whom I’ve been with for closer to 20 years, has returned my work without even a farewell email or any other explanation. Previous to the return of this last bit of work, I noticed that I had been taken off the website as a painter, although I was still there as a printmaker. This is a gallery where I have done very well over the years, so, it seems strange that there would be no formal communication at all.
I could tell other stories of galleries that quit paying artists or changed show dates without notice, and others that closed, but this is not that story. The question I want to ask artists and galleries is this: what do we owe each other in our working relationships? How do we end business relationships that were once very good, and now, not so much? When do we pull the plug and how do we do it?
In the past, and even in the present, it is not uncommon for a gallery to ask for exclusivity not only in the immediate area, but also in a wider region. So, as an artist who plays by the rules, where does that leave you when your gallery decides that you are no longer a valuable member of the team? It feels like coming home and finding the locks changed because your husband has decided that the new trophy wife is more to his liking and has more to offer.
Not all marriages last forever and neither do all artist/gallery relationships. I thought I had figured out how the system worked: I worked hard, did good work, showed up when I promised, and with the work expected, with lists and labels all in place. But what I’ve found out is, that it’s not easy for a mid-career artist whose prices are a reflection of the many years I’ve spent honing my labor-intensive craft, to find a new gallery. Where does this leave us, in a world that equates sales with success?
Here are some thoughts that I want to share with artists and gallery owners:
- Artists have the responsibility to do the best work they can, to be organized and efficient in supplying work to the gallery.
- If a gallery (or artist) have concerns about anything, they should set an appointment to talk, whether in person or on the phone, when they will not be interrupted, to discuss the problem and try to figure out together what, if anything, can be done about it. (I have to admit, I did not do this, in hopes of being “low maintenance”)
- If the gallery decides that it’s time for the artist to move on, they should supply the artist with a list of that artist’s clients, so the artist can use that client list as an inducement to another gallery to take them on, or sell directly to those clients with a smaller commission going back to the gallery.
- The gallery should attempt to help the artist find placement in another gallery of comparable stature. At the very least they could provide a positive letter of reference (assuming that the split wasn’t because the artist was a jerk.)
How are you navigating the current artist/gallery paradigm? Please comment below.
Anne Belov, © 2013
Anne Belov paints, writes, makes prints, and is the founder of The Institute for Contemporary Panda Satire. You can find her paintings at the Rob Schouten Gallery, her cartoons on The Panda Chronicles, and her new book here. She also writes regularly for The Whidbey Life Magazine, a free journal of art and culture on Whidbey Island. Read her recent interview in the July Issue of The Write Life Magazine, an online publication. Her main regret in life is that there is no MacArthur Grant for Panda Satire.
- Botticelli’s Daughter; Egg Tempera and Oil on Panel 8”x10” © Anne Belov 2013 (top)
- One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer; Oil on Panel 18”x16” © Anne Belov 2013 (middle)
- What I Remember; Egg Tempera and Oil on panel 10”x8” © Anne Belov 2013 (bottom)