Art Galleries: So Long, and Thanks for the Memories…

Anne Belov: Botticelli's Daughter
I am proud to present guest blog writer, Anne Belov, who has important things to say about the gallery/artist relationship. Learn from what she has to say and share your experiences in the comment section below.
Art Galleries: So Long, and Thanks for the Memories… by Anne Belov

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.

Anne Belov: One Bourbon, One Scotch, One BeerWithout 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?

Anne Belov: What I Remember 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.

 Painting credits:

  1. Botticelli’s Daughter; Egg Tempera and Oil on Panel  8”x10” © Anne Belov 2013 (top)
  2. One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer;  Oil on Panel  18”x16” © Anne Belov 2013 (middle)
  3. What I Remember; Egg Tempera and Oil on panel  10”x8” © Anne Belov 2013 (bottom)

16 thoughts on “Art Galleries: So Long, and Thanks for the Memories…

  1. Excellent, well written article about a problem in the new dynamic of the gallery/artist relationship. Anne, hope you find different galleries that treat you and yourr superb work with deserved respect.

  2. I just want to say that in September I will become an owner of a gallery that I have been an artist in for 5 years. The owner needs to step down and I was given this opportunity.I think because I am an artist I will be alittle more sensitive to the needs of the other artists, but I don’t feel that if there is a need for me to let you go from the gallery that I should find you another gallery for you to go into. The owner should only let an artist go if there is a really good reason to. I know I would talk to the artist and explain why this is happening. I know I would treat them with respect just like I would like to be treated if it was the other way around. I think comunication is very important. I hope I can be a really good owner and a good artist at the same time.

    • I hope your experience as an artist will help you be a better dealer, and I wish you luck. There is a difference between “expecting a gallery to find me another gallery” (which I most definitely do not) and “HELPING an artist to find another gallery, by writing recommendations, passing on contacts with other gallery owners, putting in a good word, etc. I was a very good gallery “citizen” : being on time with work, having proper documentation and framing, but when one gallery changed her location, the clientele changed as well, and my style of work did not seem to be in demand. what I most objected to was that there was no communication or discussion leading up to this event. that’s all I’m saying. If you haven’t noticed the economy has been really awful and that has been a contributing factor to lack of sales.

  3. Well written indeed. The lack of respect is a business character flaw in the sell/buy process that can be found in a broad range of markets and products.
    Terminating a long term successful representative/sales relationship is not an easy task for many.
    During tight discretionary market sales conditions, the lack of product knowledge shown by the sales agent and the extra sales effort required is usually the culprit during tough times. Many gallery sales personnel assume the persona of a French waiter. Doesn’t work when your are not hungry.

  4. Huh. Nice article. Interesting perspective. Yes, the dismissals should have been handled differently, given the length of your relationships. It super-seriously sucks that there wasn’t a more respectful explanation.

    As an artist and a gallerist, I’d like to make a couple comments?

    First, please consider that the galleries might be embarrassed they haven’t sold more of your work. By ending the relationship like that, they are avoiding having to discuss their own failure at selling your work. It’s not cool, it’s kinda cowardly, but it’s easier.

    Second, no, I don’t think they should give you their client list of people who have purchased your work. Absolutely not. Unless they are shutting their doors, that list is theirs, and it’s probably the most important piece of information they have that they can use to remain in business. And it shouldn’t be shared.

    Third, they don’t necessarily owe you anything, except a feeling of good will. If nothing ugly happened in your relationship to cause them to let you go, and if you ask them for a meeting to discuss the failure in the relationship and to discuss any suggestions they might make in your continuing career, and they won’t meet with you again, that’s not cool. But I don’t think they owe you anything just because.

    Fourth, my experience with many artists is that they are utterly self-interested. I try to stay away from these artists. You’re right, it is a team effort, and it’s important that the relationship is transparent and mature and two-sided and well-communicated.

    Fifth, it’s a new climate for selling art. What worked 10 years ago doesn’t work anymore. I think everybody is trying to scale a slippery slope and get their footing in this new world order. It’s hard to be us.

    Thank you for the wonderful article! And best of luck in your career! Wells

  5. Anne,
    Interesting, I find it odd that a gallery owner would discontinue a successful relationship with an artist. Of course the gallery is limited to space and the space must be occupied with products that are pleasing to the public, so much so, they purchase the work. Even in a recession, a gallery owner could maintain a relationship with all successful artists, rotating them, but not totally dismissing them.

    I agree the owner should not provide the artist with a contact list of the buyers, that may be confidential information. With social media and web sites an admirer of your art will get in touch with you.

    Tough to figure out why people do what they do, open communication is a major factor in like’s well being. Not everyone is a mind reader. I can’t paint when I’m in a dark place, being dismissed with little regard would definitely cause my paint brush to gather dust, “painters block”.

  6. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. On reflection, expecting a gallery to give me my client list, is something that is not going to happen. Still, being asked to leave when there was no “bad behavior” on my part still leaves a bad taste in my mouth., particularly when I made a real effort to keep all my “t’s” crossed and “i’s” dotted.
    As to whether a gallery owes an artist something, I suppose you could ask all those Enron employees whether Enron owed them anything when it raided their pensions and made their stock worthless.
    Here’s what I think I owe my gallery:
    Doing the best work I can do,
    Keeping my records straight
    Being timely with deliveries, with work ready to hang on walls
    Not cherry picking work for my private clients (interesting issue, so if it’s okay for me to share my list with my gallery, why can’t I know who owns my paintings?)
    Maintain REASONABLE limits in where I sell my work.
    Show up at other people’s openings when possible, as well as my own.

    Here’s what I think they owe me:
    payment on time for work sold
    care and responsibility for my work which is on loan to them
    proper paper work to keep track of said work.
    discussion if things aren’t going well, and what perhaps can be done to change that.

    An art gallery is one of the few, if not only, retail businesses where the establishment does not have to buy their inventory. Seems like in this new world of commerce, there should be room for an open dialog.

    • Hi Anne, great article and interesting points raised. Have you considered though that you may have outgrown this gallery and your work and prices are just beyond them. I find many galleries try to hold one back and try one to repeat ones thinking rather than develop it . Perhaps you have developed beyond their understanding of your work and their comfort zone. It sounds like that to me. Nothing at all wrong with you or your work -the problem is you have grown over 20 years and they haven’t. Could it be that?

  7. Traditional, long established art galleries are having much more in the way of competition these days. Independent galleries, art collectives organizing their own shows, and of course here we all are on the internet the most conveniently located gallery with search options to target what you are looking for! There is, as you pointed out a recession in the economic sense, yet there is a revolution of getting the art to the people. For the people, by the people I guess you can say. There is also the issue of taking the art to the masses, instead of boxing it all up in galleries and waiting for the masses to go to the galleries. And galleries take such a high margin of profit as compared to the cost of selling art online….

  8. Hi Anne – I totally agree with you that there is no reason why a gallery should not give you the list of the people who bought your work – if it is one of the rules that galleries have decided to “create” then it should be “broken” . . . . artists should have more of a voice what they want – after all, it is their “work” . . . . and when they decide they don’t want to represent you any more . . . then they should give you your patrons list. Simple and common sense.

  9. As a gallery owner I cringe when I read reports like yours of ill treatment by other galleries. There is just no excuse for such disrespect. I’ve heard some real horror stories about previous gallery experiences from some of the older artists I represent, and they have served to keep me focused on establishing and maintaining the best relationships I can with my group.

    Artists have every right to the expectations you’ve detailed, and I also provide mine with names and addresses of anyone who purchases their artwork. I encourage my artists to send a personal note of thanks to those clients, and I facilitate introductions whenever possible–it’s good for sales. I trust my artists to refer clients who were first exposed to their work in my gallery back to me for purchases, and they trust me never to interfere with their own sales to friends and customers they established themselves prior to coming into my gallery. TRUST is the most important word; it’s absolutely essential in an artist/gallery relationship.

    In the 13 years I’ve been open, the hardest part of running a gallery has been having to admit that I can’t sell the work of one of the artists I asked to show with me. I usually wait a lot longer than I should to have that conversation, but I think I’ve handled it well the few times it has become necessary. I ALWAYS feel it’s my fault and try to help the artist choose a gallery that may be able to make more sales; usually that means making a referral to a gallery in a larger metro area since the art market here in the heartland isn’t a brisk one.

    Selling art in a recessionary time is surely challenging, but I’ve been able to ride out the storm by keeping a good mix of media and prices in the gallery, never compromising on the quality of the work I offer, making every customer who walks through the door feel welcome, and making sure I pay my artists FIRST every month.
    Carolyn Baxley
    Cinema Gallery
    Urbana, IL

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