by Carolyn Edlund
What to know about artist representation, agents and galleries.
If you are seeking representation to sell your art, keep a few things in mind before you start. Although there are many honest art dealers and galleries to work with, there are also people who take advantage of artists. No one needs specific credentials or a license to represent artists. With this low threshold, some people get into the business who really have little to offer. They may charge exorbitant fees, playing on an artist’s desire to have their work seen and sold.
Who are artist agents?
Sometimes artists believe they can hire an agent to gain introductions to galleries or dealers. There are artist agents at the highest levels in the industry; these individuals represent artists who are proven moneymakers with a long history of sales. For any agent to risk taking on a new client, they need to know they can earn income almost immediately.
If you don’t fit into that category, what can you as an individual artist do? If you are looking for representation, you could approach a gallery directly. The truth is that gallerists and art dealers themselves are technically agents, in that they sell on behalf of the artist.
Be wary if you are approached by someone who says they can find gallery representation for you. One artist reported that she received a contract from a so-called “agent” who would promote her to art galleries. The contract stated that the agent would receive 20% commission on all art sold through each gallery, forever. That’s right – permanently. With a gallery commission of 50% plus an agent commission of 20%, the artist would have received only 30 cents on the dollar for her work. Not such a good deal, was it?
Another route is selling directly to collectors. You may hire managers, publicists, social media assistants or any number of other people to help with marketing and publicity. But these people don’t work on commission, and there should be a clear understanding of their tasks up front. You as the artist should take the lead as the head of your own business.
You may have received an offer for gallery representation out of the blue and wondered if it was legit. Vanity galleries prey on artists by inviting them to be represented or even have solo shows. The only hitch is that it will cost the artist a lot, often to the tune of thousands of dollars. The gallery will be happy to print a catalog for the artist, too, also at a cost. And they will promote and advertise, for even more money. These galleries earn their money primarily from artists, not from sales of art. They take advantage of the desperation that some artists feel, wanting to be validated through gallery representation, or the hope that their work will attract many collectors.
One clear sign of a vanity gallery is that they approach artists directly offering these services. Often, they are not particular about the art itself, because it’s the artist who will pay. They may approach artists who are clearly not ready to exhibit their work in a gallery, or don’t have a large enough body of work. None of that matters to them. Vanity galleries have little incentive to actually make art sales, since the vast majority of their income is taken care of by the artists who buy into this practice.
Who are these galleries? You can find lists through online search or word of mouth from other artists. Some galleries are well-known for this practice. Then, steer clear and don’t fall into this trap. A vanity gallery show on an artist’s CV can actually be a negative for their career.
Fortunately, most galleries and dealers are honest. A written contract will state the terms of your agreement with them, which you should review carefully before accepting. Learn more about working with galleries here.
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