A Post for Gallery Owners | How To Work Successfully With Artists

Today’s post is from a little different angle than normal RedDot articles. Today I would like to speak directly to other gallery owners. Though most of my posts are directed to artists, I know that I also have a good number of gallery owners who follow the blog – I appreciate the comments and perspective these gallery owners have offered in comments. I’m offering this post to these gallery owners, but also to the many other gallery owners out there who may come across the article.

Today I want to share some advice about working with the artists that you represent. I want to be very careful about my tone – I don’t mean to imply that I know anything more about this subject than anyone else or that I’ve perfected my relationship building skills with the artists I represent. The reality is that much of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned by making mistakes, mistakes that I continue to make from time to time. Today I would simply like to share what I’ve learned and begin a discussion about how we can all better work together.

This post is born of some discussions I’ve had with artists and some tales I’ve heard over the years about the challenges artists and galleries face in their relationships. It’s amazing to me the discomfort, discord and even animosity that can rise between artists and gallery owners and staff, and if we can start a discussion that helps decrease the tension in some way, I’ll feel it’s been worth the effort.

Obviously, not all of the challenges are created by the galleries – artist’s can just as easily foul up the works. If you look back over past blog posts you’ll see that I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging artists to work with their galleries in a more professional manner. Today I’ll turn the tables.

Perhaps the most important things I’ve come to realize over the years is that we all share the same goal: helping collectors bring art into their lives. As we do so, we all benefit from the sales to those collectors. The better we work together, the more successful we will all be.

Communicate!

I’m convinced that most of the problems that arise between galleries and artists arise out of a lack of communication. I know that managing communication with your collectors takes a tremendous amount of time and effort, and that you can feel like you don’t have the bandwidth to spend a lot of time communicating with your artists. It’s amazing, however, how a little bit of effort to interact proactively with your artists can result in a dramatically more successful relationship.

callIt’s easy to fall into a routine where you only talk to an artist when absolutely necessary, and the next thing you know a year or longer has passed since you’ve had a conversation with an artist. When this happens, inventory tends to get stale and the energy of the relationship fades.

I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I’ve been guilty of failure to communicate, but I’ve learned that whenever we put effort into reaching out to our artists we are rewarded for the effort. If you don’t believe me, pick up the phone right now, dial one of your artist’s phone numbers and  say “Hi – I’m just calling to see what’s new!” Tell the artist about reaction you’ve had to his/her work and find out what’s new out of the studio.

It’s obviously even more important to be clear and abundant in your communication if you are planning a show for an artist. Make sure you are crystal clear as you communicate deadlines and promotional requirements.

Get Organized

Another area of conflict arises if you aren’t well organized in your business. Specifically, if you are well organized in your inventory management you will avoid a host of problems as you work with your artists and collectors. A very common complaint I hear among artists as they talk about their experiences with galleries is that a gallery has lost a piece of artwork.

This is a baffling situation for an artist. How can a gallery lose a piece of artwork? It’s understandable that a gallery with hundreds or even thousands of pieces of work in inventory may have to work to find a piece, but, unless the work is microscopic, you shouldn’t lose it!

I suspect that most artwork that goes missing in action was either removed from the gallery by the artist or shipped to another venue without the proper paperwork being created.

Make sure you have a good inventory tracking system in place and that there is never a scenario where new artwork is arriving in the gallery or old artwork leaving without some kind of paperwork being created to note the move.

The goal should be that, at a moment’s notice, you can generate a list of current inventory that matches the actual inventory you have on hand.

Again, we are far from perfect, but we strive to create a certain level of discipline when it comes to inventory control. It’s a lot of work, but it saves a lot more work that will rise when you let your inventory records fall behind.

Plan

A simple show planning calendar showing deadlines leading up to an artist's exhibition
A simple show planning calendar showing deadlines leading up to an artist’s exhibition

Another huge key to success in the gallery business is planning. It’s easy to become complacent with your business, especially if you’ve been at it for a while. Don’t just let business happen, plan! At least annually you should be sitting down to plan out your show schedule and other promotional efforts.

Don’t just put dates on a calendar and call it good, make sure you set up checklists for each event with deadlines for you and the artists you are working with so that you can all work together to build your success.

Communication becomes absolutely critical when you are working together toward an exhibition or other special promotion.

Become a Better Salesperson

Our business revolves around sales – as gallery owners we have to make sure that we and our staff are the best possible salespeople that we can be. Some sales expertise comes with experience, but there’s always more that we can be doing to hone are salesmanship skills.

While selling art is a unique process, it’s not so unique that we can’t learn salesmanship skills from other industries. A quick review of the business section of a bookstore will reveal numerous salesmanship guides that can be read and the knowledge adapted to your gallery.

I remember, early in my career as a gallerist, reading books by Zig Ziglar and other sales experts that opened my eyes to the techniques of salesmanship. Any investment you make in honing your salesmanship will be returned to you many times over in increased sales over the years.

Pay Your Artists Quickly and Reliably

This is a big one. Artists are thrilled when they hear a piece has sold. They are even more thrilled the moment the check arrives. The faster you can get the check into the artist’s hands, the more excited they will be. Excitement translates into better work for your gallery, goodwill, and reputation.

I understand that, as gallery owners, we have to manage cash flow and that you have to be careful to avoid problems if a piece of artwork is returned. It’s become a pretty common practice in the industry to have a 30 day turnaround on artist payments to insulate against returns.

emptymailboxWe were long on a 30 day float for artist payments until my gallery director, Elaine, encouraged me to rethink the policy. Having managed an artist’s business for many years, she convinced me that it would be good business to accelerate the payment. I wasn’t comfortable writing a check to the artist the day the sale happens – we do run into payment or returns from time to time – but we figured out that if we paid as soon as the artwork was delivered to the client’s home and the client had accepted the work and expressed satisfaction with the piece, we wouldn’t run into too many problems.

Our practice now is to contact a client as soon as we receive confirmation of delivery from our shipper to make sure the piece has arrived safely and that they are satisfied. Doing this is actually also great customer service – it lets your client know you care beyond their payment.

Once we’ve received confirmation of delivery and satisfaction from the client, we add the artwork to our list of payables and issue payment on our next weekly check run. This system makes it so that instead of receiving a check 35-40 days after a sale, our artists can expect to receive payment 10-20 days after a sale in most cases – a huge difference.

Nothing will frustrate an artist more than having to wait for an extended period, or feeling like they are having to hound you for payment.

I understand that cash flow can be complicated in this business, but I can promise you that if you will prioritize paying your artists quickly you will see the benefits in your business.

If you are using artist’s commission to cover bills, you are masking problems in your cash flow. Worse, once you get behind, it gets harder and harder to catch up.

Treat The Artists You Work With Like Customers, or Even Better, Like Family

I’m going to try to say this without getting myself into too much trouble. I know that working with some artists can be . . . . challenging. Some artists are . . . . . quirky, disorganized, and maybe even slightly neurotic. Sometimes artists will let you down. Sometimes they will make mistakes in their business practices that will drive you crazy.

I try to remember that with artists there is yin and yang. You wouldn’t get the brilliance and creativity if you didn’t also get the challenges – it’s all part of the package.

I figure that, as a gallery owner, it’s part of my job to learn how to work with artists in difficult situations. I try to approach my relationship with my artists by treating them the same way I would treat a client – I want to get to know them, figure out their strengths and weaknesses and find the best ways to communicate on an individual basis with each artist.

As you strive to do everything I’ve talked about in this post, you’ll find that your relationships will stand on firmer ground. As you work together you’ll build relationships that will eventually come to feel like family. It’s at that point that amazing things will happen in your gallery.

What Do You think About the Artist/Gallery Relationship?

To the gallery owners reading this post, what have you done to build strong relationships with your artists? What has been the greatest challenge as you’ve interacted with them? I’ve been at this for over 20 years, but I know that many of you have been at it longer – I would love to hear any advice you can give to galleries that are striving to build better relationships with their artists.

To the artists reading this post, what have you seen galleries do well as they work to interact with you or with other artists? What do you wish galleries understood better about you as an artist? What do you think galleries could do to increase their success in working with their artists?

Share your comments below!

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

12 Comments

  1. Great article, Jason. Thank you for your insights! I’m sharing this with my gallery director colleagues and the Chs Gallery Association.

  2. This is a fantastic blog and a great perspective. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum, I’ve worked with a gallery where communication and tactics for running the business were lacking, which caused a lot of frustration from both parties. What’s interesting is that we all know shit happens… things get lost or there are mistakes (we all do it, I don’t know how many times I’m looking for materials in my studio that I absent-mindedly placed in a kitchen cabinet) but a good relationship and communication are key. Throwing blame around and feeling like a victim without having a discussion about the issue just leads to things getting worse. It is definitely growing pains for the artist and gallery, like a new budding romantic relationship where both parties bring all their baggage with them and either they communicate clearly and remember why they chose each other, or they go their separate ways. Again, great perspective and thanks for sharing

  3. Right on target! In addition to your strong points, I would add the importance of encouraging and even showing artists how to promote themselves and the galleries in which they are represented. Sometimes it is a challenge, but it is always worthwhile in the end. We even bring individual artists in who need personal help with social media or website design.

    Communication is a huge factor. Our operating mantra is a simple one: “The artists’ success is our success.” We hold gallery meetings with all available artists every three months, with a written summary sent to all artists. Plus, we work everyday to ensure that our website and social media platforms are strong. Importantlly, we reach out to our clients and friends to keep them informed, interested and involved.

    Keep up the good work. Best regards.

  4. You are right on target about communication or lack thereof being a huge issue. My husband is an artist and I do the marketing and promotion for his work. We are currently in three galleries. Even before the pandemic started, communication was about 80% initiated on our side. We have had so much trouble getting timely responses from our galleries with one being pretty good, one being fair to middlin, and one being almost non-existent. Since the pandemic began things have gotten even worse. As far as we knew, none of the galleries was doing anything online to promote their gallery and our work. We tried to make suggestions to two of them about contacting their email lists and being willing to offer a significant discount for a limited period of time that we could also advertise on our social media channels and email lists. One of them doesn’t seem to be doing anything with this idea, the second one is and sold some work although none of our work and they haven’t provided us with any details that we can also advertise. As for the third one, we found out they were doing zoom meetings with collectors only when we emailed them to check in and show them new work and they said one of our pieces had recently sold. Up until then, we had no idea what if anything they were doing in terms of online presence. We do know that although our work has been at their gallery for almost a year, we are still not listed on their website.

    Please understand that we like all the gallery folks we work with personally and are interested in long term relationships with them. Precisely because of this, the failure to act as a team with us is hurtful aside from anything else. We understand that they have a business to run, but so do we. It is very difficult for us to operate our artist business without knowing what is happening with the art we have in galleries, especially because only one out of the three galleries has responded to our requests to sign a contract so we have something solid in writing that protects all of us. Going forward, we have to find a way to get more transparency out of our galleries, but I admit to being stumped as to how to make this happen.

  5. When i started my gallery operations in the 1980s i was coming from the framing and ltd edition trade publishing and distribution business model where i purchased everything up front. I simply continued that process with originals paying the artists within 24 hours. . Capitalization is an issue for gallery operations that severely impacts their viability and the artist relationships. I soon moved out of personally operating galleries and instead took on the role of art buyer/ financier more suited to my skill and temperament. The individual gallery operators [minor parteners] would consign pieces at their discretion.
    Consignment galleries can be an advantage when attracting a stable of artists to work with but as an artist myself i know we can as a group be very challenging to work with,.. As soon as artists began to try dictating presentation, promotions and show scheduling i would give ONE warning to butt out of the business. The second time was the last. I figured as it was my investment funds and risk that negotiations were not part of the equation. The exception being those rare artists who were really very good at business and marketing.
    Treat artists as business people, attract the best because they have learned that being equal parteners with the galleries pays dividends. Everyone knows where they stand.
    In my experience this approach works with both the professionals and the premaddonas among artists.
    It extends to improving both artistic and business skills!
    As an artist myself i can easily read their various sensitivities and adjust the approach accordingly within strict bounds. Because they are creative does not mean you have put up with bad behaviour.

  6. Nice of you to touch on this delicate area Jason. I am very well aware that I am not like a lot of my fellow gallery owners. One very respected gallery (which is one of the oldest existing galleries in our country) once made the statement to me that: “We ( galleries) are the last of the buccaneers”. I was personally a bit offended, because I like to consider myself honest, and upfront with both the public, as well as my artists. Unfortunately galleries have earned a bad reputation with many artists because of their poor business conduct. I can only learn from others and hold myself responsible to my artists and clients.

    Every artist is different, and I like to sit with each artist periodically and discuss their work, and where they are going with it. It gives me a better idea of how to market them, and allows me time to understand their path and what I can do for them on my end to assist them. For some reason the public seems entitled to openly express what they like or dislike about an artist’s work. I am always very tuned into what the public is saying. Because I am the one sitting in the gallery day after day listening to the public’s comments about their work, I convey to the artist what the positive, as well as the negative remarks I am hearing regarding their work. Some artists accept those comments and adjust their work at times, which leads to even greater success.
    The days of an artist handing their work over to a gallery and expecting them to make it all happen for them are over. This is a different scene today and it requires both the artist and the gallery to work together to generate the shared objective. A lot of that is with social media. There also needs to be a great deal of trust on both the gallery owner and the artist ends. For example, the gallery needs to know for sure that the artist is not going to go behind the gallery’s back and try to undercut them out of a sale, or deal differently than the agreed upon terms. Once that sort of trust is lost, my relationship with that artist is over, and I move on.
    I keep the number of my artists to a reasonable number in order to afford each artist a good degree of attention. I don’t hold a lot of their work in a bin, if it is not selling. I try to rotate their work out regularly. When I do honestly feel that I am not the right gallery for a particular artist’s work, then I pick up the phone, and try to get them in touch with another gallery where I feel they may fit. It is easier for a gallery to do that at times.
    I also try to build my artists outside of my gallery with other galleries. I realize that any artist typically needs more than one gallery to survive. If I can assist an artist in doing well in another gallery along side of mine, then they are generally loyal and more productive for me as well. I never place myself above the artist, and let them know that I want to work with them. This allows for a good level of communication and exchange of ideas. I hold a great deal of responsibility to my artists, however I let them know as well that I am relying on them to provide me with work to keep my doors open. I try to treat every artist the way I would want to be treated. That goes for payment as well. I have a check in the mail the day the client’s check has cleared, and I know that they are satisfied with the painting. I have never had an artist phone me up in my 34 years as a gallery owner looking for a check. With the check to the artist, I include a copy of the bill of sale, with the buyers contact information, as well as the charge receipt. This insures the artist that I sold the work for exactly what I claim I did. It also allows them to keep a catalog of where their work is. One day there may be a retrospective of their work, and they may need to know where to find certain works. Other galleries refuse to do this, however it has always served me well, and I have never regretted it. To other gallery owners I recommend that you truly get to know your artists personally. Talk to them about their lives and what is going on with them. The more you are concerned for them, and understand them, the greater the working relationship will be as well.

    1. Thank you for your insight from the gallery point of view. It sounds as if you work with your artists in a very professional manner. I have tried to work with all galleries with which I have been associated, some more appreciative than others. I have placed their names on advertising in an upscale art magazine for which I paid. Nary a word of thank you for the free ad.
      I have had some very bad experiences with supposedly reputable galleries: refusal to answer a phone call when the caller ID is noted; refusal to respond to emails; and refusal to pay for items sold. Another gallery in a well known southern California beach town lost two pieces with no record of what happened. No inventory; no sales slips. Another gallery closing in the middle of the night with no reimbursement for a brochure I was designing. So many of my gallery experiences have been negative. Fortunately, I now am in a gallery in Taos, NM, which is professional and ethical.

  7. Our gallery – brand new one, has been opened almost 11 months. We have had quite a few challenges from everything from shipping disasters to artists’ temper tantrums. All, probably due to communication issues between the gallery and the artists. We are located in a very small town that is quite remote. We are about 2 hours from anything with a big box store or a decent sized grocery story. We realize that our market is from those areas that have more of a celebration of the arts than we have here. Our artists, however are all local, within 10 miles of our gallery. While trying to be understanding of our artists having blow-ups, we do not understand the personal attacks. The relationship between our gallery and our artists is usually good. We share how we will promote them and their art and we pay them at the beginning of the month following a sale.

    The situation we have now with COVID-19 has really put a strain on our business because just as we were getting attention from collectors and visitors from far away, we had to shut down as art galleries are not “essential businesses”. We are trying to promote the art on-line through social media, our online store and through American Art Collector’s magazine. Our focus was and still is to bring very talented artists into the limelight and to promote business in our little town. I have been following you ever since you opened at Pine Top. I value your expertise and insight. Thank you very much for my opportunity to vent.

  8. Oh I agree fully. I’ve been with three galleries in my thirty year career and only the first one was a great communicator. He launched and grew my career with me. I only parted ways with him when he retired. The other two felt like I was just stoke and a resource for them despite the nice smiles. In the end I had to leave each of them as they were guilty of not doing the things you’ve suggested. Its hurt my career. I’ve even had the last gallery change the dates of my last exhibition a week out without asking me. This was one of the oldest established galleries in my city. I only had a tenth of the attendance to that exhibition and hence sold poorly. Communication and planning are essential for both artist and gallery. It works so much better when we work as a common goal not separately.

  9. How about you pay artists. I’m not sure how so many galleries think it is OK to take work from artist but not pay them until it is sold. Do you think an artist can go get a bunch of paint and brushes from a store and tell that store they will pay for those supplies after they sell the painting that they are going to make with those supplies? Can a gallery tell their landlord that they will pay their lease after they have had enough customers? Most businesses would laugh or kick you out the door if you had the audacity to do what consignment galleries do. Just because you can take advantage of someone doesn’t mean you should.

  10. We are in total agreement with your insights Jason.

    In my 50+ years as a full-time professional artist, I have had dealings with many dozens of galleries across the United states and internationally. The vast majority were very positive …. six were not. My wife, who is my executive administrator, took care of quality control, selecting pieces for exhibitions and galleries, invoicing, packing, shipping etc. Many of the galleries have told us the most organized and professional out of all the artists they represent. Because of our reliability, we became “business partners” with our galleries, promoting them at every opportunity. We knew that their success was our success. Friendships built quickly and we enjoyed “special privileges” such direct purchases, advances, special showings and in studio visits, one gallery owner even flying from California to Vermont where our studio was. She would purchase as much work as could be taken back on the plane and have other work shipped. When there was a serious illness, some galleries sent an advance on future sales. Many are now retired and we still remain in touch with us. Friends and family as you suggested Jason.

    I could set my watch when payments arrived as many of the galleries paid on the 1st of every month, like clockwork. We could count on those galleries. A few others had irregular payment schedules that we tolerated. A few had to be “coaxed” for payment every month. I suspect they had cash flow problems.

    The bad experiences we had were due to the galleries NOT doing what you suggested, Jason. Three galleries closed without warning and disappeared with all my work and that of the other artists. One gallery was in business for over 30 years and just vanished with my work. No one seems to know where this individual went. They represented me for over 10 years and had sold a lot of my work. I retained an attorney and was able to get back my stolen work and payment for sold works from another gallery who was told by my attorney that this was a felony, “Grand Theft”, and charges would be pressed. Three days later I got a return shipment with payment for sold works. We have learned that when a gallery stops communicating and does not answer the phone or emails, it’s time to pull out.

    All in all, we have had wonderful relationships with the vast majority of the galleries that have represented us but we are now much more cautious in our business dealings because of a small handful of bad actors that burned us and the other artists they represented.

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