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!

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

Learn more and order today.

2015-01-07 14_43_10-CSS Button Generator

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

11 Comments

  1. One of the things that inspires me to paint, is knowing someone has bought my art. I can’t tell you how many times I have finished major paintings ~ the same day a big sale is closed.

    That said, I have had galleries who think an artist likes to be surprised by a check arriving in the mail. So they don’t take a moment to email and say one is in the pipeline.

    They’ve missed the opportunity to inspire that big painting finished with brilliance ~ and left the artist wondering if anyone wants the painting anyway. Knowing a gallery ~ or a friend ~ cares enough to let me know I have accounts receivable, is truly what working together looks like! My gallerists who have done this, get my best paintings and sell far more than any other galleries I have ever worked with!

    To all the gallery owners out there I have one question.
    How would YOU feel if you couldn’t see your accounts receivable?

  2. I have been dealing art for over 30 years, and throughout that time, I have always felt a responsibility to the artist. They are depending upon me to make a living, therefore I cannot take on a large amount of artists, but rather concentrate on only a specific number in order to give them plenty of hanging time and attention. My goal is to build an artist within my market and then make sure he or she has another gallery as well in some other locale to help them prosper. I will at times pick up the phone and call another gallery director and tell them that I have a particular artist whom I feel would be a good candidate for their gallery. I pay close attention to other markets and the nature of other galleries and keep note. It is much easier for me to approach a gallery with success, than the artist themselves. When I feel that my gallery is simply not the right market for them, I am honest, and I try to relocate them to another gallery. I don’t hold onto their work and tie it up simply to have inventory. My artists all know that I have their best interests at heart.
    When I sell a work of art, and it is delivered and approved, I immediately cut a check to the artist, and include a copy of the bill of sale with the credit charge. My artists all receive the contact information on their collectors, in case there is a retrospective of their work one day and they need to find a particular work of art. There has to be a level of trust between the gallery and the artist. I establish that, and my artists appreciate it. I hold my artists to that trust as well.
    I also listen very carefully to the public and I will tell my artists what I am hearing about their work, both positive and negative. I am very tactful how I translate that information, as I do not want to injure the artist in any way. It is up to the artist to use that information if they should so desire. In many cases it has made them more successful, because they are able to tap into what the public finds the most appealing about their work and play that up. It may be something like the texture they use, the lighting, the format, the color schemes, etc. On the negative side it may be something simple like the framing. It all can make a big difference. All in all…I treat my artists with respect and let them know how valued they are. I also try to understand where they are going with their art, and what their short-term and long-term goals are. Should they ever have a question, they know that they can pick up the phone and speak directly with me.

  3. some gallery owners are also artists. sometimes they then compete with their own artists for sales. If they paint the same subject matter. This doesn’t make for a good or honest relationship.

  4. I have just decided to take my passion as an artist seriously. It has been a hobby for me but not any longer. Years ago, my work was accepted for a solos show at the Drawing Center in New York. The Gallery director absolutely loved my pen & ink drawings. Ina few moths the director was replaced. When I met the new director, she said that she would be in touch with me but never responded. I did not know whom to approach about this and gave up the chase. It was discouraging and I have since never approached a gallery owner.

  5. I am not a gallery owner, but I am an Artist’s Liaison for a gallery. I am also an artist for that same gallery, which puts me in a good position to see both sides of the relationship.

    As an Artists’ Liaison, my job is to communicate directly with the gallery’s artists, to inform them about all gallery policy, to administer contracts, to arrange the gallery’s show schedule and to handle the physical details of gallery life, including installation of art, scheduling drop-off and pick-up dates, arranging storage of artworks not currently hanging, checking artwork in and out of the gallery, and being available via email to answer artist’s questions. I communicate directly with the Board of Directors and answer directly to them. (And, yes, I also vacuum floors, paint walls, make signs, labels and posters, and help with show openings).

    As an artist, holding this position has made me very aware of the other side of the coin, so to speak. As you say, Jason, communication is the key, both for the artist and the gallery. When there is open communication, everyone’s job is made easier, and artists and gallery owners have a better chance of achieving their common goal; putting art in the hands of collectors.

  6. I’ve sold 300+ of my paintings on my own without any representation. So far I’ve avoided galleries because I’ve heard a lot more horror stories than success stories from other artists about dealing with galleries. Like you mentioned, pieces get lost, stolen, damaged, the art sells and the artist takes a long time to get paid, the art sells, the gallery closes and the artist never gets paid, the artist had to do all the promotion, etc.. etc… At this point in my career, I am starting to think about approaching some reputable galleries. I appreciate your perspective as a gallery owner, and I feel I’ve learned a lot from your articles. I often read articles about the business side of art written by other artists, but it’s not super easy to find gallery owners who share their secrets lol Thank you!

  7. I am presently a member of a co-op gallery, which has its own set of challenges. I have shown at other galleries, two of them community galleries, both of which treated me very well indeed. The other private gallery also was a bistro and served as a hub for music, gatherings and art. The owners are artists themselves, and one ran the local Artwalk for years
    Both became good friends and ended up helping me when it came time for me to move up North.

  8. Thank you for sharing. I am an artist and recently open a gallery, here in Harlem, NY, calley the Underground Gallery. Originally, I was selling my own works, now that I am representing 2 other artists, things are getting complicated. This article is a treasure chest for me. I learned so much from the first reading. The plan is to read each sections seperately until it sinks in. I will used the informations to the best of my ability. Thanks again.

    1. I am an artist and I would agree with you that a quick payment practice is good. I understand operating a business can be challenging. I think galleries should treat artists like their customers.

      I joined a boutique gallery in Old Town Scottsdale this past September and quickly had success with pieces being sold however I still have not been paid by the gallery from sales over 6 months ago. This gallery has been in business for over 15 years and sadly, I believe they do this to other artists. The other crazy part is the gallery owner comes across extremely friendly. She’s an amazing salesperson and customers love her. In fact I had another gallery owner express how he visits her gallery for tips on customer service and sales. Now, wouldn’t that be great if she applied the same service to her Artists?

      My career before an artist was in the hospitality industry, first in sales and then managing hotels. The hospitality industry strives on great service and they MUST be treat their staff equally important as their guests! I know not all hotels have this figured out either but with the properties I’ve worked with – we believed that if you treat your team well they will in return treat your guests well. All common sense I know but with a few galleries I’ve worked with, this has not been the case. For some reason they think Artists owe them something because they are selling their works.

      To answer your question on what artists want from galleries… treat us as like a customer… better yet a repeat customer!

  9. Pay on time is really important. All the rest is, too, but once an artist has had to cajole a gallery for payment that is past due, word gets around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *