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

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of 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

14 Comments

  1. Great post, Jason –
    You and I have exchanged emails on this topic, and you bring important points to the discussion, including valid reasons that a gallery might not pay an artist immediately. Again, it comes back to communication. If I know the gallery’s policy then I can wait for the check, no problem.
    The lack of communication is frustrating. I have yet to have a gallery inform me when a piece sells (I’d love to celebrate that moment!), or to let me know what they are doing to promote the gallery – I’d love to be able to post about my galleries on social media, or to notify people on my mailing list who might be local to the gallery for a show. Yes, many artists are ‘quirky’, and many have trouble with meeting deadlines – but there are many of us who are easy, friendly, and willing to work the business side of making and selling art.
    Thanks for the post and the opportunity to talk about things ‘from the other side’.

    .

  2. Once again, great blog Jason!
    I am an artist and hearing this information meant for gallerists helps me to understand the equation more clearly. I will pass this along to some friends of mine that own galleries hoping that they too will get some ideas and encouragement.
    As an artist, I appreciate consistency with payment. One gallery I work with does this without fail. I know that if I’m getting money from a sale or rental, the check will arrive mid-month. This is invaluable for more reasons than I can articulate, but trust and respect are at the top of my list.
    Another aspect that I fully appreciate when working with ANYONE, is timely communication. This is also at the top of my list. For artists today the amount of business related tasks is, now more than historically, ever expanding. I find that days and weeks have gone by with more business related tasks than art making. This ratio, over time, is eventually hurting the galleries, the collectors, and artists
    alike.
    So, this is why I continue to appreciate Jason and his motivating mission to the educate and encourage smarter practices on both sides of the counter.
    I hope that many gallerists and artists feel the same as I, and are ready to continue growing better practices as we collectively strengthen the art market now and in the future.

  3. Thanks for helping the galleries see things from the artist’s side. I’m an artist’s wife, and I see it all.

    Picture an artist, trying to decide whether he’s really an artist, wondering what to paint next, what would connect with the art lovers out there. He or she hears a very loud silence from the galleries. He doesn’t know what’s happening. Maybe the art is in the darkness of a storeroom. Maybe a bunch of people just came in and loved the work. But all the artist hears is silence.

    Okay, maybe the artist should just call or email the gallery and find out what’s going on. But the artist has no idea whether the gallery has 20 enthusiastic lookers inside, or just the owner, and says, “I don’t want to bother them.” Additionally, some galleries aren’t that great at responding to emails.

    I know they’re busy, but it would be nice if the galleries would touch base with us regularly, maybe once a month. Maybe 6 people “almost bought a painting” that week. The artist would love to hear what they said. He would love to see a photo of his art on the gallery wall, something that would create energy, more excitement for painting. If the gallery is worried that the artist is busy working, it’s okay to leave a voicemail or send an email.

    On the other hand, if those paintings really did land in the storage room, taking up space, getting scratched, and gathering dust, the artist needs to know – the sooner the better – so arrangements can be made for the gallery to ship them back. Or we can come get them. Then the artist could at least begin the dreaded task of looking for another gallery (and that’s a whole ‘nother story).

    Our favorite galleries write checks as soon as the work is approved and the check or credit card clears. But once a month is good, too, if we know what to expect.

    If at all possible, the phone call to celebrate a sale should happen as soon as the gallery door closes behind that collector. That produces a “happy dance” around here.

    After all, artists (and their wives) are people, too.

  4. I am an artist represented by a gallery that follows many of the points you’ve made in the blog. He calls to communicate about the weather “hurricanes” and he will call almost immediately when a collector buys a piece or even shows interest in a piece. He will cut me a check immediately upon his receiving payment for a sale. Part of that is that he trust his clientele. So much that he once cut me a check before receiving payment. I couldn’t ask for a better gallery representation. Consequently I always give him first shot at any new works. So yes it does pay off to treat your artist like family. I know that I don’t feel that way about other galleries I have dealt with and some of them treated me as though I was going to cheat them or steal their commissions by selling directly to one of their clients , which I would never do. It is hard to find galleries like this one as they are becoming more rare all of the time

  5. As the owner of a year old gallery (in Southern Tasmania) we follow all of these points. We ring the artist immediately upon the sale as we love to hear their excitement. We pay our artists within 7 days. It is their money not ours and as such it doesn’t come into our cash flow. Our cash flow for our overheads has to be managed from our commission. We can never understand a gallery keeping the artists’ money for a month or more. This has worked well for us, with our artists trusting us and giving us their best work. Their best work has built our reputation as one of the loveliest, high standard galleries in Tasmania and this is reflected in sales. We treat our artists like family for without our artists we would have no gallery.

  6. As a person who makes the payments for a small gallery/gift shop in the UK, the thing that surprises me most about this interesting discussion is the mention of cheques ! We’ve been paying our artists by bank transfer for several years (with a follow-up email detailing the sales) – no cheques to write, no envelopes, no printing, no stamps, far quicker and the money’s in the artist’s account straightaway. We pay everyone in the first week of each month, even if they have only sold a single card.

    1. Yes Thelma, we in Australia also do bank transfer with follow up email and a copy of the bank transfer – everything is done electronically, except for the phone call saying “Congratulations we just sold one of your art works today.”

    2. In the USA, bank transfers are very uncommon between people. I don’t know the history, but I’m sure there’s a politician or lobbyist at the center of it. Part of it may be distrust of the system, too. Checks are still common here (and I have a water bill that I can only pay by check, not electronically). Many Americans pay bills online without writing a physical check, but I wouldn’t be surprised if checks still outnumber those.

  7. I think you have covered the main issues here Jason! As an emerging artist I need to be paid as soon as possible! I have put everything into my artwork & sometimes I am penniless! Communication is essential for any sort of relationship to be successful…

  8. As an artist who has been exhibiting in galleries for decades – with more and less success from one decade to another – I want to say thank you for this article. I wish that all gallery owners in the world could read it, take it seriously and adopt its practices. What strikes me most is the suggestion that gallery owners could work to build better relationships with artists. Good communication from galleries to artists is unusual even when the relationship is financially active and almost non-existent if things slow down. I know that many gallery owners think they’re too busy to make time for encouraging their artists, but it feels sometimes that an artist’s only value is in the most recent sale.

  9. Yes, thank you Jason, for this article. I would like to print this article and create check points when approaching galleries in hope that they would do all that you specify you have learned to do and to me seem to be good practices. As an artist that has yet to exhibit in galleries, I’m surprised that a gallery wouldn’t contact the artist when their work was sold, especially if it is an artist who’s new and or emerging and gallery know that. It makes me think that I would call gallery once a week and talk to personnel about the reaction to my work irregardless of the possibility of being a bit intrusive on the time. Artists need to initiate communication if the gallery is not proactive about it. I think that now, how I’ll actually aproach the situations we’ll see.

  10. Great points on all Jason. As a rare artist/gallery owner wearing two hats, I have always put myself in my artists shoes since I am one myself. I really do think of everyone as family and call regularly just to chat and talk about their upcoming shows and plans as well as sharing everyone’s successes on social media and in my newsletters. I also pay right away, I always have felt, that it’s the artist’s money first, I wouldn’t have my gallery if they didn’t entrust me with the inventory to sell. Clients do understand that all sales are final, but like you, I’ve had to do an occassional return or swap. Sometimes it’s worth it especially when you are building long term and repeat clients . Communication really is key. Hard work and sales ability are also paramount to having success in this business.

  11. As an artist, I understand the fear in sharing collector emails with artists. BUT, getting collector feedback is so, so key to our inspiration, productivity, direction, self-esteem…you name it. Perhaps some gallerists share this information in a timely way, but for those who don’t, I keep trying to think of a way to keep artists in the communication loop in ways that would benefit all three groups. For the artist: knowing the comments being made about our work…the questions being asked…the locations in which our art ends up…the day a piece sells…etc. For the collector and gallerist: more of the story behind the pieces or a better feeling for what inspires us…our processes…new pieces in the works…new directions being considered. Is there any way to bring us all together in communication that keeps the money flowing through the gallerist?

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