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 the 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!

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 the Art Business Academy. 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.

6 Comments

  1. Well this was interesting reading and good advice all round; being a once upon a time gallery owner & also holding a paint brush for forty years my biggest gripe is how many artworks stolen from under my nose.

  2. One thing which I strongly believe in is applying the golden rule of “doing unto others as you would have done unto you” with my artists. I try to go the extra mile with them, and look out for their best interests. Without them, my gallery would be nothing. I am able to help assist, and advance them at times by also placing them in another gallery along with mine. That is something that most galleries would never consider doing. I realize however that the more successful they are, the better off I am. It is much easier for a gallery with connections to pick up the phone and make that happen. I also spend a lot of time observing the public’s response to each of my artists, and hear both the positive and negative comments daily. It is information that the artist is typically not able to hear, because they are not present with the work all the time, and the public is more honest with their feelings and opinions when the artist is not in their company. Once a year I share that information with each artist privately, and it is up to the artist to do what they may with that information. They are more apt to be more successful if they key into the positive aspects of what I hear, consistently and make adjustments to some of the negative responses , if they are consistently echoed from the public. I am careful in how I couch my input, because I well understand that an artist has to be true to his or herself as an artist.

    I am unlike most gallery owners I know, in that I am completely transparent with my artists. The artist is paid as soon as the work is delivered, and they receive a copy of the bill of sale along with the charge receipt. They have all the contact information with the client, for I feel that if there is a retrospective of their work one day, that they should be able to locate those works. There has to be a level of trust between the gallery and the artist. I have to look out for them, and expect that they will not try to undercut me, and deal with the client directly. If that trust is broken, my relationship is broken with that artist as well.

    I require a contract with each of my artists, however I realize that some artists have different circumstances within their personal and professional life which requires me to be flexible with each artist with regard to their contract. Understanding each of my artists, and striving to work with them in a harmonious relationship is a key objective, however it does not come without its challenges at times.

    1. One of my galleries doesn’t have a website, so I will pay their commission if my artwork sells on my e-commerce website—even if the customer didn’t find the artwork from the gallery. I feel like it is only fair since they are investing in me by displaying my artwork in retail space. You sound like the kind of gallery owner any artist would truly be lucky to have represent them.

  3. Integrity
    … perhaps the most important quality on both sides of the artist/gallery owner equation!

    I’ve found integrity to be critical whether I’m working with a gallery owner, or a licensee of my artwork, or a publisher, or another artist/ collaborator, or my direct customers. As an artist/creative I need to have high integrity, to make sure that my word is golden — that I’m honest, I honor my commitments, and I give my best. Ditto on the other side!

    My guess is that the Gallery Owners who read your column are ones with high integrity, however, all of you wonderful Gallery Owners please keep in mind that many of us artists come to you a bit bruised – whether it’s because our images are being stolen on-line or we’re healing from prior collaborations with unscrupulous Gallery Owners (such as some who advertise ‘Support local artists’ then stock the gallery with Chinese knock-offs of our designs, yes this happened), or we are simply uncomfortable marketing ourselves. Perhaps our quirkiness and challenging traits come from a place of bruised egos?

    I agree Jason that developing a strong relationship and keeping open communication is key and thank you Ray Wiggs for pointing out the Golden Rule – I couldn’t agree more. As an artist, I wish all Gallery Owners had your integrity!

  4. As a gallery owner – CHECKLISTS are so important !
    Firstly for our gallery to make sure we cover everything: from the first meet with an artist, right through to the other end of the process of follow up with the clients who made the purchase of that artist’s works, to make sure everyone is happy.
    And also a comprehensive checklist for the artist – we never assume that an artist knows how to present works and what our gallery prefers, what we like in a bio etc etc. So we make an easy tick off list that an artist can go through so that when works are delivered we as a gallery don’t have to keep asking for more and more information.
    Totally on board with everything from RWGallery – we make prompt payments to artists the day after the sale, so they get immediate gratification for their work.
    It is important for a gallery to immediately give the artist a detailed inventory of their works when they arrive in the gallery. This gives the artist peace of mind that we are looking after their creations. We update it straight after a sale – no mislaid artworks yet !
    Communication builds trust and good relationships. We have artists from all ranges of the spectrum, from totally professional in everything they do, to very random artists with no communication skills at all. The gallery learns what to expect from artists who are not professional. We love them all, as without them we would not have a gallery 🙂
    As an artist having sold in galleries previously and had some not so wonderful experiences (not getting paid is the worst), it has been invaluable to me in setting up our gallery, as I know what artists need.
    Great article.

Leave a Reply

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