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

16 Comments

  1. Well said and with gentleness and care. How we communicate with people is an art in itself. As an artist I appreciated upfront truth said with kindness and an understanding of individuals quirks (not making quick judgements from these). I’ve appreciated when my gallery owner talks with me about my work and even spends time looking at my sketchbook, offers feedback from customers and shows interest in my family or personal life (this can all be brief). He also calls when a piece is going out to a potential buyer or when it sells and does pay within two weeks – which is great! Jason your gallery has done well because you care about people and offer them your best work. I believe that’s what we should all strive for. Thank you.

  2. I always email a photo to my artist of his or her work once it is hung on the walls if they haven’t been present for the hanging. I ring the artist on the day of the sale to share my excitement that their work has sold and discuss where the work is going and a little something about the client if possible,
    Payment is always within 7-10 days depending on the arrival of the piece and I check with the client that the work has arrived safely and that they are happy. The artist is then paid immediately. I can never understand the artist money being used for a gallery’s cash flow as to me it’s not my money it belongs to the artist. Your blogs have been great to read and it was one of my artist who told me about you. Two years into my little gallery in Tasmania I have learnt many lessons but also am encouraged that I have a great team of artists to work with.

  3. My experience with galleries – notably UK based ones are legion, but I shall not attempt to cover any of them in here.
    Reading about and speaking with an assortment of USA galleries since my 2014 arrival onto these shores, Jason (who I first met at the 2013 AZ Fine Art Expo) seems to be one of the very few who has his bases well covered.
    I have said so many times before – even on this site – it remains imperative that the artist also builds up a good relationship with the galley from the onset of the cooperation between the two. It is not appropriate for a gallery to have to prompt, coerce or remind any artist on their books to produce works regularly – and on time. I’ve reminded galleries of this myself on every single occasion and which raised a few eyebrows. Not because of the vehemence in which I expressed myself – but solely that I had recognized a large and potential problem beforehand, which they could then see – would never happen.
    A good point that all galleries need to address is that the large majority of artists approach galleries with varying degrees of hand-wringing humility and self-effacement, without any short-or-long-term plan in sight.
    Conversely, I have approached galleries with a business ethos from which all would benefit and with the total absence of any problems. This entailed promising a steady and constant stream of sellable art. In short, they realized that I was totally sure of myself and my work, and that I knew which direction I was going – towards the top and to become of of the few (foreign) artists whose work would influence the American art world for ever more – (As I did with the British automotive art world) – I am still irrevocably of that opinion.
    I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t left several unsuspecting gallery owners somewhat open-mouthed, which greatly amused me.
    “Believe and Achieve”

    Arthur Benjamins

  4. Thank you for this post Jason. I am a second generation art gallery owner as my mom started the gallery in 1973. My husband and I have been with her since 1999 and have definitely learned a lot over the years. What I really like from your post is the idea of changing the time of payments to the artists. I never did understand why we have to “close out” the month before and then payment is issued the following month. As the bookkeeper I suppose I should have questioned this sooner! I am definitely going to look into changing this format.
    Your posts are always enlightening for me as I enjoy learning and you constantly educate.
    Thank you!
    Maria Gonser

  5. Jason, your point of communication is critical … the leap of representation is too often followed by silence. If the work sells in a timely manner the artist will hear from them … if even a few months drag by, there is little to no feedback.
    The work languishes and neither the gallery nor the artist is pleased with the situation. But too often there is no attempt at strategy to change that. Should we try other paintings, what about an intro night, maybe feature your work in an ad; what are your thoughts? What can we both do to generate sales?
    I would like to see the gallery/artist dynamic elevated more to a colleague partnership. Both parties must understand their mutual dependency and work together.

  6. From my position as an artist, it was fascinating to read the ‘other side’ of the gallery/artist relationship. I had no idea of all the duties present in running a gallery. My respect for those who run a gallery properly – just went up several notches. Well written, Jason.

  7. The 26 years I’ve spent working with galleries have brought lots of experiences. I’ve noticed that communication with galleries is often one-sided – my side. And I’m shy about bothering them. So, I loved your comment about the gallery calling or emailing regularly to let me know what the lookers are saying about my work. A pic of my work on the wall would be great. I also love it when the gallery calls the very minute a happy buyer leaves after buying one of my paintings. We do a BIG dance around here when that happens, even when it happens often. It keeps me excited about painting when I know people are excited about my work. Conversely, the gallery should call when things dry up. I’m always happy to swap out art or come get it. But please don’t let it gather dust in a dark corner of the gallery or closet without telling me. Also, besides being the proof for that “lost painting,” signed consignment agreements from one gallery were the evidence required by the insurance company when 14 of my paintings perished in a fire.

  8. What a great article, thank you!

    We probably overcommunicate with our artists! We send them lots of emails and try to set up socials just for them. We encourage them to attend our events to meet the customers and other artists.

    My husband writes our website so we can always add more to the database of art. We recently added specific locations of where each piece of art is located, when something is checked out by an artist, etc. We hope to eventually host websites for our artists as well and help them with inventory management if they like.

    Finally, love the idea of paying more than the 30 days we do now. That’s a great tip we are going to incorporate right away.

  9. I am not an experienced artist or a gallery owner. I am an officer with a small non-profit art organization. Communication was vital to my business career, so why did I forget that it is just as important, maybe more, within the artistic community? We have a few members who choose not to follow our minimal rules for art shows and assume that exceptions for them will be allowed. A great deal of time is spent in justifying how to allow these artists to ignore regulations that were carefully created by other artists who easily comply. But no one has simply sat down and talked, gotten to know them or tried to make them understand why we need their cooperation.

    Thank you Jason for reminding me of the importance of communication. I plan to meet with an especially difficult and arrogant artist to better understand her behavior, in a public place of course!

  10. Good article. As an artist I do have a common problem. On more than one occasion at more than one of the galleries that represent me (my favorite places and people) I have found wrong or no info by my pieces. I realize the art gets shifted around constantly but having the wrong price and info is not good for artist or gallery.

  11. Communication is the key for me as an artist. I left one gallery because the owner never answered my emails. If I don’t receive some encouragement then I begin to loose interest in the gallery. When the gallery communicates with me and is positive and personal I try harder and am more motivated. Lack of communication shows me they are not interested or motivated to sell my work. I consider being in a gallery like a personal relationship.

  12. As an artist it seems as though in our area that galleries expect us to frame our work. One has to make some money before they can afford wood frames. To have to do this to get into a gallery is very expensive. This has prevented me from presenting my work at most galleries. I do pastels, which, I understand, is not a framers or gallery owners favorite. It does make it quite a bit of a challenge to get represented.

  13. As a gallery manager of a non-profit,I see the same issues.
    I do like to get to know the artists that I work with. Sometimes they feel like extended family. In fact sadly one of the artists I felt close too just recently died of cancer and I really got emotional. I had seen her son grow from a little boy to a teenager.
    I put a lot of effort into paying our artists within a few days of doing our bookkeeping for the month. Sometimes on a big sale I do pay early or within a few days. A very important issue.
    I have been doing this for four 1/2 years and so far have not lost any art.
    A pretty good track record.
    Since I am working with about 40 artists, it can get challenging at times.
    Seems I get one artist a year that I can not work effectively with and request they find another gallery. We have a written set of Gallery rules that artists are constantly pushing to not follow what we want.. I don’t have extra time for extremely moody artists. Take up a lot of my valuable time and I get less interested in promoting an artist’s art. Simply put. There are a lot of artists where I live. I have more art than we can put in our small gallery. So don’t give a gallery owner an excuse to not represent you.

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