Ask a Gallery Owner | Should Artists Seek an Agent to Represent Them?

Artists' agent

I recently received the following email asking about artists’ agents:

Dear Jason,

I have joined a discussion line on LinkedIn and we are discussing the pros and cons of hiring art agents to represent our work to galleries, etc. It seems as though there are many people out there who are glad to take advantage of struggling artists and are asking for up front fees without providing any supporting information re what they will do to market our work. I have written a lengthy statement about what I would expect from an agent BEFORE I would sign up with someone.

Basically, I expect a plan of action or a prospectus regarding the service — much like we get from real estate agents who we are interviewing for selling our houses. Well, this has led to questions about where do we find agents and how can we screen them. My thought was we might try doing a Google search or ask some gallery owners for input.

*And this leads me to my question of you.* What are your thoughts about art agents? Do you, as a gallery owner who is very supportive of artists and very skilled in the business end of the art business, prefer to have an agent present the artist’s work or have the artist him/herself do the initial presentation (I know your expectations and guidelines for seeking gallery representation)? What should we (artists) expect from an agent? Do you have any recommendations about where we can find a list of credible agents? What are your suggestions for retainer fees and fees for service?

M

My response:

M,

Thank you for the note and the question. I understand why working with a good agent would be appealing to an artist – the idea of having someone else take over the business side of things sounds almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, for most artists it is just that, too good to be true. This is especially true for artists early in their careers. Well-established and experienced agents want to work with artists who already have a track-record. For an emerging artists it is going to take more effort to find a good agent and convince them to work with you than it would to get out and build relationships with galleries. That being the case, I would recommend an artist devote their efforts to securing gallery representation.

From a gallery-owner’s perspective, I have certainly worked with agents over the years and it can certainly free an artist up to focus on their creative efforts. Truth told however, I would prefer to work directly with the artist in most cases. I am more likely to sell an artist’s work well if I have a good working relationship directly with the artist.

If you are going to work with an agent, you would want to talk to other artists they represent and get a sense of how successful they’ve been in promoting the artists’ work and how proactive they are. I would hesitate to pay too much in up-front fees – as a gallery I don’t make any money from an artist unless I am selling their work – it shouldn’t be any different for an agent. Pay based on performance.

Share Your Experience

Have you worked or do you currently work with an agent? What has your experience been and what would you recommend when an artist is seeking agent representation? Share your thoughts in the 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.

25 Comments

  1. I have always been fascinated by how the fee structure would work when you work with an agent? I think about that fact that up until now I have worked with galleries directly myself. They get anywhere from 30% (coop gallery) to 50% of the retail price. If I get an agent, I assume they also want a percentage of my work, let’s say 20% since I don’t know what the going rate is. So, that means then that I am paying 70% in commissions and retaining 30%. Obviously I can’t raise my prices only for the ones the agents sell, so unless I can raise my prices substantially for everyone, using an agent will actually cut into the income I make from my art. Now, admittedly the whole idea of an agent is to sell more–the volume concept of wholesaling… but nothing can deny that I am going to have to be working harder and longer, for less money for hour.

    Have I missed something in this thinking process?

  2. I have had a mixture of experiences with my agents over the past twenty years, but these experiences are valuable and I am grateful for them all; good and bad. I have also sold hundreds of paintings myself through holding art shows at various interesting venues and through my own connections and out of all of this experience I have come to understand that the ideal situation is to have a truly great agent by your side. A great agent is one who believes in your art and knows and cares about you personally and also knows alot about art in general. Having a good agent gives your work instant credibility and certainly allows you more time in the studio.

    Its not easy to gain gallery representation, our work has be really good and we have to be consistent with our output, both in quality and quantity. Its a huge decision for an agent to represent an artist, it takes alot of energy, time and money let alone emotional imput. For a good agent to represent an artist it’s far more complicated than just hanging a painting on the wall. I have had some great conversations with my agents over time and learned alot from them. Making art sales requires a very carefully balanced partnership between the agent, the artist and the client. If the agent and the artist get along well together it can be hugely rewarding for both of you and the client is the one who benefits as a result.

    I suggest you get to know the agent and gallery that you are interested in before you approach that gallery. Go to some art shows that are being held there, mingle with the artists, see if you feel your work would fit in with the gallery or not. Chat with the clients at opening shows and find out what they love about and are looking for with their art experience. Be a genuine art lover and customer yourself.

    Its very interesting to note that some galleries may look great on the surface but then you hear some insider stories and realise they are not for you afterall. Don’t be in a hurry for representation, concentrate on creating great art, enter local art competitions and just generally try to get a feel for what is hapening in your local art scene to begin with. Then, once you know your local art market you will be much more informed before you approach any galleries. Once you start mingling in the right circles you will soon find out the good the bad and the ugly or beautiful. Doing your research is the best approach I believe (having learned from experience.)

    Any artist who is fortunate enough to have a great agent representing them is very blessed indeed, it forms the complete circle of creating and sharing art with the rest of the world. The secret to success with any agent/artist relationship is to communicate and develop a good understanding of what is expected from you and what you are likely to expect from the agent. You need to really work together as a team with your agent to unite your wonderful art with the right person who wishes to live with it.

    1. Cindy: Thanks for that great information and helping newbies get things going, much appreciated. Soooo much to learn!

      Best regards,

      James

  3. Having your own agent/manager to deal with art dealers is they way to go. True artists don’t let themselves get polluted with the commercial scum of the Earth..

    1. My relationship with my gallery owners is wonderful and doesn’t make me feel polluted in any way. Rather it is an uplifting relationship with mutual respect knowing that we are working together. The last thing I would consider them as is commercial scum. Perhaps you have had a bad experience. I’m sure there are many artists who have but my years of working with galleries has been positive and good. We are a team. I create, they sell and the buyer gets to live with something that adds to their life.

  4. hey I have read most of your comments and I must say its something I have not thought about, I was aslo looking for an agents but still afraid to lose my art work because it take time to make this beautiful babies, so I dont no if I need one or not but for now I will be my own agents and see how far I can go, I am very young and hot a lot of time on my hands, so let me fight on my own and see where it leads me, thats every one.

  5. I must say, I’m glad I’ve attained an agent before I read this article. Most that has been written is the complete opposite of the relationship I have with my agent. The point that standouts for me is the impression that an agent is a salesperson.

    I see my agent as a partner who connects my capacity to prestige opportunities not a door to door salesman trying to sell a vacuum cleaner. But also it is interesting to read the reference to the percentage of income. I relate to the analogy ” percentage of something is more than a percentage of nothing.”

    In this discussion, agent is being missed used and the commenters are referring to a salesperson.

  6. Hello.. I am a wildlife Jewelry Designer with over 4,000 Original Hand carved designs to my name and going Strong ..Every thing i carve is done by using tooth picks..I do my own molds and casting and finishing product..and the people that follow me, buy on a regular Base but the pool of followers grow slowly??Im not a Marketer or Rep.All i want to do is my work..I sell on Etsy and E-bay and some on my website..Iv tried to do it all but things Suffer when I do so..Im considered by most of being the most Prolific designer in the world to date..I will let other make that clam..I have sent out letters and Sample to a wide range on Internet stores to the tune of thousands of finished pieces and never hear a word from any one.??I need Either sales Reps and that i can not find or do nickel and Dime for the rest of my life…I just need Help..!!

  7. I feel like it’s kind of odd that the majority of comments here seem to be ‘pro-agent’ since none of the artists I know irl have agents. And just to clarify, an ‘agent’ is not a gallerist. I think of an agent as basically another middle man between an artist and a patron, usually in addition to a gallerist. I get the appeal, as many of us aren’t gifted with social graces and would truly prefer to just make our work. However, as a previous commenter noted, if galleries typically take 50%, and an agent also wants a percentage, then how much are artists who work with agents actually taking home after everyone gets their cut? Accepting less than 50% for my work is a hard no for me in any case.

  8. There are different types of agents. The gallery/artist relationship is an important one. The gallery relationship has been a good one for me with mutual respect and friendship, I create, they sell. It works for me because I do not like social media and am not a keen promoter of my own work.

    An agent who acts as an intermediary between the gallery and artist makes it more challenging to build a relationship but I’m sure there are situations where it works perfectly well. That said, if the artist’s prices aren’t fairly high I’m not sure there would be enough left over for an agent/gallery/artist split to be profitable to the artist.

    There are agents who work independently of galleries with a list of clients that they regularly sell to, that could be a good situation. They don’t seem very easy to find.

    Twenty-one years of working with an illustration agent has been an excellent experience for me. I recently signed on with a licensing agent to bring in a passive income by licensing the images of my fine art to various companies. This is a good way to maximize my work without taking time away from my art with the social media and networking required to sell prints and products. I am NOT good with social media. So there are different agents for different purposes and each of us finds what works best for us. People with a really good network and excellent social media skills may do better on their own but having a gallery in conjunction with that would be the best of both worlds.

  9. Cindy, will you say more about what your licensing agent does and how you found this type of person? Also, what percentage does s/he charge? Thanks. I’d not heard of a licensing agent before.

    1. Lorrie, her role is to show my work to the clients whose products she thinks my work is suited for. She works with them on my behalf by negotiating the royalties and contracts. If problems arise relating to the work or the client she will handle that. For example one of her artist’s work was pirated and being used on a Chinese puzzle website, she is handling the cease and desist communications with them.

      The agent found my work purely by accident. She saw an email I’d sent a gallery artist (who unbeknownst to me was also one of her licensing artists) and noted my signature which always includes my website, she was curious, looked up my art and contacted me.

      She charges 50% of all royalties/fees. It may seem like a lot but I consider that without her I will not have that source of income at all. It will allow me to focus on my art vs searching for companies to license my work to, deal with the negotiations, contracts and the relationship building. She has been at this for 30 years, has built strong relationships with her clients, that is gold.

      Of course a person can find their own clients and handle all negotiations themselves if they enjoy doing that. If you are interested in licensing check out Maria Brophy’s blog where she talks about licensing, in fact I think she has a course coming up. She handles her husband’s work and acts as his agent so she is an expert on it. I don’t think it’s hard to learn or to do, it’s just more work than I want to add to my plate so having someone act in that capacity is worth the fee to me.

  10. As a gallery owner, I have periodically dealt with artist’s agents, and have found them ineffective for the most part. Mid tier galleries (which comprise most of the galleries today) are generally focused on emerging artists, or art within a certain price range. which serves the majority of the public. Art agents are great if you are a blue chip artist, and need tighter contractural arrangements, and have a good deal of money to work with. Agents typically take a good percentage of a sale, and an initial up front fee.

    With social media today, there are a lot of individuals calling themselves “art agents”, and offering all sorts of promises to artists, on how they can tremendously expand your exposure, and get you into art galleries, etc. In reality…Most of these individuals are not real experienced ( or experienced at all ) in representing fine artists, and they will handle anyone’s work, as long as they have some money to give them. A reputable art agent does not necessarily take on just any artist. As someone mentioned earlier, if you do for some reason decide to work with an agent, check out who they represent, and explore that artist’s standing. Find out when they started representing them, and then read their bio to see if this person was worth the money. My guess is that you will find out they probably were not.

    Most galleries prefer to deal with the artist directly, so educate yourself on the proper way to approach an art gallery, and have everything in order so that you look and sound professional. It does require a good deal of time, however it is a part of the job, and no one is going to be a better advocate for you work than yourself.

  11. As an Art Gallery Owner, I do not work with Art Agents. I value my relationship with the Artist. Working with the Artist and getting to really know them, helps me better represent and sell their artwork in my Gallery. Much kindness, Robin Holliday, HorseSpirit Arts Gallery

  12. If you are using the term “agent” the same as perhaps consultant, then I have a consultant and I’m thrilled to have her. She has several clients that I would never be able to even approach much less sell my work to. Mostly hospitals–hospitals and clinics are being built all the time. They need art and they are her clients. She’s already sold several of my pieces and is making new presentations every month. She charges 50% which I would have to pay to a gallery AND since she wants works on paper, she has them framed and matted at her expense. So I’m happy as a clam that she is selling my art and that so many others will see my artwork.

  13. have been in the art business globally for 45 years as an owner of galleries, publisher, artist and dealer. Most artists would find 0 value in the services of an agent and vice versa. . the work must be specific to that agents focus and must meet their price requirements. They charge the same fees as galleries in many cases because they fullfill the same roll in the marketplace. the difference is they have a singular focus on one type of client that does not regularly frequent galleries except for their personal art purchases. Agents go for high end artists and high end clients because that is what they need to survive. Travelling and marketing at that level absorb expenses much higher than those of a gallery operation.
    The agents who advertise on the internet for artists are not agents they are opportunists seeking a mark. Any agent i have encountered is highly connected to the market and will seek out specific artists only by recommendation of their clients. Sometimes picking up contacts from gallerists. You will not find them on the street corner peddling their wares.
    The agents of whom i have had contact deal in millions or tens of millions of art per annum. sometimes historical art, sometimes contemporary but always extremely focused. in many cases they work with a network of global contacts built up over long periods of time. Generally they do not deal with homeowners as most gallerists do. Sometimes they will put up their own money into projects but only when the artists are business savvy enough to join in. if you want a free ride these guys are not your ticket to success.
    that is my experience such as it is.

  14. I have said it many times. You know who is the BEST, absolute BEST at marketing your art (or should be): you. It only stands to reason. Who cares about you? Who cares about your art and understands it? A rep, gallery or salesperson may or may not care about your art. They are looking for money. That’s it, mainly. They are scouting about for money. And often times, unless you know what you have and have developed a solid following, it’s a crap-shoot. Do you want to go to Las Vegas scouting for someone who wants to make money off of your art? It’s scary. It is so easy to get screwed.

    Like it or not – and most artists do not like it – you have to work the business side of things. It’s just a fact of life. Learn how to say no. You suck. Goodbye. One must be critical of who even gets to sell the art. Then again, beggars quite often cannot be choosers. So you have to do the dance. Whatever you have to do to make the sales. Else, find something else to do to make some money.

    I mean, really, when you get down to it, it is all about money. That’s it. And there’s that thing about multiple streams of income. Yeah. Who is going to do that for you? You. Who is going to pay your mortgage and buy your groceries? You. (Unless you find a sugar Mama or Daddy.) Bottom line, working with agents, a gallery, selling your work at a fair, whatever, it’s a business deal. It is either profitable or not. Egos aside – it’s business. You may or may not like who is selling for you. If they screw up too much, or don’t really seem to care about you, fire them. Hire someone else. In the meanwhile, sell it yourself.

    I have been through a lot of situations in my 45 some odd years of selling my sculpture. (I am 60.) And I still am working the sales angle. With a lot of unpleasant experiences, I can tell you. Well, not as much nowadays. I will give you this nugget, which is what I have come to and what most of us know already: figure out how to do something with your art that gets attention, preferably good attention. That should be the focus. You are the artist, which means you are the one who decides what to make and how to make it. Where it will go and how it will sell, although important details (and the devil is certainly in the details), are not nearly as important as what you make in the first place. To my mind. Because if the marketing is more important than the art, you could be making crap. The whole (selling) point of art is that is valuable because of what it is, not because it gets marketed well.

    Like many of us, an artist just wants to do what they want to do and not be bothered. They are not in it for the money. If they are, well, screw the art, then. Right? Who cares about the art if all you are in it for is the money? If that’s what floats your boat, there are a lot of other ways to cheat people out of money than trying to sell bad art. No. The artist just needs enough to subsist and pay for materials. Maybe you have a grand vision or two, and that will take some money. But money is not the driving force. I hope not.

    One other note. Something I find truly valuable in this work is confidence – I mean, real confidence, not fake confidence. The Beatles had it. Dylan had it. Many fine artists had/have it. But most of us do not.
    And anybody who erodes your confidence regularly, fire them. Fi-er-them. Now. And find someone else to hang with.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments and advice, Beau. I agree with you that it’s important to be confident in what you’re doing, and to be able to say no when necessary. I think your advice about finding multiple streams of income is also very wise.

  15. I am a physically disabled artist and fully retired from 30+ years in security corrections, and law enforcement. Is there art grants a physically disabled man like me can obtain, and purchase a portable building and turn it into a studio/gallery.? I just do this as a hobby and sell my artwork to family and friends so I can buy more art supplies. I would like to have a studio/gallery of my own one day but being physically disabled and with little money, it would take me forever. please let me know something. thanks

  16. From the UK, my experience of art agents is as follows – the good, bad and awful…
    (Pre-social media days)

    I visited a trade show that still exists today called Spring Fair. It was a one stop place for greetings, publishers, home decor, art and framing, gifts and jewellery.

    Art agents would exhibit in the art/greetings halls and artists would be allowed to walk the floor and approach them. At my first visit I was offered representation by 3 agents (I didn’t go with the one who wanted to take my portfolio of original artworks away with him!)

    I worked with this agent for 10 years. He didn’t have an office, just his home and he would spend 7 months of the year travelling in the UK and Europe. His car boot was jam packed with artist’s portfolios and cd roms of images.

    He enabled me to work full time. I was on a 50/50 contract, creating images for embroidery, stickers, stationery, greeting cards, needlework, tins, school items, colouring books, paper bags, calendars etc. I even drew designs for little animal figurines. No art or galleries but pretty much anything that needed a picture. He was a confident salesman. Sadly he retired and though I had the good sense to have my own freelance clients as well, I was never able to replicate the success and turnover of work I had with him because 1) I couldn’t sell, 2) I didn’t have the confidence to drive up and down motorways to visit companies like he did and 3) As a single female it wasn’t possible to be on trains and trade shows at night.

    I then signed to a book publishing agent where I was (and did due to naivety and lack of confidence) expected to work on 100% speculative basis, creating hundreds of children’s books illustrations and making book dummys for pitching to book fairs. I had to pay all my materials, time, travel costs (it was expected to attend the books fairs, even abroad).

    After 2 years I left but not before having to go through a law firm to receive pay for a 2 book contract I won through them, but which put me in hospital – their deadline was so bad I worked for 22 hours a day 20 days running. Other than being an interesting experience, my leg swelled up and I had to have anti DVT injections. It took 6 months to get paid for what amounted to £2.50 an hour. The law firm’s bill left me with ….£2.50 :)) Visiting the book firm I saw the book illustrator was a made up name, so I didn’t even get the royalties or credit. This agent is still trading in the UK and there are other things he did I can’t say here.

    Around 5 years later I was approached by a very large art licensing agent who offered me a contract on 50% and again I left after 5 years, having spent hundreds of more hours creating art on a speculative basis, doing many many changes to the finished artworks, which more often than not they always required (despite creating line sketches, colour roughs and a detailed line drawing to check first).

    On a good note they attended the major licensing shows – Surtex, Atlanta Gift Fair, Licensing Expo, so artists got a foot in those shows that they may not have done alone.

    Most of the income / royalties with this agency (for jigsaws, puzzles, stickers, fabric) I achieved barely covered the materials but what I found most difficult was they took many many artists on who were all creating the same kind of art, so if one of their customers wanted a cute dog in a basket, the agent would have many many to offer (and they’d be guaranteed the 50% of the sale – but only one artist would get the 50%. The royalty also reduced greatly through the currency difference and online payment fees.

    They would also ask their own artists to copy the artworks of the other artists they had!

    One place I would recommend for sincere information about art licensing is Porterfields Art. Lance Field is highly respected and the advice on his website can give you an idea on whether licensing would be a good fit – it can be of benefit to earn income from artworks you only need to create once, and receive licenses on several different products, for various territories, timelines and formats.

    I would also look at fairs like Surtex, Atlanta Gift Fair, there are several licensing shows around the world, any home decor, gift and home trade shows can be good, anywhere that requires imagery and design on product. Maybe don’t carry originals but there are many options for showing or leaving your work with a potential client exhibiting there.

    Also the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, a UK directory which is classic, much loved rather chunky tome that we used before the internet, but is a “bible” for all agents, publishers and contacts in the creative industries. It includes articles and advice, and is usually included in your local library to read for free. Older copies may not be too out of date if you can get an older copy on a budget.

    In summary:
    – do your research, speak to their artists, look at their client lists, shows they attend, publications they are in etc;
    – decide what you’re happy to do in terms of “free” work and “on spec” – creating designs for free may be something you enjoy and can justify in evenings, down time or weekends, and a licensing deal can earn you income on those designs for years to come, with no further work involved, but you need to get the deals first.
    – read, watch and consume as much as you can about agents so you can build your knowledge of their role, their value, their expectations and what will be expected of yourself in the dynamics to ensure a good and long working relationship.
    – consider the location, travel costs and currency of any agent. While much can be done online now, it may still be worthwhile for you to do the business side of things now simply because it can be done online.
    – remember there are good agents and bad ones :))

    I’m afraid I have no experience of gallery agents.

  17. The only situation in which I would consider hiring an agent to represent me would be if I were attempting to enter a foreign market where I have no local knowledge or contacts.

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