Practical Matters: Asking a Gallery for Artwork from Their Inventory to Supply Another Gallery

I recently received the following email from Steve, an artist in Arkansas. Steve has been working to expand his gallery representation and is in discussions with a new gallery that has expressed interest in his work. Steve writes:

I’ve recently been in touch with a new gallery that is interested in representing me. They reached out to include me in a group show for July, and asked that I send them images of my recent work. I responded with 10 slides of paintings I had in my studio. In response, they named off 3 canvases that were not on the list, but are in another gallery.

What do you think the proper response would be for this situation?

The previous gallery has had the 3 works for 5-6 months without a sale or leads, do you think it would be fair to have the gallery ship the works back or to the other gallery in return that I refresh the work?

Final Question: As a gallery owner, how often would you like for artists to rotate inventory? Is it common for the artist to cover shipping both ways?

I responded:

If you feel the show [in the new gallery] is a better prospect than the gallery holding the three pieces, you should contact the gallery that currently has them and let them know that you’ve had a request for the pieces from another gallery. Because they’ve been there 5-6 months, I think it would be reasonable to expect the gallery to ship them for you, but they may have a different opinion. If it had been less than 3 months I would definitely expect the artist to pay for the shipping, and they may feel that they need to have work longer, depending on their market. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if they requested that you cover the cost.

Typically I try to keep work at least 8-14 months for having the optimal chance at selling.

That was the short answer. The longer answer is that this is an example of why it’s important to maintain open lines of communication with your gallery and to communicate regularly. It’s also important to have a good consignment agreement in place that lays out the terms of your agreement with a gallery and provides a framework for understanding how the relationship will work – including how inventory transfers will occur and who will be responsible for shipping expenses.

These aren’t the kinds of question that have objective, right or wrong answers. There are very few industry norms in the business. Up-front communication as you begin working with a gallery will answer many questions about how a gallery deals with these kinds of issues. If a situation like Steve’s comes up, however, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone, explain the situation and ask how the gallery would like to proceed.

If the gallery that currently has the inventory would like to keep it and shares with you that they have had some strong interest in the work, you can let the gallery that is asking for the three pieces know that those artworks are currently committed to another venue and invite them to select other works.

What do you Think?

Have you run into awkward situations related to inventory being in one venue but needed in another? How did you deal with the situation? What thoughts, questions, or comments do you have on inventory rotation? Share your insights and questions in the comments below.

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12 Comments

  1. The above scenario should be considered an opportunity to gain a new association between the galleries involved. 2 galleries working together will realize more sales than either would independently through the perception that the artists work is in demand to a wider audience. This depends upon the output of the artist to supply 2 or more retailers. As the pieces have sat for a while in gallery 1 without sales give them a rest and send on to another operation. Funny how clients can make decisions under those circumstances instead of sitting on their hands. As i had multiple operations under seperate names i would ship art between venues all the time, it worked very well. i would also deal with other galleries to the benefit generally of the artist, myself and the other gallery operators. be clear on terms and expectations, talk to them personally not by email. get to know them!

    1. Richard makes a good point. When working with galleries, or with anyone for that matter, it always seems like a good idea to emphasize the benefits to the gallery of working with other galleries and with the artist to maximize sales. Clients always seem to be reassured about the value of an artist’s work when they see it is in demand in multiple venues.

  2. I had a similar situation come up this year. I entered five paintings in a competitive show in gallery 1. One of the entry paintings was in Gallery 2 but the show was scheduled to end. Gallery 2 extended the show for personal reasons. Gallery 1 picked the painting that was scheduled to come out of Gallery 1. I spoke to Gallery 1 and they asked if I had a same size painting so they did not have to rehang. I picked up the painting and left another. Everything worked out.

  3. I think it depends on how frequently you sell work with a gallery etc and keeping talking to them. If you regularly sell a lot of work they probably won’t mind helping out that way, especially if you offer to give them some new work to refresh the ones you are replacing. If the gallery gets the choice of some new work shipped down by you they may feel it’s fine to send the older ones back to you or on to the other gallery as they get something new. However, I usually like the gallery to send them back to me first as there might be a bit of tidying up of frames to do – things can get marked or dirty sometimes with all the moving around and I like to see what is going, especially if it’s a new gallery it’s going to. This means I end up with 2 delivery costs but it’s worth it to me to know that (a) the existing gallery gets fresh work and is happy and (b) the new gallery is getting the most well presented work I can offer them.

  4. As a gallery owner, I look at things from a different perspective than some artists. I consign work from an artist, with rights to it for a full 12 months. I may extend that time even longer in some instances. It is common for a client to contact me months from initially seeing a painting before purchasing it. After 12 months, if the painting has received little interest, I will return it to the artist. At that point, should someone, who had seen it in the gallery, contact the artist directly, and want to buy it, the gallery still receives some commission, if the artist is still represented with the gallery. This is justified because it was their effort, and exposure which ultimately resulted in the sale. This is where trust, honesty, and a good working relationship is necessary between the gallery and the artist. It is important for the artist to bear in mind, that in many instances it takes the public some time to get the confidence to purchase an artist’s work. They may need to see his or her work continually in the gallery for a couple of years to feel comfortable enough to purchase a piece. Galleries are investing in an artist when they are hanging their work and giving them exposure, so the artist needs to be patient at times. If I feel that a particular artist’s work is simply not garnering enough response in my gallery, (despite the fact that little or no sales have taken place) and it is before the contract has expired, I will at times return it, because I don’t feel it is fair to tie their work up, when the odds of selling their work are very slim. Not every gallery is suitable for every artist. As far as shipping is concerned, that is something which should be in your contract from “day one” with your gallery. Most galleries will cover return shipping to the artist, however there are exceptions in every working relationship.

  5. What I found interesting:
    1) The new gallery asked for a list of recent works but came back asking for 3 canvases not on the list.
    2) Are the 3 works asked by new gallery that different than those provided on list? If not different what does that mean?
    3) Where did those 3 works come from? The internet? So for group show new gallery was not interested in recent works?
    4) Why not ask new gallery their reasons for not choosing from list since they invited you to show and why they chose work not listed that was known to be some other gallery.
    5) Does anyone else feel there is something fishy about all this?

    1. I have to admit that i also had an initial “but wait…” reaction to the new gallery selecting 3 pieces not among the artist’s offering of 10. Seems if they were going to be that particular about what they wanted, why even ask the artist to submit options in the first place? (I also admit that dwelling on that reaction could be akin to “splitting hairs”.) If i entertain that reaction, then i wonder whether this gallery may be difficult and overly demanding to work with. If that’s an artist’s concern, s/he might want to talk to other artists who’ve worked with that gallery, for insights on the gallery’s management culture, before going thru cartwheels to relocate pieces from another gallery and thereby possibly fracture the pre-existing relationship. There are any number of possible scenarios for the new gallery’s motivation in asking for the 3 “outliers”. In the absence (or even presence) of clarity provided by a well-written agreement that Jason advocates, the artist could probe more about the new gallery’s selections before jumping to conclusions or risking naivete or tarnishing a pre-existing gallery relationship.

  6. I had an experience that relates to this one. Putting together a one-man exhibition for the gallery in Scottsdale that represented me, I found I was going to be two paintings short to fill the space. Since I was a photorealist painter there wasn’t enough time to paint two new pieces so I called my San Francisco gallery and requested they ship me two pieces that had been with them for about a year. This San Francisco gallery was a well known, reputable gallery and I had always been proud to show there. When I requested the paintings, at first, they stalled and would not give me a definitive answer. I had to call them repeatedly and was beginning to become suspicious that something was amiss. Upon investigation, I discovered they had sold the two paintings in question to a collector and had shipped the paintings to Switzerland over three months prior. I was never told about the sale. Rather than leave the gallery, I hired someone living in San Fransico to periodically visit the gallery and request to see my available works there.

    1. I assume you got paid for the sale of the 2 paintings?? That seems rather suspect to me…wise to keep a close eye.

  7. A couple of years back, I had a painting with a gallery after approximately 6 months another gallery informed they would love to have the piece and insured me they will sell it quickly. As I had a 60/40 % split with the current gallery, I requested the new gallery for an 80/20 % split. 7 days later, I brought a new painting and 25 % split from the sale by the other gallery. Later, I found this particular collector only purchased from the second gallery, although the saw the work in the other gallery. It was a win win situation.

  8. I had a painting in a gallery and a second gallery had a client who wanted it. I had the two galleries work together, I got 50%, the galleries split the other 50%. Everyone was happy.

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