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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14 Comments

  1. What about cross gallery sales? How should they be handled? I have come across this several times – especially with available bronzes where one gallery has the bronze, and another has a sale for it. Do I go pick up the bronze – or do I let the galleries work it out? I have tried both methods. The gallery in possession of the piece forces the other to split the commission, or even one gallery refuses to let an item go.

    It has occasionally resolved itself by the sale falling through! Not something I want to happen very often!

    If I go pick it up or request it be shipped elsewhere – I feel that the gallery the work should know the item is sold. Most of the time, the buyer does not want to wait the 8 weeks for the next one in the edition to come from the foundry.

    Also, I find that galleries really want to hang on to the bronzes they have in stock and always want more! It’s hard to keep so much inventory (at our expense) out there without some of the works stagnating in some galleries. I need to keep them fresh at each gallery – yet they are reluctant to let them move around!

  2. In my opinion, if this situation occurs you must stay true to your first commitment. However, this brings up a good point to have a good agreement in writing. That way both parties are clear on their expectations.

  3. I think your response is the perfect one, though I would not have expected the current gallery to pay for shipping, it seems to me to be more usual that the artist always covers shipping to the gallery.

  4. I recently had a similar situation. Because the gallery was within driving distance the “pick-up” of the piece was not a problem. Additionally in consideration for the gallery owner and his gallery wall, I offered another painting in similar color and size to them which they accepted in the place of the one I needed for another gallery.

  5. It does point out the need for a defined agreement between the gallery and the Artist. That being said, not everything can be covered in an agreement. I would not consider pulling my artwork under 6 months. Absent a defined time limit the Gallery is dealing with your word, and you should honor that understanding that you will give them an appropriate time limit to try and sell your work.

  6. Something similar happened to me as a curator for an invitational art exhibition.
    Artists were invited to be a part of the show and to offer works that we would include.
    As luck would have it, an artist’s piece became a major part of the publicity.
    Receiving Day. The artist comes in and says, “I’m sorry but I sold the work so it won’t be in the show. Here’s a photo I took that you can use.” When asked for another piece to replace it the response was, “I don’t have anything. All my work is in other shows.”
    It was like a triple slap and we were stuck. Communication certainly. Respect, ah, there’s a rub.
    I’ve got this on my “never to do list.”

    1. Most invitational or juried shows say in the submittal form that the artist agrees that if a submitted piece is selected for the show, the artist agrees that it will be available at the stated price and time. So the artist was clearly out of line to sell it ahead of the show.

      A professional way to handle this would have been for the artist to say to the purchaser that the piece had been promised for the show, but a pre-sale could be arranged. That would allow the client to purchase the piece in advance via the exhibit. It could hang in the show with a red dot, and the client would have it at the end of the show. The artist would get the exposure and their part of the price, the exhibitor would get their commission and a guaranteed sale.

  7. This has got to be one of the most difficult issues to find a fair way to handle. I understand a gallery’s way of looking at it, as each works in a particular market and knows what it takes to sell a body of work. Some operate on a long range term, engaging clients over a period of years. Others operate show to show, wanting to change out work monthly. Both are right for the particular audiences they serve. An artist, on the other hand, must be in charge of inventory management. If an artist gets lax about keeping an eye on where artworks are, how long they stay, how quickly they sell, and ultimately how best to leverage potential income ~ the artist has only his or herself to blame when the inventory under-performs.

    I don’t know if there is any good one answer!

    Stephen Carpenter, that shoe fits on the other foot as well. I have invited my clients to exhibitions where my delivered art was not hung!

  8. The onus is on the artist to manage all inventory and track it well. My main gallery will have artists pick up work after 6 months of no activity (they also rent art out).

    And my experience to date has been that shipping is my expense, but in rare cases the exhibitor will hand-deliver. Case-by-case, as different as artists themselves.

    All good comments here!

  9. To Dorothy- Youch! That is way beyond anything I can imagine.
    To Cynthia- yes it would if there were such agreements. The group I was involved with for many reasons had no such release forms and it was difficult to engage the conversation. This was an eye-opener though on a couple of levels.

  10. Jason – I have a similar question when it comes to online sales sights, such as your former Xanadu Online Studios. I know if a piece was in the online gallery, because of its inclusion in your bimonthly catalogue, that the expectation was to give you at least 3 months to sell the pieces. But the more open ended items that were in the online studio that were not part of the catalogue were the ones I struggled with. After about 6 months in the online studio I decided to enter some of these pieces into exhibits. Not knowing if they would be selected for inclusion in the exhibit I would remove them from your online studio site. If not selected I was never quite sure if I could put them back in the online store or not. Reaching out to you in that scenario seemed burdensome on you, so I didn’t ask. What are your thought on handling online store options where you are not in any contractual way represented by the online gallery?

  11. This is all supposing that the new gallery is actually legitimate and have the intention to operate above-board.

    The way Steve worded his question, the situation sounds rather like the phishing scams so many of us have been exposed to. Steve is aware of a new gallery–which of us wouldn’t want to approach them for possible collaboration?–and they offered to include him in a group show. So far, so good. But here’s where my Spidey-Sense kicks in: they asked for images of recent work; he sent them 10 images of pieces he has available, AND THEY RESPOND BY ASKING FOR PIECES IN ANOTHER GALLERY, images NOT on his list. Does that not ring alarm bells for the rest of you?

    Even if this new gallery is in business for the long haul, I don’t like their ethics thus far. In any other industry, working with a company using proprietary information or copyrightable material, one would usually have to sign a non-compete agreement. I think Steve needs to start by having more conversations with the NEW gallery, to both determine what they like about the non-available work (assuming it’s different from the work included in the list he gave them), to learn more about their intentions for their gallery (why they started it and what their experience in running a gallery is) AND to gently point out that his agreement with the first gallery takes precedence.

    Not every gallery is run with the integrity that Jason demonstrates. Case-in-point: a new gallery popped up on the main street of a local village, nearly directly across the street from a still-establishing-itself gallery. No marketing. No reaching out to local artists, at least that I was aware of. But they had a sign hanging out front, and artwork could be seen in the windows. I figured I’d wait a couple of months before I stepped in to look at their offerings, let alone approach them about working with me. By the end of those couple of months, an entirely new business appeared, virtually overnight.

    If the new gallery is legit, and they’re actually just beginning to learn the ropes of the industry, they’ll need some time to establish themselves. I just took a 3-day intensive course on using encaustic for realistic subject matter. Our teacher has 40+ years of investigative, experimental, and astoundingly beautiful work under his belt. He first stated, then repeated several times during our working hours, “Art is long. Life is short.” We artists have to take the long view to be truly successful, and building the right relationship with our representative galleries is part of that.

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