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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18 Comments

  1. Wow, 8-14 months is a long time to have paintings – don’t you get bored looking at them? Most galleries I work with (UK, not US) are on a three month cycle. I have one (who are lovely), that is shorter. They reckon if they haven’t had a sniff of interest within a few weeks, then they want to change it. Luckily not too far from my home. I cover costs both ways most of the time, though in the past we have split it. I wouldn’t have thought Steve would have any issue with the gallery – position it as fresh, new work. Get the pieces back to check for damage etc and then ship to the new gallery. Everyone should be happy. Of course you can guarantee someone will come in to enquire about a piece the week after they get sent back to Steve, so he should think about how he will handle that!!

    1. I think that could depend on what kind of town the gallery is in. Some towns don’t have a distinct tourist/”snowbird” season, and others have distinct seasons of different customers. Maybe the painting that the summer tourists are passing on is just what the winter snowbird is looking for. Maybe the sculpture that nobody from the electronics convention glanced at is just right for somebody attending the backpackers’ summit.

      If course, if a gallery gets the same traffic all year, three months is probably enough.

  2. It ,all about the signed contract between the gallery and artist..it should state how long work is consigned for and shipping agreements should be clearly specified…who is responsible for return shipping? ..have it in the contract.

  3. I would expect the gallery to exhibit/hold my paintings for at least a year to ensure that patrons can come back more than once to consider my work. Sometimes making a purchase decision includes multiple visits and visual reminders of the artist and her work.

    At the gallery in which I am represented, I attend the gallery stroll nights to support other artists even when my work is not in that particular show. i comment on the strength of the show (if appropriate) and always hold a brief conversation with the gallery manager. This is to establish rapport and maintain a good relationship.

    Then when sticky situations come up – I can easily approach the manager to discuss options.

  4. Because my wife and I love to travel (and the galleries that represent me are in great spots), we usually think of it as a luxury to deliver and pick up my artwork, even when it’s time to part with a gallery. We try to “bundle” those trips to deliver new/swap out art with at least 2 galleries in one trip.

    Isn’t it weird that the new gallery would pick the work that’s at another gallery? Seems like that’s the way it often goes.

    The “old” gallery might just be delighted to have fresh work. The energy from moving things around often creates sales.

    Or, if the “new” gallery likes your work, hopefully, they’ll choose another work that is available.

    Or paint something even newer in the same vein of those 3 paintings that makes the “new” gallery happy.

    I’ve been doing all of the above for 26 years, and I’ve seen all of these. Bottom line: I try to be gallery-friendly, an easy keeper. (C:

  5. Some related issues:

    What if, after agreeing on transfer to the new gallery and they now have the paintings on display, a customer who saw one in the old gallery returns and wants to see it? Does the old gallery request it back? Send the customer to the new gallery (but agree on a referral fee or commission split first)? What if, after shipping it back and forth, the customer decides not to buy? Who pays the shipping?

    The shipping fee for a certain size painting is the same, whether the gallery price is $1,000 or $10,000. So if it costs $200 to ship, that’s a huge chunk of either the artist’s or the gallery’s share of the sale on the lower priced one, but a minor issue if the higher priced one sells. And if the painting doesn’t sell, someone has to eat that cost.

    It’s hard for the artist to really know how much energy a gallery is putting into selling their work. If they have 10 of your paintings, do they keep at least 3 of them on display and rotate them? Do they offer to bring out others if a customer shows some interest? Or do they just stash them in the closet and forget you? If none have sold in 6 months, is the whole gallery in a slump, is your work not a good fit for their clientele, are they not being displayed well, or is it time for fresh work?

    Keeping a painting for 8 to 14 months does seem excessive. It may work for a high-end gallery with and established “collector” clientele, but it sure ties up the artist’s inventory. I would expect that a periodic conversation with the gallery owner and replacing those works that aren’t getting much positive feedback with other work would be the best way to go. Those items will be “fresh” when shown at a gallery in a different market area.

    A good contract and regular communication will help resolve most issues that arise, but there’s always the unexpected. A good relationship will help you deal with those fairly.

  6. I would approach the first Gallery and explain the situation to them and give them the option of either keeping the three paintings in question longer, or letting them go with the promise of receiving three new pieces. If the first Gallery decidided to keep them, then simply explain that to the second Gallery. They may be impressed with your loyalty or integrity. I find it interesting that the second Gallery picked three paintings that another Gallery had on its possession. It suggests that they were looking at the first gallery’s website and there may be a bit of completion involved with their choice.

    1. I agree with David. A gallery that is interested in a particular artist would naturally do some background checking and find that they are represented by another Gallery, and then they would find out what paintings that Gallery has in their possession. Requesting the three paintings that the first Gallery has is obviously not a random act. I would be wondering about the integrity of Gallery number 2.

      The whole question of how long a painting stays at Gallery 1, should really be covered in a contract with the Gallery and should also cover what to do about shipping and rotating art work. I am surprised that this would even become an issue. ??? Maybe I am being a bit naive?

  7. Perhaps the artist could provide the paintings for that show on an ‘on loan’ basis which would be just providing them for promotion of the artist and more inventory to show for the new gallery. It would have to be labeled not for sale, in this case, or an arrangement with the current gallery could be made for part of the commission. When I read the headline of this post, I thought, “This is a sticky subject”. If the artworks in question are in the Xanadu catalog, that makes it an even more difficult situation. As I see it, an NFS label should be discussed with the new gallery. The new gallery owner, I would think, would respect the fact that the artist protects the galleries with which they work. Difficult topic, but a good one, Jason.

  8. I personally would not expect the gallery to cover shipping to another gallery; I’d offer to cover the shipping cost when I told them about the other gallery. Also, I like the idea of askng the new gallery to choose different paintings, as you want them to know that you value all the galleries that represent you.

  9. I agree with Sonja Caywood. I think it would be at best “cheeky” to expect the present gallery to pay to ship to the other, and the best option is to have the new gallery select other pieces.

  10. Interesting that the “new” gallery expressed interest in work that wasn’t included in the slides you provided. I wonder if they saw it on your website?

    Nevertheless, I think keeping the communication friendly and open with the old gallery as well as telling the new gallery you’ll need to check with the old gallery speaks to your integrity. That should please the new gallery owners and assure them that you’d be respectful of their wishes and standards should they decide to add you to their stable of artists.

  11. I have had situations where a piece wins a contest and gets promoted or where a piece is used for a magazine cover. That of course leads to galleries wanting to show it.
    I think the most important priority is keeping good relations with your galleries. So, offering a like piece (size, subject, color) might work for either gallery.

  12. I am a gallery owner. I appreciate this topic because sometimes artists assume that the gallery will take care of everything. It is important to have this topic addressed before an artist signs on with a gallery because circumstances can differ with each business. In my case, we have a shorter selling season than some other regions of the country. Our season runs June-December and peaks in October through December. It is important to exhibit art work for my artists 12 months for optimal exposure and opportunity. My artists are required to sign an agreement which covers expectations clearly. If an artist cannot deliver their work in person and can only provide work by shipping, it is their responsibility to cover expenses for shipping (both ways). Why? First, shipments always disrupt my day. My time is valuable and it takes time away from the selling floor of my staff. It takes an extraordinary amount of valuable time to unpack or repack, secure (costs) supplies and prepare returns, I feel the artist can share the costs by assuming the carrier’s costs for shipping. If the artist chooses to sign on with a gallery that is outside their immediate reach, they obviously believe the opportunities are important to their career and take the responsibility for some of the costs for getting inventory to that gallery by accepting the cost for returns if necessary.That is the understanding made up front before they are accepted as a gallery artist. As to an answer regarding asking a gallery to give-up a piece to send somewhere else, is not black and white. At first glance, I artists need to have sufficient inventory available to keep all their representatives happy without ‘stealing’ from one to give to another. It doesn’t hurt to ask but be prepared to have a back up plan for these situations

  13. I haven’t had gallery representation yet, so this is all useful discussion. Thanks Jason, and everyone. It sounds very awkward to have a new gallery ask for pieces that they know are on display at another gallery, and not the pieces that you showed them.

  14. Enjoyed the discussion about galleries as I am just getting in some. I think answering and working out all possibilties when first signing up with a gallery would prevent head aches and bad feelings down the road.

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