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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21 Comments

  1. I believe you must always communicate…..that is the key. Honesty and communication is the answer. Let the new gallery know it is at another gallery. Let the gallery know that has it that you have been asked to exhibit it in the new gallery, and go from there. I would not want to jeopardize a relationship with a gallery that I had been with for years, to start with a new gallery, in hopes that we would have a great relationship. You must weigh ALL of the pros and cons and ALWAYS be professional. It is good to read these questions. So many discussions come up that I would never think about. Thanks for sharing. Julie

    1. Great topic Jason. I had this situation occur just this week. I’ve been on the schedule with gallery “A” for sometime now for an exhibition in August. While at the Columbus Arts Festival in Columbus, Ohio, gallery owner “B” approached me to discuss showing work at her gallery. She had interest from a designer for some outdoor metal sculptures with glass so, to start, I provided her with two for her to show her client and place on the gallery B website. Meanwhile gallery A saw the pieces in my portfolio that B now had.

      Gallery B is now in the process of acquiring a new space with better visibility and more square footage. Although hesitant, I pondered for a couple of days whether to ask Gallery B if I could show the two pieces at the exhibition at Gallery A.

      Sorry, enough of the A and B stuff. Here is the email I sent to the B owner and her response. I kept it friendly and respectful, and offered an incentive. Both gallery owners are wonderful people and I admire both of them. In fact, I have collected owner A’s artwork and we have become good friends along the way.

      <<<<>>>>
      —————————————————————
      Hi (gallery B)!
      Hope you and your husband unit are having a good time in wine country. It sure looks like you are. Your coming back, right? 🙂

      Want to run this by you… would you mind if I exhibited one of the metal/glass sculptures at Sunbear if your designer connection at First & Main is still in pondering mode. I’d be glad to give you a percentage of the sale still if it should move. If not, no worries. I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot because I plan on having most of my work at your new space or at least the pieces you would prefer.
      I’ll be able to get you more pieces for your website in August once I get the exhibition going and many more for you in September.

      Hopefully September will be a good kickoff for you! I’m eager to see what you do with your new space.

      Chris Itsell
      Xoteric Design
      http://www.xotericdesign.com
      ———————————————————–

      Gallery B response:
      Yes I’m coming back! Reluctantly…
      Please exhibit to sell first of course. You owe me nothing unless I sell it.
      I will follow up with First & Main on Monday. I’m so excited for you for your show!

      HD (Gallery B owner)

      ——————————————————————–

      Had the owner been in her new space I don’t believe I would have asked for that favor. I know there are many scenarios, this just happened to work out comfortably this way. Different circumstances will always require heart felt thought and a respectful decision process.

      Keep up the great work Jason. I look forward to moving back to my native state in the future….but until then… back to work.

      Regards,
      Chris

  2. Great topic, Jason. I had this same situation come up recently. A gallery on the east coast (right on the ocean) inquired about a water-themed piece that was currently in a gallery in a west coast desert. The west coast gallery had the piece for well over a year, and agreed to give up the piece, particularly when I offered a new piece to replace it. I have an excellent relationship with both galleries, and feel comfortable making reasonable requests like this, if a piece has not sold in a while. I’ve sent potential customers to both galleries instead of trying to sell direct behind their back, so they know I’m looking out for their interests as well as my own. The bottom line is that having positive relationships with my galleries gives me more flexibility to put work where it has the best chance of selling.

  3. I rotate art between several galleries ‘regularly’. If they’ve been there a while with no movement, I just ask, “Would you mind if I took back such and such piece(s)?” If they say that they’ve had some interest and would like to hang on to it/them a bit longer, then I say OK. Other times they say sure, no trouble, and send the work back. and I usually try to send replacement pieces as soon as I’m able. I”ve even recently had a gallery with a customer who wanted to buy my painting that was no longer at that gallery, and had been sent to another several months prior. I called the second gallery and told them the scenario and they agreed, without hesitation, to pack up and send the painting back to the first gallery. The receiving gallery and I split the cost of shipping. Gentle communication, honesty, and flexibility are keys to a good working relationship.

  4. I am just surprised that you keep inventory for so long (8-14 months). I aim to swap paintings around every 3-4 months, unless the gallery says they have had strong interest in a piece. Any longer than that, I would have thought you would be bored looking at it!! So after 5-6 months it is very reasonable to ask for it to go elsewhere and of course, you sweeten the pill with the offer of fresh, exciting work.

  5. What if the gallery that has the painting has not had it very long? In the case of a painting that showed in the past at one gallery but recently has been put on display at a different gallery, what happens if a customer of the first gallery who saw the piece there several months ago returns to the first gallery to ask if it’s still available? When contacted by the first gallery, how does the honest, communicative artist treat both galleries fairly? Are there standard protocols in which galleries split the commission? Jason, it would be very interesting to know any general protocols that galleries such as yours consider fair.

      1. Jason, I don’t know how I missed that relevant article, as I have been reading your blogs with great interest for years. Thank you for directing me to it. And thanks for your always interesting and helpful insights.

  6. I guess my take on this is a little different…..it seems to me, based upon the circumstances cited, that the proposing gallery scouted the artist’s work, which they saw in a competing gallery. The artist’s response was honorable, offering new works in his studio. But that was not the prize…and so the artist became “the meat” in this “sandwich.” I would be troubled at the onset of such a relationship by such subterfuge….

  7. ~ I have found offering to do a commissioned canvas of the same basic – subject and composition can be the answer with size – color palette in mind . . . The ‘Art Work’ will be Original which is my goal and – like any given conversation said – a little different then the proceeding conversation. That’s why I like painting many different series – its not the same old same old! . . . http://www.facebook.com/carole.orr.50

  8. A great question, as always, Jason. I’m glad too to see artists wanting to do the right thing ethically for both themselves and their galleries. I’ve been very fortunate in that I have a great relationship with the galleries I’ve worked with so far. I’ve been upfront and honest with them whenever I’ve wanted to retrieve a piece of artwork for any reason and they’ve been very cooperative in return. It’s very important to be open and honest in your dealings and to ask questions when in doubt about any of your dealings with the galleries.

  9. I once had a gallery owner adamant she wanted three specific pieces. The same week I was negotiating with a private party to buy one of them … there was no first or second commitment to give priority to because the private party was undecided. When I pushed for a decision she told me to let the gallery have it. After a year I pulled out of the gallery.
    My customer bought the same painting eighteen months after I left the gallery. It was over two years and she could not let that painting go. 8-14 months is not unusual. With a major piece it might even be longer.

  10. Galleries have different business models. Some “represent” specific artists and keep an inventory of paintings from those artists to show to prospective purchasers. Generally they are kept for longer periods of time. Other galleries invite various artists to participate in a shorter show (a month or two) and then the artists take their paintings home. I’m also in a smaller gallery where each artist has 3-4 paintings and every two months we bring in a new selection to exchange for the ones on display, so the gallery constantly has a new selection to show but does not store any inventory. Another gallery is in a rural area and has two one-month shows a year, after which we take our paintings home. Contracts vary as to how long after a piece leaves the gallery they are entitled to a commission if a client who first saw it in the gallery contacts the artist directly. The bottom line is – each gallery has their own way of doing business. It is up to the artist to find out how the gallery operates, read the contract details carefully, discuss any details you don’t understand, and don’t sign the contract if you’re not comfortable with the requirements. Sometimes a gallery will modify a contract if you ask. For example, one gallery’s contract says artists can’t show in another gallery within 60 miles at the same time. But they agreed to an exception for a gallery in another town 42 miles away when I requested it. Some galleries pay for advertising and shipping, others expect the artist to pay all or part of it. Commission percentages vary. Don’t assume anything – get it in writing.

  11. When discussing this with my galleries they say, “Great, no problem, happens all the time, give us another painting.” I will not do this if the gallery has been sending emails out or if the piece is in a mailer. I will offer to do a similar composition in the same colors. Also I will not move a piece to another gallery unless if that gallery has not received payment in advance for the piece (a serious buyer). If shipping costs are out of my pocket – no. A serious buyer will simply visit my web site, see which gallery in painting is in and call the gallery that has it.

  12. Great subject. I have just recently returned from a trip to a northern gallery to replace some paintings with different ones and to give the unsold works a chance at another gallery. I try to give the unsold works a resting period in my own home gallery so that it does not interfere with a chance for the previous gallery to contact me in the case that they have someone who was just not ready to purchase and inquires about the work. This gallery has sold some of my previous group and actually did not return one of the paintings as they still wanted the opportunity to sell it. As the gallery is a three hour drive, I visit it only once every 8 months to a year. It has a high volume summer sales crowd where as my other galleries near me are more fall season selling. The time in my home gallery varies and I feel fortunate to be able to sell from here all year long. I list all of my galleries on my website so that I can work with them to promote pieces that they have of mine. So far I have no conflicts but I did recently get a call from an older sales venue that I do not list asking me to pick up some pieces. Apparently I had forgotten about them, inventory control is so important!

  13. Another good topic Jason! I agree with your thoughts regarding which gallery earned the sale, if they both had a role in making it happen then I understand both wanting to be rewarded, if not, then no share of the commission. As for rotating inventory, I am in a seasonal type of market as well, summers are not nearly as strong as fall and winter, so giving work a year or so to move is reasonable in my view. One of my galleries recently asked me to take 4 or 5 paintings back (they have had since February 2017) as they had more inventory (due to new work coming in) than they could hang. The paintings they were giving back they said were good but had not garnered as much interest as the other 15 they currently have which included new work I had brought them in the last month. Now I have an opportunity to approach another gallery as when you are starting out it takes time to build enough work for multiple galleries. I can see the above situation easily occurring because invariably someone will come in and ask about that painting they saw a few months ago and want to buy it now. Should these paintings I just took back end up consigned to another gallery, I will notify the current gallery so as to hopefully avoid an awkward situation. I always view the gallery relationship as two business partners, we both NEED to succeed, open communication is so important as well as an equal level of respect for position of each party.

  14. Thank you Jason, I always love reading your articles. I have learned so much from you and truly appreciate your knowledge and experience. I also love reading the comments as many of the artists experiences gives me ideas sometimes to.
    One thing I do differently than the scenario talked about above when I’m showing a gallery my work is, I only show them pictures that I have available to put into a gallery. If I have something in another gallery, I might show it to them but also let them know that it is located at another gallery and not available at that time.

  15. Thank you for the response Jason! Just to clarify the situation: I do have my galleries listed on my website next to available artwork. So in this scenario I can assume the second gallery didn’t see the gallery info next to the paintings they selected.

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