Believe in the work, first and foremost
The art world can often seem like a cynical place, one in which dealers circulate like money-hungry sharks. (That reputation is only cemented by flat-footed satires like Velvet Buzzsaw
that sketch a milieu in which the only thing worth talking about is how much the art is worth.) But a gallerist whose heart is in the right place will appreciate what an artwork conveys, before worrying about the price it might command.
“The nicest thing a gallerist has done for me is to truly be present with the work, to see and sit with it,” Jones said, “and not be overly concerned with logistics and planning when doing a studio visit…not to overstep by suggesting upscaling or pushing for more of whatever just sold, if the artist is exploring new directions. The most honest thing a gallerist has ever done for me was to be brought to tears by a piece upon leaving them in the space to consider things without my presence.”
“I was never a cash cow, so to speak,” said
, who is represented by Metro Pictures
in New York, Kate MacGarry in London, and Office Baroque
in Brussels, among other international galleries. “It was about liking the art. For me, that was a dream come true; for them, it was kind of flying in the face of good business practice. But that’s what is wonderful about most galleries: They aren’t normal businesses.”
Wurtz admitted that not all of his peers have enjoyed the same level of understanding with their dealers. “I know artists who have told me that their gallery is completely sales-oriented, to the point of not really even talking about the art,” he continued. “That’s not what I have or want. I want a personal relationship. It’s certainly more fun and makes life more interesting. The ideal is for everyone to do what they really want—and happen to make money.”
Be transparent (and don’t ghost your artists)
I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from bitter artists over the years. One now-defunct gallery—which was later sued by someone it represented—refused to even divulge the names of collectors to the artist whose work it had sold. Transparency is key, both as a good business practice and a sign of basic respect. “In what other business would your agent or representative not be completely transparent?” Reames asked. “For all the moving parts to run smoothly, there has to be an open line of communication. I’m currently on the roster of a gallery that hasn’t had an exhibition in a year now, but has also become completely opaque with communication. All of the other artists that I know who also work with the gallery are equally in the dark, and it’s maddening.”
But even in situations that are less dire, clear communication is key. Artists are stressed enough after wrestling with their creative demons in the studio; it’s the job of the gallerist to stay on top of the business side of things, keeping everyone else happily in the loop.
“There isn’t much to be gained from withholding information,” Perutz said. “It all comes back to a foundation based on trust—I’d go so far as to call it faith. It’s important to know where the works go and to keep an up-to-date database of such information. It’s helpful in the long term, and if you lend works to museums or institutions.”
Transparency should also should apply when potential discounts come into play
. Jones, for instance, suggested that anything beyond a 10-percent discount should ideally be broached with the artist in advance. And while regular updates are generally beneficial, she noted that sometimes it’s better for dealers not
to share every potential development or opportunity that comes down the pipeline.
“Galleries should keep some prospects to themselves, until they’re real,” she said. “Artists have grand imaginations. When a project or placement of a work is mentioned as a possibility, the imagination can run wild: a little validation, encouragement, funds that might help chip away at student loans, health insurance, or allow a leave from teaching. This is the only time a gallery should take pause—and wait until things are confirmed.”
Respect your artists—and pay them
This golden rule should be simple, but anecdotal evidence proves how much trouble certain dealers have holding up their end of the bargain: paying for artwork that has been sold. It helps to trust the whisper network here, whether online
or among peers; if a certain gallerist seems eternally swarmed by rumors, you might want to avoid being the next artist to get burned. “I don’t think every single complaint should be a big red flag—artists can be unreasonable at times—but when there’s smoke, there’s usually fire,” Reames said. “There are a couple of times I should have listened more to my peers. I would have saved myself a lot of headaches.”
The accepted industry sales split is almost always 50/50, and in a healthy working relationship, the artist should not feel slighted by that profit sharing. “It’s important to point out that the galleries deserve every bit of that money, as they do an enormous amount of work,” Wurtz said. “I really don’t know how any artist would expect to have a career without a gallery. When one begins showing with a gallery, it soon becomes clear what all that work entails: rent, publicity, keeping records, storage, on and on.”
“I’m a sculptor, and so production costs can be significant in my practice; it’s important for me to split those costs with the gallery,” Semo said. “There is a lot of overhead in running a gallery, just as there is in keeping a studio practice. Some people think that galleries get too much in the 50/50 split, but when I consider all the work that my gallerists do for me, I’ve never felt that they were undeserving of that percentage.”
Everyone I spoke to had different ideas about what exactly to expect from a dealer: An Artforum ad? A flashy Lower East Side opening dinner for 40 close friends and industry insiders? “I think gallerists need to make it their mission to seed archives with work by women and artists of color, to fill in that narrative,” Jones said. “That means more in the long term than fancy dinners and cocktails with collectors.”
Being a supportive dealer often comes down to investing in an artist for the long term, making them feel valued on a personal level. Jones recalled a pivotal museum survey that, while it constituted a milestone in her own career, didn’t seem to be a top priority for her gallery. “Beyond one partner flying in for the opening night reception, I was solo, in the art trenches for a week prior,” she said. “Not having a cohort during the install, public programs, dinners, and walkthroughs was hard. During the run of the show, I felt there wasn’t a substantial attempt at creating excitement around the exhibition as a platform to introduce the work to new collectors or institutions.” It certainly doesn’t help to cut corners when an artist’s own self-worth hangs in the balance.
Look towards the future, not just the next five months
Being an artist can be intensely stressful; success (and sales) can be ephemeral, especially in a system that privileges novelty. “Fresh-out-of-grad-school artists can sell works at such high prices that it’s unsustainable,” Jones said. “I’ve pointed this out particularly to students of color entering the art world.…Longevity is important, and young artists of color will pop like popcorn at an art fair, and be gone by 40. Many galleries may not be mindful of pacing if someone is coming onto the scene hot: exploitation and evaporation.”
“In terms of service to my career, nothing beats feeling understood, and having the courage [that] artmaking takes be truly seen, understood, and hence supported,” she added. “That is a powerful connection and a solid place to begin.”
But if the very thought of committing to representation makes you nervous, it might be time to consider an open relationship. Plenty of galleries operate within a model that eschews formal representation in favor of individual projects and more flexible arrangements.
“It’s more and more common to show in multiple galleries and not be represented, and I think it’s super healthy, as well,” Perutz said. “If you can work with galleries in a respectful and mutually beneficial way that is not totally exclusive, then there is no harm done, and it can often help solidify and strengthen new relationships. It’s all about cultivating spheres of influence and invigorating existing relationships with new energy.”