8 Questions Artists Should Ask a Prospective Dealer
For an artist, getting picked up by a gallery is a major career milestone. But it also involves a huge leap of faith. When someone expresses interest in your work, it can be flattering—but don’t let that distract you from the fact that you’re entering a business relationship like any other. You wouldn’t blindly accept an office job without first ironing out particulars like salary and benefits, would you?
Whether you’re discussing a solo project, a one-off exhibition, or formal representation, it’s vital to have open and honest conversations about expectations, budgets, finances, and more. We asked a few artists (and one dealer) for their thoughts on some questions it’s important to ask before committing.
What sort of consignment agreement will we have?
A consignment agreement is a contract that determines how long a gallerist will be entitled to hold, and attempt to sell, your work. (One artist I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous, said that “the shorter the consignment, the better” when starting out; they suggested three months as an appropriate time frame.) This contract will also spell out other things, like how long the dealer can take to pay you your share of profits following a sale, and what that profit-sharing agreement even is: 50/50? 60/40?
The consignment agreement might also sketch out more granular concerns. Discounts are almost a given in the art world, with many collectors assuming that a dealer will knock 10 or 20 percent off the listed price; in that case, your contract should specify whose share of the profits that discount will come out of. The main point here is: Take your time, read slowly, and don’t be afraid to question or amend any stipulations that seem concerning. The agreement isn’t a boilerplate document that’s set in stone; asking questions shows you’re invested, not rude. Ask a family member to help, or hit up online resources like this tremendously exhaustive free guide. Don’t let your enthusiasm for your first exhibition back you into a legally binding corner.
Are we on the same page about my career goals?
“There are obvious things everyone wants—[like] an early-career museum retrospective in 2020,” joked Ellie Rines, who runs the small but influential New York gallery 56 Henry. But beyond those pipe dreams, the gallerist said she “always discusses goals with an artist leading up to their show. I want to know if there are priorities: being included in more group shows? Having a greater presence in Los Angeles? Specific residencies?” That transparency from the artist, Rines added, lets her be equally transparent in terms of what’s realistic on her end. Discuss your own ambitions in detail with any gallerist with whom you’re about to embark on a project, or formal representation.
Am I expected to cover any costs or pay any fees?
While it’s a bit hard to navigate, the crowdsourced website How’s My Dealing? offers an intriguing window into the art world’s worst practices and shameless offenders. (Like any industry, there are always rotten apples in the barrel.) One common thread found frequently in reviews of poorly behaved dealers on the site is the “pay to play” model, in which a gallery (or a fair, or a prize) asks the artist to pony up fees for submission, installation, or other aspects of production and promotion.
Make sure to ask any prospective dealer whether you’ll be expected to front or cover any costs. If the answer is unclear or ambiguous—anything other than a firm “Of course not”—you might want to reconsider. While a young artist shouldn’t expect a small gallerist to be able to take out an Artforum ad and host a dinner for 30 collectors following an exhibition, she also shouldn’t be left with a bill herself.
How’s your reputation?
While it might be entertaining to see their reaction, asking this question of a dealer is unlikely to provide any illumination; no gallerist would self-identify as a deadbeat. “It’s not like asking the gallery any questions directly is going to insulate you from shady dealing,” noted artist Gina Beavers. “It’s not like they’ll be upfront. It’s like dating: The relationship has to build trust and evolve—or not, and [then it] ends.”
But you can gently inquire within your peer group and community, since word tends to travel fast, especially when a dealer has already transgressed. “Ask people who are in a position to know what they think about a gallery’s reputation and their experience,” Beavers added. “In that case, the most important questions artists ask are: Do they sell your work? And do they pay their artists?”
Do you take part in art fairs, and will you bring my work to them?
“As much as it makes me very sad, look for a gallery that’s doing good art fairs,” counseled artist Brad Phillips. “This is where the business takes place. The gallery show itself is mostly for fun, sharing, and ego satisfaction.”
Regardless of whether one agrees with that assessment, it’s undeniable a huge percentage of the art world’s transactions—around 46 percent, by one recent tally—take place not at brick-and-mortar galleries, but at national or international fairs. Also, a gallery with an especially packed roster simply won’t be able to show your work as much as you might desire; an opportunity for a solo show might only come around every two years. In the meantime, fairs provide a welcome outlet to get your work in front of collectors (and, hopefully, to get it sold, and get you paid). Ask about what fairs the gallery takes part in—and do your research, since all fairs are certainly not created equal.
Will I have any say in who my work is sold to? Will I even know who is buying my work?
A good dealer is a steward of your career, someone with your best long-term interests at heart. But not everyone is comfortable with relinquishing control, and artists should be sure to ask about basic ground rules up front. The cantankerously insightful William Powhida recently opened an exhibition with a caveat that his work won’t be sold to certain art-world players of whom he’s critical. A young artist may not have the clout to make such demands, but she might still like to retain control over who’s buying, whether it’s a hedge funder with a reputation for art-flipping, or someone with ties to a tear-gas company.
Beyond that, ask your gallerist if they’ll be fully transparent about who your collectors actually are. Years ago, a New York dealer I know of (who was subsequently sued more than once) had a reputation for withholding that basic information, apparently because they feared the artists on their roster would use it to make direct sales, cutting them out of the equation. Needless to say, such attitudes should be disqualifying.
What are your expectations and goals here?
After making your own expectations for working together clear, it’s important to have an idea of what the gallerist has in mind for the future. One artist I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she entered a professional relationship with a dealer, under the assumption that they were planning a single exhibition in order to see how things went. She was none too happy to discover that the dealer had instead added her name to the list of artists he formally represented—and she spent the next three years arguing with him to have that corrected.
What do you like about my work, anyway?
Your gallerist is your representative to the art world, and also your conduit to sales. They should be passionate about what you’re doing, and capable of conveying that enthusiasm. Ask them what struck them about your work, and why they’re interested in showing it. If their answer leaves you cold, they’re probably not going to be the best public spokesperson for your art.