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Art Market

What Gallery Representation Means for an Artist’s Career

Not too long ago, it was possible to collect an original painting by the Texas-based artist for under $500. “He was painting small studies and selling them for $50 to $100 out of his studio,” said Unit London co-founder Joe Kennedy. The U.K. gallery signed Martinez in 2020 after spotting the emerging painter’s cheeky remixes of internet culture on Instagram. “We were just blown away by the work,” said Kennedy.
These days, Martinez’s paintings sell within the $10,000 to $25,000 range, are in prestigious private and institutional collections, and have a significant waiting list. The artist is currently part of Unit London’s presentation for Artsy’s “Newly Represented” online show, which features artists who have recently gained representation with tastemaking galleries, running from April 26th through May 3rd. While Martinez’s skyrocketing market ascent is extraordinary and not necessarily the norm when it comes to newly represented artists, it does make for a compelling (if somewhat extreme) example of what happens when an artist gets gallery representation.
“Representation early on is key—it stabilizes an artist’s market,” said Taymour Grahne of Taymour Grahne Projects. “From the get-go, the gallery is there to protect an artist from speculators and flippers, ensuring works don’t end up in the wrong hands.” The London-based gallery recently added , , , and to its esteemed roster.
While it can be tempting for artists to forgo representation and sell independently as a way to eliminate the need to share sales revenue, doing so can potentially stunt an artist’s sales growth in the long term and even put their market at risk. Galleries can also identify which buyers are prone to flipping works, something the artists themselves aren’t usually in a position to know.
In addition to market protection and growth, representation also publicly signals that a gallery has vetted an artist, and is actively invested in his or her work. “When we commit to representing a new artist, we act with the purpose of starting a long-term, sustained, and fruitful collaboration for many years to come,” said Belgian gallerist Xavier Hufkens. “A gallery’s role can go beyond the visible—galleries support their artists in any way they can. This can be anything from emotional support to logistical and financial support.”
This level of involvement between a gallery and any given artist can vary depending on their agreement. One factor determining the extent of this relationship is whether or not a gallery has exclusive representation of an artist. “When we choose to represent an artist, it is almost always for exclusive, worldwide representation,” said Willem Molesworth, director of de Sarthe Gallery, which will be showcasing works by the Beijing-based artist in Artsy’s “Newly Represented” show. “We very much enjoy working with other galleries and encourage our artists to do so, but we believe it’s vital that we work hand in hand to make informed decisions about how to construct truly healthy, strong, and stable markets.”
In order to test out the working relationship between the artist and the gallery, spaces like de Sarthe usually opt for a set multiyear trial period when first signing on a new artist. “At first, our representation agreements are generally for a fixed span of time—i.e., several years—but after successful representation over that initial period, these agreements typically roll over into even more long-term representation,” said Molesworth.
While such exclusivity can imply a resolute stamp of approval, it can also potentially confine an artist’s exposure to that gallery’s specific stable of collectors. “[Artists] can be left with their hands tied, unable to explore or seriously engage with other business opportunities for a fixed period of time,” Molesworth noted. This agreement also poses a high risk for galleries, who are making a very serious commitment to the artist.
In addition, exclusive representation could potentially hold artists back from other opportunities. “Artist agency is important when working in collaboration with other galleries and institutions,” said Leila Greiche, founder of New York gallery L'INCONNUE.
“Ideally, an artist should be represented by two to four galleries, as each gallery offers a different context, whether that’s in terms of their artist roster or location,” said Grahne. Being shown in different cities alongside different groups of artists also helps cultivate exposure, and helps to build a broad audience that can sustain their market in the long term.
Overall, gallery representation is often the key to bringing emerging artists to the next level. “The value of gallery representation is far-reaching,” said Kennedy. “It includes promotion, introducing art to various collectors, contextualizing the work properly to different audiences, obtaining studio space, providing counsel, financing works that the artists can’t necessarily do independently, and building a reputation online.”
For artists, being affiliated with a gallery can provide the backing needed to continue working. And for collectors, knowing that a trusted gallery is throwing their support behind an artist is a huge vote of confidence and often a definitive market signal.
Karen Chernick