Past Comments

November Issue 2004
by Tom Starland

The Real Deal

OK, I did my duty as editor and gave my space up in the paper for an article which was lost in cyberspace last month. Now, it's time for the real deal.

Art Biz No Different Than All Biz

I'm offering this commentary as an educational piece for the not-so-knowledgable persons - both artists and art buyers. The story, although fictional, is a composite of actual experiences from the Carolinas. The point of the commentary is that the art business is no different than any business out there. We have our Enrons too. And I'm not just talking about commercial enterprises in the arts - I've seen some pretty bad non-profits who have left a community holding the bag - the bag of empty cash and unpaid bills.

Right off the bat I want to be very clear that I'm talking about less than one percent of the overall art community, but there are some bad, very bad people out there who choose the arts as their means of destruction.

If you don't already know it, owning and operating an art gallery is a tough thing to do. I tried it twice myself and failed both times. I never left an unpaid bill, because I knew when it was time to close the door - or someone told me when I couldn't see it, even though it was right in front of my face. It's a very competitive business and the customer base is very small compared to selling just about anything else. In many parts of the Carolinas - in the mountains and on the coast - your selling season may not last the entire year. But the bills keep coming.

So many times when an artist asks me about a certain gallery or a problem they are having with a gallery I usually give them my standard speech. "Galleries are the gateway to art buyers. There are less galleries than there are artists, and when a gallery closes its doors - many artists are cut off from their customers. So, you want to work with your gallery to present the best product and service and in tough times - survive as long as you can - for the benefit of both parties. But, there is a point when that partnership breaks down. Identifying when that point has arrived is the problem. And, most problems have to do with money."

When I hear a story about a gallery who hasn't paid an artist for the sale of a work - a piece that was sold more than six months ago - I find myself speechless. They were told that the customer hasn't paid yet, or that the customer had a problem with the frame - a frame done at another location and the payment was still in limbo, or that the bank hadn't cleared the check yet - six months later.

My reaction is usually: why this - why that - how could you this - didn't you think that was strange - the typical back-seat driver reaction. But the point is - at some point the story the artist was told sounded credible, but after six months it was wearing thin.

The problem is, that artist still wanted to be represented by that gallery. And, here is the beginning of the crossing the point of reason. They're telling me they want to stay at a gallery that isn't paying them for the art they sold? The answer is usually yes.

The gallery is one of the top galleries in the region. They represent some of the top artists in the area and some of the top collectors buy from them. What's not to like?

But I say - they are not paying you for the work they sold.

So here is a "story" about one of those encounters.

Jump to six months later. That same artist tells me of a new experience. They were called by a frameshop who does some work for the artist - a customer has a question about one of their works???? What work? the artist says. Turns out, that the customer has a work they purchased from the above mentioned gallery - a work the artist did not know had sold.

The artist got the frameshop owner to inquire about the price the customer paid and when they purchased the work. Turns out it was purchased for half the selling price - for cash - several months ago. What can the artist do when the customer has a bill of sale?

So I say - "Surely you don't want to be represented by this gallery when representation means you're getting ripped off?"

Well now, the artist says they would be embarrassed to have anyone know what they let happen. And, I'm speechless once more.

Six months later, the artist tells me they had lunch with an artist friend and the conversation got around to "the gallery". It seems this other artist was seeking the counsel of our embarrassed artist. Artist #2 was having a dispute with said gallery about some missing works which the gallery claims they never had. Artist #2 also told artist #1 that they had met another artist represented by the gallery, who lives in another city, at a workshop and artist #3 was asking #2 if they ever had problems getting paid for work that had been sold at "the gallery". That conversation led artist #2 to check into her work at the gallery and that's when #2 noticed some of their works were missing, but the gallery owners were claiming they only had the works on hand and none had been sold yet. The artist had not bothered to do a check in of their works delivered to the gallery, so the gallery's records were the only documents on hand. So artist #2 sought out artist #1 to check about problems and here we are - three very embarrassed artists.

All three artist started leveling with each other, getting past their embarrassment and all soon pulled their work out of the gallery - cutting their losses and hopefully learning a painful and costly lesson. They were thinking about talking to a lawyer - but only thinking. A trial wouldn't be good for their image.

Six months later, artist #1 calls. What now? I say. This is getting ridiculous. Well, they have been checking things out and apparently the owners of "the gallery" are living high off the hog on unpaid commissions, yet artists are still lining up to be represented by the gallery. Even artists who have been warned by friends about what had been going on. Some claimed it was just sour grapes over the fact that they had been "cut" by the popular gallery. Oh man, the embarrassment never stops.

These particular gallery owners had learned that when artists are desperate for gallery representation - representation at a well regarded gallery - they will put up with just about anything and I mean anything.

How does a gallery like this stay well regarded when it treats its artists like this? Good question.

How a gallery treats its artists may be very different from the way they deal with their customers, media, and art critics. Many galleries like to keep artists and customers apart. Customers don't usually inquire if artists are paid. And, if you're not going to pay your artists you might be able to cut better deals with customers - they'll love the gallery for that.

As long as you pay for your advertisements, the media will be happy. Competition for advertising is so bad even the media will put up with a few slow paying customers. And, if you stroke the critics the right way - hey, they're human too - they like to be liked - you can keep them fooled too.

So, the public image of a gallery could be totally different from the image an artist is experiencing. An unhappy customer can have a different opinion of a gallery than its happy customers do, and so on. But how does a gallery get away with treating their artists so badly?

Well, for one thing many artists are very competitive and many don't like others to know anything about their business. Plus a gallery owner who is not on the level will lead an artist into believing that they have a special deal with the gallery - one that other artists don't enjoy and they shouldn't discuss their dealings with the gallery with other artists represented by the gallery. So artists don't always talk to each other about biz. The gallery could also be paying some of their artists in a normal fashion which would keep them a happy vocal supporters when other artists start grumbling.

Then there is the image factor. If an artist is more concerned about the prestige of the gallery or the company of artists they will be in - it can distract their normal business sense. The thought of being cut from the roster can also cloud their judgement. The first thing others will think is that their work didn't sell. But in fact, their work could have been selling very well - they just were not getting paid for the work that sold. But the public always doesn't know that and by the time they do - it's too late.

Then for some artists it's more about creating art, showing it and having people buy their art - money may not be a driving force or necessity. Believe it or not. As long as they have the spotlight shinning on them - they may not be so concerned about business matters - how vulgar to think about money.

And, some artists are just not that good at the business side of the arts. But it is a business. Also, many artists don't live right around the corner from their art gallery. Some may only visit that gallery once a year to attend a reception for an exhibition. So, it's hard to keep a close eye on the gallery.

OK, I'm not saying you as an artist should camp out at your gallery and demand payment the hour after a work has been sold. Most galleries have contracts about how sales will be handled and payments made. But at some point, if you're not getting paid for sales or having other problems, you need to start asking questions to a wide variety of people involved.

But I've got some other hints that might tell you you've reached the point where you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

If you see a reproduction of a work you have at a gallery on a placemat at WalMart - you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

If your gallery owner is drinking wine like the gallery is having a reception every day - you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

If every other artist in the gallery has had at least two exhibits in the past two years and your work is still under the staircase - you may need to find another gallery.

If you haven't been paid for sales in six months but the gallery owner has traded up from a Honda Civic to a Mercedes S-Class - you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

If while you are visiting your gallery to see how things are going an IRS swat team crashes through the front window - you may need to look for a new gallery.

If while looking through the local arts and entertainment paper you find an advertisement from your gallery announcing a 1/2 price sale on your artworks - you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

If you walk through the front door of your gallery and notice that you're standing in the middle of a Goodwill store - you may need to find a new gallery and file a missing persons report on your old gallery.

If every time you visit your gallery there is a new gallery manager and they don't know where the owner is - you may need to find a new gallery.

If, on your first return visit to a gallery that carries your work in a year, you notice that your name has been replaced on your works with that of the gallery owner - you may be dealing with a bad gallery.

The sad thing is that most of these things have happened to artists right here in the Carolinas. Artists should be aware of these things. Most of the time once the public learns about such galleries - the damage has been done. Bad galleries reflect on all galleries, but the majority of galleries are owned and run by people who love art and their artists, conduct business in a professional manner, and work extremely hard at making artists, customers and others they work with as happy as they can be. At least that's been my experience.

A few bad apples don't spoil the arts, but they need to be identified when they show up. And that can only happen when people communicate with each other about unusual experiences.

It's good to trust people, but don't let people abuse that trust.

The traditional relationship between artist and gallery used to be more trusting, nurturing, and understanding. But in many cases these days it just seems to be more of all the opposite.

As I said before, owning and running a successful gallery is a hard thing to do, but so is making a living by being a full-time artist. Both parties have a vested interest in each other being successful.

So, there may be a time when a gallery sells an artwork and has to pay the rent before paying the artist their share of the sale - just to keep the door open. That's not a bad thing and it's also in the interest of the artist, but there comes a point... I mentioned some examples of when you may have reached that point above, but it's always best to talk about your concerns instead of just wondering.

Equal Opportunity

I guess the next time I have to do a website-only commentary I'll have to go into the problems artists cause their gallery owners. But in this instance the gallery usually just replaces the artist with another.

The Bad Artist

Well, believe it or not - there are some bad artists out there. And, the best way I can think to tell you about them is to go back to my days of being a gallery owner and manager. Back to the days of dealing with artists, dealing with the public and spending a lot of quiet days in the gallery - 10am - 6pm. All these things didn't happen to me, but I've rolled all my experiences together with those told to me by other gallery owners.

If you own a gallery, but are not an artist yourself, you are going to have to deal with artists who will supply the art you will hang on the walls and hopefully sell. Hopefully you will sell enough art to keep the doors open and make some money yourself. So, there is no getting around it - you have to deal with artists and everything that "can' come with that profession.

Most of the artists out there - much like most of the gallery owners are very nice, hard working people, but there are a few who can test your patience, your nerves, and sense of fairness. Some will even make you laugh out loud.

So, here are some examples of activities or behaviors that can make for a bad artist.

First, there is the artist who is looking to be represented in your gallery.

I'm sitting at my desk in the back of the gallery - in the back room of a two-room gallery - working on sales tax reports for the month and the front door opens and a person walks in carrying a large portfolio case. "I wonder what this can be about?" The person walks directly back to my desk and ask if I would look at their work - in consideration of adding their work to my gallery. "Oh sure." Sales tax reports don't take long when you haven't made many sales. This person hasn't taken their eyes off of me or their portfolio. They didn't look at one thing hanging on the walls. I ask, "Have you been in the gallery before?" The hopeful artist answers, "No, I just arrived in town and I'm calling on all the galleries". I'm wondering if I'm the first or last.

I open the portfolio and start flipping the pages. What I'm seeing is a series of tributes to Thomas Kincade - as if that artist has gone on to his just rewards. I ask the artist what kind of camera they use and I get a strange puzzled look back. The artist explains that these works are not photographs (with a sense of pride and disdain - that I would think the work was created by means of photography), but works of colored pencil. I pointed to the walls and stated that this was a photography gallery - all we show is fine art photography. Hence the word "photo" in the gallery's name.

The artist left almost as fast as they came in stopping only once to glance at a wall of photographs. I always wonder why some artists looking to be represented by a gallery spend no time checking the galleries out to get a clue if their work looked as if it would fit into the gallery's theme.

About an hour later, I'm working hard on trying to close a sale on a work which has attracted the eye of a visitor to our fair city and the door opens and in walks another person with a large portfolio case. While I'm making nice with the hesitant customer I notice that at least this artist is checking out the works in the gallery - a promising sign - even though as they looked at each work it seemed they would then look at me. Then, just as I've gotten the work off the wall in the main gallery and moved it to the back on a bare wall without distraction - while the prospective customer is trying to cross over that line to becoming a buyer - the artist butts in to ask if I could look at their portfolio.

I explained that I would be happy to as soon as I finished with the person about to make my day. The artist, looking like a person who needed to use our rest room, said that they were kind of in a hurry. I offered them a soda or water from the gallery frig, just in case they did need the use of the rest room. The artist stated that they had looked at the work in the gallery and that they did in fact have photography to show me. That sounded a little strange and before I could say anything else a portfolio was being opened on my desk. As I was about to explain further that I would be happy to see the work as soon as I finished with the person I was with - a cell phone rang and my day was slipping through my hands as I was hearing one side of a conversation that would take my "customer" out the door to meet with someone for lunch. They assured me they would be back after lunch in that tone I've heard a hundred times. After watching the door close I turned to my desk and said, "Well let's look at these photographs".

Fortunately, the work I was looking at was very promising - very promising. I might be able to sell work like this. While I was flipping pages the artist kept checking out their watch. Soon I was being asked if I was interested in the work. I said I was and to move things along I asked what price they were selling their works for. The artist replied that they wanted $3,000. After putting my eyes back in their sockets I asked if they have been getting that price in previous sales and after a little confusion on both our parts I learned that the artist was hoping to sell me the portfolio outright - today - for cash.

While I'm explaining that we don't usually buy works directly from artists for resale and trying to calculate what the individual price of a photograph would be, the artist started closing the portfolio, saying that they needed to catch a ride with an artist friend. They handed me a card and was gone in a wink. I looked at the card. It had the artist's name on it - in fairly large lettering. Under the name it said "artist" and under that was a phone number in handwriting - no area code.

I sat back in my chair and wished that area code had been included. I didn't want to contact the artist later, I just wanted to know where those two had come from. And, then I waited for that customer to return after their lunch. I was sure they were going to return.

While I waited I pondered how unprepared some artists were in approaching a gallery about representation. Some of my experiences were more laughable than painful and a few were embarrassing. But, overall the worst case was always the unannounced caller. I prefer to think about the "ideal" prospective new artist.

It seemed that the most enjoyable experiences came from artists who had visited the gallery on a separate trip or who had actually talked with or knew other artists represented by the gallery - those who had done some research before they "called" to make an "appointment" to have their work reviewed. They often checked to see what format the gallery liked to view works in - slides, CD's, DVD's, prints in a portfolio, websites, or original works - framed or unframed. Many of the best prepared had informative resumes, artist's statements, and time to wait for customers to be served. Even most of those artists who had no previous gallery representation or were recent graduates seemed to have an open attitude about learning what was needed to make the best impression. They seemed to realize that their were more artists out their than there was openings in galleries for new artists.

Don't get me wrong, almost every gallery is looking for that next new talent, be they a seasoned artist or new comer, but most have a policy or procedure for looking at new work. Some have certain days set aside for such matters. A simple phone call is the best first step.

A few weeks later I was visited by an artist who fit the above description. They did all the right things and had work I was really excited about. I even wanted to give the artist an exhibition - as soon as possible. The artist seemed to ask all the right questions - even about the gallery's insurance policy - which I explained was a general blanket policy covering works in the gallery and those being transported to those who purchased works. At first that seemed fine with the artist, but then every following conversation we had the issue of insurance kept coming up. Eventually I was being specifically asked if the artist's works on exhibit would be totally covered if they were stolen. The artist was wondering if we would be taking out a sperate policy during the exhibit for the total worth of the works. I said that wouldn't be necessary and that if any of the works were taken - I mean if someone broke in and took one of their works during the exhibit - that would be priceless publicity.

The whole deal came down to the point that the artist wanted a separate insurance policy and I didn't want the extra expense with an unproven artist. I had the feeling the artist was planning to make their sales by means of insurance collection. I cancelled the exhibit and never represented the artist. It may have been my loss in the long run but something wasn't right about this insurance hang-up.

In the area of strange request we had an artist ask how much we would pay them to exhibit their works and one who wanted to know if they really had to sell their works to be in our gallery.

The general thing about these artists which made them "bad" was that they just didn't seem to know how the gallery business worked and what the relationship is between artist and gallery.

Now, a little bit about "bad" artists who are already being represented by the gallery.

Like the artist who used to call the gallery every other day to see if any of their works have sold, and if any had - they would be right down to see if they could get a check - even before the ink was dry on the check the customer wrote. But when it came time for the artist to pay the gallery any money - they couldn't be reached.

There was an artist who would come into the gallery when we were busy and copy addresses down from the gallery's visitor mailing list. I can only guess to contact them later - when the artist was no longer represented by the gallery.

We had an artist who would show up at the gallery to trade out works of art, which is not usually a bad thing, except that it usually happened right after a customer had been looking at that same work the days before, and in one case hours before. I quickly learned that the artist was using our gallery as a showroom and when people were interested in making a purchase - the artist would take the works out of the gallery - cutting the gallery out of its commission. This may go on more than people would think, but an artist is shortening their gallery career by letting the public know they can get a better deal from the artist directly. This same artist was also donating lots of their work to art auctions where their works usually sold for much less than the prices on the works in our gallery. We eventually found out that the artist had worked out a deal with the charities to receive a portion of the auction results. This artist didn't have a lot of respect for the gallery system. Currently, that artist is no longer represented by any gallery in the area. Word does have a habit of traveling around about "bad" artists - especially those who steal the gallery's commissions and clients.

Then there is the artist who is never satisfied about the way the gallery is representing them. The reception for their exhibit wasn't as good as the one for another artist. We never did enough advertising of their work and shows. Their work didn't get the right placement in the gallery. We were even accused of not placing enough light on their works. In fact we were spending more time selling other artists' works than we were their work. It was always something and no matter how we tried to please them - it was never enough. When they finally left our gallery for the one across town, it wasn't long before the owner of that gallery called and told me I owed them one. I told them it's OK, it won't be long before they will owe one to another gallery owner. And, it wasn't long.

Now there are artists who don't or won't produce enough work for the demand the gallery is getting, artists who want to price their work too high or too low, artists who can never be reached when needed, artists who want to be represented by several galleries in the same area, and artists who want to make separate deals with a gallery - different from those given other gallery artists, but the worst experience I had with an artist was the one of the Yo Yo artist.

This was the case of an artist who lived out of town, but came to visit - our fair city - every time there was a special occasion or event. We had at the time a spare room and made the mistake of offering to lodge the artist in lieu of them staying in a hotel. It was the beginning of the artist building up their "frequent stayer" miles at Hotel Starland. It wasn't that bad until a few years later on one of those many visits the artist had been out about town and came into the gallery to announce that they were moving their works to another gallery in town. A gallery they felt where their works would get better representation. The artist felt sure we would understand the move. What do you say at a time like that? This wasn't a future event, the artist was physically removing work from shelves and packing them to take them to that other gallery right there before our eyes. Talk about an awkward situation. There was a lot of loud silence at the dinner table that night.

What was more amazing was the fact that two months later the artist called to wonder if the room was available during a special weekend. We explained that it was already booked. Too bad. A year later we started hearing things about the gallery the artist had moved to - to get "better" representation. They were having financial troubles maintaining their "Top" gallery in town status. Guess who called shortly after? The artist explained that they may have been "duped" into making a bad move. Oh my! Eventually after a long rant about how the artist had been done wrong by this other gallery the question arrived. "Is there any chance I could return my work to your gallery?" After a long pause - I said no.

This was really too bad for us as we had been doing well selling their work, but we couldn't have an artist in our gallery who wouldn't be loyal to us. It may be an old fashioned concept, but we expect our artists to be in partnership with us. Besides the change could have been handled in a better fashion. We did't look at our artists as slaves bound to us for life. Just as we retained the right to change artists we honored the right of artists to change galleries, but not like this. I guess we expected more.

As I hope you will learn, the description of a "bad" artist does not always involve money. Money is important, but there is much more to a gallery/artist relationship.

I could give more examples but I think the reader will get the point. I will probably receive more calls and e-mails offering other examples as we did about "bad" galleries - if any warrant a return to the subject - for educational purposes - we'll let you know.

But, remember, we're talking about a small percentage of the overall artists' community. Most are exceptional people and some just don't know any better and refuse to learn or change. So the next time you hear an artist say, "There's not enough good galleries around". It just might be that they wouldn't know one when they saw one.

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