The Art of the Dealer

Exploring the Relationships of Artists & Gallery Owners

Years ago, arts writer and former art dealer Dave Hickey described the relationship between dealer and artist as a simple one: The artist makes the work; the dealer sells the work; the artist tries to get the money. And that's the way the system works, for the most part -- not because dealers are an innately crooked bunch out to steal bread from the mouths of starving artists (although there are some to be avoided), but because artists in general are slow to recognize their obligation to be equal partners in the business of selling art.

Amazingly, even seasoned artists with decades of fine production and excellent reviews behind them are constantly refining the process: building relationships, then divorcing dealers of long standing, trusting new ones. As artists become more and more successful, they become all the more tied to the business part of the business of making art.

This spring, Splendora sculptor James Surls made a tour through Texas' major cities moderating a series of panel discussions that explored artist/dealer relationships. In Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, he invited local artists and dealers to join him on the panel and in the audience. Surls, whose work appears in New York as well as in regional galleries, wanted to call attention to dealers who sell artists' work but don't pay them in a timely way. Or at all. His crusade was based on personal experience, but substantial turnout across the state proved that a lot of artists have had bad experiences with dealers. In Austin, Women & Their Work Gallery was filled with people nodding heads in agreement with artist/panelists Michael Mogavero, Judy Jensen, Connie Arismendi, and Susan Whyne. (John Robertson, lawyer, collector and sometimes arts writer, and Camille Lyons, director of Lyons Matrix Gallery were also on the panel.) Perhaps the chief value of the panels was that individual artists discovered they weren't alone in having been stung by the system.

However, Surls' strident call for greater commitment and fiscal responsibility from galleries without a corresponding challenge to artists seemed one-sided at best. "Nobody does business the way artists do business," Surls said. He went on to talk about artists who drop off a $50,000 painting to a gallery and a year later have to ask for their money -- an indictment of the gallery. But what about the artist who drops off paintings or sculpture or drawings to a gallery without asking for a receipt from the dealer, without photographing and documenting the work? After months of creative effort, how can artists release their work without asking routinely for an accounting of sales? Out-of-town galleries are accessible by telephone or by mail, local galleries allow for scheduled appointments with the dealer and random visits to see how the work is being treated on gallery premises. When galleries take work on consignment, they are borrowing the artist's property. The owner of that property has every right -- and no small amount of responsibility -- to check on its whereabouts and condition from time to time.

Dana Ravel, former owner and director of Galerie Ravel in Austin, says that while most artists and dealers begin with the same high purpose -- to promote art -- the relationship tends to break down when one feels the other is not performing according to their original agreement. The presence of a written contract, according to Ravel, makes resolution of the conflict easier. Now a private dealer living in Dallas, Ravel recently prepared a long essay on the symbiotic relationship of artists and galleries and is investigating ways to share that information with artists.

The mating dance between artist and dealer is similar to that between collector and art dealer. First there must be a shared visual sensibility; we don't expect to love everything a particular gallery presents, but neither do we return to a space that's repeatedly disappointed us in the past. Those who like traditional landscapes tend to avoid cutting edge galleries. Others who want abstraction, minimalism, or installation art steer clear of more conservative spaces. Most artists do the same when looking for an art dealer to represent their work, although some still waste their time (and the dealer's) by hustling galleries whose work is incompatible with their own.

Researching a gallery's reputation also helps us decide whether to trust the dealer's eye and buy the work he or she sells. Artists should also research a gallery's reputation for handling work safely, selling art consistently, and dealing fairly with artists. Research is particularly important for artists who want to be represented in cities that they might not visit regularly or at all.

"In the long run, it's always a crap shoot," says sculptor David Everett. A Chicago gallery called Everett and showed interest in exhibiting his wood sculptures. They asked him to ship a piece called "Crowd Pleaser" to Chicago, even though he pointed out that it was very large. After it arrived, the gallery owner called and said the sculpture was too big. "Ship it back," said Everett. A couple of weeks later, he received a badly broken crate leaking Styrofoam peanuts. Fortunately, the sculpture was not damaged and neither was his willingness to trust another out-of-town gallery. When one in North Carolina asked him to ship them some work, Everett did. That gallery returned his sculpture and drawings damaged and never paid for repairs. "It really makes you gun shy," says Everett. "[Still], you have to trust somebody; you have to decide whether to give them a second chance."

Michael Mogavero agrees that the artist is hostage to his own need to exhibit work. "What are you most interested in," he asks his students at UT, "protecting work or getting it somewhere to be seen?" The less experienced the artist, the greater the chance for disaster. More than a decade ago, at the recommendation of a Swiss collector, Mogavero shipped work to a gallery in Basel. He received timely payment for the works that sold during his show. A year later, when he finally tried to arrange the return of the remaining paintings, he discovered the gallery had closed and the dealer had disappeared. Mogavero's paintings are now in a warehouse somewhere on the border of Switzerland and Italy, but the artist doesn't have the time or resources to get them back. He has decided the only thing to do is move on. "You do the best you can." he says.

Many gallery owners do the best they can as well, looking for artists who are professional and loyal. Good dealers provide the same professional service and loyalty in return to the artists they choose to represent. When asked how she deals with difficult artists, Camille Lyons of Austin's Lyons Matrix Gallery suggests that she doesn't like to bother with them. "It's too easy to work with the ones who have it all together," she says. Lyons, who has a fine reputation for fair treatment of artists, sent a contract to each of the ones she represented about a year ago. "Seventy-five percent signed it," she says, while at least 50% were "insulted and incensed." She says, "It's a good thing to have in front of you to discuss certain issues," but has signed contracts only with those artists who wanted to do it.

More often than not, the artist/dealer relationship is like a common law marriage rather than one formalized with signatures on a contract. Mutual trust, a good-faith effort to fulfill responsibilities, and personal "chemistry" are all critical in sustaining relationships which are proven (or dissolved) over time. The question is not whether artists and dealers will disagree, but how patiently they negotiate the issues that inevitably arise. "The best relationships have been (established) through talking," says Mogavero. "I prefer the traditional handshake," says Everett.

"It's pretty much up to the artist," says Melissa Miller, who goes on to note that artists have to be their own business managers. For Miller this includes keeping a paper trail of interactions with her dealers, comparing inventory lists with them annually, receiving consignment receipts for work delivered. All the artists I spoke with for this article discounted the absolute need for a contract while agreeing that notes on important conversations should be maintained for reference. Some felt that simple letters of agreement, should be exchanged. How else can the artist judge whether the gallery is meeting his or her expectations? How better for the dealer who has a large stable of artists to recall promises made and whether they've been met?

Dana Ravel says that "there are as many different kinds of dealers as there are people." Artists are different from each other as well. Some artists want to make friends with the gallery owner, while others are content to have minimal contact with the dealer between regularly scheduled exhibitions. Some artists need an occasional advance against sales to help pay the rent, while others worry less about sales than crisp presentation and good, critical reviews. Regardless, it is the responsibility of all artists to keep track of the work they produce and leave with galleries. These creations, like children, need protection. A written contract helps (though does not guarantee) enforcement.

At Surls' gathering in Austin, it became clear that the principal reason artists do not leave galleries that treat them badly is their perception that the gallery is so prestigious -- and therefore the association so important to their career -- that they have to put up with shabby treatment. One artist says that it's like a girl wanting the "bad guy," the one who's not good for you. "This is like a family matter -- you don't put your laundry in the street," said another. "If a gallery screws you, tell people about it," suggested a third.

"Without the artist, galleries do not exist," says Dana Ravel. In the art business, that is the bottom line. It's hard to understand why galleries don't "get it" and harder still to figure out why artists can't use their collective clout to convince offending dealers to change their ways. On the other hand, without dealers to market and sell their work, artists must either give up precious studio time to find buyers or -- except for the wealthy few -- take a "real" job to pay the rent. Of course, most artists have to take real jobs anyway, to compensate for what they perceive to be dealer incompetence, sloth, or outright theft. With or without a contract between artist and dealer, the battle between the two rages on. Not that long ago, I was on the front lines.

"Do you miss being a gallery owner?" both old friends and new acquaintances ask me all the time. "No," I answer quickly, always with a broad smile. And now you know why. n Rebecca Cohen, former director of Willingheart and then R.S. Levy Gallery from 1983-1990, is very interested in hearing about your artist-dealer experiences -- good or bad. You may write to her in care of the Austin Chronicle, PO Box 49066, Austin, TX 78765.

Advice to Artists

Choosing a gallery

* Visit galleries you wish to approach whenever possible, and be certain the work they show is compatible with your own.

* Ask for the name (and proper spelling!) of the person who considers artists' slides.

* Ask other artists represented by the gallery how they are treated.

* If you're looking for a gallery outside of Austin, inquire about gallery's reputation regarding the care and shipment of work. Look for locations that will be good for your work as well as a dealer who has a solid reputation in that market.

Preparing to approach the gallery

* Document your work in a professional manner. Good slides are the calling cards that encourage a dealer to open the door to representing work.

* Prepare a resumé and an artist's statement. If you've accumulated reviews of your work, those should be included as well. These place your images in a context that helps the dealer better understand your slides.

* Send a brief letter with slides, resumé, and artist's statement indicating that you will call to check on the dealer's response.

* If you know artists who are represented by the gallery (who are familiar with and like your work), mention their names and suggest the dealer consult with them.

* For the return of slides, be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

* Follow up your initial letter with the promised phone call about two weeks after the slides have been received. If you are polite and patient, the gallery may recommend other dealers who should see your work if they are not interested.

* If the gallery suggests you try again in six months or a year, try again. Persistence (along with talent) frequently pays off. -- R.C.

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