Find the Right Agent or Website for Your Art
Q: Where can I find a list of art agents who represent artists? Trying to create art and market myself is far too frustrating. Searching website after website is not only time consuming but can also get expensive in terms of signing on and paying fees. What are we really signing up for? Will our images be protected? We can't all get shows at art galleries. Can you help me in my search?
A: Your situation is one that many artists find themselves in. Selling art is hard enough, even when someone's doing it for you, but artists without gallery representation or agents, as you put it, can find the task of selling their art especially difficult. The good news is that the Internet provides numerous opportunities for selling art that never before existed. The not so good news, as you point out, is that if you ally yourself with the wrong website or offer, you can waste time, money or end up in unproductive contractual arrangements. The following suggestions will help you to navigate the online jungle and locate the best prospects for selling your art.
But first let's talk about these so-called art agents. I've been in and around the business for well over thirty years now, and I'm not even sure such a job title exists. In my experience, an "artist agent" is pretty much the same as an art dealer or art gallery except perhaps that someone calling themselves an agent might be doing business privately or not out of a permanent location. But then again, these people generally refer to themselves as private dealers or consultants, and not agents. In fact, I cannot recall a time when I've heard someone specifically refer to themselves as an artist agent. Perhaps the best way to put it is that a gallery or dealer essentially acts as agent for the artists they represent. In other words, the gallery is the agent. And that's traditionally how artists get exposure; they show their art at galleries.
Agents do exist in other areas of the arts-- literary agents and music agents to name two, but there are huge differences between the art business and the writing and music businesses. To begin with, literary and music agents act as intermediaries between writers or musicians and publishing or recording companies, not retail book or music buyers. Art galleries and others who sell art deal directly with retail buyers. Another major difference is that a book or album has the potential to sell thousands, tens of thousands or even millions of copies whereas art is generally sold piece-by-piece. In other words, opportunities for generating significant income from sales are greater. Additionally, the expertise involved in representing a musician or writer involves skills like dealing with corporations, advising on legal matters and complex contracts, determining royalties, cash advances and payment schedules, and so on-- circumstances which only minimally exist in the art world.
Regardless, many artists continue to cherish the fantasy that not only do these hypothetical agents exist and are entirely different from galleries, but they also seem to believe that agents are easier to get than gallery shows or other forms of representation. Whether agents actually exist or not, the chances of getting shows or other forms of representation with any entity-- whatever you want to call them-- are basically the same. So let's take a look at what you have to do to get where you want to go.
No matter you decide to call people who may someday show or represent your art, two of the most important aspects of whomever you approach-- dealer, agent, consultant, representative or gallery-- are that they have experience selling the types of art you make, and that they sell it on a regular basis. Regarding individuals (not galleries) who say they represent artists in various ways, evaluate their qualifications not only by speaking with them and reviewing their resumes and sales experience, but also by speaking with at least two or three artists who they represent-- just like you would do with a gallery. You'll get the most accurate assessment of how much they can do for you by directly contacting artists who make art similar to yours and have comparable career accomplishments.
If you've never had representation-- agent, gallery or otherwise-- and don't have a lot of experience exhibiting, best procedure is to work with someone locally who'll promote your art in the community or region where you live. For example, working with an out-of-town representative or gallery in a major art market like New York or Los Angeles makes little sense if you're are just starting out, don't live in either of those cities, and don't make art that directly relates in some way to the people who live there-- ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE TO PAY TO SHOW OR EXHIBIT YOUR WORK (there's little incentive for anyone to sell your art if you pay them up front). The competition from New York or Los Angeles artists who are much more attuned with those art scenes is too great while the chances for your success are slim. The overwhelming majority of successful artists begin by establishing reputations where they live and then branching out from there.
A couple of don'ts: To repeat-- never pay a representative (or agent), dealer or gallery money in advance to handle your art, and keep initial contractual obligations to a maximum of one year, but preferably six months. Paying someone money in advance gives them less incentive to sell your art rather than more, because they've already been paid. In fact, it might even give them more incentive to sell nothing and then ask for more money in order to continue representing you (and continuing to sell nothing). Plus if they truly believe in your art (and in their ability to sell it), selling it is how they'll make their money. On the contractual side, you don't want to get roped into an exclusive long-term agreement with anyone who turns out not to be able to sell your art, and then have to fight or even buy your way out of oppressive obligations. Once anyone someone starts selling for you and selling well, then think about extended contracts-- but extending representation time periods gradually, not all at once.
Locating a website where you can show and sell your art is similar to locating an "agent" or gallery. As with choosing bricks & mortar options, you want a website that sells the type of art you make, and you want proof from the website that once you place your art online, it has a reasonable chance of selling. The great majority of successful art websites charge for showing your art or for setting up a gallery of your art, so making sure that they can sell once you pay is especially important.
Have any prospective art website provide names and contact information for several of their artists who make and sell art similar to yours. Contact those artists and find out how satisfied they are with the website's performance, but also contact other artists on your own who also make similar work and see what they have to say. In addition, request data from websites themselves on how many pieces of art they sell and what types of art sell best. For example, a website may generate a large number of sales, but if you're an American artist who paints watercolors of flowers, and the bulk of the site's revenues come from selling sculptures by Chinese artists, you're probably not going to sell much art.
Another point to keep in mind is that the larger art websites show thousands of works of art by hundreds of artists, and sometimes much more. Simply calculating the odds, the chances of someone buying a work of yours might be one in thousands, or one in tens of thousands. Before contracting with such a website, spend plenty of time on the site looking around, evaluating the quality of art that you'll be competing against, and realistically assessing your chances of selling successfully. Also find out what options these large websites offer for increasing your online profile such as featuring your gallery, placing images of your art on the home page, and so on. Four major websites serving individual artists and worth checking out are Etsy, Artspan, Absolutearts, and Saatchi Online. FYI, both Saatchi Online and Absolutearts offer free listing options. eBay is an additional option worth considering.
Regarding copyright issues, know that in America and many other parts of the world your art is automatically copyrighted and automatically protected against infringement by others. Policing the Internet against unauthorized use of your online images is difficult if not impossible and not even worth wasting time on. In fact, you want your images to be shared and talked about on as many websites as possible (as long as people aren't reproducing them without your permission in order to make money for themselves). As long as you're given proper credit, allowing your images to circulate freely is how you get known. Exercise a certain amount of due diligence to make sure your images aren't sold without your permission, but never use concerns over copyright infringement as an excuse for not showing your art online, or anywhere else for that matter. Remember that your art is your business card-- your single best means of advertising. The more people who see it, whether in person or online, the greater your chances for ultimately getting shows and making sales. People hardly ever buy art without seeing it first, so do whatever you can to maximize the chances of them seeing and sales happening.
Need consulting about how to approach galleries or get exposure for your art? I work with artists all the time on organizing and presenting their art, and make recommendations according to the types of art they make on how to approach the marketplace and on what types of venues would be appropriate for their work. If you're interested in my services, have any questions or would like to make an appointment, you can reach me at 415.931.7875 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is a gallery offering you a show? Does someone want to rep your art? Entering into a business relationship? Signing a contract? If you answered yes to any of those questions and you're not quite sure how to proceed, read Common Artist Legal Problems and How to Avoid Them.
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