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  • Do Artists Need Managers?



    Q: Why don't managers or agents work with artists the way music or literary managers or agents work with authors, musicians or music groups? By this, I mean long-term business arrangements where a manager handles an artist's sales, marketing, public relations, business affairs, and so on. The type of artist-manager relationship I'm talking about is more personal than what galleries offer, but more formal and professional than what mentors or patrons offer.

    A: A major difference between visual artists and musicians or authors has to do with their potential to generate large numbers of sales through large numbers of outlets to large numbers of people, and as a result, generate substantial amounts of revenue. Manufacture, publishing and distribution systems are much more complex than they are for the average artist. Successful musicians and authors, for example, can sell anywhere from thousands to millions of copies of a single album or book whereas artists typically sell one-of-a-kind originals or prints with edition sizes that rarely exceed several hundred. With far less to sell, smaller markets for their art, and limited potential to generate significant revenues, the idea of artists hiring full-time managers or agents makes little sense.

    Having said that, managers and agents (or their equivalents) do exist in the art world. In most cases, an artist's primary gallery handles the business end of things. A number of more successful artists can afford to hire managers, agents or consultants who regularly advise, represent or handle their business affairs. These artists tend to be well-known and established, generate plenty of income through art sales, have multiple galleries selling their art (both nationally and internationally), and have neither the time, skills nor abilities to manage the constant demands on their careers, handle their own publicity, respond to ongoing requests for their time or attention, handle their finances, deal with the logistics of multiple shows and exhibitions, assist with complex negotiations or agreements, and more.

    The large majority of artists have more modest careers, do not generate large amounts of income, and have only periodic gallery shows, assuming they have any at all. For them, a single dealer or gallery is often adequate to handle this type of artist's business affairs. In fact, most dealers and galleries act as informal agents for the artists they show or represent by giving them advice, helping them organize future shows, and performing functions like publicizing their art, and getting their art shown at new venues. Many artists who develop successful long-term relationships with galleries or dealers eventually draw up agreements that allow those establishments to act as sole agents or representatives on either a permanent or a semi-permanent basis.

    If you're early in your career, don't sell much art, or don't have dealer or gallery representation, you may want an agent or marketer to help sell your art, but at this stage, you simply don't generate enough income and sales to interest anyone in seriously managing your business affairs. Less successful artists have to do whatever they can on their own to get their art out into the public, get active on social media, cultivate followings, and generate whatever sales they can. Once you start selling regularly, you'll attract dealers, galleries, or other professionals to help you advance in your career, but until you've shown that you can produce income not only for yourself, but also for others, you're going to have to go it alone.

    Your point is well taken in one respect though, in that many artists, whether they're known or not, overlook the advantages of hiring art consultants or individuals with certain business expertise (accounting, managing, organizing, etc.) on either a periodic or regular basis. Musicians and authors know that once they reach a certain level in their careers, hiring people to manage their businesses helps them to attain higher levels of success; artists don't necessarily think this way. Maybe they don't learn about the value of business or strategic assistance while they're in art school. Or maybe they feel they know enough about the art business to go it on their own. Whatever their reasons, more artists should think seriously about hiring consultants and art business professionals if they can afford to rather than using a trial-and-error approach and hoping everything works out for the best.

    I recently had a conversation with an established sculptor who told me about a commission he had competed for and apparently won, but which was now on hold indefinitely. A large resort/hotel complex had offered two sculpture commissions-- one for a major outdoor piece and the other for a substantial indoor one. According to the rules of the competition, the two top entries would each win one of the commissions.

    This sculptor and another sculptor, both of whom happened to know each other, won the two competitions. The outdoor sculpture commission was to pay approximately $1.2 million and the indoor one, about $400,000. Both sculptors were asked to fly to corporate headquarters to discuss the details of their upcoming projects-- and here's where the trouble began.

    The corporation expected the two sculptors to pay their own expenses to these meetings. The sculptors spoke with each other ahead of time over the phone and agreed that the corporation should be footing the bill for their trips, not them. After all, they reasoned, they had each already devoted many weeks, plenty of money, and hundreds of hours conceiving, sketching, and executing the scale models for their final sculptures. They contacted the corporation, told them how they felt, and after several unproductive meetings, were advised that the commissions had been placed on hold.

    This disastrous turn of events should never have taken place. Neither called out for a second opinion, they allowed their emotions to get in the way, took the corporation's request personally, and ended up forfeiting two major commissions. They were resentful that after spending so much time to do so much work, they were still being asked to do more.

    They did not understand the corporate protocol that paying their own expenses to the meetings was "the way business is done." The corporation was not asking them to pay their own way in order to upset them or to squeeze more free services out of them. They were merely doing business as usual. A simple misunderstanding on the part of the two sculptors cost them each hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant opportunities for advancement in their careers.

    Had the artists hired an agent or consultant-- even for an hour-- they most certainly would have been advised to go along with the program. After all, an artist who is about to receive a commission worth hundreds of thousands of dollars should do everything possible to cooperate with and satisfy the requests of the people who are hiring him. Not only does that indicate that he's an easy person to work with and is prepared to do what's required, but it also shows that he's successful enough to afford incidental expenses (even if he can't).

    Unfortunately, artists spend too little time learning basic art business skills and often end up making costly. Many art schools graduate artists who know plenty about how to create art, but who have little or no idea what to do with that art once it's finished and ready to leave their studios. The art studio and art world are two very different places. Hopefully more and more artists will have opportunities to learn business skills, whether at art school, by reading articles, or hiring art consults or professionals, especially when they have difficult or complex decisions to make about the futures of their art careers.

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