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  • Do Artists Need Managers?

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

    A: This type of relationship already exists in the art world. Quite a few artists have full-time managers, agents or consultants who represent them and handle their art business affairs. These artists tend to be well established, generate substantial amounts of income, have multiple galleries selling their art (both nationally and internationally), and have neither the time nor the inclination to negotiate complex agreements and manage the day-to-day details of their careers.

    The majority of artists have more modest careers and generally show at only one or two galleries at a time. 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. Beginning artists have to do whatever they can on their own to get their art out into the public, develop followings, and generate sales. Once you start selling regularly, you'll attract dealers, galleries, or agents to help you show or sell even more art. But until you've proven 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-- once they begin to get known and start to generate significant amounts of income-- overlook the advantages of hiring art consultants or individuals with certain business skills (accounting, managing, organizing, etc.) on either a one-time or part-time basis. Musicians 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 artists don't learn about the value of outside consultants, either business or strategic, while they're in art school. Or perhaps they feel that they know enough about the art business to go it on their own. Whatever the reason, more artists should think seriously about enlisting the services of more art consultants and similar art business professionals more often rather than proceed on a trial-and-error basis and hope everything works out in their favor.

    The great majority of artists, of course, cannot afford to hire these types of people-- and shouldn't even think about it until they start generating significant sales-- but what they can afford is to hire qualified individuals for periodic consultations relating to career decisions, business opportunities, contract arrangements, possible commissions, and so on. The following example illustrates how even a one-time consultation can generate large amounts of income...

    I recently had a conversation with an established sculptor who told me about a commission that 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 proceeded to contact the corporation, indicate their feelings, and, after several unproductive conversations, were advised that the commissions had been placed on hold.

    From an artist consultant's point of view-- such as mine-- this disastrous turn of events should never have taken place. The two sculptors had allowed their emotions to get in the way, taken 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, many art schools spend too little time teaching basic art business skills. They graduate artists who may know plenty about how to create and produce art, but who have little or no idea how to market that art once it's finished and ready to leave their studios. The realm of the studio and the realm of the art business are two very different places. More art schools should teach more art business skills and more artists should at least get occasional consultations from art business professionals, especially when they have difficult or complex decisions to make about the futures of their art careers.

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