Art Dealers From Hell...

And How to Spot Them

I've written a ton of articles over the years about protocol for artists-- what to do, how to do it, how to approach this situation or that, how to price your art, how to write or speak about your art or present it to potential buyers, how to make sales, how to approach galleries, how to get shows, and on and on and on. Why? Because being an artist these days is way more complicated than holing up in the studio and tapping into whatever creative impulse happens to inspire you at the moment. The studio is your sacred space and whatever happens there is yours and yours alone, but the instant you're ready step out into the art world, knowing what to expect can make your art life far easier and save you all kinds of pain and heartache as well.

Now the large majority of my writing takes a decidedly pro-gallery and pro-dealer approach because galleries so often play critical roles for artists who want to get somewhere in today's art world. But you know something? In the art gallery and art dealer realm just like in any other profession, there are exemplars and there are assholes-- not a lot of assholes mind you, but enough to make life difficult for any artist who happens to get mixed up with one. To complicate matters, the overwhelming majority of artists will do just about anything to get their art into galleries, and less-than-honorable dealers being well aware of this know exactly what to do in order to take advantage... and how far they can go.

Regardless of what drives bad galleries or dealers to do what they do, they can be real trouble and artists would do well to not to get involved. So in the interest of all artists everywhere who are under the mistaken impression that galleries can do no wrong and that if someone offers you an opportunity to show your art you automatically accept, I'm here to tell you they can do wrong... and they do... and it can be a real nightmare. The following is a quick tutorial on how to spot and avoid that bane of banes-- art dealers from Hell.

Perhaps the number one tipoff you've encountered a malignant practitioner is when you begin to get the feeling they're important and you're not-- like for instance they're doing you a huge favor just by giving you an audience. Or they go on and on about how much money they have or how prominent they are, how great their galleries are, who they know, what boards they sit on, how many big deals they're working on, etc. Pomposity like this is an instant giveaway. When the order of the day is for you to defer to them like royalty while they don't even have the courtesy to treat you professionally or with respect, you're in trouble. When you have to grovel just to get them to look in your direction, when they decide if or when they'll respond to even your slightest request, when it's all about them, then it's time for you to evacuate the premises-- and fast. These are not people you want to do business with.

Another indication that caution may be in order is when a gallery you've never done any business with makes monster promises right off the top like enticing you with prospects of a fantastic solo show, exposure at art fairs, insider access, impressive selling prices, and of course, sales, sales, and more sales-- in spite of the fact that they don't even know you, you don't know them, and they have absolutely zero experience representing your art. Be aware that galleries are in heavy competition with each other, particularly in major art centers, and if you happen to be regarded as an artist with the potential to make a gallery look good (like maybe you've got a profile, a big online following, or you can sell your art well), then consider yourself a prime target for all kinds of offers-- good as well as bad. Regardless of their motivations, be aware that less scrupulous dealers will have no qualms about doing whatever they have to do to sign you on-- whether they have any inkling about being able to follow through on their promises or not.

Artists are particularly vulnerable to grandiose overtures when they come from trendy new galleries, fresh on the scene and attracting lots of attention. Though these venues may be the artland darlings du jour, they're often undercapitalized, inexperienced, have tenuous (if any) collector bases, and have no idea what it takes to survive the long haul. In the real world, great galleries and great artist/gallery relationships evolve slowly over time-- never overnight. Get all starstruck and place your fate in the hands of someone who talks a great game if you want, but don't be naive about potential outcomes, and be aware in advance that the chances of their promises fully materializing may not be anywhere near as for-sure as they sound.

In other words, don't get caught up in the hype. If you're one of those artists who's fortunate enough to be receiving offers, sometimes it's better to go with an experienced gallery, an established track record, and a long-term game plan than it is to go with delusions of grandeur, mirages of prosperity, or the flavor of the day. FYI, it's not all that unusual for fashionable new galleries to be huge one month and extinct the next. In this business, staying power beats chic approximately 100 percent of the time, so be careful about gambling on glamour or the heat of the moment.

Now let's say you interview with a gallery you've just recently met or been introduced to, hear all the right stuff, the prognosis seems sweet, and you're ready to sign on. Here's where an art dealer from Hell can get oppressive really fast, particularly with respect to what might be required of you in terms of art and obligations. For example, watch out for galleries requiring you to sign agreements making them your sole and exclusive agents or representatives over large geographical areas or online. Being asked to sign on with a new gallery for an extended period of time, say longer than a year or so-- even though they have absolutely no experience selling your art and your business relationship is entirely untested-- is generally not recommended.

A surefire deal squelcher would be if you're asked to either end all of your existing relationships with other galleries or to pay the new gallery a percentage of any works of art either you or your other galleries sell no matter how longstanding those relationships (it happens; believe it). Don't allow these levels of control no matter how badly you want to get involved with any new gallery. Being forced to restrict or even sever established working relationships before having any idea whether the new gallery can successfully sell your art is tantamount to artistic suicide. If things don't work out the way you hope they will, not only will you have burned all your bridges, but even worse, you may also end up having to go legal or buy your way out of suffocating contractual obligations.

Speaking of excessive controls, avoid galleries that are secretive or refuse to talk about how they expect to represent or sell your art or pay you when they sell it, and instead insist on totally dictating and dominating the relationship. If you've already signed on, warning signs include pretending not to know or refusing to tell you who buys your art, not telling you in a timely manner when your art gets sold, being vague about when you'll get paid, preventing you from meeting your collectors, or otherwise deliberately keeping you out of the loop. Some dealers actually treat their artists like children, like they don't understand, and attempt to subjugate and convince them that the dealer always knows best. These situations are pure poison, and the instant things start moving in this direction, get to work on your exit strategy.

Returning to contracts or agreements for one brief moment, if a gallery wants to show your art, you absolutely positively need some kind of formal agreement, a piece of paper you can hold in your hand. It's that simple and no more complicated. No matter how charming, well healed, delightful, persuasive, reassuring or important a gallery owner appears to be, a casual handshake is never enough unless, of course, you're OK with risking whatever art you have on consignment as well as any prospects of getting paid any outstanding balance on sales if for any reason the relationship goes bad. In fact, a dealer's reluctance or refusal to draw up a contract is almost always a warning sign of a of sorry times to come.

As far as getting documentation from a gallery on what art your consigning, it's just like the contract. Either you get it in writing signed by both parties or you walk. Beware when a dealer gets casual or tells you not to worry and that everything's going to be OK. Careless, airhead or nonexistent record keeping ends up ugly approximately 100 percent of the time, and is a great way for a devious dealer to victimize an artist. Rest assured that if a gallery plays loose or has a laid back approach to the way they do business that sooner or later you'll be plagued by mind lapses about how much of your art they have on consignment, what they've sold, whether you've been paid, how much they owe you and so on. Especially watch out when a gallery is selectively clueless-- like they're extremely on top of their overall business, but when you ask for any sort of accounting about your art, they come down with instant amnesia.

Regarding selling prices, the worst dealers often seduce artists into coming onboard by promising to bump their selling prices on up into the ozone (with no experience selling it of course, and no idea whether they actually can). While all this tall talk may sound great in theory, it's dangerously shortsighted, greedy, mainly in the dealer's interests and rarely in those of the artist, particularly over time. An artist's prices have to rise in a deliberate and orderly manner, commensurate with that artist's accomplishments; no dealer can arbitrarily inflate an artist's prices before their time, and especially before career accomplishments warrant it.

Galleries who raise artist prices too high too fast frequently outstrip their collectors' appetites for risk and end up pricing themselves right out of the game. And then there's the pressure to validate those prices with success after success. If an artist whose prices are constantly at the absolute top of the market happens to stumble or have a soft show, the fallout can be significant. At worst, sales can fall off a cliff and the resulting collapse will be almost like having to start over. Galleries may also be reluctant to show you because your prices got so far ahead of what they can sell your art for. Remember-- big price promises often come with big potential downsides so watch out when someone claims they can make you rich and famous for no rational reason.

OK. Time to broach the bottom line-- getting paid when a gallery sells your art. Hopefully, you and your gallery have agreed on when and how payment is to be made and you both have it in writing. If you don't, then watch out. The art business is tough and getting paid can be challenging. Worse yet, getting paid by duplicitous dealers who could care less about you and more about their own personal financial obligations can really be challenging. Since this article all about them, let's talk warning signs so you can diagnose a bad situation before it's too late, hopefully recoup as much of your art and money possible, and then get out.

Dealers commonly stop paying artists because their galleries run into financial problems. Reputable ones will approach their artists, tell them what's happening and try to work through difficult situations; less reputable ones have no qualms about taking whatever profits they can get before the ship sinks. So a really good idea is to regularly speak with other artists they represent and keep tabs on how things are going in terms of getting paid. If you don't, you might not realize what's happening until it's too late.

Equally important is to monitor your gallery's financial health, and a great way to do that is to keep tabs on the consistency of their expenditures. If they start cutting back, this could mean they're running low on funds, and if that's the case, consider yourself on notice that getting paid for your art or even getting consigned art returned to you might get difficult. For example, let's say a gallery agrees to give you a show and they're totally supportive of your work, but when show time rolls around, they balk at doing what's necessary to present it at its best-- like suddenly they won't even pay for the hardware to hang it. When a dealer's agenda appears to be changing from making money to just staying afloat, the time has come for the two of you to either talk it out or if for some reason that's not an option and the dealer refuses, to start planning your escape route.

Whether a dealer is having financial difficulties or not, continual excuses about why they can't pay you also fall into the seriously bad omen category, especially when the tall tales have nothing to do with your art. Like maybe their "investments" are tied up, or they promise you'll get yours as soon as the second mortgage is finalized or the Mercedes sells or the lawsuit settles, etc. "Not right now but soon... the deal's almost closed." Some even add insult to injury by framing their delay tactics like they have all this big buck stuff going on-- all way bigger than you-- and that when the cash comes through, you'll get your little pittance.

This stuff sure isn't pretty, but it's pretty necessary for you to be aware of from a prevention perspective-- spotting the warning signs and knowing when to get out before it's too late, or better yet, knowing when not to get involved in the first place. The sad news is that this is only the first of a two-part diatribe. Read Part II here: Art Dealers From Hell, Part II - The Bullet Points.


Thanks to Wendy E. Cooper, Mat Gleason, Barry Gross and Alex Novak for their generous assistance with this article.


(photograpy by Erica Deeman)

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