Art Dealers From Hell
Part II, The Bullet Points
What you are about to read is a follow-up to the article Art Dealers From Hell and How to Spot Them...
As in any profession, the large majority of art dealers and art galleries are totally reputable, responsible and considerate of everyone they do business with. Unfortunately, a despicable few are anything but. So in honor of that small but sleazy cadre of scoundrels, what follows is a list of behaviors to watch out for and hopefully to avoid, regardless of whether you're an artist or a collector. Knowing how to identify and avoid deceitful dealers keeps them from infecting your life. Thanks to all the artists and gallery owners who provided the following information. And now for the list...
* Art dealers from hell constantly remind artists how important they are and how important their galleries are (the inference, of course, being how unimportant the artists are). They rarely pass up an opportunity to proclaim their magnificence.
* They tell artists they're doing them huge favors by representing them or showing their art.
* They insist on controlling and micromanaging the careers of their artists even to the point of making creative decisions for them, aka telling them what their art should look like. This may even include interfering with successful or longstanding pre-existing business or personal relationships. When an gallery owner doesn't allow you to make you own decisions, that's trouble.
* They are either reluctant or completely refuse to provide or sign any contracts, agreements, itemizations, consignment lists or other documents formalizing any arrangements between them and their artists.
* Bad art dealers want a cut of everything-- past, present and future-- even transactions taking place within previously established relationships.
* They refuse to negotiate and instead dictate everything. If they have this attitude with you, they likely have it with other artists, dealers and collectors as well. Inabilities to compromise or be flexible are often detrimental to the success of a gallery... as well as to its artists.
* They're almost always too busy to meet or speak with their artists, often coming up with pathetic or insulting excuses like they have "much bigger deals" they're working on.
* They give evasive answers to matter-of-fact questions about gallery policies, about who covers shipping, whether they're insured against loss or damage, how and when artists get paid, whether they've sold any of an artist's work, how much they're selling the art for, where an artist's unsold works of art are being kept, and so on.
* They don't pay their artists on time. Always interview artists who are represented by any gallery you're considering showing with before you sign on and no matter how desperate you are for a show. If you find out they owe money to either one or more of their artists, ask those artists why. Nonpayment is almost always a bad sign, unless within the accepted guidelines of a contract. Nonpayment coupled with refusal to either negotiate or discuss the matter is typically a terminal sign. And don't think the situation's going to be any different for you than it is for the other artists.
* They don't tell their artists in a timely manner when art sells, but instead wait until the artist asks, and even then they'll still try to put off telling them for as long as possible.
* Without telling their artists, they either keep pieces of art for themselves or sell them, and then instead of returning them when the artists ask for them back, claim they've already been returned. (In other words, make sure you have complete written records of all consigned artworks and that both parties sign off on every single sale or transfer.)
* Art dealers from hell secretly raise prices beyond the amounts agreed upon with their artists, and then pocket the extra profits for themselves.
* They ask artists to substantially reduce their prices for no specific reason, but are either evasive or refuse to discuss if or how that affects the commission split with the gallery. You want to make sure price reductions are equally split between you and the gallery, and not that the gallery makes the same amount on a sale while you agree to make less.
* They sell an artist's art for below the agreed upon price without telling the artist first or asking whether it's OK to give an additional discount. Or after a discounted sale, they either ask the artist to take less money for the art or simply pay the artist less.
* When bad art dealers get into financial trouble, they keep selling their artists' art but stop paying the artists for it. If you stop getting paid for any reason, act immediately and get something in writing from the gallery about how and when they intend to pay you. If they won't give you that, prepare to evacuate.
* Even though the artists they screw often leave those galleries, unscrupulous dealers will keep those artists' names on their websites, making it seem like they still represent them. Before getting involved with any gallery, always check with a good number of artists on their website to make sure they're actually represented by that gallery. If they're not, find out why-- or better yet, watch out.
* They trash artists who leave their galleries, even though those artists may have had excellent reasons for doing so. If an art dealer badmouth's one or more artists, it's best to contact those artists for their sides of the story. Far too many artists take everything that comes out of art dealers' mouths as gospel. You need as much information as possible from all parties involved in order to make intelligent decisions. By the way, if they badmouth other artists, they're perfectly capable of doing the same to you.
* They don't know how to handle art or they handle it carelessly. Make sure you watch how a gallery handles art. Do they know what they're doing? Are they careful? Do they have a casual attitude? Do they know how to pack and ship it? How a gallery handles art is not only a key indicator of their experience in the business, but even more importantly, of their respect for art and artists in general. That said, if you make fragile or difficult-to-handle art, be sure to provide specific instructions on how to pack, ship and care for it. Don't expect the dealers to know everything especially if your work is unique or unusual in some way.
* A corollary to the above is that art dealers from hell have a history of returning unsold art to artists in worse condition than they received it. As if that's not bad enough, they often say nothing about it to the artists, and never suggest that either they or their insurance companies will pay for the damage (assuming they're insured in the first place, which you had better be sure of before getting involved).
* In order to get new artists to sign on, the most contemptible dealers tell them everything they want to hear, regardless of whether they have any experience showing or selling their art, or have any idea how much they can sell. They promise the moon, tell artists they'll make them famous, talk about bumping up selling prices way beyond what they are now, or whatever else is necessary to convince the artist to say yes.
* A corollary to the above is that after making huge promises, bad art dealers don't follow through-- or can't follow through. For example, they double or triple your prices (or more), nothing sells, they give you your art back, and you're stuck with an overpriced inventory and a bruised or damaged reputation.
* Unscrupulous galleries often require artists to sign oppressive long-term contracts giving the gallery either substantial or exclusive rights to represent and sell the art everywhere-- before even selling piece number one. If you meet with a gallery owner like this who wants to give you a first show, tell them they can have their rights for three months or six months, or some other reasonable period of time-- and never nationally or internationally-- maybe regionally or even statewide, but not beyond that. Never sign away the rights to represent your art for extended periods of time-- no longer than a year-- unless the gallery proves after a show or two that they can sell your work and are honest and easy to work with. Even then, take it step by step. A gallery has to prove they can make good on their promises before you enter into any serious long-term business relationships or agreements.
* Bad gallery owners have a history of getting involved in legal actions-- from either side-- either them going legal on their artists or their artists going legal on them. Or they regularly threaten legal action or talk about what they'll do to anyone who doesn't go along with their program. Litigation is expensive, time consuming, and hardly ever pleasant. These are not people you want to do business with.
* Even though bad art dealers may be brand new, basically untested and have little or no track record of success, they act like they're really important, a going concern, and will have no problems selling your work.
* The dealer has a reputation for strange or eccentric behaviors or for making life difficult for their artists. Again-- don't think you're going to be the exception, no matter how wonderfully they treat you at the outset.
* Bad art dealers often give ultimatums. For example, they'll tell an artist what to make, how many to make, how large it should be, and so on, the implicit message for the artist being not to make what they want to make, but rather what the gallery thinks they can sell the easiest. Dealers can certainly suggest what might have sales potential or what directions an artist might explore, especially once a good working relationship is established, but they should never insist that artists make particular types of art. There's a major difference between being demanding and being supportive.
* Bad art galleries (and these days, art speculators or "flippers") offer artists artificially low stipends or advances to create or buy their art, then take control of that art outright and give the artists nothing more for it, no matter how much they might end up selling it for.
* They tell artists they'll take care of the numbers, inventory, payments, and all other business matters and not to worry. You better worry! And you better keep track of every single work of art you consign as well as its current status. Anytime a dealer is cagey about providing this kind of data, that's a sure sign of problems down the road.
* They're either reluctant or refuse to give consignment sheets or any forms of receipts itemizing and detailing each individual work of art they receive from an artist. They refuse to put monetary details in writing including agreed upon selling prices, how discounts are handled, commission splits between the artist and gallery, payment schedules, and so on. Verbal agreements on these issues are never enough!
* They provide consignment agreements or contracts with stipulations or requirements that were never mentioned or discussed in meetings or conversations about the responsibilities of each party in the artist/gallery relationship. For example seeing, "Artist shares cost of shipping, framing, insurance or promotional materials such as advertisements and PR" when nothing like this was ever talked about in advance.
* And last but not least, they sexually harass their artists or employees or make persistent, inappropriate or unwanted comments, remarks or advances that have nothing to do with art.
So there you have it. It's certainly not everything, but hopefully enough to get you started. Remember-- be vigilant and attentive at all times, trust your instincts, and the most important part: Don't ever let any dealer or gallery ever push you around.
Thanks to Wendy E. Cooper, Mat Gleason, Barry Gross, Brian Gross, Alex Novak and so many artists for their generous assistance with this article, including sharing their own personal experiences.
(art by Ruth Pastine)
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