Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Lesson in Protocol

So you summoned the courage, you familiarized yourself with the gallery’s submission guidelines and lo-and-behold you got accepted! Now what?

Whether it’s a group show or a solo exhibition, you’ll want to contact the gallery director and find out what’s expected of you. Often, the acceptance letter (or email) will outline most of the delivery details, the exhibition dates, and possibly the payment split and return policy. If you don’t have that info, get it before you send or deliver your art. Make yourself as easy to contact as possible. It is imperative that the gallery has your mailing address and telephone number. Otherwise, how can they return your work or send you a check? Even if you’ve exhibited with them before, be sure to include your up-to-date contact info in the same emails as your submission and acknowledgment of show details.

If you are one artist in a massive group show, don’t expect a contract, but at least request an email that outlines everything. If you’ve booked a feature or solo show, you’ll be within your rights to expect a contract or some other form of exhibition agreement. In fact, you should request one. If anything is unclear on the agreement (like payment split, term of sale rights, blackout dates, the number of other artists in the show, who pays to ship or anything else), you should ASK. Many things are likely to be non-negotiable (the payment split is basically NEVER negotiable), but delivery dates can sometimes be adjusted and other exceptions can sometimes be made. If anything in the contract is unclear or makes you uncomfortable, don’t sign it until it is either altered to your specification or a compromise has been reached. Because once you’ve signed that agreement, you are legally bound to abide by the details therein.

Our agreements outline delivery dates for show statements and images in specific sizes on or before specific dates. If the contract states that you are to supply images, then it is your job to do that, and by the date agreed upon. If you are a terrible photographer, it will be your responsibility to find someone to take good photos and to get those photos to the gallery by the contracted deadline. Most contracts require that your work is “wall ready,” which means that pieces intended for hanging must be wired. If the piece is over-sized or heavy, it should have d-rings or a cleat mechanism installed. Think about it: regardless of whether a patron plans to re-frame your work, whoever buys it expects a means to display it that doesn’t involve balancing it on a nail or two–especially out here in earthquake country.

Even if there are no specific repercussions outlined for violating the key points in your agreement, rest assured that your gallerist expects you to meet those deadlines. Deliver when you are supposed to deliver and pick up when you are expected to pick up.  Whether this is your first show or your fifth show, you are expected to do what you said you would do in the contract you signed and returned. I suppose that if you are habitually careless with regard to such things it's as much the gallery’s fault for continuing to work with you, as yours for not complying, but don't be surprised if after a series of mishaps they don’t book you again.
This is what a court summons looks like

And don’t be too surprised if other galleries don’t rush to scoop you up, either–regardless of your success, because word has a way of getting around. Even if galleries didn't talk to each other outright, assistants, interns and anyone within earshot of a loud phone call could just as easily gossip. And bad news tends to travel much faster than good news. I’ve even overheard artists sandbagging themselves at other artists’ opening receptions.

Don’t do that. And don’t be that artist. Don’t be the one that waits until the last minute to paint a show that’s been booked for a year, misses every deadline and delivers wet pieces on the night before the show opens. And don’t put pieces into group shows when your contract specifies exclusivity. Exclusivity is just that: you have the right to show your work exclusively at one gallery for an agreed upon span of months. That includes group shows unless stated otherwise. It might even include commissions.

If you are prior booked for one or more group shows at the time you are offered a feature or solo exhibition, you need to tell the gallerist. In such cases it is common for them to offer you at least one exception, which can (and should) be specified in the show agreement. More than one prior local commitment, however, may necessitate a difficult decision. In such cases it may be wise to remember that group shows are intended to lead to features, so denying yourself a feature exhibition for a succession of group shows is somewhat counter-intuitive. Of course a group show that puts you on a wall next to Mark Ryden is a group show that you really can’t say “No” to, but the odds of that happening twice in a year are pretty slim. That would probably make your new gallerist happy, anyhow. They’re not trying to take bread off your table, they’re trying to protect your career.

Long Gone John Exhibit at Grand Central (courtesy of John Purlia)

Don’t omit any facts that have even the remotest chance of impacting your gallery’s plan. In other words, don’t be shady. You wouldn't want your gallery to hide important details that affect your career, and you shouldn’t do that to them, either.

If your new gallery is cool with letting you exhibit in a group show, don’t assume they’ll be OK with you exhibiting more than two pieces two months before your show with them. They might be ok with three or more pieces in four different shows in various locations, but they probably won’t be and it’s always best to discuss these things. It should probably be addressed in your contract with them, but if it isn’t you should ask.

If you’ve committed to what the gallery deems too many group shows, don’t be surprised if they decline their offer, at least temporarily. If they aren’t too bothered, they may elect to reschedule your show at a later date. This is because they don’t want you to cannibalize your own market. There is a limited number of sales within a region for almost every artist, and it is much better for you to sell all the pieces in your solo or feature show than to spread those same sales over multiple group shows. Everybody remembers when you have a completely sold out show. Few people beyond the buyer recall the one piece that sold among many other pieces in a group show unless it was one of the best pieces you’ve ever done–and you should have saved that for your feature show.

Likewise, you shouldn’t be booking commissions while you’re working on a show. And when you do accept a commission, you should price it well above your standard gallery rate. Why? Well, firstly, because commissions are generally a major pain in the ass–unless handled by your gallery (and thus paid in full up front, with very little interaction with the buyer). I’ve seen patrons make artists jump through a succession of hoops for no other reason than they feel like they can, for the mere reason that you cashed their check. 

What could possibly go wrong?

Secondly, if the public can get you to paint what they want you to paint instead of what you choose to paint and for the same price either way, there’s no real incentive for them to buy your gallery work at all. Why buy something that you kind of like when you can get exactly what you want? Allowing everyone to tell you what to paint belittles the work that you do in concepting a body of work and it diminishes the gratitude that a specialty piece should elicit.

Patrons want commissions because they’re hard to get. The ability to buy one should instill specialness if not an actual, viable sense of elitism. I can tell you first hand that artists who do too many commissions kill their own resale market, because it’s generally less fun being told what to do than it is to realize your own vision, and the ensuing lack of enthusiasm is easy to spot. Additionally, the work can fall outside the usual style canon and be considered anomalous. As a result, when that artist’s prices start to appreciate, collectors will unload these phoned-in pieces that don’t mean all that much to them anymore. By pricing a commission above the going rate of a gallery piece, it generally prevents a short sale because it takes longer for the exhibition rate to catch-up to the commission price and not many people are willing to sell at a loss. 

And let’s not forget that the gallery, by offering you a feature exhibition, is making a commitment. They’re taking a chance based on what they view as your potential within their client pool. That commitment needs to be mutual if the gallery-artist relationship is going to work and grow.

The average industrial rental space

Galleries have more over-head than you can probably imagine. Most artists have not had to rent gallery space, print invitations, supply refreshments, hire security and a publicist, nor are they usually equipped to accept payments other than cash without also accepting a lot of risk. These things all require infrastructure.
If many artists shipped their paintings to collectors packed in the same fashion as delivered to the gallery, there would be a lot of refunds happening. Shipping supplies take up room and cost money, too. When all is said and done, most artists who hold pop-up shows end up with less than half after all the deductions, and they rarely do it twice. Most galleries withhold 50% of the total sales but wind-up netting only 30% of the gross.

Some artists subsist on commissions alone, but there is no price history without gallery or auction sales, which lowers the ceiling on pricing because it annexes investors and speculators. That might not sound like a bad thing, but even entry-level collectors want to believe that what they buy will increase in value, and that appreciation is based within the market: on public sale history, not on word of mouth. Referral from your client base is great, but these potential new clients want the reinforcement that a solid and verifiable sales record will provide. The fact that your work hung on a gallery wall is a basic provenance unto itself. Without that, you need to have a marketing plan that constantly targets new buyers, and may take as much or more time as it does to actually create the work. That lost time is lost quality of life.

Don’t get me wrong; commissions can be great. When handled in tandem with a well-thought-out gallery strategy, commissions can be a key factor to building your career. But if everyone who wanted one of your paintings already has one come show time, you are going to go on record with a massive failure. It only takes one total bust to sideline (if not completely kill) a career. Stifling your upward trajectory can be more psychologically damaging than never achieving initial success.

If the gallery that you’ve worked hard to get into gives you advice, take it. This relates to pricing, editing out pieces, and possibly subject matter and color palette. If you don’t trust their judgment, why are you showing with them? They’re not telling you what to do for any other reason than their experience gives them insight that caused you to want to exhibit with them. They know their clientele base better than you do. Hopefully they understand you and your work. If they discover you a bit ahead of the curve, they’ll bring you back if they believe in you–even if you don’t sell anything. If the advice you’re getting from your gallery runs counter to your world view, you’re either talking to the wrong gallery or you’re due for a rude awakening.

Chuck Connoly was once the biggest artist in NYC. Ever heard of him?

Failure is a luxury that long-established galleries have and which start-ups do not. Veterans can program shows that are outside the box because they’ve got enough clout to carry them. They can present the art that they want to show because they feel it deserves to be seen, not based on projected sales. If you have a good relationship with your gallery, you can survive a weak reception. If you constantly jump from gallery to gallery, you’ll be susceptible to fair weather and the likely possibility that you will trend out.

The gallery’s job is to showcase your works and hopefully expand your customer base. That’s it. Your job is to create the art, and to work with, not against, your gallery. Getting materials to them when they need them is just as important for the success of a show as making the art. You can’t blame a gallery for not doing their job if you haven’t done yours.  

“The big pay-off was to work as an artist and gain some shred of respect from your friends, who were also artists. But there was never any notion that you could make a living out of art. On the rare occasions you had a gallery show, and sold a little work, well, that was just gravy.” ­–Edward Ruscha

There are important things to treasure about being in a vocation that allows you to profit by doing what you love to do. Odds are that it chose you, and not the other way around. It is more likely than not that being a creative person requires a great deal of support (financial and otherwise) from the people around you. Appreciate them–all of them. Most gallery artists have other jobs that help pay the rent. Many artists have parents, spouses or significant others that carry most of that burden so that they can follow their dream. These other people aren’t martyrs. They are willing to pick up the slack because your happiness is their happiness, too. It’s copacetic, but don’t take that for granted.

Award winning author (and cult of personality) Neil Gaiman gave an inspirational address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, in which he revealed his secret to working in a freelance world. It is truer than it perhaps ought to be and worth repeating here:

“People keep working… because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.”

I believe quite strongly that the statute of limitations to being able to be a complete bastard and still prosper has reached its logical conclusion. Misery may love company, but it won’t continue to find it. This is an industry of relationships. I know that as I get older, my tolerance for bullshit goes down. I don’t care how good you are; if you are a dickhead I won’t keep working with you. In the long run, the cumulative effect of unpleasantness is that it will negatively affect the work. Your mindset will manifest in the work and people don’t want to live around a constant reminder of your bitterness.

Likewise, if you are very sweet and talented, but constantly late, it’s more stress than any gallerist will tolerate for very long. At a certain point you really just have to get your shit together.  


British film director Jimmy Sangster was fond of asking the question, “Do you want it good or Tuesday?” In exhibitions that have been booked a year or more in advance, there is no excuse for it not being good and on time. But it is much better to annex a piece than to rush it into a time frame that disallows proper completion. That one piece will lower the standard of the entire show. If every individual piece on the walls of your show isn’t exactly what it’s supposed to be, what’s the benefit of exhibiting it? It is the work that matters, after all. When it’s all said and done, it’s your signature on the piece. Do you want your name forever connected to a disappointing piece? The gallery will recover. Will you?

“Works of art often last forever, or nearly so. But exhibitions themselves, especially gallery exhibitions, are like flowers; they bloom and then they die, then exist only as memories, or pressed in magazines and books.” –Jerry Saltz

Nobody is perfect and neither is your gallery. In a perfect world, your gallerist is your best friend and the economy is always on your side, but there will be hiccups along the road. Many of my closest friends are artists, but not every artist I exhibit is a close, personal friend. A respectful acquaintance is really all that is needed for the relationship between artist and gallery. You don’t have to love a gallery to show there, but you should respect their programming and they should understand your goals. It may not all gel perfectly in your first exhibition, but as long as there are no misunderstandings and the work is a good match for the space you can expect a certain level of stability.

'Lady Snail arrives late to the Palace'
by Francisco Toledo

Epilogue: a word about lateness.

Most people are oblivious to the impact of lateness. Deadlines are not arbitrary, so tardiness causes problems. One should never assume deadlines are padded–even if they are. It's the thing that most artists take most for granted and scheduling, by definition, is the most calculated component of gallery exhibition. Every missed deadline upsets the schedule for the entire gallery. Arriving late for a meeting at an appointed time means that everything scheduled around that time has to be moved, and some tasks aren't easy to reschedule. Late physical drop-off of the art means we can't hang it when we planned to, and since installations require scheduling additional employees, that's not just wasted time, it's wasted pay. Late pick-up affects how the storage area is arranged, requiring a lot of additional and unnecessary heavy lifting. Late file delivery may necessitate using a less perfect image for a show or not including one or more artists on an advertisement. Magazines have their own deadlines so not getting show statements delivered on time means the show doesn't get coverage.

Most artists aren't cognizant of this and I know it's not intentional when they do these things. That doesn't make it ok. It's common for artists to get stressed out and lose sleep as they cruise closer to their exhibition openings, but a successful artist will have maybe one major exhibition booked every one to two years. I don't think anyone realizes just how much sleep gallerists lose every month because their artists don't stick to contractual protocol.

Odds are that by the time you get out of bed, your gallerist has been awake for hours, rewriting show statements, checking emails, designing ads, organizing show previews and brainstorming about how to sell your art. Like you, if they didn't love art, they probably wouldn't be doing this.