What Have You Done For Me Lately?

July 18, 2008 · Print This Article

janet jackson“My dealer is acting weird,” a friend from New York said to me recently. “Weird, how?” I asked, starting to work on my probable list of dual sided offenses and defenses between the two parties. “Weird like, I can never tell if she likes my work. She keeps putting off studio visits and some other stuff. I don’t know what she wants from me”

“…other stuff…” Okay, so I can surmise that one of two things is happening.

One: this dealer is fixin’ to screw my friend. The dealer has lost interest, found something better, is disappointed in sales. The dealer probably got an early pass to the MFA exhibition at one of the local Young Artists Vocational Schools of Instant Success and has replaced nearly half her roster of artists with youngsters whose installation work revolves around their “like, umm, genuine interest in Hip-Hop culture”.

Then there’s option Two, which is just that there’s a very benign slow spot and the dealer is doing everything she can, and they’ll wait it out and end up happily strategizing for the full blossom of my friend’s career over a couple of Stellas at the Half King. Great. Phew.

Either way, it reminded me of the tense and difficult relationship artists often have with their gallery representation. It seems always to be a vague replica of every high school relationship I ever had: one person liked the other person better than the other person liked them. Many gallery artists are constantly worried about whether their work will be on the booth walls at the next fair, and the dealers are often worried about the artist moving up and out when the first better opportunity comes along. Artist: jockeying for pole position within the harem. Dealer: fawning over the first draft pick she just discovered.

These people are famous for their insecurity. It seems impossible to find a stable understanding between artist and dealer and healthy relationships are as rare as a Very Hard to Find Thing. Why can’t the artists and dealers situate themselves comfortably in a happy 50/50 exchange of mutual career furthering and wholesome fostering of the betterment of art? I can’t figure out if it’s a problem with money or with ego. Is it a simple lack of paperwork? What are the rules and reasonable expectations for this relationship, and can we all get a damn handbook?

In my recent life, I was an art dealer. So I know something about what some artists want. But it’s actually complicated. Some of them want artfame, and some of them want money, and some of them are just content to be named on the list of gallery artists. And I too wanted different things from each of them. Some of them inspired in me a professional quality drive toward museum collections and a place in the most important survey exhibitions, and for others, I knew we weren’t going to make it there, but still had something good to offer one another. In the meantime, they all loved it when I sold work.

Here’s the thing to know from a dealer’s prospective: I want to make money off of you. From the wellspring of your gleaming talent, that which you have honed ever since you were nineteen, that which you slaved over perfecting in the studio for lo’ these last two years. You ate nothing but pitas and hummus for 36 months and now I want to take money for the fruits of your labor?!

This comes as a surprise and great offense to many young artists. But here’s the thing: I want you to make money off my work too. From the wellspring of my talent, that which I may or may not have honed, through various preparator gigs and gallery internments, I mean “internships”, that which I have slaved over perfecting, and eaten hummus only, etc. for.

If a dealer/ artist relationship is balanced, it should be symbiotic (you can decide who’s the whale and who’s the lamprey). It isn’t a free service to artists and it shouldn’t be a free ride for dealers. You make the art, and deal with all the sacrifices that come along with it, and I’ll do the dealing and accept all the sacrifices that come along on this side. For my 50%, I will hang my face over a computer for hours a day, researching museums and collections, turn my ear red and sweaty from making uncomfortable phone calls, pay the monthly bills, design, print, stamp, mail, pack, stay in terrible hotels, and sit in a booth waiting to tell people about you until my ass is numb. You, for your half, will work two jobs that you don’t love, sketch, draw and haul all over the city to find materials for your sculpture. You can hang your face over the canvas or table saw or whatever it is you hang over and then we’ll sell a piece and divvy up the profits. The better you do, the better I do, and vice versa. On the face of it, it seems so simple, so easy to be bitterness neutral.

Too bad some shit always goes down, and soon enough the lamprey isn’t keeping the whale clean enough. And then your dealer starts acting “weird”. So you consider… “What has that snatch done for me lately, anyway? Maybe I don’t need a dealer. Maybe I need a better dealer! I deserve a better dealer…” and so on and so forth. It may all be true. It may be the other way around. Either way, a basic litmus is that everyone should feel like they’re earning their fifty percent. If the formula falters, reassess. But between an artist and a dealer, it’s a perpetual battle of underestimating one another’s sacrifices.

The only truth I’ve uncovered in witnessing a mass of misunderstandings and a long run of dubious dealings is this: if you’re waiting around, an artist relying solely on your dealer to make something happen for you, or a dealer, resting on the laurels of your artists, you will be waiting a long time, babies. Neither of you have anything coming to you. So you’re just going to have to go out and work for it.

76 thoughts on “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”

  1. tony fitzpatrick says:

    When a dealer profits off of your work — they should expend some resources to help your career move forward — catalogs, adds, a presence in a decent artfair — if they don’t do this — they are cock-blocking your growth and potential.

  2. pedrovel says:

    I have no complains, my dealer does the work..

  3. tony fitzpatrick says:

    I’m heartened to hear that Pedro ; other worthy artist’s should be so lucky….

  4. Lisa says:

    That seems like frying pan into the fire- going from one arbitrary system to another. What does it cost to make a work? Video work for example often takes time, but few physical materials. Paintings, even a 6 ft. square one costs what- 300 dollars? So one doesn’t have to get very far into the math before they stumble in that plan.

    And as far as profiting- an artist can then arbitrarily set the amount they need to profit, which in the case of some artists is way under or way over. It wouldn’t sell in the gallery. I have had the experience of asking artist to contribute to ideas about prices and it is often completely untenable.

    One thing to look deeper into is what “profit” is for a gallery. There is this idea, I think that if I sell something, I, as a dealer, am free to use this money to purchase any manner of fancy dinners and expensive clothing with it. I have not ever seen Tony Wight wearing Prada.

    If you sell the $6,000 sculpture, the artist leaves with $3,000.(subtract cost and time, pobsibly studio rent) The gallery leaves with $3,000, but will likely need to use it to place an ad, pay the rent on the gallery, take the work to art fairs, staff the gallery all days and a whole other host of things that leave the gallery with nothing even close to a profit. They certainly don’t make even a tiny salary for their efforts, at least not in the first many years. Even the ones who’ve been named here as having the right kind of program.

    So, while I appreciate that an artist should be involved in pricing, (I always talked with my artists about it, and arrived at an agreed upon number), if they’re working with a gallery, it has to do something for the gallery as well, or it just wont stay open.

    Tony, you might be good to answer this–I know that Pierogi has an exceptionally large group of artists listed. And that he splits with you 35/65, as you said. He also has a flat file program that I understand he makes a lot of sales with. Do these artists have solo shows too- the flatfile ones?

    The reason I ask is that if Pierogi, for example, is developing a way to sell work without exhibitions and with little resultant overhead, is this what helps buoy the operating costs? Do the artists mind being sold out of a drawer, without an exhibition?

    Maybe I have it wrong with Pierogi, but he has no outside financing and he’s doing well with this model- but can anyone say a little bit about the programs that are successful doing different percentages, and what they are doing differently that allows this to work well?

  5. Orange Palanquin says:

    This is a time of war, Sharkie?

    Oh come on now, you sly territorial silverback. Can’t you enter into a discussion without heaping personal insults upon others? Your ability to out-caterwaul and out-insult everyone on this board isn’t an indication of your wisdom, or your understanding of the art world, or even evidence of your innate superiority. Your behavior simply reinforces a tired cliché of artist-as-enfant-terrible, the Promethean, Pollock-ian ur-creator who explodes conventions and immolates bourgeois sensibilities.

    Well done, sir. Congratulations on believing your own conventional mythology. You’ve even bestowed a superhero name upon yourself: The Shark.

    Your behavior doesn’t change the way people think. You’re not shattering cherished beliefs with your views because you’re not engaging in a well-reasoned discussion. Through bellowing and nutsack dragging, you’re discouraging the growth of a community you claim is so frail: the Chicago art scene. Who wants to but forth any effort to discuss ideas–let alone attempt to implement them–when the get yawlped down by one of the higher-profile members of they same community?

    Tell me what I should think about that. Explain my faulty reasoning. Shout me down, you mighty cartilaginous fish.

  6. Lisa says:

    Oops, sorry, my post was supposed to start with an excerpt from Chad’s:

    >In essense what I am saying is that the artists should be able to price their work based on what the artists need to cover their costs and profit, not on what the gallery/dealers need. That only makes sense. If a Chicago dealer needs a 2.00 mark-up because of their high overhead, that isn’t the artist’s fault. Nor is it the fault of another dealer that has decided that they only needs a 1.33 mark-up.

  7. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    Pierogi does exhibit a good many of the artists in the flatfile — in fact I started out in the flatfiles there — Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson monitor the progress of the flat-file artists and the determine when they are ready for an exhibition — does every flat-file artist get or rate an exhibition — no– but it is still the most democratic model I know of. They are not supported by backers — they started Pierogi with the mission of building a community in Brooklyn and they succeeded by nurturing a core community of artists– a lot of names passed through Pierogi–
    James Sienna, Roxy Paine, Dawn Clements, Jane Fine,Mark Lombardi, Amy Silman, and Fred Tomaselli to name a few … Their mission was first and foremost to build a community and feature emerging artists.They never tried to immediately plant their flag in the market-place– they are very aware of the market, sure — it is a business. But the first mission of Pierogi was to foment and create a community. and they did it.

  8. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    also… Lisa — do you have any more of those Amy Jean Porter pieces? — I’d love to get more of those — they fucking kill me dead.

  9. Steve says:

    …”do you have any more of those Amy Jean Porter pieces?”

    Just checked her out. Wow. Thanks Tony.

  10. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    Isn’t she great?…. their funny and beautiful and oddly elegant and mysterious…..love them.

  11. Steve says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I gotta see some. Thanks again.

  12. Chad Wooters says:

    One of the reasons the art market is so wonky is because it lacks the controls inherent in other businesses that keep cost, price, and value relationships in line. Cost is the sum of all expenses needed to deliver a product to market. Price is the amount of money requested by the seller. Value is the benefit transferred to the buyer. One way or another, prices will be corrected by what collectors are willing to pay based on the perceived value of their purchase.
    Lisa, the justifications you give for the dealer mark-up consist almost entirely of costs incurred by the gallery: advertising, rent, wages, etc. Let’s say overhead costs are 20%. Then let’s say that anticipated profit on investment is a generous 15%. As a collector, I might think to myself, “Paying an extra 20% is worth it to not have to drive around and finding art that I like right here. And maybe 15% profit seems a bit high but I can understand that every business person needs to make a profit.” That’s a 1.35 mark-up. But we’re starting with the premise that the mark-up is 2.0 (on a consignment piece). So what is the value of the remaining .65 mark-up to the COLLECTOR.

    I’m not saying that the value isn’t there. I just don’t know what it could be.

  13. Lisa says:

    That is interesting about Pierogi, I’m going to try and find out more about it. I know a couple of other people who have worked with them, so I’m going to ask them about it.

    And yes, I do have some great Porters. I have sold all the works from the mammals series and horse series and no longer have the birds. But I have a gallery full of monkeys- the larger pieces. E-mail me if you want more info.- better images, etc.


  14. I just got to this discussion after vacation. Very interesting.

    Please don’t lump “Europe” all together, though — there are good places and bad. Most of Switzerland, large parts of France and Spain, the whole UK ouside London, e.g., are almost identical to Chicago (i.e. typically provincial — not the artists, the scene: few collectors, no interest by curators, one or so dictatorial “entities”, etc.)

    When a place is GOOD here, for artists, it is exactly for the reasons one would guess and for a few additional possibilities:

    Curators who regularly make studio visits. I get them ALOT. That happens seldom in Chicago.
    Collectors who also make studio visits and buy regularly. It happens frequently to me too (thank God).
    Public entities such as the Kanton (State) buying works, or the big banks (to whom I have sold) or the big firms, such as the chemical/drug corps in Basel, who buy lots of Basel artists.
    Germans can be very nationalistic — prefering to buy Germans (I think that can be quite good too).
    We Euro artists often refuse to sign exclusive gallery deals. I personally now go show-to-show. Around a show or sales that result from contacts made there, I share (even out of the studio). Others sales such as between shows to my “stable” of collectors” or to a museum or so, when it had naught to do with any gallerist, no way in Hell do I share. 0%
    In general 50/50 % IS actually the rule, but only when galleries do LOTS — catalogues, ads, career building, getting other galleries to show you, etc. etc. Otherwise, less. And “Otherwise” is indeed often.
    In general, here in Europe, for better or worse (often worse), curators are far more important than galleries than in the US

    The building of a community at Pierogi and many others does indeed seem to me to be the main point.

    I think Wesley’s point about big shows being done by Lisa-types, in lieu of galleries, is indeed a far too unexplored area.

    What any place needs to be a thriving art place is, first great, serious artists, but afterwards: curators who show artists of high quality WHO LIVE NEAR THEM; collectors who buy artists WHO LIVE NEAR THEM; critics who write about those shows and artists.

  15. Beyond that, as for galleries, I think a whole radically new model is needed, maybe like agents, I don’t know.

    Why don’t you become one of “those curators” Lisa?

  16. Lisa says:

    Mark, thanks for posting. Can you say a little more about your practice of going from show to show? Pros and cons. I would think it feels positive to be unfettered, but do you think you suffer any from less visibility that some artists in galleries have? Or have you passed that stage, and you feel well known enough and that people (new collectors, etc.) can easily find you?

  17. What a great phrase, by the way, “Young Artists Vocational Schools of Instant Success.”

    One thing that would be nice, Lisa (or Chris H), would be if you would put your name clearly at the top of the post, so it is obvious who and what it is (not a news piece, whatever). Such as “Lisa Boyle: What Have You…” Or in the first line or something. That way I know I would be certain to read them right away.

  18. Here’s a post by a very influential gallerist/blogger, Edward Winkelman, which discusses Lisa’s post and even quotes Tony Fitzpatrick (unnamed, unfortunately!)
    40-plus comments too.


  19. Tony Fitzpatrick says:

    Mr. Winkleman made some very good and salient points– I kind of feel like my comment was taken out of context a bit; because later in the thread, I feel like I stated my case for the gallery models that I do feel are more equitable for artists. i can understand him taking umbrage at the comparisons to the mob…. though knowing what I know about the workings of the art world; I feel, perhaps ,the mob should be more insulted for being compared to the art world.

  20. The mob is better organized and knows the value of the sugar as well as the stick.

  21. Christopher says:

    Is that the European version of the idiom “Carrot and Stick”? If so that is pretty cool.

    I think in the US we forgot what a carrot even looks like some days.

  22. Yeah — oops. I directly translated from German in my mind, without first searching in my dizzy brain for the normal English equivalent. For some reason I was thinking in German then. I like “sugar” as the counterpart better than “carrot” anyway.

  23. Lisa,
    Sorry it took so long for me to answer your good request, but I am overworked currently.

    I guess I’m more like “between serious galleries” than truly creative with a new alternative-to-galleries-idea. I have several galleries where I show regularly, and importantly have several private dealers who sell my stuff regularly. I have a certain freedom because I get regular curator visits and get into museum group shows a lot. The galleries that have approached me for the last while simply haven’t impressed me. They seem less interested in building a real relationship in terms of building (both our) careers and reps, than in simply getting “my” curators and collectors to come to them. I want someone who, first, I have FIRST found to be a person I like, at least enough to want to work with them, and second, one who will invest in my career (and their own) as much as I do — catalogues, fairs, “haunting” curators, “appreciating” collectors, etc. If you know what I mean. And gallerists who know about and love art as much as I do. I don’t have the time to babysit mediocre minds with little drive. I was impressed by your knowledge and commitment, let me add, so I’m certainly not dissing all galleries. I know several others who impress me too. I’m not (or at least not ONLY) egotistic; I just think you gotta do more than just rent a space. I’m still open for some new galleries, if they fit my small yet serious concerns I wrote above. Unfortunately I see these little met. I guess it is like relationships as you age. I have a wonderful wife and am in love, and have been for some 20 years. If that went sour, heaven forbid, I would not just rush out to anyone interested in me, which is what it appears to me so many artists do. I have seen and had great gallerists — it is getting more and more difficult to be one, though, I think —. I have had terrible ones. I’m going about it slowly. I have many shows, but until some of the gallerists appear to have what I’m seeking, I’m being a bit guarded. Yes, that means I don’t get as much attention as I feel my art deserves, but I get a lot of attention anyway. I suppose I’m kind of like a Cub outfielder, unfortunately. In the majors, but just a wee step above Triple A, in an artworld that (at least at this point in time) wants to push all midcareer artists (especially women) back down into the minors. So perhaps my approach puts me in a precarious position. But if I don’t see someone with strong commitment, strong personal drive, knowledge of art, and a real positive, pushy hutzpah, I don’t see the point in a “serious relationship.” I suspect that will change, but I’m not pushing it, I’m letting it happen. I’m more focused on my work at the moment, and have the luck to have the curator connection (unbelievable, if you know about my articles in both English and German criticizing curator dominance of the artworld — some hate me but a bunch still like me, or at least my art).

    I hope I see you in October!

  24. Nick Vahlkamp says:

    I’m a career art dealer. 30+ years. It makes you old, especially if you’re working in the Midwest. I’m sorry to come to this post so late in the game, because I think it is important: to explore better ways for artist’s to market their works and better ways for dealers to develope collectors. Everything that’s been said is true, but it’s besides the point. Dealers blaming artists: self-infatuated,insecure,demanding, unreasonable,entitled. And Artits blaming Dealers: they’re elitist, leeches,panderers,money grubber control freaks. Both need therapy but neither are the problem. The problem is our generalized pop culture that values instant gratification & mind-numbing entertainment oriented values system that belittles all culture that isn’t fast,cheap and titillating (out of control, you might say). I strongly believe the remedy to an indifferent public, a lack of indigenous collector interest, a dearth of engaged press or media or any sort (reviews or criticism, whichever or whatever) Is education. Art Education. Art appreciation, studio art exposure, Design, I’ll even go a low on the totem pole as high-school “Shop” classes. If people have no idea how things are created, how they go from idea to product, they can’t possible appreciate your work. And I can tell you categorically that most people don’t have a clue.
    There is a whole sociology that goes into collecting art and this blog just skims the surface. It isn’t anyone’s fault. Artist’s who think it’s better in Europe would be surprised to find out how few good galleries exist outside the major capital cites. The truth is, Chicago and its plethora of gallerists willing to put their time and effort into their artits make most European cites look that much more impoverished. Check out artnet and see what’s doing in Munich, Lyon, Barcelona (yea, I know it’s very chi-chi, but the galleries are mostly tourist traps selling middle-brow kitsch). As Brandl says, there are exceptions,but few. Things are bad all over, and likely to get worse. But cheer up. We live in a free country. You can say what you want, think what you want, sell what you want. That means little to those who grew up thinking they could make a living as an artist, but for most people around the world,and throughout most of human history, that freedom has been an impossible dream.

  25. Excellent comment, Nick. I agree fully — yes EVEN with the “shop” comment. We need people who can see and appreciate and that is not achieved overnight. That would require, esp. when democratic, a real foresight on the part of politicians and educators — and having a lot to do with both, I dispair, frankly. But think we must keep plugging away.

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