You’ve been toiling away in the studio and expanding your art network when, before you know it, you have interest from an art dealer or two who want to discuss representing your work. Whether weighing an offer from a traditional brick and mortar gallery space, an online art gallery or an independent art dealer, there are specific considerations artists need to weigh. Beginning with finding an art dealer who operates with a fair commission (generally anything below 60 percent taken by the dealer for sales, with some flexibility) there are character traits and career milestones an art dealer should embody if they’re looking to pursue a professional relationship with an artist.
Whether including your work in group exhibitions or discussing a more long-term arrangement, you should go into meetings with a potential art dealer fully prepared and with a firm understanding of what it is you’re seeking from a sales partner or independent art dealer. Along with using good judgment to find someone experienced and trusted by art collectors, your art dealer is a significant investment of your time and effort. Shift the focus from finding someone – anyone – to represent you, to instead focusing on finding the right art dealer that matches your work. This is perhaps the most significant relationship of your professional career, so a little bit of strategy goes a long way.
Arranging for the right dealer to represent your work is a complicated process that should be taken seriously. In addition to selecting an art dealer who has both of your best interests in mind, operating with fair sales percentages and advocating for your work in solo exhibitions, any art dealer selling your work should have a thorough and nuanced grasp of your practice.
Combining insights from artists who have experience in a range of endeavors, we’ve compiled a guide to strategically selecting the right art dealer to present your art to collectors and wider audiences.
Conduct In-Depth Research of Potential Fine Art Gallery Partners
As an artist serious about your practice, you understand the importance of doing the research to narrow down the right fine art gallery suitable to show your work. Since your ideal art dealer works with one of likely works with many galleries, it’s important to know each fine art gallery’s roster and specific artists so you can identify whose practice shares aspects in common with your art. That will ensure that your art dealer is in a better position to understand and sell your artwork.
Do yourself a favor, though, and learn about the selling habits of any fine art gallery working with you and your art dealer. See where they’ve placed the works of artists whose practice you feel akin to. Were these artists represented in major museum survey exhibitions, such as the Whitney Biennial or the New Museum Triennial? Are these artists held by major international collectors as a result of their relationship with the gallery? If the career trajectory of these artists has improved as a result of their affiliation with the gallery then you have added impetus for wanting to align yourself with this dealer.
Artist and Satellite Art Fair founder and director Brian Whiteley notes the importance of establishing that a relationship with a fine art gallery will be beneficial to your practice at the outset of your dealings together. “[Ask]: What is the gallery doing that is worthy of your time?…many artists (myself included) [have] had to create the work, promote the work plus facilitate the sales for the gallery.” Whiteley follows this comment by outlining what you should ask any dealer you’re considering entrusting your work to. “Look for a symbiotic relationship based on business and artistic integrity.”
Let’s assume that you’ve done the research and you know that the fine art gallery is a fierce and effective advocate for the artists they represent. Now what? It’s time to gauge the second crucial part of the equation: chemistry. Do you feel as though your art dealer intuits the themes present in your work? Do they have a strong grasp of the concepts and processes present within your oeuvre? Artist and curator Sharilyn Neidhardt sums up the importance of an art dealer feeling comfortable and instinctively grasping your work. “A person who can talk intelligently about my work with me is someone who will be able to represent that work to other people,” she says.
Can it really be as simple as that? This is definitely an important part of the equation, as regardless of how many collectors a gallerist or art dealer knows, sales will be meager at best and misguided at worst if they are unable to communicate your artwork’s unique qualities.
Define Exhibition Costs and Payment Schedules
Of course, having an art dealer with a great reputation for sales and placing artwork with significant collections is important. Equally important is understanding their intention when dealing with artists. How do they approach the artist-dealer relationship? Do they respect your work and take opportunities to engage with you about a new body of work? Do they follow you on social media to see what new developments you have in store, or meet with you personally on a regular basis? Are they open and detailed about what they expect from you, the artist, in this professional relationship? These are all great signs that your art dealer really “gets it:” suggesting that they are transparent and committed to representing your work well.
What intention does the gallerist or dealer have regarding your exhibitions with them? There can be warning signs from the start that a gallery is operating on a questionable financial model if they rely on the artist to front exhibition costs too extensively. It’s more important that exhibition costs be discussed in detail at the beginning of planning, and that the gallery assumes exhibition costs related to marketing and producing the show.
Of course, you as the artist will be responsible for bringing people to the show and sharing fliers, etc. But you also need to make sure the gallery isn’t asking for too much money upfront for exhibition costs, to ensure that the gallery is invested in representing – and selling – your work. Neidhardt observes a potential art dealer from the beginning to gain insight into their treatment of artists. “Red flags for me are a person who is unclear on details, like who is responsible for shipping or how fees from sales will be distributed. I like to have responsibilities spelled out clearly up front. I also shy away from any shows that have hanging fees or too many upfront resources required from me,” she says. Time is money, too, and if the gallery is adding too many responsibilities to your plate – such as hanging the exhibition or putting up high exhibition costs – it may be a sign that they will not be able to invest in you at the level you may expect.
Aside from asking for artists to cover exhibition costs, it’s important to iron out sales details from the outset. What payment schedule does the gallery or art dealer have with artists whose work they sell?
Whiteley notes that sales is a critical aspect to discuss with a potential art dealer from the beginning to gauge their intent in compensating artists fairly and punctually. “[Dealers] need to pay their artists when sales happen,” Whiteley says. “Some dealers feel like since they are paying a storefront rent that it takes precedence over the rent for your studio and personal life.” The key takeaway here is that artists need to feel comfortable that the dealer can sign an agreement outlining the payment plan for art sales, that the plan suits their needs, and that the art dealer has a reputation of following through with their agreements.
Build a Meaningful Professional Relationship
A relationship with your gallerist or art dealer is like any other relationship and requires consistent attention and transparency. Reach out to them regularly with updates on your practice, and follow up on sales and press correspondence as requested. In this professional relationship, it’s crucial to strive for continued respect and honesty with one another. You should feel comfortable asking your art dealer questions about the security that they will offer sound and sage, and not selfish, advice.
If you’re continuing to push your boundaries in your practice, it’s important that your art dealer reciprocate. Ask for their feedback as your work evolves and takes new directions. Inform them of new theory you encounter that is influencing your work. Make plans for dinner, drinks or attending museum openings together occasionally. By keeping in touch and meeting in person, you’ll continue to build on the trust that is the foundation of your relationship, and ensure that your art dealer is attuned to your practice as it continually develops. By keeping in regular contact with your dealer, and showing them that you are responsive and dependable, you will be well on your way to making inroads in the art market, and the art world as a whole.