Monday, August 27, 2007

Double Agents and Secret Tools of the Trade

For some reason or another, this past season I've seen a sharp increase in the number of online submissions to the gallery by someone acting as the self-labeled "agent" of the artist. I know it's not very nice of me, but I almost always instinctively imagine this "agent" as the artist's ne're-do-well brother-in-law looking for an "Entourage" lifestyle and assuming a few e-mails or phone calls will have him up to his neck in Escalades and bikini-clad babes.

Of course, I know very busy artists who have managers and/or studio managers, and perhaps if said artist is changing galleries their manager will act as an agent in some regard during tense contract negotiations, but to be quite honest, my gallery is not at the level yet that we can't work such matters out over a nice bottle of wine (some day...). Indeed, there are dealers who've been in the business a lot longer than me (and any of you reading, please do feel free to enlighten me), but as long as I've been in the fine art business, I've never once encountered any gallerist who was even remotely interested in talking with an emerging artist's "agent." This is primarily because the gallerist sees it as their job to serve as the person or business authorized to act on the artist's behalf (or in other words, the "agent") and the idea of sharing that responsibility, strikes most gallerists, I imagine, as double the work.

But I'm willing to concede I may simply have not encountered a common practice in the art world, so I performed a quick google search on "agent for visual artists" and found the following:

Visual artists usually do not have agents or personal managers, though they can benefit from business managers when they make a good living.
The same search did turn up one artists' agency in the UK, but their raison d'etre is to "recruit artists who are looking to supplement their income by producing design work suitable for possible use on Greeting cards, Prints, Ceramics and numerous other products."

In the end, I feel, unless you're one of the lucky few, there's not enough money being made during the emerging stage of an artist's career to share that money with someone whose responsibilities duplicate what a gallery does. If you're an emerging artist, please note that I immediately delete emails to me sent by an "agent" and suspect many of my colleagues do as well. Seriously, I don't even look at the art. I assume that if the artist feels they need someone to act as a buffer between him/her and me, I'm not going to have the kind of relationship with that artist I want, so why bother.

Again, though, this reflects my experience and I'm happy to hear from others who know it's perhaps atypical.

Speaking of experience, though, I received a very nice email from a young person who has just begun a career in the gallery business:

I am sorry to bother you but I read your blog and was hoping you could help. I just recently entered the NYC art world working as an assistant at a very small gallery in the city. I really enjoyed your blog and am trying to learn all I can about the NYC gallery/art world. Would you be willing to give me any advice on what to read, where to go, what to know? I know that’s asking a lot, but any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much.
I wish there was some secret source on what to read, where to go, and what to know, but the truth of the matter is each gallerist I know either learned from working for another gallery or made it up as they went along. I don't know of any higher education program that offers much more than a continuing education (i.e., generally one term) class on running a gallery (I know the New School used to, but I couldn't find it in their current bulletin).

But there are some things you can do that will peel away the shroud of mystery that covers the business. First and foremost, I recommend reading
The Art Dealers by Laura de Coppet. I've recommended this book for a short overview of contemporary art in general, but by seeing how each of the interviewed gallerists came to own their own space, you'll get an idea for how individualistic the business is.

Also, I'd recommend hanging around with other gallerists or gallery employees. Although you must be nominated to be invited to join, the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) was created specifically to help professionals just getting into the business share their experiences and learn from each other. The
NADA mission puts it much more succinctly:

Our mission is to create an open flow of information, support, and collaboration within our field and to develop a stronger sense of community among our constituency. We believe that the adversarial approach to exhibiting and selling art has run its course. We believe that change can be achieved through fostering constructive thought and dialogue between various points in the art industry from large galleries to small spaces, non-profit and commercial alike.
The one thing you'll learn the more you investigate about the most successful art dealers, is that they have insatiable appetites for information and meeting people. Two very powerful New York art dealers illustrate this penchant. One, rather established at this point, famously memorized years worth of auction catalogs and their sales results, as a child. The other, younger today, but impressively almost as powerful now, is someone I saw tirelessly work a room at a gala art event (in another venue) when the gallery was just starting, making sure to meet everyone and handing them the gallery card, telling them to come by. Again, the drive and ambition those examples illustrate is what it takes to succeed in this business.

But as with any business in the world, I'm convinced you'll never really be more than an also-ran by following in someone else's footsteps. To really make a mark you have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, whether that be with a unique business model, specialized market niche domination, or being an early champion of some important development. I'd recommend being alert to such opportunities and being bold in your choices.



Blogger Mark said...

First the joyous news of the day, Gonzalez is going! Impeachment! please... ok, sorry. This is a good post. As with any business it's at times 60% social. Get out there, meet people. We like to do business mostly with those we have a connection with. Ultimately it's the work that matters, no matter how you spin it. I like the shareing a bottle of wine part....

8/27/2007 09:17:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Gonzalez is going!

Holy freakin' moly! What a lovely way to start the day, indeed!!!

The's lifting. (knocking on wood, crossing my fingers, throwing salt over my shoulder, etc. etc.).

8/27/2007 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oh, and at the risk of totally derailing this thread, this is priceless:

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, five minutes after having submitted his resignation to President George W. Bush, was asked by a passer-by whether the rumor was true that he had resigned.

"I have no memory of having submitted such a letter or of having any conversation with the President about anything at all," Mr. Gonzales replied.

The former Attorney General immediately returned to his office at the Department of Justice, though he could not remember what he was supposed to do there.

OK, back on track. We don't conduct all the gallery business over a bottle of wine, for the record...we're more of a beer sort of gallery truth be told. ;-)

8/27/2007 09:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Ed_, do you look at submissions by e-mail when they come (or seem to come) directly from the artists themselves? I would have guessed that you'd throw them away without reading as well - they are, after all, spam - but you don't rule out the possibility. I couldn't bring myself to market my work that way, but I'd like to know if other people do it with any success.

8/27/2007 10:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

do you look at submissions by e-mail when they come (or seem to come) directly from the artists themselves?

I generally do. Yes.

But to avoid an avalanche of email submissions, I should note it has not led to us working with many artists. Also, I should note, due to a very heavy workload this upcoming fall, we're not reviewing any submissions for at least three months.

On this subject, though, I should point out that if you submit your work to a gallery via email there are a few definite DON'Ts, such as

DON'T send a bulk email whereby the recipient can see all the other galleries you're sending the same email to (use BCC, people!!!). When I see a submission to us, a blue chip gallery, a vanity gallery, and a museum, I know this artist has not done his/her homework.

This next one actually takes care of that first one: DON'T begin your email "Dear Gallerist" (find the name of the director or owner and personalize the email).

DON'T send more than three image attachments. Make sure they're 72 DPI, and make sure they're clearly identified. If you clutter up my already stuffed mailbox to the point that other emails don't get through, I will not be all that enthused to view your work objectively.

8/27/2007 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I like the NADA mission statement.

8/27/2007 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...


Second, was introduced to your blog by a backlink in a comment a year or so ago, and have been an avid reader ever since; I may have commented then, I can't remember... It's oft my most clicked link in my feed reader - thanks for all your thoughfulness and care in your writing, really.

And third and finally, it's really interesting to read your post, Ed, as it ties into some questions I have about my own relationships right now; a small/new gallery I've been working with in Ireland (they've done one show, published a dozen prints, plan on doing more of the same) has been wanting to "represent" me more globally, in hopes of "feeding me into" more important galleries overseas over the next couple of years. Up until now, I've only had publishing or show by show relationships with all the galleries I've worked with, so at the outset, I was unsure -- besides the fact that he's far from the dream gallery I had hoped for, he doesn't know much about art or the art world, just jumping in from a career in journalism; but he has been very dedicated to promoting me (despite a lack of much success, and that we disagree on how to represent my work), and his point was that if someone else was willing to go to bat for me because they believe in my work, it may look more impressive than self-promotion. Your point is a good one, tho, too, and I wonder about his intentions, how it will be read, what it might look like for me to "climb" up from gallery to gallery, and overall, whether or not this is such a bright idea... I'd hate to be permanently tied to this gallery, even though right now, it seems to be mutually beneficial.

So I have to ask - would it make a difference if the note was from another, perhaps smaller or different-city-based gallerist, rather than an agent? Or would you prefer to hear from an artist directly? How would you read the above situation as it stands now, and/or from the standpoint or where it might lead, in terms of the artist's and gallery's integrity as they move into future relationships?

8/27/2007 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

would it make a difference if the note was from another, perhaps smaller or different-city-based gallerist, rather than an agent? Or would you prefer to hear from an artist directly? How would you read the above situation as it stands now, and/or from the standpoint or where it might lead, in terms of the artist's and gallery's integrity as they move into future relationships?

Most definitely it makes a big difference if the recommendation is coming from a gallery already working with you. I meant to write about that, but got so excited about Gonzales' departure I forgot.

The gallery you're working with will have more success getting other galleries to consider your work through two avenues: 1) press for your work and 2) good working relationships with those galleries. Many galleries tend to congregate with their colleagues of a kindred spirit or interests. Art fairs are a great way for your current gallery to meet and bond with the other international galleries you might end up showing with.

8/27/2007 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the artist's ne're-do-well brother-in-law"?

har. the artist IS the ne're-do-well brother-in-law.

8/27/2007 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

EW, not all "agents" are brothers-in-law. Some of them actually seem to have businesses doing this.

A number of years ago I was contacted by one of these "agents" here in L.A. She had seen my work somewhere, and was offering, for a series of ongoing fees, to put my work on her website, exhibit my paintings in her space, and present my work to galleries to get representation. There were no guarantees, of course, as to the success of all this, but the fees would be paid monthly regardless. And there were multi-year contracts involved.

When I asked her what she could possibly do for me that I couldn't do just as well for myself, she said that she had relationships with galleries and they trusted her judgement. She got kind of pissed off when I asked whether they trusted her judgement better than they trusted their own.

BTW, the best way to have an Entourage lifestyle is to hang out at Urth Caffe on Melrose.

8/27/2007 01:01:00 PM  
Anonymous pp said...

The true reason you don't like somebody to help the artist perhaps is that it's much easier to squeeze better terms from the artist "over a bottle of wine".

8/27/2007 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

The true reason you don't like somebody to help the artist perhaps is that it's much easier to squeeze better terms from the artist "over a bottle of wine".

Wow...ouch, I need a drink after that one.

8/27/2007 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The true reason you don't like somebody to help the artist perhaps is that it's much easier to squeeze better terms from the artist "over a bottle of wine".

Ah...there you are. You've exposed me. How ever will I succeed in taking advantage of an artist again?

8/27/2007 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

How ever will I succeed in taking advantage of an artist again?

Um, well, you could offer to be their agent and call galleries for them :)

8/27/2007 01:18:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

I have a dear friend who just had a project room at MOCA. She doesn't have a gallery and works exclusively with an agent. This particular agent has connections with the major collectors in LA. And she charges 30% of sales she brokers.

So there are folks out there who do this who aren't related to the artist.

I wish I could get excited about Gonzales' resignation. But by this point I can't expect Bush to nominate anyone competent. He is addicted to confrontation. I expect another mess.

8/27/2007 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So there are folks out there who do this who aren't related to the artist.

Thanks for the example, ML.

What strikes me most about the difference between the examples folks are providing here and the emails I'm getting, though, is that if, say, the agent David noted represents the added value of an artist agent such that it's a good idea to hire one because she "had relationships with galleries and they trusted her judgement," then clearly the ones emailing me out of the blue are not following that model (and possibly not worth hiring), because I don't know them from Adam and certainly don't trust their judgment. All of which leads me back to suspecting they indeed might be a relative of the artist.

8/27/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Ed, speaking of agents: Have you considered writing a book that could be used in art school and by artists out in the world? Your many Art Business columns already form the kernel of such an enterprise, so you wouldn't need to start from scratch. I'm serious. You're a good writer with a wealth of information and a kind voice. The gallerist-eye-view would offer a unique perspective among the very few intelligent books out there on the topic.

8/27/2007 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Are you offering to be my book agent, Joanne? ;-)

I'm not entirely sure that makes sense to me, to be honest, in that most of the information is here, free, already, so why would anyone pay for it (other than the convenience of having it in a hand-held concise format) and much of it is temporal and will undoubtedly change before a collection could be bound.

8/27/2007 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

It's amazing how many people will buy books with content they can get for free on the Web. I'm practically jacked into the Web like one of those Matrix people, and yet I've paid money for stuff I could -- and did -- have for free.

Partly I did this because I wanted to support the author. Partly because I know the Web is ephemeral and I wanted to be able to look back. And partly because I just like books.

8/27/2007 04:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

if, say, the agent David noted represents the added value of an artist agent such that it's a good idea to hire one because she "had relationships with galleries and they trusted her judgement..."

I should point out that I wan't convinced, and decided that paying her to do what I was already doing was probably a waste of money.

8/27/2007 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Ed wrote: Are you offering to be my book agent, Joanne? ;-)

That would be one of those Russian dolls, wouldn't it? An artist working as an agent for a dealer who's working as a writer. No, no such offer. But I spent 20 years working as an editor (to pay the art bills), and I know a good idea when I see one.

The information changes more slowly that you think. In 1984 I wrote a piece for a magazine in which nine dealers offered their advice about getting into a gallery. When I came across the article last year, the essense of the advice--contacting, etiquette, bona fides--was still viable. (Anachronisms: references to black and white photographs; and, quaintly, talk about actually looking at portfolios in person. Of course there were no references to e-mail, CDs or the Internet, but the ways dealers like to be approached, or not, hasn't changed.)

So, I would ask you to at least let the idea percolate.

8/27/2007 04:58:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It's actually not such a bad idea Edward. People still read books. Not everyone wants to lug their computers around all the time. Who knows, you could become a cultural icon :)

8/27/2007 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Bless you, Chris, for just liking books.
What I forgot to say in my previous post is that even though information is freely on the web--and let me fess up that I copy Ed's business-of-art articles and use them in a Business of Art course that I teach--having information compiled into a book is invaluable. So Web copies or no, if Ed had a book, it would be required reading.

8/27/2007 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

very kind of you to persist Joanne, but the bulk of what's worth reading for any give post is in the comments. Trying to sort out how to divvy up the royalties might make a CPA a very rich man, but doesn't sound quite like it would please many other people. ;-)

Who knows, you could become a cultural icon :)

nah, if Britney or Lindsey or Paris are any indication, that requires jail time or stints in rehab...I'm way too busy for that.

8/27/2007 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I taught a graduation class to BFAer's to get them ready for "the real world" for many years, and if I was was still teaching it, your blog would be required reading.

A book would make it that much easier... get a publisher who will market the book to the College Art Association, and you will be in every art school in the country. How many art majors are graduating each year now?

8/27/2007 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

a book huh???

icon huh???

8/27/2007 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

How many art majors are graduating each year now?

That's a scary thought. If I were teaching a "real world for artists" class, one thing I'd do is insist that they all have a marketable skill when they get out of school. Something to keep the bills paid until they become art stars.

8/27/2007 06:05:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Edward, so naive! So honest!

Look, this is how it goes. You get an agent and write a Book Proposal. This Book Proposal stresses your 1) status as a high-profile Chelsea art dealer; 2) your high-traffic blog; 3) all the Personal Connections you have in the Art World, which make you an Insider Expert In The Field.

This agent takes your Book Proposal to a bunch of editors, who fall all over the floor with dollar signs on their eyeballs, because everybody knows that Art World Insider=Money Money Money. The agent holds a bidding war, and sells the proposal for enough money to pay your gallery overhead for a year. (Well, six months, anyway.)

Then you crib 80% of the book from the blog, throw in a few expository passages, and voilá! You're a Published Author. Of course, you'd have to do speaking engagements.

You think I am joking, but I know people who have done precisely this. I would, myself, but I am not a Well-Connected Insider in any world at all, more's the pity.

Remember, real-worlders don't read blogs.

8/27/2007 06:22:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

If I were teaching a "real world for artists" class, one thing I'd do is insist that they all have a marketable skill

This is why you are not teaching at an art school, David. (Are you?) This blog does seem to attract those rare persons with ethics, doesn't it?

BTW, someone just informed me that when you type "getting an MFA" into Google, my year-and-a-half-old post on "Why I Do Not Have An MFA" is the #1 hit. I have Arrived.

8/27/2007 06:27:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

Let me add my support for this effort. It would be wonderful for art students to have a compendium of your advice. Seriously. You are a modest person - don't think of it as being about you. Think of it as a service.

8/27/2007 06:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David Winkleman said...

I'm going to take Pretty Lady's advice and write the book. EW, you don't mind if I borrow your last name, do you? Most people won't notice. I'll give you a percentage. Talk to my agents Joanne and Pretty Lady - they'll offer you a fair deal.

8/27/2007 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger Pedro Velez said...

ohhhh, I was once introduced to the NY art world by a so called "art consultant"...turns out he was just filtering information I already had by default...and sucking up other info from vampires, I guess we both had our share, in the end, it turned out he just wanted cheap art from me...and I figured he was all talk...mistakes of being a young artist. Some days I feel ashamed of falling for such bullshit, other days I feel grateful for having the experience and learning from it. Ed, the young artist really doesn't know what's going on most of the time, trust me. Sometimes these people just use your name.

it's also a new trend in Puerto Rico, being an art consultant, and they charge a I ususaly warn kids and give them the scoop...but when you think about it, grad school is pretty much an artworld consultant, don't you think?

8/27/2007 07:20:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I know that you can't fill a syllabus with "Be Useless" and "There Are No Rules," but I honestly find what I learned in my "Real World" class to hinder me more than it helped.

The only good thing about the art world is its relative lawlessness. To take kids and tell them that there is a "right way" to present yourself is to cut out an infinite number of potentially more interesting or more appropriate possibilities.

And frankly, I think that the more skills you learn as an artist the more likely you are to wind up being someone else's (terminally bitter) technician.

I am totally pro-skills, don't get me wrong. But I vote that artists should keep their skills for themselves! When I think of the people I know who have really succeeded, it's the ones with a preternatural ability to trust themselves, or more often, it's the ones who really can't manage to find or hold down a day job and therefore really have no choice but to succeed.

8/27/2007 07:40:00 PM  
Blogger Pedro Velez said...

well, that depends on how you value success....

8/27/2007 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I think that the more skills you learn as an artist the more likely you are to wind up being someone else's (terminally bitter) technician.

f6000, I wasn't talking about art skills (that's another issue). I was thinking something more along the lines of carpentry, or dentistry. Okay, maybe not dentistry - too high a suicide rate. But you know, something outside the art world, that people will pay you for.

A few of the ones who really can't manage to find or hold down a day job may actually make it. The rest will end up standing outside Starbucks asking for spare change.

8/27/2007 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I am currently working at my day job. It is destroying my soul.

8/27/2007 09:42:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Chris, im sending soul patches to ya pronto!

Deborah! Ditto from me about those endless possibilities.

Ed, Thanks for these great tips again! I had never considered getting a recommendation from a gallery i had worked with. I suppose this has to work informally? Or by chance? I could not imagine asking someone like that for a letter of rec? Or for them to send out something about me to gallerists they know. but maybe that is valid?

8/27/2007 10:20:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

In the "real world" class, it was not a "how-to" class, but an exposure to information, so they spent time learning from others' mistakes and concentrated their energy on getting where they wanted to be. I stressed that there is no one way to find your path in the art world... that, rather than being a hierarchy, the art world is a many-branched tree.
I invited in many practicing artists and alumni, encouraged them to talk about failure as well as successes, and gathered up-to-date articles for my students to read to arm them with information. The same kind of useful information they would get here, or in a book form, if only someone would write one....

8/28/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Carolyn McFann said...

For three years I had an art agent when I moved to a new state, who did nothing more than get me on the cover of one local paper and sell one painting. My art is on her site but she doesn't pursue people's interest in my art. She seems to focus her time on recruiting new people to her website. She had a hundred excuses to why she wasn't selling my work (when usually it sells quite well) such as she was moving, flying someplace fancy and getting married. Her priorities are not on getting her established artists work, rather in recruiting more people to pay the fee to sign up.

Do you have any thoughts on how to find an agent that is hardworking and actually finds jobs, I feel a bit gunshy now. I don't mind selling my work on my own, but I'd rather take my time to draw and not sell if at all possible. I can't seem to figure this out and would love to quit the horrid day job to focus on my artwork.

Carolyn McFann

9/01/2007 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...


Perhaps getting back to one point in your original post regarding training or classes for running a gallery. I don't know if you have seen my weekly blog ArtBiz101 series you can find on my blog Singular Images, but please give it a look and see if you think that it is of benefit to your readers;

I know, a shameless plug:- )

Best regards, Doug

9/03/2007 12:42:00 PM  
Blogger lee said...

That was an extremely refreshing and honest insight, you do great work, I know a lot of artists can get caught in darker corners by scrupulous people that infect the arts world, but I'm very please to have read your piece and long may you go on..
best wishes

1/31/2009 12:18:00 PM  

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