Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Keeping Private Collections Private

A frustrated collector sent me an email the other day and agreed to let me re-post it here for discussion. I've changed some of the details to maintain the collector's anonymity:
My name is X and I live in City Y. I am writing today to discuss my perceived ethical concern after a recent purchase from an unnamed NYC Gallery. Given that your blog fairly covers interesting aspects of the art world, I thought that you may want to consider this scenario.

Essentially, an unnamed NYC Gallery discussed the particulars (artist and purchase price) of my recent acquisition with a gallery in City Y, who in turn, discussed it with other galleries in City Y. The upshot was that I felt accosted and blindsided by the City Y galleries for not “purchasing locally” and (unbelievably) buying this piece when I had been offered others pieces from different artists. I do not know if it is normal practice within the gallery sphere to discuss purchase particulars with other galleries. However it was my expectation to have the details of my purchase remain private. Herein is the ethical issue: are galleries expected to keep details of collector acquisitions private or is it considered a valid business practice to discuss purchases with other galleries?

Let my explain the particulars. A particular artist was recently included in a group show in City Y. In discussion with the gallery owner, I told him that I was interested in obtaining a piece by this particular artist. However the work on display were from a previous series, and I was not interested in buying any of the pieces on show. But after determining that the same artist was showing new work in NYC, I purchased a piece from the NYC show. Subsequently, on my next visit to the City Y gallery, I was told of my NYC purchase and berated for not purchasing locally and that I should have purchased this piece through his gallery (at a higher price, no doubt). Additionally, a gallery owner in the same City Y building (who I work with frequently) discussed my recent NYC purchase!

Somehow I feel violated that my personal business transactions were shared with others. Is this normal practice?
There are three issues in this scenario I think it makes sense to discuss here:

1. As I responded to this collector, the second most important currency in the art world, after art, is gossip. In other words, I think it's fair to expect that dealers will discuss who is buying what unless a collector asks them not to. It can help to sell other work. Many times, if the press asks about who bought what (and they do), a dealer will contact the collector first to see if it's OK to share that information in that public a forum (and most often they say yes), but at art world dinner parties and such that type of information generally is frequently shared, and often by the collectors themselves. In other words, it gets out there.

If it's important to you that the terms of your acquisitions remain private, simply tell your dealer. I have several collectors who have asked us not to reveal what they've purchased to anyone, and we respect that. I also have collectors happy to have their purchases released to the press. The important thing for a dealer is to respect the collector's wishes, but the important thing for a collector is to make those wishes known.

2. Sharing how much someone paid for something is less kosher, but here again, unless a collector specifically asks for their dealings to remain private, such information has a tendency to work its way through the grapevine. It may not be the art dealer themselves who shares it, but all kinds of people find themselves in back offices and overhearing phone calls, etc. Any given collector may have any number of reasons why it's ideal to let the art world know they're shelling out big bucks for art, though. This kind of gossip can serve to open doors more quickly. It's a very case-by-case issue, but, again, the collector's preference should be honored.

3. Regardless of whether a collector wishes their transactions to remain private or not, though, it's always bad form IMHO to berate someone for exercising their freedom to buy what they want from whom they want. I understand from friends with galleries in other cities how frustrating it can be to try to change the sense some collectors have that buying in New York is preferable to buying locally. The case above suggests the NYC gallery had the series the collector wanted, but in other instances, it's widely known that among some collectors the perception is that NYC galleries tend to get any artist's better work. This is not universally true, however, and while I always want the best work I can get from the artists we work with, I understand how important it is for their work to shine in every context it's seen in, so I encourage our artists to distribute strong work into each opportunity.

All of which is besides the point if you offend a collector by berating them, however. We all know the business is challenging at the moment, but it will become even more challenging if collectors stop enjoying the process of looking at and buying art.

OK, so I'm on this ice with this next bit, I realize, not knowing the full details of the situation, but I'll offer this response all the same, just in case it played out as described:

Personally, I feel the dealer in the gallery in City Y who scolded this collector missed an opportunity. Although I understand the anguish of missing out on a sale, I would have seen the collector's interest in an artist I exhibited (even in a group exhibition) as a chance to get closer to them, rather than push them away. Yes, that's second prize in this particular round, but the door was open to helping them connect the dots and see why getting a piece from the previous series too (the work you had access to) would strengthen their collection. That and $2.00 may get you a coffee today, but the alternative (berating the collector) clearly left this person much less likely to come back at all. Moreover, what's really potentially lost here, if I read this correctly, especially if word gets back to the artist that the gallery responded this way, is the opportunity to work directly with that artist in the future.

Now, before any of the collectors who've bought from us get alarmed, please note that in many cases dealers have much more incentive to keep such matters to themselves than to share it with anyone. Furthermore, it may not be the dealer, but a gallery visitor who spreads the news (having seen an invoice on a desk, overheard a conversation, talked with an art handler who was in the room, etc.). Still, gossip is a big part of the art world, and so it pays to be clear if it's important to you that your private collection remains private. A good dealer will ensure that that happens.

Labels: Collecting, gossip, privacy


Blogger zipthwung said...

I can't resist a vicarious fight.

What does "berate" mean exactly in this instance?

I understand it is not the gallerist's station in life to berate anyone, let alone a prestigious collector, but let me act as a devils advocate here.

Buying locally is important, but the envy I see on the artists and collectors faces when they come in from out of town is astounding. They act as if NY owes them something - a stay of execution, perhaps. I don't know. Do they really think their work is as good as what come out of, or is shown in, NY? Surely they understand the crucible of the five bouroughs is enough to anoint any work with an aura far beyond their kenning?

But also, to berate could be mere cajolery - where the negative reinforcement (C'mon bro, you could have bought fresher produce at the farmers market) offsets the possitive reinforcement in the glamour of purchasing indoors (Whole foods does have some choice exotic legumes, despite the unthinking zombie hordes and the higher prices).

I for one detest eating out doors where the common folks can vent their anger at your fortune (nice pretzle, can I ask you something?)

WHich brings me to my final point - why would art outside of NY cost LESS and why on earth would that factor into a letter about being berated?

I smell a chissler here - a nasty stereotype for a collector (gimme a discount!) - more nasty than the sweaty palmed dealer (oh berater of souls!);

why aren't you buying locally? Really.

5/12/2009 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

for the uninitiated, yes, Zipthwung always writes like that.

5/12/2009 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a question for Ed--somewhat off topic, but related I think. From the artist's perspective, some dealers/gallerists will keep collector info very close to the vest. Apparently, after a sale, some dealers/gallerists will not disclose collectors names, etc. to the artist.
Any thoughts?

anon but legit

5/12/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

From the artist's perspective, some dealers/gallerists will keep collector info very close to the vest. Apparently, after a sale, some dealers/gallerists will not disclose collectors names, etc. to the artist.It varies, of course, but most dealers do share that sort of information. When they don't, though, it may have multiple reasons, from the collector asked that it not be (it happens) to the dealer doesn't want the artist to approach the collectors behind their backs.

5/12/2009 11:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane said...

Why didn't the first dealer, after learning that the work they had wasn't the work that the collector wanted, offer to approach the artist's NY dealer and be a go-between? Some collectors are confident enough to navigate the NY waters by themselves and they could decline this offer, but some aren't, and this would have been an opportunity for the first dealer to make an introduction, maybe get a small commission on any sale, and generally be helpful to everyone involved (help the collector find what he wants, make a sale for the NY gallery, and thus ingratiate himself with them, and make a sale for the artist, even if the dealer isn't getting the full commission on that sale for himself)?

5/12/2009 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Why didn't the first dealer, after learning that the work they had wasn't the work that the collector wanted, offer to approach the artist's NY dealer and be a go-between?That is, of course, another potentially missed opportunity here, but it requires that the collector expressed interest in that other work to the City Y gallery, which isn't clear.

5/12/2009 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Getting the "thing you want" at the "best price possible" is entirely legit. Very bizarre that someone would come and say "you should have bought this instead". It's really none of their business.

This said, the collector wants to keeps hidden and sounds like he only wants baubles to decorate his house. That's not interesting. A dealer sould prefer show-offs who will lend their art to exhibits and let both the people who can't afford the art the chance to see it, and the artist the chance to have great exhibits of quality art.

So both are wrong in that prospect.

Cedric C

5/12/2009 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger ruben said...

Wow that is a very delicate subject but, a very interesting one Ed.

I tend to respect people wishes and privacy as a costumer service policy.

In my case, as an art collector and blogger, I do like the public know what I buy , how much and where.

My intention is to show affordabilty, educate the public about art collecting and to help and promote the business where I bought the piece from. There is not any intention to show off on my part just, to show how much fun and interesting is art collecting and its ways.

I always publish prices. I think it is important the public to know. At the end of the day the bottom line is... how much?

In the current economic climate we are experiencing, it is important to promote work, artists, galleries and art organizations in any way possible.All that said without hurting the hand that feeds you.

Gossip prevails in most bussiness regardless of its nature, but it is important to respect a client wishes. Like they say ''The costumer is always right''

5/12/2009 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

With the number of blogs written from various points of view--artists', dealers' and collectors'--we end up with a Roshomon poerspective of the art world and its issues. Thanks for this, Ed.

I think it was shortsighted of the dealer in City Y to have berated the collector, but I understand the frustration. Artists, too, are perplexed as to where to send an inquiring collector if they are represented in more than one venue. To the dealer in the city nearest the collector? To the dealer in whose gallery the collector originally saw a show but not the particular body of work the collector wants? To the dealer on whose website the collector originally saw the work? To an entirely different gallery the collector found while Googling the artist? (I usually give a collector several options and cc all the gelleries. Then I try to step back. Maybe that's not so great either, but I think it's fair.)

These are issues new to the past decade.I suppose how we resolve them will determine how we do business for the next century.

5/12/2009 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

One thing is that he gallerists in berating the collector, is taking something like business, and treading over the line to personal.

While art can appear personal, I don't think anyone has any illusions that money changing hands has anything to do with feelings of intimacy - which I think might be the misunderstanding here.

Con artists use fear and contrived emotional "connection" to get what they want - so it is understandable if a collector might feel the con when someone gives them the hard sell.

The hard sell is not an enviable possition to be in - it denotes desperation (why else would an aristocrat stoop to "working" a client?) and thus lowers the status of the dealer, and by association, that of the artist, and even (god forbid!) client.

Or so I imagine. Such thoughts!

5/12/2009 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger John Andrew Cipriano, Joe Elliot, Julian Lorber said...

Information is mother's milk in most galleries. There are no rules in business only etiquette. That is part of how your reputation is made. Nothing is assumed, that is why we have legal contracts and rules in society, people need to know there are boundaries before the cross them.

If collector x wanted something and had the ability and the resources to obtain the more concurrent artwork then they did nothing out of the ordinary for a collector. Collector X clearly shouldn't assume that anything is secret even though it should be. If gallery NYC discussed the details of the purchase with a 3rd party then that is something the gallery does for their own purposes. They would not share that information unless they had a reason. Sure it seems in bad form but using information like that influences opinion and opens avenues for the gallery and the artist. It also effects marketing that particular artist's work. In return the value of collector x's piece might change, as well as the value of the other works with gallery NYC (by the same artist).

Of course this isn't nearly as in bad form as gallery Y complaining to the collector for not purchasing locally which may or may not have been their reasoning for being annoyed. The fact that both galleries have works by the same artist and gallery NYC has newer work that is being sought after by collectors residing in city Y, seems more likely to be the (obvious) reason. It's business, and gallery Y's feeling of entitlement is shamelessly using "buy local" as a way to simply guilt trip the collector.
The only information not known here is the relationship between gallery Y and gallery NYC, as well as gallery Y and collector x's relationship. If they are friends and collector X has been a customer for years then gallery Y would take offense because it seems like the collector went behind gallery Y's back. Since there clearly isn't an agreement that collector X only buys from gallery Y, this is what other people on this blog have stated - taking business and making it too personal. Even though the art business is extremely personal, (cough, cough), the only reason gallery Y is mad is because gallery NYC took away potential business, and in this economy galleries are going to scream and cry for every last drop of that mothers milk.

5/12/2009 06:33:00 PM  
Blogger Regina said...

Ed: Seems like you're missing an important point. The collector contacted the dealer in Y city and discussed the work. The collector is wrongly assuming that had he/she stuck with original point-of-contact gallery, he/she would have paid more. No. The commission is shared instead.

The gallery business operates on manners. I think the collector showed lack of class by not giving the dealer in Y city a chance to make the sale. That's where the collector saw the work.

As far as "berates," I need to know what that means in this case before criticizing the dealer. For some collectors, just discussing the problem is berating. And it is a problem. The collector could have helped keep his/her local art scene in business and chose not to. He/she shouldn't expect kissy face next time he/she drops by.

5/12/2009 07:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the record: the gallery in City Y is mine. The exchange in Collector X's email is hilarious in its fictionalization.

Collector X was in no way "berated". In fact I complemented him for buying from Gallery NYC as I am business colleagues and personal friends with Gallery NYC. I never once suggested in any way that he should have bought the piece he bought, through my gallery.

I playfully reminded Collector X that he had first seen this artist's work a year ago at a different gallery in my city...then saw it in my gallery this year. At which point I was chuckling when I said the oft-used slogan, "so next time, remember to shop locally!" and we BOTH laughed.

I also never discussed the sale, the sale price, or any other particulars with Collector X, and certainly not with any other gallery owner or employee in my building.

P.S. Thank you to Regina (whom I do not know) for your take on the situation.

5/12/2009 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Basically the City Y gallery did not have in stock what X wanted.
As far as new art, NYC will often present the better, more amibitious art, because the market is there. It is the role of both the artists and City Y gallery to make sure they have some great art in City Y too so that art doesn't sell only in NYC.

Morality? Artists, sell locally!

Cedric C

5/13/2009 10:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted a year or so ago about the difficulty of sending good work to a New York gallery that didn't sell well, opposed to the work I showed in a good gallery in my own state which did very well. At the time posters mostly agreed that the New York gallery deserved priority, and I experimented with sending terrific paintings over the next year, which continued to languish unsold. Now I realize the New York gallery owner was on a downward spiral, and was losing clients well before the economic downturn.

Now after 25 years with a fairly respectable reputation the NYC gallery has recently closed. Though the harrowing story of trying to get my paintings back and being lied to would be better in another thread, I did finally have the majority of them returned.

To return to the question of identifying the names of collectors: I also received a check for eight that probably had sold long ago, but which had to be accounted for, and which I was told were sold at a whopping 40%discount. I repeatedly asked for the names of the buyers, especially for one painting that was on the card for my last solo show with the gallery, and which was mentioned and illustrated in the review in a scholarly art journal. To me, the disappearance of this painting is more upsetting than the massive reduction in price. How would you suggest I locate the buyer, in case I need images or the loan of the painting(s) to exhibitions or for catalogs, etc.? The gallery website has disappeared, and the gallery owner seems to have vanished as well.

5/18/2009 09:51:00 AM  

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