Monday, June 01, 2009

That Primary Gallery Discussion

Of all the negotiations that an artist has with their dealer, few are as treacherous to navigate as the one concerning the "primary gallery" question. The reason it can be trickier than other issues is because each new potential opportunity to work with another gallery can change the entire landscape. If, for example, you have a primary gallery in City X and then a gallery in City Y wants to work with you, whether the City Y gallery is going to be happy to become your "secondary gallery" will depend on how they feel about both the other gallery and that other city.

In general, it's not to any gallery's advantage to be secondary gallery for any of their artists and it's often to their great advantage to be the primary gallery for all their artists. It's to most artists' benefit to have a primary gallery for some situations and not at all for others. Further, a gallery powerful enough to work out primary gallery status for most of their artists is usually one well worth working with.

So what do we mean by "primary gallery" or "secondary gallery" in this context? We've discussed this before, but an email from an artist struggling with these issues suggests we could flesh out the issues a bit more. I've changed some details to protect the artist's anonymity:
I recently graduated and I was picked up by a gallery soon after in City Q. I wanted to get some clarification about other galleries working with other galleries. Is this a common thing? I am not familiar with this and I have been asking anyone with answers about this. I am allowed to get representation in another gallery in another state, however, I was told that I needed to tell that other gallery they need to split their half of the commission with my gallery. Ex: from the 50%, one gallery gets 30% and the other gets 20%. This was not told to me at the beginning. One, I do not feel comfortable in this position and I don't think it is my duty to do this as the artist. Two, if my gallery is the one to start the relationship, then they can discuss their terms. I have been told it is a rare situation and rarely works out.
Also, are galleries allowed to take a % from every exhibition I participate in? on works that aren't consigned to them? I am a new, young emerging artist and I feel I am being taken advantage of. I feel I am in a situation I don't know how to go about it. If you have any advice/input it would really be helpful.
OK, so let's begin with a frank discussion about why a gallery might insist on this. (And, from what is provided here, I would conclude that this artist is NOT being taken advantage of, but is not being communicated with effectively.)

In the gallery system the term "primary gallery" means an artist's main gallery, or #1 in the pecking order. This is the gallery that maintains his/her master archive, does much of the communications promoting their career (i.e., with institutions planning exhibitions), will work to raise the money to produce most of the work in situations where that's part of the artist's practice, and generally resides in a high-profile market, meaning they get the kind of traffic/critical attention for the artist that other galleries in other locations just can't. In return they may stipulate terms for representation by which their investment in building the markets for their artists is returned to them through commission on sales in other galleries. The thinking here includes the notion that the other galleries (usually in smaller cities) can only command the prices for the work by this artist because of the primary gallery's reputation and hard work in building their market.

Such terms of representation vary widely (including percentages, duration, geographical extent, etc.). Even within most galleries, they are highly negotiable (i.e., Artist G, who is internationally renown and sells work in the 6-digit range, may be able to insist on terms that Artist T, who is fresh out of school and still building a market cannot [nor should, IMHO]).

A "secondary gallery" is any other gallery (within certain geographical restrictions usually, but not necessarily) that an artist who has a primary gallery works with too. You can have many, many secondary galleries, but within any geographical area, you have only one primary gallery. Of course, no gallery would volunteer to be a secondary gallery for their artists, but it's often a small price to pay for the prestige and/or income to be had by working with an artist who already has a strong market built up by another dealer.

Personally, I feel the real "victim" (OK, so it's not truly that dramatic usually) in such situations is the secondary gallery dealer, not the artist, who will still make their 50% of any sale. But I do realize that until all the terms are established, it can be highly uncomfortable for any artist wishing to have other galleries in addition to their primary gallery, so I empathize with this artist.

Having said that, however, discussing---in depth---how any gallery you're considering signing up with works with other galleries is Representation 101. All the anxiety expressed by the artist above can be eliminated through a simple conversation before the fact. Questions I suggest you ask if your potential new (potentially primary) gallery doesn't offer such information upfront include:
  1. Will you see yourself as my "primary gallery"? And if so, what does that mean with regards to services you provide and expectations of working with other galleries?
  2. Do any commissions you expect of secondary galleries expire after a certain period of my working with them?
  3. Where do these terms apply? Are you my primary gallery only in this city/state/country/continent ?
  4. How should I discuss this with a gallery in another city that wants to work with me, but doesn't want to pay commission? Should I ask them to talk with you about it?
  5. Can this be put in writing?
Question 4 is your real tool here to alleviate any frustration/anxiety. Make the galleries duke it out (they will compromise to your benefit usually). Just be aware up front what your first gallery expects before agreeing to representation. The devil truly lurks in the details of this issue. Personalities, grudges, greed...they can all come into play when dealers talk to each other. If you, as the artist, understand the terms up front though, you don't have to suffer through any of that. Nor should you have to. You may need to make some tough decisions at times, but no one can spare you from those, so....

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18 Comments:

Blogger nathaniel said...

The galleries I currently work with are on more of what I call a project basis. For example, my South African gallery might publish a series of prints or other art objects for an exhibition - pay for them to be made, for shipping and press, perhaps even a catalogue - and then expect commission on those prints no matter where and when they sell; just like a primary gallery. If I show work in her gallery that I published/paid for myself, she only gets commission for the sales she makes - not if I or another gallery sells them at a later date; and if I show work my Irish gallery published - but in the South African gallery - the two split their commission. I guess this means that for now, all of my galleries are "secondary," but occasionally publish works as if they were primary for that particular series. The upside here is that I have some local support from several galleries in different cities, working together as best they can. The downside is that they are not as invested in my entire practice - not to mention all the administrative efforts Edward mentioned - as a primary gallery would be. Just another situation some might see - probably more commonly with people working with printmaking.

6/01/2009 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in a position where the five major-city galleries I work with are "secondary." galleries. All of them are selling (as well as can be expected in this economy), but I don't see any of them getting my work in front of museum curators. And since most of them do not do the art fairs, my work is not usually shown in Miami or New York.
On the other hand, with each gallery independent in its own city, no one is asking or expecting percentages from any of te other galleries. So in some ways, it's a better situation for me since I can operate independently. (None of these galleries are in New York.)

6/01/2009 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Judging by the paucity of comments on this thread, I'm going to guess that I'm not the only one of Ed's readers thinking, "jeez, I should have this problem..."

6/01/2009 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger ruben said...

I think it is very important for any artist especially coming from a small city to try to have as much exposure as possible. For me as an art collector, I find more impressive when the artists are shown and represented by different galleries in different cities and continents. Saying this, I also expect the artist be loyal to the primary gallery no matter where that gallery is.

Every artist dream is to have a show in NYC. There is several european and foreign artists right now showing work(not the best work either) in the crappiest galleries in Brooklyn with the sole purpose to have in their resume that they had shown work in NYC...not Manhattan that is .

My point is that there is great benefits from this type of arrangement mostly from the artists side but, also one gallery can benefit from the prestige of the other.

I also noticed that sometimes there is a price difference in artwork from Gallery Y and Gallery G. I don't exactly agree with this practice .

Can we all get along?

6/01/2009 11:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

My situation is similar to that of Anonymous above. I have good working relationships with a few galleries, but since I end up doing all the career development stuff I don't think of any of them as "primary". None of them gets any percentage of what the others sell, and I don't think there's any reason they should.

6/02/2009 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

None of them gets any percentage of what the others sell, and I don't think there's any reason they should.

Well, that's worked out well for you then (if somewhat seemingly unflatteringly to any of your galleries), but that's not exactly similar to the situation the artist in the post finds herself. She's working with a gallery that does feel there's a reason they should get a percentage of sales in other galleries.

I don't think you can make any blanket statements as to whether a gallery should or shouldn't try to be an artist's primary gallery, to be really upfront and honest about it. There can be big advantages to artists with certain practices or circumstances. If you don't wish to have a primary gallery, then only work with galleries who will agree to that. The important thing is to be sure you ask about this, in detail, before agreeing to representation.

6/02/2009 08:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anon Artist said...

In my experience, when a gallery shows in interest in showing an artist, they don't whip out a contract or even specify all this stuff verbally. It starts more casually, you're both checking each other out. I have never had a contract with any gallery (I do have consignment/inventory lists) and no one has even been named (by me or by them) as my primary gallery. They are in different cities. But I have shown the same groups of work in Gallery A, then, later (what hasn't sold, and then bolstered by more work) in Gallery B. Once GA sends it back, they don't get a commission if it sells, unless they have an interested buyer resulting from seeing my work on their website, or having seen my work earlier at their gallery. Then they call or email and ask me if that piece is still available. Sometimes it is and I send it back to them, sometimes I say, "no, but I have this piece from the same series, or the client could commission something." None of my galleries really like to work with any other gallery. Only once did I split a commission in a very specific circumstance.

Edward, these topics are great and I thank you for taking the time to present them, but I often find that my experience with the art world is much less regulated, much less black and white, than the way you describe it, that the business is run a little more intuitively, with no contracts and no hardbound rules.

6/02/2009 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I often find that my experience with the art world is much less regulated, much less black and white, than the way you describe it, that the business is run a little more intuitively, with no contracts and no hardbound rules.Actually, I find the same and while we use consignment agreements in our gallery we don't use what's commonly delineated as a separate "representation contract." We do have a detailed conversation about "what representation means" and I ask our artists to ask me anything they're unsure about then, before we officially agree to it though.

In my experience, it is the absence of at least discussing such issues in detail that leads to conflict, not the absence of contracts.

6/02/2009 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anon Artist said...

You sound like you would be a nice, and responsible, person to work with.

6/02/2009 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Well, that's worked out well for you then (if somewhat seemingly unflatteringly to any of your galleries)...EW, I wouldn't say that either is true, that it's worked out well for me, or that it's unflattering to the galleries.

I'd be quite happy if one of the galleries I showed with had any interest in career development, but they don't. I give them work, some of it sells, we split the money. It's a fair and honest business arrangement, which is no small thing. I appreciate the fact that I like and trust the people that I'm dealing with. But I don't see that any one of the galleries is doing anything that merits giving them part of the commission for work that another gallery sells. Seems like kind of a deal-killer in trying to get more galleries to show your work.

I should mention that the galleries I show with are in different cities, and that if someone wants to buy my work, I refer them to one of the galleries.

6/02/2009 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I can relate to Anon+David a bit here. I love the galleries I work with and feel extremely loyal to them for their investment in me and my work. I have recommended others work with them, helped them with their own identities, ongoing exhibitions, web presences, etc, in the past, and know that they deserve their commissions - and sometimes more, to be perfectly honest. But I also see the huge benefits of partnering with a (primary) gallery more interested in broader career development together, for both me and them, and a long-term view of what that entails. While I can see where Anon+David's comments might sound harsh, perhaps phrased another (more positive) way it can make more sense: I'd be more than happy to share from all my sales in exchange for that kind of mutual commitment.

6/02/2009 02:09:00 PM  
Anonymous cjagers said...

Hmm ... I feel like a gallery in smaller city should be happy if an artist gets noticed and picked up by a NYC gallery. That should be a goal and a win/win situation. The artist moves up the ladder. The smaller gallery can charge higher prices when they get a show (because of NYC prestige). The NYC gallery has some leg-work done for them already. If a small gallery in a large city does not have any connections to NYC, its upside seems really limited to me.

BTW, Edward, I really like all your advice on conflict resolution/diplomacy ... I could not agree more.

6/02/2009 02:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unless a gallery is providing an artist with "quit your day job" income, they have no right to ask for a percentage of sales by galleries in other cities, and even then it's questionable.

I would hazard a guess that even the top Chelsea galleries are doing that for only some of their artists. For emerging galleries, that number is basically zero.

6/02/2009 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Unless a gallery is providing an artist with "quit your day job" income, they have no right to ask for a percentage of sales by galleries in other cities, and even then it's questionable.You don't need to work with a gallery whose terms include such a percentage. You're free to work with whomever you choose. Always.

I must note, though, that gross generalizations like this, as satisfying as they must be to espouse anonymously, ignore a wide range of variables that come into play. Maybe, for example, the gallery is taking a long-term view on the development of an artist's market, although they know won't sell enough for him/her to be able to quit their day job for years, even though they still have faith and high hopes for such prospects down the road.

By your golden rule, the gallery must refrain from taking a commission should their promotional efforts much later convince other galleries to see what they had long seen in this artist. You surely see how this curbs one's enthusiasm for such an investment, no?

I cannot in good faith suggest an artist adopt such a position as an absolute. Details matter here. It may very well be worth the artist's while to work with a gallery that dictates such commission terms (your own personal indignation about it being duly noted).

6/02/2009 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

It's a slow news day, suppose we say:

Unless an artist is providing a gallery with "cover their monthly expenses" income then... what?

Most artists think their artwork is better than it is.

6/02/2009 05:16:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Most artists think their artwork is better than it is.

I know my artwork is better than it is!

6/02/2009 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

If it's not obvious from my last post, I side with Edward on this. As artists, we are continuously devoting time, money and energy into our work with the potential promise of a return on that in the future (monetary or otherwise). A gallerist that makes a similar long-term investment in their artists deserves said same. Obviously, not all galleries invest in this way - and not all should always be getting a cut. But I believe that some, those who devote their energy to the kinds of relationships Edward is talking about above, are likely to be well worth it.

6/02/2009 07:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3:01 again.

Yes it's a gross generalization. And of course a gallery earns it's commission, and then some, at times, on any sales it makes. And no doubt many emerging galleries are going all out on behalf of their artists' future development, to the extent that they can. But unless they are providing substantial, material support for an artist to the extent that the artist doesn't need to do anything else but make art, I don't see how they can make proprietary claims on another gallery's sales.

It's not a personal gripe either...I was never in that position. But don't you think that it would have a chilling effect on the interest which other galleries might have, if an emerging artist's "primary" gallery is expecting a cut? So in that sense, it's counterproductive.

6/02/2009 09:25:00 PM  

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