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What To Expect From the Photographer/Gallery Relationship

By Edgar Allen Beem


© GreGory vershbow
“Cameo,” 2012, from Gregory Vershbow’s series “Art in a Liminal Space,” available at Robert Klein Gallery.

Securing representation by a gallery is often seen as the brass ring of a fine-art photography career, a validation of an artist’s value. But photographers often don’t know what to expect from a gallery, or what galleries expect in return. Who pays for what? Who manages the inventory? Can the photographer expect an exhibition soon? PDN surveyed photographers and galleries about the ins and outs of gallery representations, asking what points of confusion should be discussed, and how photographers can make the most of their relationship with a gallery. Here’s what we learned.

Contracts & Handshakes

The first bone of contention is contracts. Some people think they are a good idea, but we couldn’t find any photographers or gallerists who had signed one.

“A written document is essential,” insists noted photography consultant Mary Virginia Swanson, author of The Business of Photography. “Many galleries don’t use one, so artists need to sit down with a dealer if they don’t provide a contract to discuss what the expectations are.”

Swanson suggests artists then write a memorandum of understanding, stating what they understand about the arrangement in terms of commissions, insurance, production costs and exclusivity (that is, if the gallery will be the photographer’s sole representative).

Commissions & Costs

In general, artists and galleries work on a 50-50 split for print sales.

“Some photographers seem to think that 50 percent [commission] is too high,” says Cig Harvey, a photographer in Rockport, Maine, who is represented by galleries in Maine, Boston, New York, Colorado and San Francisco. “But with the cost of overhead and art fairs, a gallery would have to sell a lot of photographs to make that. Artists don’t always see what galleries have to pay.”

Artists generally pay production costs, while galleries pay promotional costs. Whoever is doing the shipping pays the shipping costs.

Charles Guice, a gallerist who works in Katonah, N.Y. and San Francisco, says he was willing to help artist Erika Diettes to pay the production costs of her “Sudarios” series because printing her images on large sheets of silk was a major expense.

“With any sales, the cost of producing a panel is returned to [Diettes] before the 50-50 split,” explains Guice. “With other artists, I have paid the production costs or split it with the artist.”

Artists sometimes fear that galleries will assert ownership over photographs they paid to produce. Galleries say that artists should be willing to reimburse a gallery for the cost of mounting and framing a photograph, should the photographer and gallery part ways.

“It does get confusing,” says Maja Orsic, director of the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston. “We may own the mount, and the artist owns the print, but they can’t be separated.” Orsic says Robert Klein has occasionally chosen to purchase a photograph in such circumstances.

One of the most common complaints about art galleries is about slow payment—or no payment.

“There are an awful lot of galleries that don’t pay their artists,” says Alex Novak, a private dealer in Chalfont, Pa., and publisher of the E-Photo Newsletter. “It’s not unusual for galleries to delay payment or not pay at all. On the other hand, many, many galleries make a practice of paying on time.”

Novak advises artists to do due diligence before they enter into a gallery relationship.

“The first thing an artist or photographer should do is check out how a gallery works and pays. You go to their website and you contact their artists. Ask them, ‘Do they really represent you? Do they pay photographers on time? What kind of people are they?’”

Types of Representation

Emerging photographers are sometimes unaware of the different kinds of gallery representation. These can include the gallery taking a few prints to sell on consignment, including a few of the artist’s prints in a group show, or an invitation to join the gallery’s stable of artists. Galleries make a distinction between “artists in inventory” and “artists represented.”

“I always have work in my flat files by artists I don’t represent,” says New York art dealer Daniel Cooney of Daniel Cooney Fine Art. “Someone might consign ten prints. There is definitely work in my inventory that is not on the wall.”

Orsic says Robert Klein uses consignment agreements when it takes prints from an artist. The gallery will take work for one year, and then check on how well the relationship has worked and whether “there are no sales, or if there are a certain number of sales,” she explains.

Not all artists in any given gallery are represented in the same way. For example, an artist with international stature, such as Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, does not provide prints for inventory. Representing Salgado simply means the artist will ship a print to a gallery if it has a buyer. “Some artists are directly represented,” adds Orsic. “Some we work with through other galleries.”

She cites photographers Paulette Tavormina and Gregory Vershbow as artists included in Robert Klein’s primary gallery. “With Paulette and Gregory, we were the first gallery to take them on, so we helped establish their price structure,” Orsic says. “For Paulette, we consign her work out to galleries around the world.”

Art dealer Daniel Miller of Duncan Miller Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., has created a category he calls “representation lite.” The gallery “sponsors” members of the Verge Photographers group, which includes seven emerging photographers: Claire Mallett, Jamie Johnson, Marjorie “Verge is on our website, but we don’t represent them,” says Miller. “We also sponsored a booth at Photo LA. It’s a way of supporting photographers before they are really selling stuff.” Duncan Miller Gallery only takes a 30 percent commission on the sale of work by Verge Photographers.

What “Exclusivity” & Commitment Mean

Most photographers with gallery representation have their work sold by several geographically dispersed galleries, but even dealers disagree over the issue of exclusivity.

“We all want artists to make a good living and it’s virtually impossible to do that with one gallery,” says gallerist Miller.

But Novak says, “If an artist is in a lot of galleries, I don’t want to represent them. Over time, a photographer will sell less with a dozen galleries competing. They bid down the price.” He cites the example of one well-known photographer who made millions of dollars in the 1990s, but “over-exposure killed him.”

Photographer Dave Anderson of Little Rock, Ark., is represented by galleries in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco and Newport Beach, Calif., but he cautions that even some well-established galleries might not be worth an artist’s time.

“There was one gallery where I was very impressed by the dealer’s curatorial eye,” Anderson recalls. “He had a lot of interesting photographs and some major exhibitions. But then I came to the realization that I didn’t see a second show for any of the artists.”

Harvey agrees that photographers should “want someone you can grow with, make a life with. It would be awful to be dumped after one show. When you’re just starting out, you’re so desperate to have representation, but you have to hold out for the right one. You don’t want a one-night stand.”

Cooney, the New York dealer, works with a lot of emerging artists and says that one of the greatest misconceptions young artists have about galleries is that “their life is going to be happier, all their problems are solved because they have a show.

“Lack of a long-term vision with some artists can cause problems,” he adds. “I’ve had a couple of instances when a first show didn’t sell and the artist said, ‘I don’t want to show with you anymore.’ It can definitely happen on both ends. But I feel more determined if nothing sells.”

Photographer Keith Carter of Beaumont, Texas, is represented by nine galleries around the country. He says that keeping track of so many relationships can be challenging without help.

“Many photographers would benefit from having a business manager,” advises Carter. “Mine has been my wife, Pat. She’s careful, thoughtful, patient and firm. I, as the artist, am a wuss. I want everybody to like me. Many artists are just not beautifully organized.”

Managing Inventory

Keeping track of inventory can be a headache for both artists and galleries.

“One difficulty we come up against is artists relying on the gallery to organize their prints,” says Orsic, including keeping count of how many prints are in an edition, how many artist’s proofs they have and how many images they’ve sold. “But [artists] don’t keep records of what we have. We keep records of what we have, what leaves the gallery for sale or for approval or to museums. We try to keep a paper trail of everything.”

Cooney, the art dealer, cautions that, “It’s a mom-and-pop business. Not a lot is really written down. A lot of people leave things. Most of what I have in the flat files are not signed.” He adds, “I have stuff from artists I have parted ways with. In one situation, an artist left unsigned prints for five years. I threw them away. Then they sued me for the retail value and I had to pay them something.”

Artist Anderson, too, had an incident when he left a gallery and
the gallery could not find a print he had consigned for sale. “They were honorable and paid me for what was missing,” he says. “The only answer to [the problem] is to have an industry-wide, accepted system of print tracking, and that seems highly unlikely.”

The Association of International Photography Art Dealers has a code of ethics that simply states: “Members agree to honor all contracts, invoices and consignment agreements.” There are, however, no established standards or guidelines for artist-gallery relations.

“Early in my career,” Carter says, “a dealer told me, ‘Keith, the way these things work is however you can get them to work.’”

Ultimately, the photography art scene is a small world where personal and professional relationships are often inseparable. That being the case, it behooves artists and gallerists alike to be sensitive to one another’s needs.

“You’re only as good as your reputation,” says Carter. “Word gets around pretty quickly. You want to be honorable. If you want to traverse the gallery world, the first order of business is to do good, solid work and try to keep evolving. Look for a gallery you can have a relationship with and where someone cares about your work. A little of that goes a long way.”

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