How to make an agreement between artist and gallery

The following is a short piece I wrote about gallery contracts. Sorry if it's a bit technical...

A gallery and an artist reaching an agreement to exhibit work together is a very lengthy process with many safeguards to ensure quality for both sides.  Both the artist and gallery are concerned with the final quality of the exhibition together but also with their own business dealings and needs. The process for agreeing on terms has developed to meet these needs while ensuring quality.

Before delving into the details of this process, it would help to describe the artist and gallery dynamic to the average reader.  Because the total number of opportunities to exhibit in any given region (or rather in the global art market) is far less than the number of interested artists in that region, there is usually a disproportionate amount of power in the gallery’s corner of the deal, granting the ability to be very selective with whom they exhibit.  In the commercial gallery market, the impetus is heavily on the artist to solicit the galleries he or she is interested in, with the vast majority of artist’s solicitations being turned down.  This isn't to say that the artwork isn't good enough to exhibit, but when supply exceeds demand, competition between suppliers (artists) will develop.

In this flow chart I break down the agreement process into two sections, solicitation and negotiation.  The solicitation process can start from either the artist (common) or the gallery (less common).  If solicitation is successful, then the negotiation process begins. Sometimes the negotiation process can be take several attempts before contractual agreement is reached, or the process can fail to reach an agreement.

A solicitation originating from an artist begins when the interested artist inquires whether a particular gallery accepts submissions, if the gallery does not accept submissions, they must search out galleries that do accept submissions.  Once they find a gallery that will accept submissions, they must compile a combination of their portfolio, resume, bio, cover letter and / or statement according to the gallery’s specifications.  After submission, uninterested galleries may state in their declining letter that they are not interested “at this time”, but that the artist should feel free to resubmit in the future.  However if the gallery is interested, more information may be needed before the process can move towards negotiation.

Although less common, a solicitation originating from a gallery to an artist can still happen frequently.  In this instance the gallery will contact an artist to begin forming a relationship.  Most artists do not have a spelled out solicitation process like most galleries do, and so the gallery solicitation is less formal and often idiosyncratic.  Initially the gallery will inquire if they can come by for a studio visit, if the artist can stop by the gallery or discuss more in person.  If the artist is not interested “at this time”, the gallery is usually welcomed to inquire again in the future.  However if the artist is indeed interested, then the two parties can share information until they feel ready to negotiate.

If the process has reached the negotiation stage, then it can easily be said that the artist approves of the gallery’s services and the gallery approves of the artist’s product.  However, negotiation reveals whether this initial approval can reach the scope of agreement that both parties need in order to proceed to contractual agreement.  For example, an artist may disagree with the commission structure of the gallery, where it is standard that 40 - 50% goes toward the gallery.  Or the gallery may discover that the artist cannot meet exhibition schedules or their price structure is incompatible with the gallery’s business.  If the two parties can reach agreement over the details, a contractual agreement is struck.

Please note that for brevity’s sake, this is an oversimplified version of real world practices.  Actual pathways to agreement can be struck in any number of ways, some long and some surprisingly short.  In some instances, the two parties may already be familiar with one another, have instant repoire or mutual attraction that can expedite many of the steps involved.  In other instances, there may be personal frustrations or better opportunities that can slow or stop the process from reaching agreement.