Help Desk

Help Desk: Trading Up

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here: All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED Arts.Help Desk Leader

I’ve been with my gallery for about four years, and had two solo shows (and participated in a few group shows) with them. They are nice people and there have been some sales, but lately I’ve been thinking that it’s time to move on. Recently I’ve had some very encouraging studio visits with other art dealers, and I think one of them might ask me to join their roster. How do I break up with my current gallery without creating hard feelings? I would definitely be moving up in the world with the new gallery.

Back in 2008, art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “An overheated art market sets all kinds of things in motion. Big galleries with money to burn and multiple spaces to fill start circling smaller galleries, eyeing their most successful artists like the underdeveloped properties they sometimes are. Artists get itchy and think about moving up the gallery food chain. And boom or bust, even the friendliest, most mutually beneficial artist-dealer relationships can prove finite. They are outgrown or become stale. Suddenly, it’s time to move on.” And lucky you, to be in a position where you can pick and choose! Most artists I know would love to be in your shoes right now—and yet we all know that everything has its price. You may not be able to advance your career without incurring some hurt feelings. The question is perhaps not if  but how much.

John Divola. Cells, 87CA1, 1987-9. Internal Dye-diffusion Print, 20 x 24 in. © John Divola

John Divola. Cells, 87CA1, 1987-9;
internal dye-diffusion print; 20 x 24 in. © John Divola.

But unless you’re being coy, it sounds as though you may be counting your proverbial chickens before they are even out of the shell. In advance of planning your great leap forward, I want you to read this Help Desk column from 2013, in which artists talk about how to find a gallery that’s a good match. They offer lots of pertinent questions, such as, “Do you like and respect the people running the gallery? Do you trust them, feel that they understand your work, and that they are both interested in and capable of promoting it in a way that will advance your career? Do you feel that they understand the business, and have done well for the other artists that they represent? Do you know any of those artists, or talked with them about how they feel their career is doing? Remember that you are entering into a business partnership with these people, possibly for an extended period of time. Do you have a clear sense of what your expectations and theirs are regarding this relationship?” Read through the advice and think very carefully about where you want to be, and with whom you want to be working.

If you do get an offer and decide to move on, here are some tips:

—If you don’t already have one (and you should), make an inventory of all the works that are at your current gallery. List the title, size, medium, and date, and include a thumbnail image of the work if you can. You should have a copy of this, and your gallerist should have another.

—Review your gallery representation contract. Just kidding! Tragically, no one actually uses contracts, but they should, and this situation is exactly why. (On the off chance that you do have a well-written representation contract, it should spell out the terms of terminating your relationship.)

John Divola. Moon, 88MOA1, 1987-9; Internal Dye-diffusion Print, 20 x 24 in. © John Divola

John Divola. Moon, 88MOA1, 1987-9;
internal dye-diffusion print; 20 x 24 in. © John Divola.

—Hurting someone’s feelings (never mind threatening their livelihood) is never easy unless you’re a jerk. You might be tempted to take the less-painful-for-you route and break the bad news at a distance, but don’t do it! No one wants you to put a career opportunity aside, but at the same time you want to be seen as an artist with whom it is good to do business, right up to the very end. Schedule a meeting with your current gallerist, perhaps after the gallery closes, or set up a lunch meeting. Here’s the hard part: You must be brave and tell your gallerist to her face that you are leaving. You must state it in the most diplomatic way possible. No emails, no texting, not even a phone call—be a person of strength and honor. Tell the truth if you’re asked about who solicited whom (you’d better believe the real story will come out anyway, so ’fess up if you courted the new dealers). Stay calm if the conversation gets sticky. You must also remember to thank your gallerist profusely, because it’s unlikely that you’d be making a “move up” if you weren’t represented by her in the first place. Remember that this person has been working hard to promote and sell your artwork for four years.

—Negotiate a timeline for getting your work back. You don’t have to do it at this meeting, but you should do it very soon after. Get everything in writing (an email is fine). Are you going to pick up the artwork? Will it be delivered? Define the terms so that you both know where you stand.

—Write a proper thank-you note when all is said and done, even if your gallerist is mad at you. You can reiterate what you said at lunch, and be sure to stress how grateful you are.

In the end, no one can expect you to pass up an opportunity that would benefit your career. Of course, as with all relationships, personal feelings can complicate things somewhat. To quote gallerist Edward Winkleman, “Every dealer knows each of his/her artists personally, and the good ones do feel sorry when things don’t work out and try to ease the transition as best they can. Every artist understands that leaving their gallery will be difficult for them (it will can cause the gallery to have very unhappy collectors who were on waiting lists and lots of unpleasant questions to answer all the way around), and the considerate artists do leave as gently as they can.” Good luck!