Help Desk

Help Desk: Art Consultant

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I want to know more about standards for art consultant/artist relationships that develop without a gallery being involved. I tried to look it up online and everything, of course, was all over the place and contradictory. I don’t want to be named in a post, but I am interested in knowing more. Specifically I was just approached by an art consultant who asked me ‘how I normally work with art consultants.’ I think what they wanted to know is how I like to divide sales, like a percentage ratio, and I just don’t know what is normal.

For readers who aren’t acquainted with this particular niche of the art market, let’s start with what an art consultant does: she selects, acquires, and helps present artworks for clients. She might collaborate with architects and designers to create spaces congenial to the display and conservation of artworks. If she is working for a client with an extensive art collection, she may additionally curate and design exhibitions.

Just as there are differences in the ways in which various gallerists might work with an artist, art consultants also vary in their methods—that’s why you have come across contradictory information online. For example, most consultants that I know select from the already-completed works made available by artists and galleries; however, in this interview on Artsy Shark, San Diego consultant Barbara Markoff says, “For me the perfect artist partner is an artist that does not mind taking art direction for my projects. Often the art decisions are based on color and size. Knowing that my artist partner will happily create work for me based on my recommendations makes my job much easier.”

R. H. Quaytman, Passing Through The Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25, 2012. Tempera, silver leaf, silkscreen ink, gesso on wood

I contacted a few consultants to find out if there is an industry standard that you could use as a general guide as you move forward. One San Francisco-based consultant said, “Assuming this is an emerging artist, I should say that I never take a percentage of sales from artists who are not represented by a gallery, unless our relationship is such that I’m involved in their PR (more like a gallery would be; but this is typically not done, since art consultants are supposed to be unbiased towards any one artist). That being said, I know other advisors who do take 10-15% of sales from the artist; if working with artists directly this is normally the average rate.”

If you are represented by a gallery, then the percentage is a little different. The consultant continued: “If this artist is working with a gallery then the discount that the gallery gives off retail (10-20%) is passed on to my client, but would not affect the 50% of the sales that the artist would receive from the gallery.” So if the consultant was acquiring a $1000 work of yours from the gallery, then you would still receive $500 and the gallery would get $400 (assuming a 10% discount and a 50-50 division of the retail price). However, it’s important to note that the gallery might want to split the discount with you; this is something you will want to negotiate with your gallerist before you start working with a consultant.

R. H. Quaytman, Passing Through The Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25, 2012. Tempera and silkscreen inks, gesso on wood, 32 3/8 x 32 3/8 inches

Another art consultant that I contacted had a similar idea of standard practice. “When purchasing from a gallery we normally receive a 20% discount off of retail that we split with our clients. When purchasing directly from an artist who does not have gallery representation, we receive a discount in the range of 20% – 40%. We never mark up retail prices knowing the importance of a consistent sales record for the artist.”

As you consider percentages and discounts, you will also want to think about the nature of the collection your work might be going into. Our SF consultant said, “An artist can offer a bit of commission ‘leg room,’ but it’s up to the advisor to take it or just proceed without taking any money from the artist. The good thing is, an artist can offer as high or low as they want, given the relationship they have with an advisor. It may be wise to first know what kind of collection the work may be going to and then negotiate from there.”

R. H. Quaytman, Passing Through the Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25 (Portrait of Anne Rorimer), 2012 oil, tempera, gesso on wood 20 x 20 inches

This is a budding relationship and just like working with a gallery, you have to determine if the fit is right. As you proceed, you should consider your goals and decide if this person is a good collaborator—trust your gut! An in-person meeting or studio visit should tell you a lot about how this person operates, and if it feels like this consultant is on the level you could put your cards on the table, admit that you haven’t worked with an advisor before, and see what she recommends. Sometimes by being completely honest you can quickly separate those who are equivalently forthright from those who are cagey.

As a side note—since you voiced your concern—let me assure you that this column is always confidential. I never append a name or location to the question, and in some cases I have even removed potentially revealing information from the original query. A long time ago I had a teacher who said, “If you have a question, probably five other people in this room have the same question, so please ask—if not for yourself than for the others who are also in the dark.” In the end, it’s not the questioner who is important, it’s the issue that we all struggle with together.

Good luck!