Middleman in the art market

Artists can be too trusting and they hate doing paperwork and dealing with money. They try to avoid these hassles by leaving money matters to other people whom they trust. These people can be gallerists and art dealers. In other words, middlemen.

The business of art thrives because of middlemen. But some of them are actually heartless businessmen who only think of getting a share of the sales of the artist’s work. They pay lip service for art when all they really want is to get as much money from the sale of someone else’s work.

Consider this familiar case: the gallerist asks for as much as 50 percent commission from the sale of the work of art (for the artist it is already painful to think that someone else who does nothing but pimp the work to his collector friends gets as much as he does) then suddenly, out of desperation and without informing the artist or getting his or her consent, he decides to give the collector a discount, which can be another 50 percent of the original price.

This would have been okay if the discount is on him, but the gallerist splits it again with the artist so the artist ends up getting a quarter of the original price of his work.

Many artists don’t mind if the gallerist gets at least half of the sale of the work as long as he fulfills the support usually offered. It includes: exhibit cocktails, press releases, a printed catalog (with exhibit notes or a critical essay by the curator or critic commissioned by the gallerist), posters, invitations, and other collaterals.

In other words, they should do more than provide a venue for the exhibition. Without this package and with such tricky discounts, the artist is at the losing end of the equation. It is actually exploitation.

Collectors who bought the work in good faith and are clueless about how easily prices of art in a gallery could drop by half, could only thank the gallerist who makes sure that all negotiations are made behind the artist’s back. They become “repeat customers”, to borrow a marketing term. The gallery sustains itself this way—at the expense of the artist!

In the end, as works of art are sold aggressively with huge discounts, people become conditioned to think that intellectual property or artistic creation is cheap. In the meantime, artists find it hard to cope financially and it becomes tempting to give up full time studio work altogether, in favor of a more lucrative day job.

Others might yet wake up to the fact that they actually can do without a middleman, that artists can actually find strategies to exhibit their work in alternative venues and go directly to collectors.

The artists can form themselves into groups that share studio space, pool resources, or invest in a collective enterprise, such as running their own gallery that could be rented out to other artists, creating a line of art products such as T-shirts, bags, sneakers, postcards, stickers, badges, etc.

In other words, galleries can be artist-run enterprises. And because, they don’t need to share up to half the revenue with some middleman, the artists can afford to offer discounted rates to their collectors.

Without the sales talk by an agent or dealer, collectors, too, may be more delighted to know that what they pay for goes straight to the artist who they would love to support. After all, the value of their collection would only depend on how well the artists they patronize could perform and how long they could hold on to their careers.

A lot of artists are inclined to avoid anything that has to do with politics and business, long disillusioned by how opportunism and exploitative practices have encroached into the art world. But, in fact, the solution to this problem could well be to take matters into their own hands, i.e., to be more enterprising and creative in selling their works. Otherwise, others will do it for them in exchange for some share (often half) of what the artists earn.

Artists should realize that they really don’t need someone to stand between them and those who want to buy their work.’


Generating Hope