Galleries: Are We Supporting Our Artists?

As a person who hasn’t been in the industry that long, I suspect what I’m about to say may seem out of place, but felt the need to write in support of the industry I now find myself a proud participant in.

I took over The Harbour Gallery gallery in 2012 having no experience in the art world at all. Yes, I’m a fellow of the RSA (Royal Society or Arts) but for my environmental achievements, not artistic, and I studied art at college (badly); but that’s where it ends.

I came to this arena from a business perspective. And one of the things I learnt there is that protecting your supplier – especially if they’re one you rely upon – is tantamount to not only sustaining a good supply from that important source, but the way to protect your own income and livelihood.

Over the past few years in the gallery business, however, I’ve become more and more disillusioned at how that simple ‘golden rule’ seems to be ignored by some galleries with regards artist payments.

I’ve heard a multitude of horror stories from artists where galleries have either not paid an artist for works they’ve sold for many months, or worse, not paid them at all and later gone out of business, taking that artist’s money with them.

It’s true that there may be an abundance of artists wanting to be in our galleries. It’s also true that artists are vulnerable and, in many cases, don’t conduct their business well… but that’s why they’re artists. If they did that better, we’d be out of business… especially in this digital age.

Nevertheless the same principles apply in our industry as every other business: look after your suppliers and they’ll look after you.

I feel galleries have a responsibility to act not only respectfully, but morally too. Yes, it’s a two way street (and I’ve written extensively about this on my Facebook page and website) but galleries that take over 30 days to pay an artist their money are not only abusing basic business principles, but are quite clearly impeding the work of the very artists they are reliant upon.

Artists have up-front costs; paints, canvasses, travelling to and from locations (or their studio) and, of course, framing. Sometimes their work can sit on our walls for months unsold, so that investment becomes compounded. Why then, when we have been paid for that work by a buyer, do we hold their money any longer than necessary?

We, as galleries, take upwards of 40% of the on-the-wall price of any painting… more than enough to sustain our business. And if not, put your percentages up and be upfront about the costs (artists will stay with you, in the main, if they given a clear reason why this is necessary).

But using their money to prop up the shortfalls in our businesses – businesses they already give us an agreed, reasonable percentage to run – is not only morally wrong but could see artists suffer… let that read ‘your valuable supplier’ suffer.

I can see no reason at all why a gallery cannot pay an artist for their rightful percentage once the funds have been cleared – or at the absolute outside within 30 days thereof… it’s not our money, after all, it’s theirs.

Galleries, in some quarters, have a very bad name, and righty so. They have abused artists’ trust and acted lees than honourably. So maybe we, as an industry, need to right that wrong and act extra responsibly to regain that trust?

If you are an artist that works with a gallery that acts questionably, question it. Ask why you cannot be paid and what’s holding that payment up. Let them know you rely on that money to pay for more frames, medium and canvasses. And make sure you don’t continue to supply them if they don’t give sound reasons.

If you’re an artist who is considered by a gallery, be brave. Ask them up front their payment terms and get it in writing. It shouldn’t jeopardise your working with them. And if it does, maybe you should consider why they’re reluctant to be clear and consider going elsewhere?

Galleries need to remember, and respect that an artist trusts us with their hard work. We need to remember that without them, we have no businesses. And we need to remember that in this digital age, we need to work harder and be morally sound to grow our business than ever before.

Let’s work together… it is a partnership, after all. Work together to sustain the industry in which we rely on and support the suppliers that keep our businesses buoyant, allowing us all to grow together. Let’s rebuild that trust.

Mark David Hatwood FRSA