Commercial gallery relationships

Commercial galleries are businesses that aim to sell art – and as with any business you work with, it’s important to understand their motivations, the people who work there and the way that they work, and to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement.


Before you begin your hunt for a gallery ask yourself the following questions reflecting on your circumstances and plans:

  • What are my long-term career goals?
  • What are the key qualities, services or responsibilities I want from a gallery?

Then do your homework: only by researching galleries at different levels, who deal with artists at different stages of their career, can you get a realistic picture about where you stand entering the market for the first time.


This list may hep with your reflection and research into galleries: it includes potential benefits depending on the gallery and how you negotiate your relationship with them.  Whatever information the gallery provides could be checked through artist friends and other sources.

  • What is the gallery about?  What is their remit and long-term agenda?  Are they similar to yours?
  • Do they work with artists working in the same media / career level as you?
  • Are their ambitions realistic?
  • What are the background, CV and training of the gallery director? – it’s not always possible to glean this information easily but it’s worth trying to find out about their interests, to see if they correspond with yours, and their reputation.
  • Does the gallery appear financially secure?  Is it safe in a prolonged recession?  Again this information, whilst important, can be hard to find, but much could be available from Companies House if they are a registered business (and they should be).
  • Has the director worked for reputable galleries in the past? Check their Linked In profile, although they may edit out less successful parts of their career.
  • Does the gallery exhibit at reputable fairs, such as Art Basel, Frieze, or their ancillary satellite fairs?
  • Does the gallery give regular repeat solo shows for their artists (not just group shows)?
  • Does the gallery have strong connections with reputable galleries abroad?
  • Does the gallery have a regular following of quality collectors?
  • Who are the other artists represented?
    • If you know any of them, it’s worth asking them about their experiences.
    • If you don’t know them, it’s worth asking around to try to contact them and ask.
  • Is there a specific type of artist represented?  What common features, if any, exist between the artists represented, and do you fit within that?
  • Has there been much turnover of represented artists?  If so, why?
  • Have artists been poached by more established galleries, or have artists come after their contracts with such galleries been terminated?
  • How many artists are represented?  Galleries usually have a maximum number of artists they can represent before their resources cannot stretch to working with any more artists.
  • What level of care does this gallery offer their artists, beyond shows and selling?  Do they place work carefully (in important private or public collections, for example) or just sell, sell, sell?
  • How exclusive is your arrangement – does the gallery have rights to all new work, work in a specific region / country?
  • How does the gallery handle you selling work outside of the gallery?  What percentage does the gallery get if they don’t facilitate the sale?
  • Will the gallery allow you to show in other people’s shows, i.e. group shows in other galleries, if so at what percentage if sales are made?


When you find a gallery you are interested in working with, these general points are worth bearing in mind before entering into any agreement with a commercial gallery.

  • Do not enter into a binding agreement for global representation and sales. Very few galleries have much of a reach beyond their own country.
  • Any agreement should be in writing. This may be hard to come by in the art world, but is becoming more prevalent and increasingly important when galleries can very easily go bankrupt. If you cannot get a contract or letter of agreement, have all agreements confirmed in emails and keep all of your emails; this paper trail will serve as your contract if need be.
  • No first contract should be for longer than a year, although it can then be automatically rolling when renewed by both parties. It’s important to test the relationship and make sure you each get what you need.
  • Retail pricing of works must be done jointly and with mutual agreement by both gallery and artist together. Retail price = artists price + gallery commission
  • A notice period of 3 to 6 months must be in a contract to allow either party to withdraw.
  • When should the first exhibition take place: the first year of agreement?
  • When might the artists expect to be included on the gallery’s stand at art fairs (not necessarily displayed)?
  • How will the profile of the artist be maintained to prospective buyers, with digital images of all works available on request?
  • On the sale of a work, provision to the buyer of a document of authenticity, with a photograph of the work and high-resolution digital image available, and invoice / bill of sale.
  • Insurance of all works whilst in the gallery’s care, and in transit.
  • Ideally to pass on contact details of whoever buys your work. Note that very few galleries will provide contact information, as they’d be worried about collectors and artists striking deals outside the gallery contract, but it is reasonable to know who has purchased your work, so at the very least you could get the names.
  • On sale, the gallery should pay the artist in full within thirty days on receipt of its own payment from the client.
  • One person in the gallery should be responsible for the day to day relationship with the artist: visiting the studio, arranging delivery of works, transport arrangements, and other points of detail.
  • How will the artist be promoted to curators?
  • How the artist will be included in the gallery’s website.
  • Some collectors arrange to pay the gallery in instalments: you should try to negotiate to be paid in full before the gallery retains any of the money, rather than having to wait until the end of the instalment payments to receive payment.
  • Fiduciary responsibilities: this clause concerns ownership of the artwork and the gallery’s financial responsibilities to the artist.  It should state that work on consignment is owned by the artist and cannot be taken by creditors in case the gallery goes bankrupt.   A number of high-profile cases make this a good idea.
  • Loss or damage to work or equipment – this should be accounted for, and agreed upon in writing.
  • Artists always retain the copyright to all artwork even after it is sold unless there is another contract, which states that the copyright has been purchased.  Artists should mark all artwork and visual materials with the © symbol and the year the work was completed.  In addition, it is professional to identify the object as one-of-a-kind, a limited edition, or an unlimited edition, with the number of the edition and which number in the series this object is.

© Medeia Cohan-Petrolino 2011

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