How to negotiate

Everything is negotiable they say, and they’re mostly right. Learn the best way to negotiate in any circumstances and create good working relationships.

Artists can often fall into the gratitude trap – being so happy that someone is interested in their work that they forget to negotiate conditions around budgets, fees and costs.

Negotiation isn’t always just about money, though – sometimes you need access to staff or contacts, a high-quality opening night, advertising and promotion, or something else to support your wider aims. But you still have to eat, pay bills and go on the occasional holiday – and remember that whoever you’re negotiating with is probably getting paid. Some joint negotiation is possible when a large group of artists can organise together for their aims – just like Artists Union England is trying to do with pensions, fees and legal advice.

Looking for how to negotiate an internship instead?

This guide talks through some of the basics tactics of negotiation that would be useful in any circumstances.

In advance

First some basics about negotiation to bear in mind at all times.

  • Your aim is for both parties in a negotiation to get a good deal. If your winning makes them lose, they’ll fight you hard, resent your winning, sour a possible good ongoing relationship and spread word of how they made you feel.
  • Everyone at the negotiating table is looking to make a deal – otherwise, why would they be there?
  • Have courage and know your own value – try some basic power stances before you meet if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed – yes, seriously.
  • Research everything that you might need to know before you go in to a negotiation – how much your costs are, what people are involved, any hard facts you need to have at your fingertips. Prepare notes and take these with you.
  • Prepare yourself: know the difference between what you need and what you want, and the point at which you cannot negotiate below.

Negotiation isn’t just about getting everything you want to the detriment of your negotiating partner. Instead, think of it as a series of compromises offered around the things you don’t much care about to ensure you get what you need. Compromise is not the same as giving things away, but a trade between something you have for something someone else has. And as with any trade, you should get something in return for everything you trade away. Resist the temptation to offer everything in one go – that would just be giving everything away with no gain. Similarly, don’t be grudging in your compromising in case you alienate them into resisting on point of principle.

Research as much as you can before you begin. Who are you meeting and what do you think drives them? Is it money, reputation, ambition, the esteem of their peers? Are they a curator looking for a more senior job, and the show they want you to do will help them get it? Are they a struggling artist-led space who pays for everything themselves? Where does their money come from – a council social care budget for education workshops, or Arts Council England which requires a commitment from their funded organisations to pay artists? Trying to understand their point of view can help you anticipate what they might value, and it might surprise you.

Get the facts that you need to back up your interests where appropriate – if you’re talking about an exhibition budget and you need a technician, do some research into how much technicians are paid, or what equipment you need to hire, so that you can explain where your figures come from.

Work out your key priority as specifically as you can. At most, go into a negotiation with two or three: any more than that, and you’re compiling a wish list. This key priority is what you can’t negotiate past – if you need a certain fee, or want access to a certain staff member, or want a publication about your show, or to travel to your overseas exhibition, this is what your key priority will be.

As well as your key priority, think about what your next best alternative would be as a fallback option in case your main priority cannot be gained. Sometimes there just isn’t the money, personnel or contacts available that you really want. You might have to decide to walk away from the negotiation if your key priority can’t be missed.

Your key priority and best alternative are not starting positions, but the minimum threshold beyond which negotiation will break down because your needs are not being met.

Be very clear to yourself what this is – everything else will be negotiable to some extent. Prioritise all your other requests in order of importance so that you know what you can compromise on – what you can trade – so you can get your key priority. If you’re doing an exhibition, it might be that you want the gallery to create a high-profile opening event with an invitation and use their mailing list to raise your profile; if it’s a residency, it might be a better fee than they offer in the brief, or that they buy your work at the end for an additional fee.

If you’re going in to a high-stakes negotiation, or are new to the experience, practice with a friend and get their feedback on how you sound.

By ‘instituting’ yourself, you have a level of equivalence with the organisations you’re working with, that perhaps as an individual artist you don’t have. By coming together under a name, you have a better basis on which to negotiate with large institutions.

John Hill, LuckyPDF at Instituted by Artists debate, June 2012 and quoted in The New Economy of Art published by Artquest and DACS, 2014

The meeting

Begin by stating clearly and briefly what is important to you and why, in no more than a minute. Then stop talking – listen to their response, and don’t try to justify what may be a perfectly reasonable request. Wait calmly for them to reply, and don’t be put off by silence – just wait.

If you don’t say what you need, they can’t say if they can provide it.

Don’t assume that what you’re asking for will be a problem – your negotiating partner probably doesn’t have the same priorities as you, and looking beyond your own perspective means you can listen to others, read between the lines, and try to work out what they really want or need. Sometimes, this is simply the knowledge that they got a good deal, or that they can impress their colleagues. You may assume an exhibition would be difficult to organise at short notice, but they may have had an artist drop out unexpectedly and have a slot to fill. You may assume that getting an extra fee for an education workshop is unlikely as money is tight, but they may have a separate budget for this expenditure and would be happy for the exhibiting artist to run some sessions.

Also don’t assume that what seems to be a lot of money for you is a lot of money for your negotiating partner. If you don’t ask you don’t get; being honest about how much a project will cost will make them understand that you know your value, and that you’re done your research.

Remember that small things can help you a lot – instead of expenses, perhaps their cafe could give you free or discounted meals, or their office could help with stationery and printing, or their organisation could help you to access venues and sites that an individual may not. Be as creative with your requests as you can to ensure you get what you need.

A good way to understand someone’s position is to ask politely ‘why not?’ when something is refused. By sincerely trying to understand their motivations and the limits of their position, you might hit upon another way to get what you need that fulfils their needs as well.

Sometimes in a negotiation, you all need to take a break. If tensions are running high, suggest a ten minute break to get some air or a coffee to allow everyone to step back and evaluate where they are and how they feel.

Value yourself, and make sure they understand that you do as well. Remember the golden rule: just because you’re not getting paid, it doesn’t mean your time isn’t worth anything. If there really isn’t any money, or if they really won’t give you any, and you still really want to (and can afford to) do the job, make sure they understand that your time, which has a cost, is a donation to their project, and that you’re making it under exceptional circumstances. People respect things that cost them – or other people – money, so making sure they understand that you are donating something to them should also win their gratitude.

Finally, summarise. A lot. Take notes about everything that’s been said, and every time something has been agreed, make sure you each understand the other by briefly summarising each point for clarity and revising your notes.

After the meeting

Every negotiation is an opportunity to show your professionalism, self-worth and flexibility. Build these relationships to help with future negotiations and gain respect from your colleagues.

Artists do move from education work to events, and on to exhibitions, and curators move up the career ladder and take artists they have worked with successfully along with them. But understand the risks for them – if you’re only know in their network for education workshops and you want an exhibition, it will take time for them to get to know your work and offer something suitable.

The most important thing

Put everything you’ve agreed into an email, in bullet points for ultimate clarity, and send it back to them as soon after the meeting as you can. Ask them to review this and reply with corrections, or saying that this is what has been agreed. If anything goes wrong, you’ll now have in writing what they initially agreed to keep your project on course and minimise any problems in the future.

Avoid the stress many artists encounter by having everything you agree in writing – even just an email will help.

Finally, don’t just take our word for it. Listen to artist Emily Speed’s talk for Artquest on her approach to negotiation and read her blog.

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