The Survival Handbook

Hang around with other artists long enough and inevitably the stories about business deals gone bad will surface. But rather than gasp at the appropriate times and be thankful that it wasn’t you, listen a little more closely—you just might learn something. We gathered up some real-life situations that art pros went through and emerged from a little wiser. Our hope is that you’ll be better prepared and able to avoid these scenarios altogether.

Geoffrey Gorman:
Take Inventory

Situation: An artist I’ll call Joan had been working with a nationally known contemporary art gallery in the Southeast for about four years. During her last year with the gallery, however, Joan stopped receiving payment for sales of her paintings, but was assured her money was on the way. (According to her contract, Joan was supposed to receive her money a month and a half after the gallery had received final payment for it.)

Then the gallery told her the artwork had never been sold. After a few more months without receiving payment, she asked for all her work to be sent back. Upon its return, she checked it against her inventory records and realized the gallery owed her more than $12,000. But the gallery insisted the work was never sold and stopped returning her phone calls. For the next year Joan tried, unsuccessfully, to get the gallery to pay her. She had looked into hiring a lawyer to handle her case, but since the gallery was in another state, it would cost her more in travel and legal fees than what the gallery owed her.

Solution: For the first four years of her relationship with this gallery, Joan was treated very well and paid on time. The gallery had given her several one-woman shows and advertised her work in national art magazines, so the lack of payment was something new. Still, something needed to be done about it.

Hearing that I helped artists with a variety of career issues, Joan gave me a call. At the time, I was also a gallery dealer and knew the gallery owner, which gave me more clout. The gallery world is very small, and good reputations are that important.

With the help of Joan’s meticulous records of all her dealings with the gallery over the years, I was able to make a very clear and firm case for payment. The dealer eventually admitted the work had sold and sent us a notarized letter outlining a payment schedule.

Moral: To ensure this scenario doesn’t happen to you, take these steps when working with a gallery:

1. Take the time to get references from other artists already represented by the gallery. You’ll need to know whether the director is honest and pays artists on time. Joan neglected to do this beforehand because she was so eager to work with anyone who wanted to represent her.

2. Find out how long the gallery has been in business and check with the Better Business Bureau and attorney general’s office in that state to see whether there have been any previous complaints filed.

3. When you’re negotiating a contract with a gallery, make sure there are provisions in there about when you’ll be paid for sold work and when and where the work will be displayed. Have an attorney familiar with gallery dealings review the contract.

3. Keep better shipping and inventory records than the gallery does. You should have an accurate paper trail that shows exactly what inventory is with a gallery, what it’s worth, and when it has either been returned to your studio or sold.

5. Check on your inventory at least every three months. If you think you aren’t being paid for sold work, act on it.

John Howard Sanden:
Deal With Rejection

Situations: There have been times in my 33-year portrait career when I’ve had a commissioned painting rejected. Once, a woman came to my studio, bringing along an oil portrait of her done a few years previously in a different style. She changed into her riding clothes and we proceeded with the first sitting. When the painting was completed it was declined—she had wanted my portrait of her to be in the exact same style as the portrait she’d brought in.

In another case, I’d completed the painting and had sent it to the portrait agency to be presented to the client. I had a scheduling conflict, so I wasn’t there. Every day for four or five days, I was later told, the woman went to the agency and sat before it, then decided not to purchase the painting.

Solution: With more than 600 portrait commissions to my credit, I can say that a rejected commission is rare. In both these cases I had to give up the advance from the agency, absorb the cost of an expensive frame and gracefully move on. Sure, I was disappointed. But if I’d had a little more information with either commission, I know things would have turned out differently. For instance, if I’d known the woman in the first scenario had wanted me to copy the style of another artist, I never would have taken the commission. (I have a line in my agreement that says the portrait will be executed in my style.) And in the other situation, if I’d known the portrait subject was struggling with the decision, I would have flown to the agency to make it right. (The woman’s father called a year later to buy it, but I declined, preferring to keep what I consider one of my best paintings hanging in my studio.)

Moral: Portrait clients are truly your biggest fans and they want you to succeed. Having said that, I believe the two most important parts of a portrait commission are the communication between you and the client, and being with the client at the unveiling of the portrait—with your materials nearby for a potential working session. It’s inevitable that there will be one or two things in the painting that you can quickly alter with just a brushstroke or two, and instantly convert hesitation on the client’s part to enthusiasm. Perhaps a bit of hair needs to be trimmed just above the left ear, or a necktie stripe toned down. These final-sitting adjustments are crucial to the success of the painting, and you must be on hand.

Here are a few other thoughts that can help you make every portrait commission a good experience:

1. Make sure the client has indeed chosen you for your particular style and set of skills, and not simply because you’re a painter.

2. Have some sort of agreement that addresses the important points. I’ve used the same simple agreement for 30 years, and it covers style, size, pose, price, deposit, delivery date, framing, crating and shipping, sales tax, and travel expenses.

3. Whether you’re working from live sittings or photographs and studies, at some point sit down with the client and show your preliminary sketches. I show a very precise study prepared entirely in Adobe Photoshop and printed out on Epson “watercolor” paper. The next thing the client sees is the finished painting at the final sitting.

4. Be open to a change in direction during the course of the assignment. At some point, there may arise the feeling that the painting has missed the desired objective and that a fresh start is needed—perhaps a different pose, or a change in background or attire. This can occur even when you’ve consulted with the client and reviewed extensive preliminary sketches. You may actually be the one initiating the change, and find that the new concept is liberating and invigorating.

Dade City, Florida, artist Pat Weaver is the author of Watercolor Simplified (North Light Books), from which this article was excerpted.

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