Thursday, August 2, 2007

Contracts, Contracts

Magenta Hollyhocks, 2007, Oil on Panel, 8x10

Well, yesterday I mentioned contracts, and so I thought I'd talk about my experiences with them a bit further. Without being specific, of course.

One of the benefits of working in some different environments before setting out to work as a full time artist is that I learned a bit about business. Not a lot, but enough to get by without getting ripped off. And I knew from doing some basic research (thank god for the internet) that having a contract was really important if I would be sending my work off to a gallery.

I thought I would feel awkward bringing up the topic, but I quickly found out that I didn't and that if I didn't ask for a contract, reputable galleries or non-profits would be asking me to sign one anyway. A good and fair contract helps to protect both parties and if the gallery won't offer one, I suggest running the other way.

But what is a good and fair? I will mention the points that I look for and that are usually standard.

1. Geographical Designation. This can seem constricting, but it really works to my benefit as well, to limit the area in which I can show my work. There is enough competition, why compete with myself too? And being loyal to one gallery is important to me. I am not at the level where I have an exclusive dealer, so most of my contracts require a 50 mile radius, town or city limits and one is exclusive to the whole state. I look at each circumstance and decide if they work for me, and usually they do, thus far anyway.

2. Commission. The going rate in most commercial galleries is 50-50, 60-40 (favoring the gallery in some cities like NYC), and 30-70 or so (favoring the artists) in non profit spaces. If you have some clout these can be negotiable, I suppose, but I am not there yet. I can say though that I would probably not work with a gallery if the terms were 60-40 on their side. I won't say they shouldn't get that but I would prefer to not get less than 50%. Also standard are discounts to collectors, museums and designers. Usually the discount is 10% to be split evenly between the artist and gallery. Additional discounts are absorbed by the gallery. I also have an agreement with a few of my galleries that I have the right to accept or decline higher discounts.

3. Payment terms. Standard is payment to be made to the artist within thirty days. Exceptions, and they should be noted in the contract, are payment terms granted to the buyer. I am lucky enough to have several galleries that seemingly mail a check to me the moment that they get paid and they have my undying loyalty. I learned from an office job I had once that if payment is not made within 45 days, it becomes less likely that it will be made with each week that passes thereafter. So if I don't receive a payment within thirty days, I make a "gentle reminder call", and if it goes past 45-60 days I get downright pesky. I have only had to do that once though, thankfully.

4. Shipping. Generally the artist pays for shipping and related expenses to the gallery, the gallery pays for shipping back to the artist. UNLESS the artist requests work to be returned in which case there may be a fee required to be paid to the gallery, in addition to the shipping expenses. Also, if the artist terminates the relationship, the return shipping is then the responsibility of the artist in that case. Follow? I was once offered a contract by a gallery whose contract stated that the artist was responsible for shipping to and FROM the gallery. This was non-negotiable on their part so I turned down their offer.

5. Insurance. This was another non-negotiable point in the previously mentioned contract. They didn't insure the work in their possession! Occasionally this may be the case in a nonprofit, and I might agree to it in that case, if there are other benefits to showing there, but there is not a chance in hell that I will ship my work off to a commercial gallery that will not take responsibility for it while in their possession. Very unprofessional in my opinion!

6. Pricing. Most of my contracts have an item about keeping the retail prices the same in all markets. I am fine with that although I can see how, if my prices go up, I will price myself out of some of the smaller galleries that I work with. But it doesn't look good to buyers if they notice that work is priced lower in some galleries than others. And believe me, there are people who notice those things and will ask about it!

7. Termination. There should be a reasonable termination clause, equal to both parties. Mine range anywhere from immediately to 120 days. Also, the contract should have an expiration date, at which time the artist (or gallery) can choose not to sign another.

8. Copyright. The artist should own the title to each piece until it is purchased, at which time it transfers to the owner. The gallery usually has the right to reproduce the image for PR purposes and there is usually some sort of copyright statement. I have to admit here that I am a bit foggy on the whole copyright issue, but all of my contracts have the same statement regarding it so that seems fine to me.

These are the main points usually covered in a standard artist/gallery contract. As I said, some negotiation is possible and in fact if the gallery won't make any reasonable concessions (like in the example I gave above) then it's my guess that there will not be a very good working relationship. And some additional points in a contract would be periodic inventories, signed consignment lists and designation of expenses for exhibitions (it should be the gallery's responsibility, unless you are comfortable with a different agreement).

I have contracts with all of my galleries, except one. I should follow my own advice and request a contract, but I have to say that my instincts are very positive in that case, however if that changes, I will immediately request one. I pay close attention to my instincts, frankly. I have turned down several exhibition opportunities and representation offers over the last few years, based on "hinky" feelings. Often those feelings those been confirmed by the contract and/or discussion with other artists.

I think it's also very important to not sell yourself short. A few years ago, I was desperate to get things going and had to struggle to accept only respectable situations. I can't tell you how painful and disappointing it was to turn down that bad contract offer. But when I did, I almost immediately received two good offers. I totally believe in good and bad karma by the way. That gallery has closed and I am still showing.

The reaction to the request for a contract is important to gauge as well. I worked with a gallery once who didn't have a formal contract, but when I suggested that I would feel more comfortable with one, the director was kind enough to write up a letter (on the gallery's letterhead) noting the gallery's terms. They have been a dream to work with and I am not surprised by that at all.

At first I thought that maybe I should have a lawyer look at the contracts first, but I realized that most of the contracts I was being offered at the gallery level I was at, weren't very complicated. I have casually discussed them with a friend who is a lawyer and he said the same thing. But if there are stronger exclusivity points or other more detailed terms I would suggest seeing a lawyer.

This has gotten pretty long! Please feel free to add your comments or experiences regarding comments. I would have known little about this stuff if I hadn't heard about other artist's experiences.


Bridgette Guerzon Mills said...

Thank you so much for posting this Tracy! I learn so much from you and I want to thank you for sharing your experiences here. I just sent back my first contract to a gallery last week. I wish I had read this before. :) But it seemed pretty straight forward at the time.

I wanted to ask you if you have a formal way of keeping track of your paintings, inventory etc. Since I am starting to send my work out now I am looking into getting some kind of program to keep track of it all.

...i bet you have a post on this somewhere on your blog. I will go take a look.

Thanks again!

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Bridgette, Congrats, on the gallery, that's great! Is there anything about the contract that you think you'd like to change, or do you still think it's ok? I did do a lengthy post (big surprise:) last year about documenting my work. I have made some changes since then, though and so maybe I will update the info in a new post. Here is the old one though: Keeping Track

indigomar said...

Hi Tracy,
Your last few posts couldn't have been more perfectly timed. I wanted to ask you about photographing your work and there it was--an answer chock full of valuable info. Now the gallery info. Valuable again! I'm at a stage where my work will be in several galleries, I appreciate your knowledge and pointers.
I have a question regarding websites. (Maybe your answer is in a past post.) What are the financial benefits of having a website?

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Mary Ann, Glad that my ramblings are helpful!

For me, there are no immediate financial benefits of having a website. I don't sell anything through it, instead I use it as a sort of portfolio, a place to refer people to who want to see more of my work. So long term, there are definitely benefits. That is how I initially showed my work to the NYC gallery that now shows my work, I emailed the link to my website. And I think that often someone will see my work in a show somewhere, go home, google me and then get to the site. Gives me some credibility, at least until they find the blog and start reading about my idiosyncrasies:)

CMC said...

Hi Tracy...lot of good information here. I follow pretty much all of your list although Personally, I think a relationship with a gallery is a partnership and that's part of the partnership.

tlwest said...

Thanks for the info- you have a great head on your shoulders!

Tracy Helgeson said...

Cheryl, do you mean the contract is part of having a partnership with the gallery? I totally agree with that. It protects both parties and can be really handy when our memories fail us a bit:)

Thanks Terri, well I sure read about a lot of artist's horror stories and I hate having crap like that happening to me, so I have done my best to avoid what I can.

Anonymous said...

. Copyright. The artist should own the title to each piece until it is purchased, at which time it transfers to the owner.

I'm most intrigued that you sign over copyright of your paintings; this is something I always retain. Otherwise the owner of the painting can use it for any sort of merchandising etc. and you have no control over it, nor financial benefit. Ownership of a physical painting is a separate issue from copyright ownership.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Anonymous, I do not sign over copyright of my paintings. As I recall from previous research, though I am a bit fuzzy on that as I said, the artist always retains copyright over his or her works. When I said "title" in the post, I was referring to ownership, which does transfer to the buyer of the painting.