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Like It or Not, Artists Are Married to Their Dealers

If the arts are increasingly described as a business, why do so many artists and dealers refer to their relationship as a marriage? The art market is an odd mix of money and affection.
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If the arts are increasingly described as a business, why do so many artists and dealers refer to their relationship as a marriage? Similar to romantic link-ups, artists and dealers often claim to have met through mutual acquaintances; both talk of hand-holding, of being listened to or taken care of; they invite each other for dinners, parties, even vacations; their breakups are likened to a divorce. Supporting the entire affair is the sale of artworks. The art market is an odd mix of money and affection.

Relationships are what bring artists and dealers together, and relationships (artist-collector or dealer-collector) sell works of art. Some artists try to avoid the business of making individual connections with people by blindly sending slides of their work to galleries around the country or through setting up a Web site for their work. Undoubtedly, there are success stories to be found through these methods. However, almost all artists discover that they need to establish a personal relationship with a dealer or collector (or both) in order to achieve artistic recognition and financial success.

Business and personal elements of the artist-dealer relationship are frequently entwined. Rhona Hoffman, an art dealer in Chicago, noted that conversations with artists she represents "may start out strictly business but switch onto personal things -- restaurants, movies, families -- then go back to business. It doesn't have to be clear what relationship you are specifically pursuing."

When Jackson Pollock signed his first contract with collector and dealer Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, he was able to quit his job decorating ties to concentrate on painting. That first contract paid him a stipend of $150 per month, with guaranteed sales of $2,700 annually (if there were less than $2,700 in sales, Guggenheim would be paid the difference in paintings). His second contract with her two years later raised the stipend to $300 per month and gave Guggenheim ownership of Pollock's entire artistic output for the year with the exception of one painting that the artist could retain. The terms of those contracts might not satisfy artists nowadays, but it was beneficial to both Pollock and Guggenheim then, reflecting her trust in his talents and allowing him to work unencumbered by financial constraints. This was a true partnership.
Getting to Know You

An artist-dealer relationship is frequently the outgrowth of other relationships, for instance, between a dealer and other artists he or she represents. "The artists whose work I'm most interested in seeing are those who are recommended by other artists I know and respect," said New York dealer Curt Marcus. Frequently, an artist in a gallery opens the door for other artists to be represented by the same dealer in this way. Hugh Kepets and Harriet Shorr, represented at New York's Fischbach Gallery, both "spoke on my behalf," said Nancy Hagin, crediting her two friends with gaining her a dealer. In the who-knows-whom world of art, introductions matter.

The artist's recommendation does not ensure that the person he or she is promoting will be taken on by the dealer, but it does increase the likelihood that the person's work will be given a serious look. Still, the new artist's work must be suitable to the gallery, and a personal relationship needs to emerge between the artist and the dealer. Hagin said that an artist-friend at another gallery had "written a letter of introduction for me, but my meeting with the dealer there turned out to be a disaster. We didn't get along; he didn't really like my work. It was an embarrassment not only for me but for the artist who had written the letter." One notable instance of an artist throwing his weight around involved sculptor William King, who left dealer Virginia Zabriskie after she refused to give his then-girlfriend a show. He jointed the gallery of dealer Terry Dintenfass, who agreed to also showing the girlfriend's work, although King later regretted his actions. "Virginia told me at the time, 'You're one dumb cookie,' and she was right," he said.

At times, dealers learn about artists from collectors, critics, museum curators and even other dealers whom they respect and trust. Artists and dealers work in insecure fields, offering to the world objects for which they alone may vouch for the intrinsic value and meaning, and endorsements matter. When sculptor Elyn Zimmerman brought an idea for an exhibition to a long-time friend of hers, Santa Monica, California dealer Fred Hoffman, "he said his space wasn't really suited for what I had in mind." But Hoffman contacted a friend of his, New York and Los Angeles dealer Larry Gagosian, who agreed to exhibit Zimmerman's work. After that show, there were two other shows and she joined his gallery.

Another relationship that sometimes leads to bigger things is the connection artists may make with gallery assistants. These salespeople, many of whom are young and ambitious, sometimes start up their own galleries, often devoted to younger artists working in a certain style. Painter Don Eddy left the New York gallery French & Co. when Nancy Hoffman, an employee of the gallery, quit to start up her own. "I had a relationship with Nancy and felt that she understood and appreciated my work, and I didn't feel that as much with anyone else there," he said. While he has no written agreement with Nancy Hoffman, there had been a contract between the artist and French & Co., "and Nancy and I agreed verbally that we would use that as a baseline agreement for our relationship."

Different gallery employees may have principal responsibility for working with specific artists, raising questions about the nature of the larger artist-gallery relationship when these assistants leave. Jeffrey Bergen noted that "at one point, I had a contemporary wing to the gallery, run by another director, and I had very little to do with it or with those artists. Then, that director left, and I took over the contemporary group. The transition wasn't easy. Some of the artists' work was more to my personal tastes, others less so. I remember saying to Leon Polk Smith, a minimalist -- and I am not that interested in minimalism -- 'I respect what you do, but I'm not really passionate about your work. If I don't believe in it, I can't sell it effectively.' He left the gallery on amicable terms."

Getting to Know All About You
Some artists maintain an arm's length relationship with their dealers -- the one provides the artwork, the other sells it, and conversations do not veer far from business -- but most strive for a much closer connection. "I have a friend who says, 'Dealers only exist to sell artwork,' but I think of them as friends and treat them as I would any other friend," said conceptual artist John Baldessari. At times, the personal relationship grows to be quite strong, entailing dinner parties and invitations to weekend homes. Nancy Hagin rented and eventually bought her dealer's upstate New York summer home, while Curt Marcus noted that he has taken vacations with the artists he represents.

To many artists, the warmth of the friendship may seem to be the measure of the artist's standing with the dealer, while dealers may view the social relationship as an opportunity to develop their artist contacts. "Every dealer wants you to be their friend," said William King. "Dealers want you to invite them to your house, to your parties, so that they can be part of the milieu." Some dealers also want their collectors to be part of the milieu, as that encourages a greater personal investment in these artists and a greater willingness to buy.

The strength of the relationship is often revealed by the number of telephone calls that dealers make to artists on a weekly or monthly basis. "Artists want to hear regularly from their dealers," Curt Marcus said. "It's important that they know they are being thought about." Faith Ringgold, a sculptor, said that she is called by her dealer at least once a week, relaying information on prospective buyers, past collectors, a new show, asking how's the work coming along, how's the family -- the specific content may not be as important as the ongoing connection.

The content of a relationship between an artist and dealer is as distinct as the individuals involved but, New York City gallery owner Renato Danese said, it usually includes daily or weekly emails or telephone calls by the gallery owner ("for artists whose work is less in demand, there is less of a requirement, but they still know we're here"), periodic studio visits ("the artist usually makes it clear when that should happen"), lunches or dinners with the artist (or other social outings) and some sort of acknowledgment of major events, such as Christmas or the artists' birthdays or the birthdays of their children. Some relationships remain more formal, while others lead a dealer to become deeply involved in an artist's life. "When someone is having financial problems, I've made advances of money," he said. "I've gotten lawyers for artists when they're getting divorced or when they're buying a house. I found one artist a chiropractor."

Painter Richard Haas has noted the state of one's relationship with a dealer may be measured in the frequency of phone calls and who's calling whom. "The dealer is calling you most of the time when you're in favor," he said. "When you find yourself calling the dealer most of the time, you're not in favor anymore. There are not enough phone calls, not enough visits to your studio; you don't get invited to dinner. You know you're at an end."

As the relationship between artists and their dealers develops over time, their assumptions about each other may grow, change or stay the same. In general, both sides expect the other to be honest and faithful to their agreements. Artists are expected to produce a certain quantity and quality of work, not making deals behind the backs of their dealers. Dealers are relied upon to exhibit, promote and sell the work, maintaining good records for sales and paying the artists promptly. As an artist's career advances, promoting his or her work may grow from postcard and brochure announcements to newspaper and magazine advertisements, as well as the creation of a catalogue to accompany a show; the dealer may be expected to develop private commissions and print deals, arrange exhibitions elsewhere in the United States or abroad, even place work in museum collections. Often, the relationship between artist and dealer sours when the artist believes that he or she has outgrown the dealer or when the dealer finds that the market for the artist's work (or the artist's work itself) has not advanced sufficiently to maintain the investment. The two may need to sever their relationship, untying the many financial and emotional ties that have linked artist and dealer over the years in a process that many have likened to a marital divorce.

One trend that has emerged over the past two decades is for artists to reject an exclusive relationship with a particular dealer, opting instead for what painter Peter Halley called "a constellation of galleries that represent my work." Exclusivity means that all exhibitions and sales go through a particular dealer. Halley had exclusive relationships with the Sonnabend Gallery and Larry Gagosian, but left both in part because dealers elsewhere did not want to share sales commissions with New York galleries, resulting in lost sales. "Seventy-five percent of my market is in Europe," he said. "My collectors are not likely to come to New York to buy. Dealers in Europe chafe under the requirement that they pay half of the commission they earn to my New York dealer. Europeans like to buy from dealers they know and trust and with whom they have a personal relationship. For instance, I have found that German collectors will only buy from a German dealer. I found that I could do better establishing relationships with half a dozen dealers around the world than by participating in an exclusive relationship with a New York dealer."

Change and Continuity
Perhaps more than anything else, the Internet has changed relationships, dividing people as much as it brings them together. Most galleries have Web sites, listing upcoming exhibitions and displaying artwork, but so do a growing number of artists. Dealers have long worried that collectors will contact, and purchase artworks from, artists directly, bypassing the gallery completely. Suspicion and distrust become one more element of the artist-dealer relationship. "The Internet creates opportunities outside the gallery system, allowing for direct relationships between the artist and the consumer that hadn't existed before," said Paul C. Rapp, a lawyer in Housatonic, Massachusetts and a professor of art and entertainment law at Albany Law School in New York State. "Those in the middle of that transaction must now rejustify their existence."
For better or worse, it is the volume of money pouring into the art market that has led to evolving relationships between artists and dealers. For dealers, that sometimes means dropping an artist after one or two unsuccessful shows, because rents are too high and other artists' work is too sought-after to put energy into nurturing one person's career. For artists, that may mean not committing to a long-term relationship with a gallery. Ultimately, these questions lead to one at the heart of a relationship with a dealer, "Is loyalty a hindrance to my career?"

Strong personal relationships between artists and dealers may fall victim to shortcomings on the business side, such as slow (or no) sales, reasonable price increases that are beyond the reach of the gallery's regular clientele or the gallery's collector base simply drying up for a particular artist's work (after everyone has purchased one or two pieces). "In my experience, collectors will buy an artist's work for a period of five years, then they move on to buy someone else," said San Francisco gallery owner John Pence, adding that a number of young artists he has represented have moved to other dealers when they have "exhausted the buying base." However, one artist who has stayed with Pence for 30 years, painter Will Wilson, noted that the dealer has continued to find buyers for all his work, which first was priced at $4,500 and now goes for up to $60,000. Several reasons have kept him from trying other galleries, including "laziness, I have to admit" and a belief that he wouldn't have any more luck elsewhere. "When I look at other artists who do the kind of work I do and have as much experience as I have, they don't seem to be doing any better," he said. Most important to Wilson, though, is his personal and professional relationship with Pence: "My studio is right above the John Pence Gallery, and he visits me two or three times a week." Thirty years ago, Pence acted more as a mentor to Wilson, offering encouragement, cheerleading and an occasional kick-in-the-pants to produce more paintings, but "our relationship has evolved, the way a father and son's relationship evolves, to the point that we're more like equal business partners, and friends."