Should Artists Pay Referral Fees?

Favor pools, mutual aid, scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours - we all get the idea of reciprocity. However, what about referral fees? If someone mentions to someone else, "I know an artist whose work you might like," should that person receive a payment if a sale takes place? Referral fees are customary in the real estate field, where tips to brokers range from one to three percent of the sale price, or 20-30 percent of the agent's commission. In most states, it is illegal to pay a referral fee to an unlicensed realtor, but the high end of the art trade has middlemen (tipsters, runners, a dealer who knows somebody) who may receive a payment or percentage of a sale. It would seem, in the age of the Internet, where everybody can be found, that there might be less of a need for an artist to pay a tipster for supplying information to a prospective buyer, but tell that to the millions of artists whose Web sites sit unvisited. An introduction, a mention, a referral is always welcome.

Kelly O'Neill, a portrait artist in Brentwood, Tennessee, relies on repeat business and referrals - usually of the word-of-mouth sort - from clients who recommend her to their friends and family members. However, the artist has gone one step further, systematizing the process of mentioning her name to others, offering between $100 and $350 - payable by check or through PayPal - for those who refer clients to her through social media or personal contact. ("We ask how each new client hears about her, so you'll always get credit!" her Web site proclaims.)

"Fees motivate people to tell people about my work," she said, noting that her friends have been turned into marketers. "It's worth it to me not to have to market my work."

Another artist who has tried the same is Milwaukee artist Anthony Sell, who offers a 15 percent referral fee after a completed sale and full payment. The purchased artwork must be "commissioned portraits, landscapes and other fine art projects" - prints don't count. As with O'Neill, someone making a referral to a prospective buyer must do so before Sell and the buyer make contact for the first time in order to be eligible for the fee. "If the referrer cannot personally introduce the referred patron or client, they must instruct the referred patron or client to mention the referrer at the time of contact," according to the artist's Web site.

A lot of conditions on receiving referral fees, and "I have yet to have anyone take me up on it," Sell said, adding that "much of my marketing involves my website and social media, specifically Facebook and Google+ at the moment."

Referrals still are quite common in the art world; paying for them not so much. When looking for gallery representation, artists regularly rely on other artists, critics and dealers to recommend their work to gallery owners. Dealers value that, because they can rely on something other than just their own eyes to evaluate an artist's work. Sometimes, a gallery owner may be enthusiastic about an artist's work but want to know personal qualities about the artist before taking him or her on: Is the artist productive (creating enough work for exhibitions every two or three years)? Is the artist mature and reliable (understanding a business relationship without whining and causing disruptions)? Is the artist personable (able and willing to converse with collectors)? Has the artist worked with galleries in the past? The people from whom a dealer takes recommendations seriously also know whether or not the new artist fits into the gallery's aesthetic and might be temperamentally compatible with the gallery director. Certainly, a recommendation may convince a busy gallery owner to take time out to actually look at an artist's work--an experience artists who simply send in materials to dealers cold cannot often claim--but other factors need to be in place before a relationship between an artist and a dealer will begin to form. The artist's work needs to be appropriate for the gallery (same style, size, medium and price range), and the gallery owner has to personally like the work; the artist should have some exhibition history, as well as a track record of sales, and the artist and gallery owner need to be able to get along.

Sometimes (probably more than half of the time), absolutely nothing comes of an introduction. Janet Fish noted that painters Chuck Close and Alex Katz made recommendations to dealers on her behalf. She even called one of her collectors to ask that person to contact a particular gallery about her work. "It was encouraging to me that people were trying to help me, but that didn't mean I got anything from it. It's not the ticket." Calling the process of going round to galleries "a crap shoot," she said that "some people come off the street and show work that the dealer likes right away. On the other hand, someone may say he'll make a recommendation for an artist, but then this so-called friend ends up bad-mouthing the artist to the dealer. You never know." Once, she made a recommendation for an artist to her own dealer and, when the artist came into the gallery to show the dealer his work, "the artist was treated horribly. I thought that was discourteous to the artist and to me. I was later to find out that this dealer was mean to a lot of people, and that was a contributing factor to my leaving that gallery for another dealer."

The myth of the artist that we have all imbibed from early on is the solitary figure, alone and only discovered by happenstance. In fact, the art world is run on a who-you-know basis, where the chance for success relies on personal connections, requring artists to be part of a community. The job of the artist, as painter Harriet Shorr said, is to make art and make friends. It is those friends who will help make that art known to the world.