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I was invited to be in a group show outside of my home state. I don't know the owner (who found my work online) and I'd never heard of the gallery before, but it has a nice website and it seems okay. I replied that I was interested and asked the owner for a copy of the contract and he wrote me back and said he never uses one. I'd like to be in this show because my resume is a little thin, but I am wary of just sending my work out. I don't want to get scammed, but then again maybe I'm just being paranoid. What should I do? Do most galleries work like this?
It seems like you're in a tough spot. Just at the moment when you could use to get your work out into the world, opportunity knocks at your door -- how often does that happen? But is the person doing the knocking a decent guy or a wolf in a pinstriped suit? Should you let him in or should you give him old line about the hair of your chinny chin chin?
You're right to be wary. Shady galleries do sometimes take advantage of artists, especially young artists early their careers who feel pressured to go with the flow. When you're starting out it can seem like the gallery has the upper hand and calls all the shots. But there are things that you can do to protect yourself and your work.
Start by doing some more research. You already looked at the gallery's website, but check it again to see how long the gallery has been open, how many artists it represents, and if it has a staff of more than one. Try googling the owner's name, too, and see what you get. Is the gallery a member of an arts organization? An affiliation with other galleries or arts institutions, whether it's a regional arts-business consortium or NADA, can indicate commitment and/or longevity.
Birgit Jürgenssen, Untitled, 1978-1979.
Once you're confident that the gallery is not a mafia money-laundering enterprise, you could try to work directly with the gallerist to come up with a solution. Personally, I find that it never hurts to put your cards on the table where business is concerned. If you explain that you're not comfortable working without a written agreement, one of two things might happen: the gallerist might rescind the invitation (an indicator that you probably didn't want to work with him anyway), or he might work with you to make one. Be diplomatic and polite, not accusatory or suspicious -- the point is to try to get to a place where you both are comfortable, which you will not accomplish by saying you don't want to "get scammed." For the purposes of writing an email describing your concerns, www.thesaurus.com is your new best friend.
You can also be proactive and send the gallerist a copy of "your" contract. I highly recommend the standard consignment agreement outlined in the book Art/Work, which is pretty much the bible of All Things Gallery. Chapter 10 goes over the finer points of what should go into an agreement, including the time frame, commission, discounts, payment, shipping, insurance, and more. Save yourself a lot of hassle and check it out.
Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again: a good contract protects each side equally. My first choice -- for you and me and all the other artists out there -- is to have a written document that outlines the respective rights and responsibilities of both parties. I also think that these gallerists who don't work with a contract should be reminded that it's to everyone's advantage to be on the same signed-sealed-and-delivered page. That said, if a written agreement doesn't seem like it's going to work out but you're not getting a bad vibe off this guy, one possible way around a contract would be to ask for references. A good gallerist will be happy to let you talk with artists that he has worked with before (and he might even offer this option without being asked).
In the end you're going to have to trust your gut. Much of working in the arts is about relationships, and if someone gives you the willies you should just walk away. The key is to find a balance between your ambition and your integrity. Don't let someone take advantage of you just because you want a line item on your resume. If you're lucky enough to have a long life and time to make art, the shows will come. Good luck!