Selling the work, my experiences with commercial galleries, Australia and overseas.

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Selling the work, my experiences with commercial galleries, Australia and overseas.


Schmeisser, Jörg.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.

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Selling the work, my experiences with commercial galleries, Australiaand overseas

Selling the work, my experiences with commercial galleries, Australia and overseas.
byJörg Schmeisser


‘Do artists really need galleries?’

‘Why don’t they sell their works directly?’

‘The galleries rip you off, don’t they?’ are some questions that are occasionally asked when a conversation turns to the subject of selling the product.

If the social and economic fabric were different, if we had an abundance of patrons, supporters of the Arts who buy our works, if there were many Medicis around then, then we would not need the galleries.

But since that is not the case someone needs to find and make the connection with the people who may wish to own our work. And that is a most laborious task – and not everybody’s cup of tea.

I know some artists who are unable to sensibly present their work to a possible client – worse: those encounters ended up with embarrassments and insults – and I myself am not good at selling my own work either.

So it is good to have a go-between, who loves art and is a good business person and communicates well, and is willing to do the job of selling that is time consuming, exhausting, expensive and needs some special talents. It is only fair that the gallery or agent takes a substantial share of the sales if they do actively promote the artist, organise and finance exhibitions, sell during AND between shows, publish catalogues, tour the work, show it to collectors, publishers, museums etc.

So yes, it is good to have agents, galleries – a division of labour.

And no there is not an inherent RIP OFF in the artist-gallery system.

Many galleries struggle as hard as the artists to make a living. And they may find their artists as wonderful to work with or as unreliable and disappointing as we at times find our galleries.

The relationship between a gallery and an artist is sometimes compared with a marriage of convenience or de facto relationship. I feel uneasy about that – but there are indeed some similarities.

It is a meeting of different people with common interests who get together for the same purpose in this case: to get the print from the press into the hands or onto the walls of a collector. The relationship may start with a time of ‘courtship’. The artist tries to get the ‘attention’ of a gallery or vice versa – and the moves are not always reciprocated and the desire is not always equally strong.

But then you get together and there is the honeymoon – usually around the first exhibition. Hopes and trust in one another is at a high. Great plans are made for the future. The routine sets in after that, and things might go alight.

If one is lucky it is a relationship of sheer bliss – the artist produces, the gallery sells – both are doing what they are best at. But often it is not quite like that: the first difficulties are often connected with money – and money can also become the famous last straw at the end of a relationship. And questions arise, questions about ‘faithfulness’ that is: is the gallery REALLY promoting my work, I ask myself, and the gallery may jealously watch that I have no contacts with anyone but through them.

You planned to be together for better or worse but then if the relationship deteriorates separation is unavoidable and that is seldom a pleasant situation. But let us leave here that comparison with the personal relationship – and turn to the actual situation.

Before I do that allow me a few personal background notes: I grew up in Germany, did post-graduate studies in Japan, went back to Germany and have now lived in Australia on and off for the last 14 years. I have had numerous single exhibitions in Europe, America, Japan and Australia; some in major galleries and museums, many in commercial galleries and also in libraries, bookshops and department stores and restaurants.

I am working with a few galleries in Japan, in America, in Germany and some here in Australia. I have had very good and quite bad experiences. I work with somewhat different conditions with different galleries.

First to the question: How do you get in touch with a gallery?

Then, what are the conditions in such a relationship?

Are they adhered to, what are the chances to enforce them?

How do you get in touch with a gallery:

Ideally you hope that a gallery will ask YOU to represent you, ask you to exhibit there. If that’s the case you have a better negotiating position.

Since that is not so often the case you go and see a gallery. Don’t come out of the blue, have an introduction. Galleries seem to be overrun by artists and cannot take on every artist who visits them. As a matter of fact I think many galleries have far too many artists in their stable – so that they cannot really look after my interests as well as I hope they would.

Be prepared to hear ten times NO before you hear a YES. And that NO may come in many forms like:

OK – these are all prints, now do you have drawings or paintings? The real things! or

You can leave the work here for the manager to have a look at when we have some time for that – or the NO sounds like:

We love your work – but that’s not the kind of things we sell here.

That’s exactly what we love but we have already someone else in our stable who works like that and it would not be fair to them ...

That’s exactly the work that the gallery NEXT DOOR loves – you should see them.

Or you have the occasional Yes and an offer from the gallery – that you may want to refuse.

Yes, we will represent you. You decide the retail price; we take 75% and do everything for you.

The New York experience: Show me the work, he pointed to the floor; I found myself kneeling in front of him, rushed through the work – he let me know exactly who is in charge – and I had my ego shrunk drastically and then to build it up he invited me to his office – leather seats, face to face on the same level.

‘You are, as you know, talented. We can produce a portfolio in that and that size, those 4 images in this particular way - leaving out those little bits and pieces, all horizontal formats in that colour range, figurative with a few abstract touches.’

On my suggestion that I would like to make those decisions he advised:

‘You have shown me what you can do. I tell you what I can SELL. You like it, we'll do it. You don’t, we won’t.’

So we did not get together.

Now if you do get together what conditions apply?

Everything is NEGOTIABLE – there is NO FIXED set of rules that applies to everybody and everywhere. There are guidelines and recommendations of the Commercial Art Dealers’ Association but they are guidelines only and – quite legitimately – drawn up by a group of galleries with their interests in mind.

Before you approach a gallery it is advisable to find whether YOUR work is best represented – with a chance for sales – in THAT particular gallery: It is no good to approach a gallery which handles mainly abstract paintings with a portfolio of neatly drawn botanical prints.

It is important that you check the gallery’s reputation. Who is exhibiting there?  And check the track record of the gallery. Are they promoting their artists and ARE THEY SELLING and PAYING the artist.

Sometimes you may have to weigh one (the gallery’s reputation) against the other (their record of payment) when you make a decision. It is undoubtedly an advantage to exhibit in a gallery which represents the big names in art. And galleries often point out that they bring that in as a valuable asset when you negotiate with them. Let me argue the other side: it is the willingness of the artist to ALLOW a gallery to handle her or his work that gives the gallery its name. It is the artist who works with – or leaves – a gallery that determines the gallery’s reputation. So it works both ways: the artists make a name for the gallery and the gallery makes a name for the artists. And the more one cooperates with the other the better for both sides.

The question of PAYMENT is often the reason for friction with a gallery. Many of my colleagues and I are really annoyed and frustrated by NOT receiving promptly our share from works that have been sold – money that is rightfully ours. We are fully aware that galleries often have very high overheads – but why should we finance them? They don’t pay our printers, or electricity, mortgage, paper, inks.

I have had and have the best possible working relationship with Gallery Huntly here in Canberra,  now for more than 16 years. Efficient and correct to the point of having interest added to payments that came in late – after a long absence of mine and the working relationship with my first Sydney gallery, Stadia Graphics, was a dream. But then there are a number of other connections which are not quite like that.


The conditions may be for exclusive representation in one particular geographical area, or a loose arrangement of an exhibition every two or three years in one gallery and in the meantime you can sell and do what you wish to do. In Germany I have been working like that for the past 20 years and there is a possibility of that kind of operation also in Australia.

The commission to the gallery may vary between 30% to 50% (some galleries try more) and the gallery may offer to do for that a range of things: the invitations, the postage, the framing, the opening reception, representation and promotion between exhibitions (showing to and placing your work in museums or hotels etc). You may also want to negotiate an arrangement of 50/50 during exhibitions – because of the extra costs to the gallery – and a different percentage for sales from commission.

It is very important to clarify that in writing at the very start of your relationship with a gallery – MAINLY so that there is no misunderstanding!

At least as important as that is that you hope that you can trust the gallery to honour their part of the deal. Don’t think that if it’s written down it will automatically happen. It won’t.

A clearly drawn up set of conditions as suggested by the Arts/Law centre and trust are a good base. If you have nothing in writing you may be in for surprises. Two examples from Japan:

One gallery in Osaka gave me wonderful conditions, a most beautifully staged show (together with historic Korean ceramics). The gallery owner just loved the arts and the man went broke. I never saw my prints or any yen from the sales. The understanding that we had did not cover his misfortune.

But then: some years ago a big department store organised, publicised and financed an exhibition, a book publication, posters, flew me and my wife over there for the opening – and the exhibition went well – and initially I had nothing in writing from them.

What happens when you have a written agreement and– let us take the most frequent cause of disputes – the money is not coming in.

The normal reaction of the artist is not to make too much fuss. You are dependant on the good will of the gallery; you throw a tantrum and the drawer with your prints will remain shut for a while in that gallery. But if it is dragging on and the repeated requests are not answered you may find yourself – as a friend told me – in the position to suggest to hand the matter to your lawyer. The answer of the gallery was: ‘You want that, OK. I can make the dispute last for 6 years.’

An artist usually has not the time nor the money to go that way – quite aside from the fact that this would be the end of a cooperation anyhow.

These are a few glimpses of possible difficult areas. There are others: sales to museums, sales from the studio, commissions for companies etc.

If you have a good and open relationship with your gallery that should not be a problem and you will be able to discuss it. And discussion does of course not mean that you always arrive at your own preferred option. Particularly at this time where the recession really affects the art market. Galleries are talking about tough times and ask for EXTRA contributions from their artists. But times are tough also and particularly for the artist!

If there is any advice that I can give: all is negotiable – do not tie yourself to only ONE gallery (prints are after all multiples). If you commit yourself – do it for a particular time – say 3 to 4 years and review your arrangements after that time.

The gallery’s, yours and the general economic situation may change – and you may have to change with it – but then: a personal relationship may have developed and trust and respect that will persuade you to stay with your gallery, even if they go through a slump which may last three, four, five years. I have had in the last year my 20th anniversary exhibition with my gallery in Tokyo. The son of the gallery owner who gave me my first show in Tokyo now runs the gallery. It developed into a partnership of trust that withstood difficult times. There were periods with hardly any sales and then some very successful years. But it was always an honest, generous and open relationship. I think I have been very fortunate to have found so many interesting and interested people through my work and through the galleries. The sales have enabled me to travel and work here and overseas. Seeing unusual places and meeting very different and special people is something I treasure and that counts more than the admittedly nasty parts of this business.

© Jorg Schmeisser, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987.