Art Gallery Contract

Art Gallery Contract

with 12 Comments

My recent post for artists who want to secure art gallery representation brings me to another important question. How should you proceed when a gallery is interested in selling your artwork? The gallery / artist relationship can sometimes be a fairly loose business, based on little more than a handshake deal. I think it’s wise to come up with an art gallery contract. Consider the following story:


Once upon a time in a Colorado resort town, an established art gallery began to display the works of a young painter. The gallery director had been in the business for years and represented a number of artists. Some had decades of experience and established reputations.
This new artist had little experience in this kind of environment, having been represented by only one other gallery. But he eagerly provided several framed paintings for display after little more than a handshake agreement with the director.
Months went by. The artist lived a few hours away, so he called the gallery periodically to check up on things. More months passed. The gallery staff stopped answering his calls. They stopped returning voicemails. Then suddenly, the gallery phone number was no longer in service.
The artist scrambled, not quite knowing what to do next. He called one of the other gallery artists who immediately drove to visit the gallery in person. The gallery was closed and locked. The artist put in a call to the owner of the gallery who had put the director in charge and trusted her to handle all the gallery business. The owner didn’t know the gallery had been closed. She came and unlocked the doors, but it was too late. A few of the paintings were there inside, but most had gone missing. The police were called. The gallery director was found and questioned. Her lawyer got involved and complicated the search for answers.

I am, as you may have guessed, the artist in this story. It took place in 2001. To this day I don’t know what happened to five of my paintings from that gallery. Many other artists lost paintings too. Some lost dozens. Had they been sold? Given away? Traded? Stolen?

The worst part is that this kind of story isn’t all that uncommon. Talk to a few artists who have worked with galleries and you’ll likely hear similar stories.

So it’s wise to come up with an art gallery contract — a business agreement — that both you and the gallery director can discuss and sign. It may not save you from the type of story above, but it can help you to identify red flags that might appear during talks with a prospective gallery. It also gives you a chance to talk about issues that will likely come up in the course of business and decide how they will be handled.

Click to download my sample art gallery contract in PDF form. You can then copy and paste the text into your favorite word processor to input your specific details. I based my art gallery contract on a template offered by Scott Burdick and Susan Lyon.

Remember that as an artist, your relationship with any gallery is a partnership. Both you and the gallery should be responsible to make the relationship work. Do what you can to protect yourself and your artwork with an art gallery contract.

 

12 Responses

  1. stephen magsig
    | Reply

    I have been showing and selling for 30 yrs. The only galleries I have had trouble with are ones that had contracts. The 3 galleries I show with now are all hand shake agreements, if they don’t trust you, you shouldn’t trust them. I have been with these galleries 2, 10,and 20 yrs. I wouldn’t show with a gallery that needed a contract, my personal take.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Thanks for your opinion, Stephen. I’m glad you’ve had good luck with your galleries. The advice I think we should glean from your comment is to make sure there is trust between artist and gallery. Which is a great point. It really doesn’t matter how long you’ve been showing with galleries or whether they use contracts or not. I’m sure there are success stories and horror stories both ways. My point with this article is just to encourage artists to think about terms that are important to them so that both parties can discuss and form a mutual agreement.

  2. Tracy Sear
    | Reply

    I would counter that a written contract, executed to memorialize and agreement and the details of that agreement needs to be in place. People don’t need to be suspicious of a document developed with respect and in the spirit of protection for both parties. A written agreement doesn’t mean the parties don’t trust each other. On the contrary, they’re usually written out of respect for the relationship.

    These agreements protect both, particularly in the event of unforeseen circumstances They also give a legal remedy should the agreement be violated. Handshake agreements are perilous to both parties and I have avoided them. Only once was there an issue between me and a client, and our agreement protected me financially.

    That said, in any case, investigating the gallery owner’s reputation with other artists is a good idea, especially if the gallery is new to you or you’re just starting out.

  3. Michael Smith
    | Reply

    The California Consignment of Fine Art Act, Civil Code section 1738 et. seq., provides that a gallery owner is a “constructive trustee” of art placed with them for consignment sale. As a trustee they are wholly responsible for loss or damage, and they must pay the artist’s share of the sale proceeds to the artist before they pay themselves. A breach of an agreement by the gallery owner is non-dischargeable in Bankruptcy as it constitutes a “Breach of Trust”. Potential defenses by a gallery owner who is sued for lost art might be that the artist consigned the art to a corporation or other business entity and not the owner personally, that the art was lent to another gallery or broker who is now responsible, that the artist agreed to give the art to the owner as a form of “bonus” for other sales, or that advertising or other costs were partially the responsibility of the artist. Be sure a written agreement covers those issues.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Great advice, Mike. I know you have some good experience behind you.

  4. Linda Nelson
    | Reply

    Thank you, Dan, for sharing this information. I, too, have had trouble with a gallery going out of business. Fortunately, an artist friend (also at the gallery) called me to say, “Get your art out of the gallery, now!” Other artists did not fare so well.
    Another time, a distant, inland gallery did a promotion where 5 local, coastal artists participated. The gallery owner was “excited” to extend the show. We did not get our paintings returned or the revenue from sales for over 6 months as the owner was unreachable or the gallery locked during business hours. Definitely a Breach of Trust.
    Thank yous to Tracy and Michael.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      It can be a tough business out there, Linda. We have to do our best to keep track of what’s going on, especially when we don’t live near the galleries who represent us. Thanks for your comment.

  5. David W. Mayer
    | Reply

    Dan, Great column! I think California and Montana are perhaps the only 2 state with strict laws to protect the artists. Other artists may have more information. I have been “stiffed” twice by galleries in New Mexico, but managed to recover the money both times. Unfortunately, a contract is only paper without the local and legal resources to back it up.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Thanks for your insight, David. I was also “stiffed” by a gallery in New Mexico but was able to eventually get the money they owed me. You’re right that a contract may not offer adequate protection in itself without other resources. But it at least prompts both parties to discuss things up front.

  6. John Hendry, College Station, Texas
    | Reply

    Great article, Dan! I appreciate this conscientious approach, to avoid misunderstanding and to protect the interests of both parties. Oh for the old days when a handshake was all that was needed! Those days are long gone, and contracts are very helpful in the marketplace. Yet, many people will prove trustworthy, and will honor the contract. 😊

  7. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    I appreciate your comment, John. I’m thankful for the trustworthy gallery owners I’ve worked with!

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