time to leave
How does an artist know when it's time to depart from a gallery? I have left a few in my career (and a few times early on, I was asked to leave, which is another story!) I think it is important to consider both intuitive feelings, and objective, business oriented facts --and to re-consider both from time to time also, since situations can evolve slowly away from what is workable. Both the subjective and objective views need to be basically positive...I know I've lingered too long at galleries where I felt welcomed and appreciated, but was selling nothing, and on the other hand I've done the same at galleries where I was making money but losing self-respect.
The easiest galleries to leave, of course, are those getting poor marks in both categories. Why would anyone stay with a gallery if it leads to frustration, constant misunderstandings and anxiety, all the while not selling anything and being subjected to unprofessional business practices? Actually, of course, that isn't terribly uncommon...there are some poorly run galleries out there, representing plenty of artists. It's easy, especially early in an art career, to regard gallery acceptance as a sort of prize, something that gives an artist legitimacy and status. The urge to hang onto that prize no matter the price is understandable. But since an artist and gallery enter a representation agreement as equal business partners, it has to work for both.
In the remainder of this post I am assuming that the artist is doing all that he or she can to make things work, including keeping the gallery supplied with fresh work and updated images, meeting commitments and never undercutting the gallery's sales. Those are the artist's responsibilities, and if not met, troubles can't be blamed on the gallery. As a further note--I want to emphasize that the majority of my own gallery experiences have been very positive--I have worked with, and continue to work with many wonderful, insightful, supportive and thoroughly honest people. I have never been one to gripe about galleries, and I owe my career to the great galleries that represent me. But I'd guess every working artist encounters a few difficult situations sooner or later, and the ability to know when to move on can be hard won.
Policies and practices in artist/gallery relationships vary quite a bit, and until one gains considerable experience it can be difficult to know what's acceptable, and what should raise a red flag. An example of the latter is an artist placed in uncomfortable or compromising positions as a result of the gallery trying to please a client. Perhaps there is a drastic discount offered without the artist's approval, or promises made about delivery of a commission without checking the artist's schedule. There are plenty of other ways a gallery can be difficult to work with--failing to understand the artists working process and pushing for unreasonable outcomes, handling the work carelessly--resulting in damage--or failing to keep accurate records. All of these have happened to me in galleries that I have left. I did not leave over any one issue, though. Instead it was an accumulation of problems, and the accompanying gut feelings of "I've had enough." Perhaps the objective fact of the problems alone should have clued me in, but in a busy life it's certainly easier to stay put than to make a move, and until I started to feel the emotional need to leave I stayed put.
On a more philosophical note, I've been considering the idea that money represents a flow of energy from person to person, and thinking of where this flow is impeded in my own life. Of course, my thoughts land quickly on places where my work sits but does not sell. I have already begun to move out of certain galleries and look for others in places with more potential.
The hardest situations to leave, of course, are the ones where feelings are good all around, the relationship between artist and gallery is solid and long-standing, but for whatever reasons--the market or some shift in what fits with the gallery--sales dwindle to nothing. The hope is that things will improve, and this hope can derail a more hard-nosed business approach. This was the case in my departure this week from Circa Gallery in Minneapolis, where I have been represented since 1998. The decision to go was quite agonizing, but I could no longer afford to leave work there when it was not selling. When I loaded up my station wagon and pulled away on Tuesday, I thought, "It's the end of an era." At least in my life it is.
(Painting pictured above is Stack
, 12"x 12" and will be exhibited in my show at Woodwalk Gallery
in Egg Harbor, WI, opening July 3.