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Artist-Dealer Relationships Often Seem Like Marriages (for Better and Worse)

02/20/2015 11:16 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

If the arts are increasingly described as a business, why do so many artists and dealers refer to their relationship as a marriage? Similar to romantic link-ups, artists and dealers often claim to have met through mutual acquaintances; both talk of hand-holding, of being listened to or taken care of; they invite each other for dinners, parties, even vacations; their breakups are likened to a divorce. Supporting the entire affair is the sale of artworks. The art market is an odd mix of money and affection.

Relationships are what bring artists and dealers together, and relationships (artist-collector or dealer-collector) sell works of art. Some artists try to avoid the business of making individual connections with people by blindly sending slides of their work to galleries around the country or through setting up a Web site for their work. Undoubtedly, there are success stories to be found through these methods. However, almost all artists discover that they need to establish a personal relationship with a dealer or collector (or both) in order to achieve artistic recognition and financial success.

Business and personal elements of the artist-dealer relationshp are frequently entwined. Rhona Hoffman, an art dealer in Chicago, noted that conversations with artists she represents "may start out strictly business but switch onto personal things -- restaurants, movies, families -- then go back to business. It doesn't have to be clear what relationship you are specifically pursuing."

Both artists and dealers need to be clear as to the nature of the professional relationships they develop. How often and in what context will the artist's work be displayed? What sales commission will be paid to the dealer? How soon will an artist be paid following a sale? Who pays for framing, shipping, advertising, insurance, catalogues? Is the dealer an exclusive agent for the artist? How long will this agreement be in effect? Tacit understandings and handshakes must give way to sometimes lengthy conversations and even legal contracts that detail how artist and dealer will work with each other.

Getting to Know You
An artist-dealer relationship is frequently the outgrowth of other relationships, for instance, between a dealer and other artists he or she represents. "The artists whose work I'm most interested in seeing are those who are recommended by other artists I know and respect," said one New York dealer. Frequently, an artist in a gallery opens the door for other artists to be represented by the same dealer in this way. In the who-knows-whom world of art, introductions matter.

The artist's recommendation does not ensure that the person he or she is promoting will be taken on by the dealer, but it does increase the likelihood that the person's work will be given a serious look. Still, the new artist's work must be suitable to the gallery, and a personal relationship needs to emerge between the artist and the dealer.

At times, dealers learn about artists from collectors, critics, museum curators and even other dealers whom they respect and trust. Artists and dealers work in insecure fields, offering to the world objects for which they alone may vouch for the intrinsic value and meaning, and endorsements matter. Another relationship that sometimes leads to bigger things is the connection artists may make with gallery assistants. These salespeople, many of whom are young and ambitious, sometimes start up their own galleries, often devoted to younger artists working in a certain style.

Getting to Know All About You
Some artists maintain an arm's length relationship with their dealers -- the one provides the artwork, the other sells it, and conversations do not veer far from business -- but most strive for a much closer connection. "I have a friend who says, 'Dealers only exist to sell artwork,' but I think of them as friends and treat them as I would any other friend," said conceptual artist John Baldessari. At times, the personal relationship grows to be quite strong, entailing dinner parties and invitations to weekend homes. The strength of the relationship is often revealed by the number of telephone calls that dealers make to artists on a weekly or monthly basis. "Artists want to hear regularly from their dealers," a Manhattan gallery owner said. "It's important that they know they are being thought about."

The content of a relationship between an artist and dealer is as distinct as the individuals involved but, New York City gallery owner Renato Danese said, it usually includes daily or weekly emails or telephone calls by the gallery owner ("for artists whose work is less in demand, there is less of a requirement, but they still know we're here"), periodic studio visits ("the artist usually makes it clear when that should happen"), lunches or dinners with the artist (or other social outings) and some sort of acknowledgement of major events, such as Christmas or the artists' birthdays or the birthdays of their children. Some relationships remain more formal, while others lead a dealer to become deeply involved in an artist's life. "When someone is having financial problems, I've made advances of money," he said. "I've gotten lawyers for artists when they're getting divorced or when they're buying a house. I found one artist a chiropractor."

Painter Richard Haas has noted the state of one's relationship with a dealer may be measured in the frequency of phone calls and who's calling whom. "The dealer is calling you most of the time when you're in favor," he said. "When you find yourself calling the dealer most of the time, you're not in favor anymore. There are not enough phone calls, not enough visits to your studio; you don't get invited to dinner. You know you're at an end."

As the relationship between artists and their dealers develops over time, their assumptions about each other may grow, change or stay the same. In general, both sides expect the other to be honest and faithful to their agreements. Artists are expected to produce a certain quantity and quality of work, not making deals behind the backs of their dealers. Dealers are relied upon to exhibit, promote and sell the work, maintaining good records for sales and paying the artists promptly. As an artist's career advances, promoting his or her work may grow from postcard and brochure announcements to newspaper and magazine advertisements, as well as the creation of a catalogue to accompany a show; the dealer may be expected to develop private commissions and print deals, arrange exhibitions elsewhere in the United States or abroad, even place work in museum collections. Often, the relationship between artist and dealer sours when the artist believes that he or she has outgrown the dealer or when the dealer finds that the market for the artist's work (or the artist's work itself) has not advanced sufficiently to maintain the investment. The two may need to sever their relationship, untying the many financial and emotional ties that have linked artist and dealer over the years in a process that many have likened to a marital divorce.