Saturday, November 22, 2008

on the horns of a dilemma


Today an artist friend asked for some advice on the artist-gallery relationship. I didn't have an answer for her because I only seem to be able to see it from the point-of-view of the artist who's struggling both to survive financially and to avoid being exploited (something I've had some experience with). So I told her I'd post about it and see if I could get feedback from (a) other artists, (b) gallerists and (c) potential buyers of art from a gallery.

Here's the scenario: The gallery in question sold one of the artist's framed paintings in the summer. This past week the client returned the painting to the gallery as she'd noticed a small dent in the glass, a manufacturer's glitch, that neither the artist nor the gallery owner had noticed. The frame is not a custom frame but a good quality pre-made frame available at a popular chain store. The gallerist then contacted the artist giving her two options: (a)
pay to have the glass replaced at a glass business near the gallery at a cost higher than the original frame or (b) ship a new frame to the gallery. The gallery placed the responsibility on the shoulders of the artist and did not offer to either absorb or split the cost.

Consider the following:
  • art galleries take works on consignment at absolutely no cost to them
  • the next time the owner delivered art to clients in a nearby city (three hours' drive) they could have exchanged the original frame at another branch of the frame retailer at no cost
  • though her art is priced at the low end of the gallery spectrum, her work has been very popular and done well for the gallery since it opened less than a year ago
I understand that the gallery might take the position that they were delivered a faulty product, but that product sold at benefit to them and since the artist/gallery relationship can be a bit of a minefield at times, I'd think they'd want to do what's right in order to protect that relationship. But, like I said, I'm only good at looking at one side of the question and would love to help my friend with some really objective feedback. Help?

17 Comments:

Blogger Katherine Tyrrell said...

I'm not familiar with the law that applies to the locality - and what that says is certainly a consideration. In the UK I think the sales of goods act only allows you a certain time to return goods if they are defective - unless they have some form of guarantee.

I think if a purchaser is going to raise issues like that then s/he has to do it pretty much straight away. Given the elapsed time who's to say the 'fault' hasn't happened as a result of the handling of the frame by the purchaser.

IMO I'd say the maximum time a purchaser has to raise issues like this is about 30 days after sale - but that's just my opinion. After that it's open to doubt how any fault of that nature arose. It sounds to me like they've left it too long.

Any gallery that is selling artwork needs to raise issues concerning presentation with the artist when taking the piece on consignment ie prior to display (and the galleries I know do exactly that). Who's to say that any damage (eg to a frame) isn't caused through (mis)handling in the gallery.

I guess it depends at the end of the day how much the artist wants to stay with this gallery. Also whether the client in question is a long-standing client of the gallery or not.

Personally, to me it sounds like a gallery that is trying to cut corners at the artist's expense. Do they really want to do business with a gallery like that?

22/11/08 4:57 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

This is a hard call for your friend Andrea. Because of the time span it is hard to say when and where the damage might have happened. If it is truly a flaw in the glass then I would try and discuss with the gallery owner if they would cover the cost of shipping the old one to you and once you receive it exchange it for a new one then you pay for the shipping back.

This is one of those unfortunate delicate situations because as an artist you want to be able to feel comfortable with a gallery. As a gallery owner at one time I had good relations with my artists. We had contracts and I had insurance that covered any major damage if it had occurred (thank goodness it didn't) I also did custom framing and if glass did get broken I was able to easily replace it at cost to me or to the artist depending on the situation. All the artists in this area are strongly encouraged to have their work covered by their own insurance. Usually you can get a rider on home owner insurance or renters insurance.

One thing I will have to disagree with you on is your statement that the gallery owner takes on consignment at no cost to them. There are, you might say, hidden costs like rent, heat, lighting, advertising, promotions, gallery openings. Plus if a client pays with a credit card there are costs to the gallery letting the client use said card.

A gallery owner has to keep a client happy. Art buying clients in galleries I'm afraid are different from regular retail clients. They are considered collectors investing in art they hope will increase in value someday. They want everything perfect. When I was working for a very high end gallery we had clients bring back artwork even after they had it for awhile to have an artist touch up a spot they just could not live with.

Gallery owners are going to cater to the collectors and their high sales artists. I'm not saying they don't pay attention to all their artists but if you are doing well in a gallery they are going to try and work with the artist. At least they should.

See if your friend can talk with the gallery owner about what I suggested above about splitting the shipping of a new frame.

If she stays with the gallery then the next time framed art is delivered have your friend draw up a form stating the condition of the art and frame with written stipulations about who would be responsible if damage should occur after the art is left in the gallery.

Hope some of this helps your friend.

22/11/08 8:21 PM  
Blogger onclejohann said...

I tend to see only the aesthetic side of the situation, being an artist myself. Although it's important to take baby steps when venturing a new gallery, that same advice should be taken by the gallery owner as well. But for the client to complain over something trivial like dented glass, that should have been taken care of by the gallery. Your friend should take the time to have an understanding with the gallery owner that once the deal is made, it was made between them and the client. The artist is out of the business end of the loop soon as they drop the artwork off.

Consider this, would this client have brought back a Picasso because of some faulty glass? The glass would not depreciate the value of the Picasso nor any other piece of art. The gallery owner is in the market of "the customer is always right." so that alone puts the responsibility on them.

22/11/08 9:48 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Katherine: Excellent observations. What I find interesting is that the gallery is willing to bend over backwards 3 months later to avoid losing a client over a triviality but seems unwilling to do the same for their own artist who, from a purely financial economic viewpoint, is worth far more to them than the client.

Toni: Thanks for great feedback from the other side. The idea that art-buying clients are different from other clients is a really important distinction so thanks for pointing that out. As for "I will have to disagree with you on your statement that the gallery owner takes on consignment at no cost to them" I thought carefully about how to phrase that. Then I remembered that ALL bricks and mortar businesses have these expenses (and this does not need to be stated as it's obvious) but how many of them get their products on a 100% consignment basis? So I left my wording as is to make that important distinction.

Onclejohann: Good point about the Picasso! Your statement "The artist is out of the business end of the loop soon as they drop the artwork off" is bang on. This seems like the height of pettiness to me.

22/11/08 9:59 PM  
Blogger dinahmow said...

OK...here I come to offer my two penn'orth from the buyer's perspective.
If I buy something which I notice,at time of purchase, has a fault, I ask about negotiating a discount or I buy it with the fault and re-frame it myself.

Katherine Tyrell's point about the 3o days grace period is, I think, standard. In some cases, stores,small galleries, shops have a sign advising their no-returns or exchange policy. I know of NO GALLERY ANYWHERE that would be willing to repair/replace/refund after such a long time.

From my angle, the buyer has waited too long to "complain" and should not expect either the gallery or the artist to address the matter.

As for the gallery expecting the artist to cover such cost-no.

However, if they enjoy an otherwise comfortable relationship maybe they could, this one time, work it out over coffee. But both parties would be wise and, indeed, more professional, to have a written agreement for future similar occasions. It's called a contract and covers both of them.

Someone made a point about insurance. Well, yes, but that can be an astronomical additional cost for artists at the lower end.

I think Robert Genn may have addressed a similar query in one of his letters. Even if he has not had the experience, he'd be worth tapping for an opinion.

Well, here endeth my two penn'orth!

22/11/08 11:17 PM  
Blogger ziggi said...

here's my 1p worth!
Who provided the frame in the first place? The artist or the gallery?

Can either one go back to their point of supply and point out the flaw - see what they have to say?

No doubt they will say it's too long past and that I'm afraid is what the gallery should have said to the purchaser.

However, (!) if it was me (as an artist) and this was a good purchaser I would replace it (and grumble to myself and ALL My Friends) , just in the name of the dreaded "good business practice". I wouldn't want to piss off too many good customers!

23/11/08 12:10 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I agree with everyone about the time-span for returning a purchase and about a contract between gallery and artist.
In this case I cannot see how the artist can be at fault and therefore responsible for replacing the frame. The sell was made by the gallery after the owner had accepted her art on consigment without noticing any flaws.In my opinion all responsibility towards customers now lies with the gallery. It is therefore unacceptable for the gallery to play the ball back to your friend. After all the essence of what she has sold is her art not the frame!!
This customer is also of the very annoying kind- did this person pay for content or packaging! Especially since the frame would be relatively easy to replace without involving shipping and other extra costs.
If the gallery does not want to loose this customer they should replace the frame and leave your friend to get on with her work!!

23/11/08 4:54 AM  
Blogger Toni said...

It has been interesting to read everyone's comment so far. So I'm back again with hopefully is a wrap of what I said before and please keep in mind I am an artist and have owned a gallery and worked in a high end gallery. The only person who is going to come out ahead with this situation is the customer. Yes I know there is buyer beware, and return policies and such but when it comes to buying art in a high end gallery all that goes out the window. The gallery owner will always cater to the customer first and go out of their way to please such customer because said customer is a collector and represents increased sales in the future for the gallery with any number of artists. If an artist pulls their work from a gallery the owner promotes the next artist but will always keep the same customer.
So I cannot stress enough that the artist should have a contract with any gallery they are in and if the gallery doesn't cover a point that is a concern with the artist it should be added in.
So until the artist reaches the point where collectors are buying their art no matter what I'm afraid it is artist beware.
Here are some points to look for in a contract with a gallery:
1/Insurance (The galleries in my area state the artist must carry insurance on their work. What if there was a fire in the gallery and believe me it happens I've seen it you will never recoup your loss if you don't have it.)

2/Terms of commission with a possible 10 percent reduction in price to make the sale. (there doesn't have to be that last part)

3/Condition of art work and framing stating who covers what in case of a knick or bump.

4/A buyers lay-a-way plan. (usually the artist gets paid once the art is paid for in full)

5/Length of time art work will remain with the gallery (Some galleries state that if you do not pick up your work in said amount of time the art work becomes the property of the gallery and I have seen this. There area lot of artist who drop off work and never come back to pick it up)

6/Each consigned piece should have the identification affixed to the back including title, artist, retail price. ( I write it on the back in pencil)

7/Shipping to and from the gallery. (Usually the artist pays for shipping to the gallery and the gallery pays for shipping returning unsold work to the artist)

I know this doesn't quite answer your friends problem now but it may help with future relationships with a gallery.

23/11/08 6:30 AM  
Blogger Hayden said...

as a patron I'm absolutely shocked at this.

the relationship between end customer and merchant is the one in question here. The merchant had the opportunity to question quality at the time they accepted and hung the consignment. Should they choose to offer a return policy to their customers that is their affair, this isn't a mechanical device that is subject to later failure. It is completely on view at the point of purchase. It should be the customer's responsibility to inspect what they buy, the merchant's responsibility to inspect what is hung.

Once the goods are in the care of the gallery the gallery should be on the hook. so to speak.

but I'm only thinking logically, I don't know this business at all.

23/11/08 4:50 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I'd consider art to be sold "as seen" (unless specific guarantees has been made) so I'd tell the buyer where to buy a new similar frame but certainly not replace for them!

24/11/08 2:02 AM  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Wow this is a tough one - though I do think it's up to the gallery to make it right.

Maybe in the future, the gallery owner and artist will now inspect the art work and frame condition more carefully upon delivery so that this type of thing won't happen in the future and to protect their interests. It sounds harsh, but this is exactly the type of learning moment I would experience.

24/11/08 9:34 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Dinah: Toni's point about the art buyer being a different breed of client from the buyer of non-collectible merchandise is important to note. I suspect that because the gallery is new they want to bend over backwards to accommodate the client in an effort to establish a reputation. But their efforts don't extend as far as their own artists.

Ziggi: I think going all the way back to where the problem started is the best solution. All parties need to work together to make that happen, though. There's a fine line between been the exploiter and the exploited.

Laura: The client has everyone over a barrel here, don't they? All these middle men expected to pick up the slack when the manufacturer produced a faulty product and the client bought it! Of course the middle men weren't bright enough to catch it either. :)

Toni: I like the idea of having a contract of condition in the shipping parcel that both artist and gallery sign on receipt of artwork.

Hayden: I agree, but it's human nature to make the weakest link pay the price. In this case it's the artist whose reputation isn't strong enough yet for them to insist on the ethical thing.

Caroline: Sounds simple and logical, doesn't it?

Cynthia: It is one of those cases without precedent, isn't it? So many grey areas that it's hard to weed out the important stuff.

24/11/08 10:02 AM  
Blogger SMC said...

My friend Michelle asked me to put in my two cents as a gallerist (as much as I dislike that term).

The unfortunate aspect is that RIGHT now we are dealing with people for whom every penny means something. In this downside economy both artists and gallery are struggling to keep afloat. For a buyer it is an extravagance to be buying art at all. A silly little piece of glass which should amount to a trivial amount of cash suddenly seems to be huge. I think all are weighing out the relationship at stake. How much do I need this customer? How much do I need this artist? How much do I need this sale? That is a tough one to negotiate and certainly means measuring the particular relationship at stake.

As a practical solution (because it sound like you have gone the inexpensive route by buying ready made frames) I would say the frames are a gimmee. The customer is paying for the art but the frame is tossed in as a ginsu knife. If it is free how can they complain about it? IE: I sell a $3000 painting and somebody doesn't like the frame and wants to negotiate price because of it. I know the artist made the frame and has perhaps $30 in materials plus labor into it. When I explain that the frame the customer really wants will be $3-$400 the frame which wasn't quite so perfect (wrong color, small scratch, badly joined) seems like a steal.

I usually find that the customer sees the original frame as adequate.

24/11/08 5:20 PM  
Blogger Katherine Tyrrell said...

Andrea - the gallery being new adds in an extra dimension. This might just be inexperience or naiveté on their part.

Here's some additional pointers.

Galleries are not above the law. Any gallery which uses business practices which are not consistent with the law relevant to trade should be avoided by artists.

Some of the suggestions being made above go outside the law and set a poor precedent. There has to come a point where there is a sign-off on the quality of the goods being sold. If the gallery has neglected to accept this responsibility or to define this then the law applies - not their concept of how they can avoid a business expense. What will this gallery want to do next - pass on their bad debts to artists?

Artists talk and word soon gets around when an artist has been treated badly. I've heard of galleries in the past who have had difficulty recruiting good artists for their gallery due to poor business practice. If your artist friend knows any of the other artists exhibiting at the gallery, maybe she could try and find out what their experience of the gallery has been - and whether there are any other dubious business practices.

As for the glass, how about the artist insisting that glass was fine when it left the studio (if she believes it was) and the damage must have been caused by the gallery or the client? If there is no record of consignment how can the gallery state that the responsibility lies with the artist?

I suspect they're trying it on. This gallery needs a professional and business-like response from the artist, who also needs to take a stand on the sort of business practices they expect this gallery to follow (like consignment notes and defined sign-off on quality of presentation). This protects the artist as much as the gallery. Some galleries behave very badly in relation to how they protect art in storage.

If they don't like it or respond badly it will only seek to confirm that the artist won't be wanting to do business with this gallery again.

26/11/08 12:24 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

SMC: Interesting what you say about the economy because I've noticed that though we in western Canada are probably the least affected part of the least affected industrialized nation (so far) the global crisis is scaring everyone. I've noticed that the very same gallery mentioned here is already being negatively impacted by the climate though I'm pretty sure the clients haven't suffered directly at all! In this case I think you're right: the gallerists are probably just as affected and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep customers happy for fear of losing business.

Katherine: I've directly experienced lousy storage/handling practices. There's nothing more irritating. As I mentioned above, I suspect the gallery is running scared right now. They are in a small, high end resort town and realise that the client, if they perceive that they have been ill treated, can spread the word like wildfire and cause real damage to a new business. Meantime, they are pinching every penny for the same reason: fear. Never a good basis for decision making! In my next post I will tell you the outcome of this sordid business.

26/11/08 8:42 AM  
Blogger San said...

Like some of the others, I was curious as to why the collector took so long to return the piece. As a gallery owner since 1985, I have never had a customer find fault with something after such a time lapse. I would be hesitant to compensate the client after such a time period UNLESS the particular artwork was really costly, in which case the profit on the transaction would outweigh the cost of repair and would make the compensation worth it for nurturing goodwill and future business.

2/12/08 11:58 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

If the value you place in a piece of original art is no greater than that you place in the frame, then maybe you should be buying your paintings at Sofa Mart. Just sayin'.

I know, I'm cranky and one-sided. Sue me. I have a hard time not seeing galleries as a necessary evil (not to say that gallery owners are "evil" AT ALL, but just that it's a shame that the artist has to lose income generated by their work in order to get it seen and sold).

I guess I also have a preconceived notion of the type of collector who shops at high-end galleries as people who go in and say, "Tell me what I should like," or worse, "Tell me what will increase in value--it doesn't matter if I like it or not."

13/12/08 4:22 PM  

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