Art Business: Ending a Gallery Relationship

Two New York City galleries recently stopped representing a number of artists, who were then forced to take charge of their own art business careers of selling art–their own. In 2006 the Andrea Rosen Gallery dropped nine artists. “I have the reputation of being pretty loyal to my artists, regardless of whether they sell or not,” says owner Andrea Rosen. “But as time went on, I found myself overextended, and I had to cut back.” That same year, Edward Winkleman, the co-owner of Brooklyn’s Plus Ultra Gallery, bought out his partner, renamed the gallery after himself, moved it to Manhattan, and began to refocus its program. In 2007 Winkleman decided to let six artists go because he felt he could better represent fewer artists.

Parc de Meissonier, Poissy, by Joe Fig, 66" x 84", oil on linen, 2010.
Parc de Meissonier, Poissy, by Joe Fig, 66" x 84", oil on linen, 2010.

Not only were these artists dropped by a gallery but they were also losing access to the New York art market. According to Brooklyn artist Craig Kalpakjian, who had been represented by Rosen, this has caused problems for the galleries he works with in Europe. “For us in Geneva, it’s much easier to sell a work when the artist has a strong gallery in New York,” explains Stephanie Cramer, a co-director of Galerie Edward Mitterrand, in Geneva, Switzerland. It has been difficult for Kalpakjian to reintroduce his artwork to gallery owners and exhibition curators. However, the artist is fortunate to have an easy commute to Manhattan’s art galleries. For other artists dropped by Rosen, such as those in upstate New York and Canada’s British Columbia, the opportunity to meet New York City dealers is more limited.

Wholesale dismissals of artists are rare in the gallery field, but a certain amount of turnover—one or two artists a year—is not unusual. According to Jane Young, the director of Boston’s Chase Gallery, artists might leave because of the changing aesthetics of the gallery, its collectors, or the artists themselves. “Sometimes artists have too many commitments and can’t produce enough work,” she explains. A dealer may be supportive of an artist’s work but just can’t find buyers for it, or prices may increase beyond the level of a gallery’s clientele, requiring the artist to look elsewhere. Other dealers claim that few collectors buy multiple works by a single artist anymore, preferring to purchase just one piece by several different artists.

Not all of the artists who were let go were caught by surprise. For example, Joe Fig, an artist in Norwalk, Connecticut, who was dropped by the Winkleman Gallery, had felt for a long time that the gallery was not the most appropriate for him. Fig had already established relationships with galleries in Boston and Germany, as well as with an art consultant in Manhattan. “I knew sales at those galleries would hold me over until I got another one in New York,” he says. 

Of course, more is involved in reestablishing oneself in the gallery realm than just finding a new dealer. Old business needs to be resolved with the gallery before ending the relationship, including the return of unsold consigned work and the payment of outstanding debts. It’s best if the relationship ends amicably, as past collectors may contact the gallery and want to be directed to the artist or to other dealers selling the artist’s work. Rosen gave the dropped artists access to all of her archives so they would be able to obtain photographs and information on past exhibitions and buyers. In some cases, a gallery may still want to show works by an artist it no longer represents. Winkleman decided not to continue representing Vermont artist Andy Yoder, for example, but the gallery still works with Yoder and his art still appears on the gallery’s website.

Being dropped by a gallery doesn’t have to ruin an artist’s career. In fact, it has become increasingly more common for this to occur, as very rarely does the artist-gallery relationship last for decades. Gallery owners don’t represent artists so much as their vision and style, so when an artist’s work evolves, the gallery may feel the need to move on. More and more, however, dealers are acting as the liaison between galleries and artists, taking the brunt of the acceptance or rejection of a particular artist’s style, vision, and philosophy.

Most artists do evolve conceptually or stylistically over time, producing work that may be quite good but that no longer fits the gallery. It is important for artists to remember that a gallery relationship isn’t necessarily a lifelong affair, and that art is a business that requires direct involvement. Ashkin notes that losing his New York gallery affiliation forced him to exercise much more control over his art career. “What surprised me was the speed with which any feeling of loss or disorientation subsided and was replaced by one of empowerment and freedom,” he says. “Ironically, I feel much more involved with the art world than I did before.”    

by Daniel Grant

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