Artist Tracy Penn speaking to potential collectors at an art fair.
Rose Fredrick is a curator, writer, publisher, and art coach. She is currently the curator of the Coors Western Art Exhibit in Denver and works with artists, creatives, and non-profits looking to make transformative changes.
She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, and Denver’s The Big Read, among numerous other awards.
She also writes a blog, The Incurable Optimist, featuring interviews with artists, poets, writers, spiritual thinkers, and healers.
Art doesn't have many rules, but how you talk about art—or purchase art—does.
In a 2021 Miss Manners column in the Washington Post, a reader wrote in to ask, "What to tell artist friends, besides, ‘That’s pretty!’"
“It’s not hard to please artists–or any other creative people–with compliments. Any enthusiastic generality will do. And while you are not there as an art critic, Miss Manners has a kind remark even if you really hate the work: “You must be so proud.”
But wait, what? That’s not helpful. And, it’s kind of rude. Plus, it perpetuates bad behavior.
Here’s some actual etiquette for talking to and working with artists based on some common questions that collectors often have.
Can I directly ask an artist to buy an artwork from them that I saw at a gallery?
RULE 1: If you found something you like at a gallery or show or through an independent art dealer, that is where you need to conduct your business. When working with art galleries, respect the artist-gallery relationship
WHY: When collectors circumvent the gallery–usually because they think they can get a deal by cutting out the middleman–what they are really doing is putting the artist’s business at risk.
Faithless artists are usually dropped from the gallery as soon as this behavior is discovered. Losing this relationship can ultimately ruin an artist’s career because they lose the stability and benefits of having someone represent them and explain their work and pricing system.
“Over the last few years, there have been many artists leaving galleries and going out on their own to sell their artwork. I have learned that there is a direct relationship to having a long-standing association with a respected gallery and being able to maintain solid prices for your work,” said painter Billyo O'Donnell.
TIP: Work with the dealer. Be transparent. Ask lots of questions; it’s their job to educate you and help guide you through the process. And, if meeting the artist is important to you and, in my opinion, should be part of your final decision, have the dealer facilitate.
"Think of it this way," explained artist Carm Fogt, "When you try to cut the gallery out of their rightful commission, it’s like asking your doctor if you can avoid paying the hospital by going to his house and having him perform surgery there at a discount.”
What if you see an artwork at a show and after the show is over, the work didn't sell? Who gets the commission if you buy it?
RULE 2: People can argue this point, but in my mind, if you saw something you were interested in but didn’t buy at the show venue, it’s still considered—for a reasonable amount of time after the close of the show—proper to either run the sale through the exhibition or have the artist forward on the commission to the show.
WHY: Artists need shows and shows need reliable artists. It’s a great relationship when it’s working in harmony. Collectors help keep the harmony by understanding and supporting this important business relationship.
TIP: Juried and invitational shows do have an actual end date. So, realistically, if it has been a month or longer—or if the work of art has since been sent to a gallery—the gallery would then take the commission, not the show. Often national exhibitions are established to support a cause; consider supporting the cause no matter when you finally decide to make the purchase of a work you found at the show.
When is it OK to ask an art gallery for a discount on an artwork?
RULE 3: Discounts are for devoted clients who work with a dealer fairly exclusively and buy considerable amounts of art from that dealer or buy numerous works at one time.
WHY: In the days before discounting art became ubiquitous, dealers used this as a perk for their best collectors. Commonly, 10% was, and still is, the amount that would be split between the gallery and the artist, with each side absorbing 5%.
The biggest problem with discounts, if done frequently, is that they devalue the artist’s work across the board, meaning everyone who purchased work without a discount has, in essence, overpaid.
Often, painting prices are calculated by the square inch, e.g. a 16×20 is 320 sq in, at $10 per, the painting will be priced at $3,200. Pricing editioned work can be determined by edition size, how complicated the work is—how many plates for a hand-pulled print, for example—and importance or relevance, especially with photography.
Then, the pricing structure is predicated on artists’ longevity, the stability of their prices, and what the market will bear.
- How long has the artist been working professionally?
- How do they price their work?
- What national exhibitions have they been invited to and participated in?
- What kinds of publicity have they garnered–magazine editorials, awards, honors, inclusion in major collections?
How much say do I have when I commission an artwork? Can I be involved in the creative process?
RULE 4: The artist is not an extension of you.
WHY: Commissioning an artist doesn’t give you free rein to dictate anything beyond the size, medium, and subject matter you are interested in acquiring. When starting the commission process, always keep in mind that the artist doesn’t live in your head and you do not do the work that he or she does for a living.
"I’ve realized over the years that trying to get inside someone’s head to understand what they are feeling is very difficult," said California landscape artist Kim Lordier.
"Now my process for a commission is to create that balance of sharing ideas then allowing for first right of refusal. If I’m presenting the collector with a piece that I am proud of, it will be worthy of one of my galleries," said Lordier. "Only once has a collector not wanted the commission. But, then they came back six months later wanting to buy the painting and it had already sold.”
Here are a few do's and don'ts of commissioning an artwork:
- Once you agree on a concept, price, and timeline for completion, sign a contract. You can find sample commission contracts here.
- Let go of any preconceived concepts and allow the artist to create.
- You can ask for updates throughout the process but that’s it–no surprise studio visits, no emailing color suggestions or photos of your dog that you’d like the artist to slip in.
- Many artists won’t take commissions, so don’t expect everyone to jump at the chance.
- Nearly every artist I know has a horror story about a client who decided, mid-process, to dictate changes and treat the artist like a servant. The end result: either the client was fired or the finished work was rushed just to get rid of the client.
- Consider using a dealer or consultant to manage the process; they can work through issues that arise and can keep the project on target.
- Expect to pay 50% down before the artist gets started. Enter this relationship knowing you won’t get this money back if you don’t like the finished work.
- Do not ask an artist to replicate a work of art that already exists—especially a work of art by a different artist! Original art, whether commissioned or not, is just that: original and unique.
One last takeaway on commissions: If you’re really wanting a very specific vision—that is outside of the style of the artist you are commissioning, consider taking art lessons. Who knows, maybe there’s an artist in you struggling to get out!
What should I expect when going to a studio visit?
RULE 5: Never show up unannounced. Always confirm your appointment. Do not assume you can buy anything out of the studio and that you can get the work you see at “wholesale.”
WHY: Studios are sacred spaces. They are personal and creative, but also professional places of business. So, plan for an amazing behind-the-scenes opportunity by researching the artist before you go. You’ll have a base of knowledge so you can jump right in.
TIP: Keep judgments to yourself. Art in a studio will be in various stages of completion. The artist has a vision, whether he or she is struggling through a work, trying something new, or trying to make something work that, so far, has been fighting them all the way. Generally, artists will not have this work out for you to see, so don’t rummage around the studio.
Ask questions. Seriously, if you don’t know something, ask. If the artist uses a term or refers to some aspect of the work that you’ve never heard about, have them explain. Artists love talking about what they are experts in—their artwork.
Tell the artist what you like and what interests you about the work. This is a great way to find out more about technique and what inspired it. Alternately, if there is a work you don’t care for, you could ask about it–without judgment–so you can learn why the artist believes it is successful.
Visiting artist studios is one of the best parts of my job as a curator; I always look at it as a privilege. If you’re invited to an artist’s studio, plan for at least an hour, do your homework, and don’t be afraid to ask questions–just keep it professional.