Years ago when I first took the plunge into the professional art world I started out creating screen prints in runs of up to 100 at a time with home-made equipment in my Garage. I figured it would make sense to be able to distribute my wonderful works as widely as possible, and what better way than producing a ton of copies and then selling them to eager buyers.
At the time I was inspired by some local artists who seemed to have their work in every framing shop and exhibition that I saw around town. I figured that these guys were making it big, as their work seemed so popular.
They were themselves creating prints, both regular four colour process and handmade screen prints. Since the cost of a run of 1000 4 colour process (poster style) prints was many thousands of dollars and ‘Giclee’ colour inkjet printing was a mere twinkle in technology’s eye at the time, I opted for the home-brew screen printing approach.
Well, after a short while one of the local artists that I’d admired so much spotted my work in a shop and gave me a call. I was excited! He wanted to represent me himself and use his connections to get my prints into the outlets that he had access to. This made me even more excited.
He only wanted the very reasonable sum of 30% of the wholesale price as commission, and since my prints at that time retailed for the absolutely enormous sum of $100 each (Framing Shops like to make a 100% markup) that meant that I would receive the princely sum of $35 for each print, and therefore $3500 for a complete sell out of a print run. I was almost salivating at the thought. It actually seemed like a lot of money to me at the time.
I was feeling pretty cocky. After precisely 6 weeks in the business I had an art agent (of sorts) with connections. Gee, I thought. My art must be pretty good, obviously I’m a genius. With the benefit of hindsight I now realise that youth also comes parcelled with a delusional state of mind. I guess we’re designed that way by nature so that we strike out into the wilderness into adulthood without a thought as to the fact that we actually have the life experience related decision making capacity of a small rodent who has lived all his life running on a wheel in a hamster habitat. I digress.
Anyway, a week or so later I received another call. My new agent no longer want to be my agent, as his own agent now wanted to be my agent instead. Agents with agents? This could get confusing. It was revealed to me that my current opportunist artist agent in fact owed his own agent a big money type favour, and, in order to pay some of the debt I had been placed on the transfer list and been parcelled up as part of a deal.
I was even more excited. Now agents were trading me, and haggling to secure my services. In my mind I was a legend in my own lunchtime.
So, off I trundled to meet my new, and slightly bigger time agent, prints in hand and really without any clue whatsoever about how anything, including the art world, actually worked, or the reality that it entails.
The same deal was struck. 30% of the wholesale. I asked for some kind of contract agreement. Blank look. I asked again. You see I had read all about the art world in various ‘how things are officially done in the artworld books’ and knew this was the proper way to go about it. I expected to come away with a typed contract detailing who would do what and pay whom when. I actually left the agents abode with a note scribbled on a piece common-or-garden spiral bound jotting pad paper stating “I will take 30% commission and pay you within 30 days, signed, Ms Agent”. Fair enough.
Over the next few months I waited patiently for my agent to do her stuff, dreaming of the river of dollars potentially flowing my way. All that nasty selling stuff was being taken care of by ‘my agent’ (oh how I loved the ring of saying that phrase in idle party conversation, because everyone knows that if an artist has an agent then that artist ‘must be’ absolutely brilliant.)
Time came, time went. There were meetings, strategising and plans. I was going to be huge. The agent told me so. My work was going to sell like hot cakes. My Agent told me so. She actually sold precisely 5 prints. The agent reluctantly told me so, and then handed me a cheque and the remaining prints and wished me luck. I was relieved.
I was relieved because all of the time I was with the agent, the spoken agreement was that I would not try and sell prints myself, and by this time I was eager to actually get a return on my long sweaty hours spent in the garage. Undeterred I went out the next day and sold five prints directly to the local framing shops and small gallery’s. The shop owners gave me cheques directly in the hand. I liked that even better than the agent giving me a cheque. There was something very satisfying and direct about it. I made these things and people were willing to give me money right then and there. I still like that feeling today.
So, after all this, did I learn anything? Do I think art agents are good or evil for early career artists like myself as I once was?
My agent wasn’t evil. She had the best intentions. She just couldn’t sell my work to her clients. End of story. One of her other artists (the one who originally wanted to be my agent) was doing extraordinarily well with her, and making a handsome living out of it. My art just wasn’t right for her outlets.
If you can find yourself an agent who actually does have the skill and capacity to sell your stuff then this is good. It does have the advantage of allowing you more time to actually create your artwork, but, remember, your agent is going to have to sell a whole lot in order keep you in the manner to which you would like to become accustomed, and you can’t get go out there and sell your artwork directly by yourself when things get a bit slow, because that would be undermining what your agent is supposed to be doing for you.
If your agent is handling your original work as well as your prints, and representing you into proper art galleries, then remember, after gallery commission and agents commission, you might only be left with 35% of the retail value, so your art had better command a very respectable price, in order that you might make a decent profit.
I also learned that you can read all the ‘how things are done in the artworld properly’ books you like, but, at the end of the day if you can’t trust the person you are dealing with (ie they are evil) then a contract is not going to count for much anyway. Are you really going to sue a person if they don’t do what they said they would? Probably not, at least not early on in your career when the money is small. Life is too short. Move on.
Upon reflection I think I went with an art agent too early, before any kind of demand had been established for my work. If I’d done more direct selling for myself at the time I would have known fairly quickly whether there was enough interest to keep both myself and and agent well fed and watered. If the prints were actually flying out the door as fast as I could make them, and there was no time for me to process the sales then an agent would have been a wise move. As it was, my prints sold quietly and steadily over a number years as most print runs do (which was good).
So, if you are just starting out, maybe you should relax and be your own agent for a while. You’ll directly enjoy the thrill of people putting money in your hands for the things you make and you’ll experience the artworld first hand at the coal face. When you get so busy successfully selling your work that you don’t have enough time to make it, then, and only then it might be worth taking on an agent to do all that messy sales stuff for you.
Now you need to put down your brushes and read some stuff on how to close a sale. 😉