Business is an art, but art is a business. Most artists are unbusinesslike and there are few Damian Hirsts around. But some gallery owners are just as unbusinesslike, and I’ve just become the victim of one.
Galleries work on an interesting business model. Nearly all take artists’ work on sale or return, which means, in effect, that they’re borrowing from the artist instead of the bank. Even established artists have to lend to the galleries in this way, taking the risk off the gallery and bearing it themselves. The system suggest that the galleries are undercapitalised and lack confidence in the work they’re selling. If the system works, it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it goes horribly wrong.
One of the galleries I’ve been dealing with for two years has gone bust owing me money. The owner vaguely promises to pay some time in the distant future and claims to have no money. That’s funny: they have my money. When I leave my work on sale or return, it remains mine until it’s sold. The gallery never owns it; they sell it for me, for which I pay them commission. The proceeds of sale also belong to me and not the gallery. So when a gallery owner says they have no money, what they mean is not that they’ve spent all their money, but that they’ve spent all mine.
In this case it’s the result of muddle, not malice. Everyone who dealt with this gallery said the owner didn’t know what they had and what they’d sold. One artist said when it came to payment, their work was muddled with another artist’s work. Another was paid twice.
So what should one do in such a situation? Artists are not only unbusinesslike, they’re nice, and some of this gallery’s creditors are willing to give the owner an infinite amount of time to pay. I can’t afford to do that. I’m not so nice and I’m pursuing them for my money. Artists are willing to lend to galleries because the system depends on good personal relations. When trust breaks down, the artist is disinclined to have sympathy for the gallery owner.