Is her art in the restaurant just free wall decor?

Time for a Dear Alyson letter. Question from anonymous:

I have a situation that I have not come across before and believe you could provide an answer or some insight. From time to time a gallery director shows my work. When he does, we have a 50/50 agreement. I am not exclusive with this gallery.

This same director is on retainer by a restaurant owner to work with his interior designer. He looks to the gallery director –  paying him a monthly retainer – to provide rotating (every 4-6 months) artwork for the walls of a "hot" new restaurant in town. To open the restaurant, he came by my studio and selected about 8 pieces (prints) for this purpose. We agreed upon 70/30 for any sales. The restaurant, despite all of the directors efforts to get them to do so, never promoted the work as for sale – neither my name and prices nor his name and gallery was ever visible on any literature or signage. How many customers in the restaurant would even consider that maybe the work was for sale?  Few if any, I suspect, even if they admired it.

Here is my question: When the restaurant changes out my art for other, and if nothing has sold, does the GALLERY DIRECTOR "owe" me anything except a thanks!? I realize the only (written) contract was based on sales – should/could I have negotiated anything from him for the use of these pieces to the restaurant? Seems I have gained nothing and the restaurant got great free art for it's opening and the initial 6 months!

Dear anonymous,

I hate to say it, but it appears that the gallery director owes you nothing. All arrangements should be discussed and negotiated ahead of time. The gallery dealer could have negotiated a rental fee with the restaurant owner and paid you a portion. He might have also negotiated an opening reception, invitations, and publicity (including table tents or handouts) on your behalf. (By the way, you could have done this with your gallery director as well.) Now, it’s too late as you already agreed to the 70/30 split with your gallery.

The time to lay out your terms is before any artwork leaves the gallery and goes to another site. And if you’re pressured to make a decision, delay. Always say “let me think about it and get back to you.” Go home, do some research, and respond well armed with your terms. And, yes, some gallery consignment contracts have these terms spelled out in them. If yours doesn’t, I suggest a face-to-face meeting with your director and an additional letter of agreement that spells out the specific terms for that situation.

I would be curious to know what the monthly retainer was. I’m also curious as to what would have happened if a piece had sold. Was there any incentive for the restaurant owner to sell? I’m sure the restaurant owner truly looked at it as inexpensive wall decor.

I think you should express your displeasure with your gallery director. You can begin asking him what he thought of the arrangement. How could it have been better for the gallery? Don't get angry because it's something you agreed to. Just tell him that you weren't happy with that situation and won't likely do it again without different terms. This up front honesty and action will empower you.

Don't spend too much time wishing you had done something differently. It's in the past. Be happy that you learned something and know how to handle a similar situation differently in the future.

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13 thoughts on “Is her art in the restaurant just free wall decor?”

  1. WOW!! This has just shown me what can happen if I’m too quick to agree to something without doing some serious thinking before hand. I do agree that this should have been all discussed and hammered out at the beginning, but I would give serious thought to continuing the relationship with the Gallery Director. I would question their ethics – they got paid for using the artist’s work and never gave one thought to at least paying the artist even a token amount as appreciation. I could not trust that person in the future. Thanks for posting this – I will remember this! Fiona

  2. Thanks for posting this letter, Alyson. This is definitely a situation that happens often. You are so right in saying that an artist must negotiate everything up front. I am sorry to say this, Fiona, but I don’t agree that the Gallery Director was dishonest. It is really up to the artist, to make sure arrangements are win-win, and to make sure efforts are made to sell the work. A restaurant’s main purpose is to sell food, not art. It is a hard lesson to learn!

  3. There is a difference between showing work at a restaurant or corporate space on a short term basis, maybe 8 to 10 weeks for example in a “rotating exhibit”, and leasing artwork at a space for a longer period of time. The way we have shown our art in the past, we never display work anywhere unless there is information about the sale status of the work, and information about the artist available to the viewer in the form of art labels on the paintings, and printed information about the artist. We discuss upfront when the person showing the work in entitled to a commission on any sales, or when we will charge them for displaying the paintings as in a leasing arrangement. As an example, we don’t show work in restaurants, but have shown work in corporate spaces on a short term basis, we don’t charge them leasing fees, and they don’t get any commission if we sell a painting. We both benefit. Leasing art for longer periods of time would involve a completely different arrangement. We have worked with a business attorney to create different agreement forms to cover these types of situations. The terms really need to be agreed upon up front.

  4. Live and learn. I would venture to guess that this scenario is more the norm than not. I have had some horror stories with galleries, and heard many others from friends. Alyson is so right about not giving away your power! And sometimes it is just a matter of looking at a situation & saying–this is not working for me, it’s time to change it. Protect yourself by being aware—know what they are planning to do with your work, and have it in writing. Then, you have to follow through and check. Christine

  5. Karine, I didn’t say the Director was dishonest – I said I question their ethics. Big difference. Of course the Director is under no obligation to pay the artist anything – but it would have been an act of good faith on the part of the Director to pay the artist a small amount. If I was the artist I would never work with that gallery director again. I know the world is a hard cruel place but I for one hate this “selfish, everything for me and the rest of you can go pound sand” attitude. I for one always try to do what is “right” no matter if there is a contract or not.

  6. Good subject. It is so easy to jump into something and look back later with regret. It’s also very difficult, even when stopping to think about it, to predict every scenario and outcome. The important thing is to LEARN from these experiences and decide in advance what you would do differently.

  7. Ah…the outside the gallery bit. I know it well. I showed at a gallery that asked me if I would allow my work to hang in a restaurant that they had a deal with. I never asked any questions but agreed to it. At the time, I never even thought of the gallery getting any money for it, since it was just “on display.” Nothing was there to promote me or anything. My painting was just filling a space on the restaurant wall. When it came time to get the painting I had already severed relations with the gallery in question and had to go and pick up the painting myself. It was in a brilliant gold leaf frame. A real beauty! That is…it WAS! Apparently, someone at the restaurant decided they wanted to do some decorating as well and placed a lit cigarette right in the middle of my frame! OK…no more out of gallery showing. So, how does an artist keep check on the gallery if it’s one that is out of state? Even if it’s not, how do you know a gallery is following your contract? In my case, I had given no thought to it at all. Live and learn. A contract would have helped. But, to think that everything is going to be fine because a contract is in place means little in the real world.

  8. I have shown my work in restaurants, and even when they are clearly labeled for sale (literature at the front desk, prices and contact info under each piece), sales didn’t happen. Other artists I know had the same experience — our conclusion was that people at a restaurant just aren’t in the art-buying frame of mind.

  9. This is a timely topic for me, as I have a restaurant show coming up. An artist friend of mine has shown there several times & done well. So we’ll see. But it’s not through a gallery–and there is a place to put my statement, business cards, etc (in a prominent place)so if nothing else, it will (hopefully) advertise my art, website, & blog. The restaurant is not taking a percentage, so that’s a good thing. Christine

  10. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Karine and Fiona: Since we don’t know how much the gallery owner made per month from the restaurant, it’s hard to say he was unethical. Perhaps it was a very small fee just to cover cost of transportation, time and gasoline. Also, I don’t believe he is unethical at all since the terms were discussed in advance and approved by the artist. Unethical, IMHO, would have been not disclosing that information or giving the artist a choice. Maybe we should give him the benefit it the doubt–that he, too, is learning from a new situation. Brian: Yikes! And, yes, a contract would have helped. Of course it can always be broken, but at least it is there as a reference and reminder. And, when discussed with each other ahead of time, a basis for mutual understanding and respect. Daniel and Christine: My sister-in-law made brilliant sales from her restaurant showings. The restaurants happily gave her impressive opening receptions and didn’t take a cent. She, in turn, sent out hundreds of invitations that brought people in the doors. Both benefited. Lessons: You can’t write off an entire category of venues. You must be particular and all arrangements spelled out in advance. You also need to continue working that mailing list.

  11. Alyson – you are right to say that we don’t know the other side of the story and should give them the benefit of the doubt. You are correct as well about the term unethical – it really wasn’t what I was meaning but I couldn’t think up the proper term for what I was trying to say – maybe I meant that it would have been nice to pay the artist a small amount as a token of good will (if the director had made money out of the deal). I just feel that if I did sell my work through a gallery that until I got up to speed with all of the ins & outs I would be taken advantage of because of my inexperience. And I work too long and hard on my work for that to happen. I’ll leave this subject alone for now! Thanks for the great blog Alyson, you always leave me with things to ponder. Fiona

  12. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Fiona: You’re right. It would have been a nice gesture! Or at least a better negotiated situation for his artist.

  13. Always, always get a written contract before handing over your work to anyone. Do your homework. Read artist contract books. Search for other artist/gallery contracts on the Internet to compare. Don’t let there be a bit of ambiguity in the contract, if you can help it. Write down any question you may have, and ask for the answers. Maybe the questions you have the gallery owner, restaurant owner, etc., has never faced before. My husband entered work into an art contest recently. It was selected, and the company wanted to market the artists’ work for sale, but their terms for conducting sales were not clear. Actually they didn’t provide any. So we dialogued back and forth with the gallery director until we received answers to all of our questions. A lot of times I feel I get on peoples nerves with asking so many questions, but the director responded that she was glad and “Keep asking!” She was new at this, and they didn’t have all of their terms in place. My questions helped make their terms stronger. That is the kind of person you want to work with. This doesn’t always work. Sometimes gallery owners will be offended. Once my husband was asked to do a solo show, but we had never worked with this gallery owner before, nor had we visited the gallery, as it was out of state. I wanted no ambiguity, so I tried to clear up some things that were missing from the contract. The owner was offended and stated no one had ever questioned her contract before, and she wouldn’t change it for anyone. The show didn’t end up working out. My question for anonymous is, why didn’t you go into the restaurant (after politely informing the gallery director of your decision) and kindly ask the owner yourself to post tags with your sale information? You could even have offered to make them yourself. If you wanted them to be for sale, which you obviously did by discussing a commission agreement with the gallery director, why didn’t you do something about it when the gallery director couldn’t? Did your contract state how your work would be identified? Did you go in during the exhibit to make sure everything was okay? Always do as much research as you can beforehand. If you could have, you should have gone in before agreeing to see how the work currently in the restaurant was being treated. Then, get a written contract. Check in afterwards to make sure you are being taken care of. The gallery director owes you nothing, although if he was a decent person, he would make sure the artist was properly taken care of. Is he just in it for himself? If so, is that the kind of person you want representing you? A very important detail, often overlooked, make sure your work is covered by insurance. Either make sure you are covered by the restaurant or gallery director’s policies, or by your own policy. A restaurant seems like a very risky place to have irreplaceable art work displayed without an insurance policy. If you do not feel comfortable handing over your work, don’t hand it over. Like Alyson said, take your time. This is your livelihood. Make wise choices. Jennifer

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