The Friday evening opening at the Toney Gallery drew its usual crowd of elegantly dressed buyers and aficionados. As I glanced around I saw someone who looked familiar, but the pieces didn't fit. The friend the man resembled had always defined the term bohemian for me; he did not, as far as I knew, even own a suit. This man was dressed impeccably, custom tailoredand slightly European down to his expensive leather shoes and French cuffs and cufflinks. I looked again and he caught my eye; he moved toward me, smiling, exuding self-confidence, his hand outstretched in greeting. It was my friend after all. But what a change! No longer the starving artist, this man looked downright prosperous.
I have known this artist for many years but this was my first encounter with him in more than 12 months. During this time I had seen no shows or reviews of his work. What had changed? Had he given up art? Had he won the lottery or married an heiress or made a killing in the stock market? We each took a glass of champagne and drifted off to a corner where we could catch up. Yes, there had been a change. And for him it was art consultants.
"I've had one of the best years I've ever had just because of working with art consultants," he told me. He'd given up working with galleries, which was why I had not heard about his art career over the last year, and his work was going exclusively to art consultants.
What are art consultants, or, as they are sometimes known, art reps or private art dealers? They are essentially people who sell art but who do not have a gallery. They're middlemen or women who make connections between artists and buyers. And the buyers are very often large-scale buyers. There are hundreds of art consultants throughout the United States, and they handle every kind of art imaginable: from photography to sculpture to paintings to craft.
Art consultants are a curious breed. They're a mix of agent, private dealer, gallery dealer, interior designer, curator, and traveling salesman-- all thrown into one. But what they all have in common is that they sell art, sometimes a lot of it. And you've probably never heard of most of them. They don't advertise nationally; they don't have shows of artists' work; and they certainly don't go to gallery openings.
What they are doing is selling art to a variety of clients, such as hospitals, hotels, corporations, restaurants, resorts, and any other business or home that has bare walls and a suitable budget. They work with both corporate and private clients and usually handle a wide-range of art styles.
Any artist who has worked with art consultants can tell you that many of them are demanding, pushy, persistent, and annoying. But the good ones are worth a thousand times over whatever fortitude it takes to deal with them. Finding the ones who are active is the secret to making money with them.
The best way to find active art consultants is by getting a tip from artists who know them firsthand. If you don't know any successful artists, think about attending an art expo and speaking with some of the exhibiting artists there, or even just researching trade publications such as the Art in America Gallery Guide or the Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market--a handy resource book which list consultants under "art reps." Do as much research as possible before you contact the consultant: be sure that they show work of a similar price range and style to your own, and that they work professionally. If possible, visit their web site and look at their client list.
After you have assembled your list of appropriate art consultants, start contacting them. This should be a straightforward, but friendly, call: introduce yourself and offer to send them work.
Listen carefully to their description of how they want to receive your work, and be sure to tailor your portfolio specifically to their requests. After sending out your packets, make sure to follow up within a week to confirm receipt. If they have not had a chance to review your work, schedule a time to call again. If they're interested, be prepared to ask them about commission splits, shipping, insurance, payment schedules, and discounts.
Will art consultants change your life? Maybe. Like my artist friend who suddenly looked so prosperous, you might also find your career revitalized by a talented art consultant. But finding an art consultant isn't easy. Before you can even go on the market for one you need to make sure that you are prepared not just for the search, but for the possibility of becoming a client. You need to have an updated portfolio and relevant pricing; you need to be steadily producing in case they receive a large project. Successful art consultants place dozens of pieces of art a month, so they want artists who are energetic, if not driven, and who are capable of producing an extremely large amount of good work.
Many emerging artists find pricing especially tricky. If you are essentially an unknown artist, your prices should be reasonable, usually under $1,000. You can expect the art consultant to double your price when he or she presents it to the client, but you must also have a firm idea of what your bottom line price is since art consultants are notorious for giving hefty discounts to their clients. Commissions vary anywhere from 10 percent to 60 percent-- be sure to confirm the commission before signing on the dotted line.
As with galleries, finding the right art consultant--who thinks you're the right artist--is no small feat. Your work has to have broad appeal, your prices have to be competitive, and you must be well organized and professional when dealing with this little-known faction of the art world. But when you connect with the art consultants who respond to your work, the sales will happen. So start searching.
Geoffrey Gorman, a former gallery director, attended the Maryland Institute of Art and the Boston Museum School. Five years ago he founded GG+A, an artist career development firm that works with artists individually and through workshops.
Article appears courtesy of New York Foundation for the Arts, www.nyfa.org