Can I Sell My Own Work After a Gallery Has Shown It?

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Generic Art Solutions (Matt Vis and Tony Campbell), The Capture of Christ (Judas Kiss), 2009; archival print, 24 by 36 inches.
Generic Art Solutions (Matt Vis and Tony Campbell), The Capture of Christ (Judas Kiss), 2009; archival print, 24 by 36 inches. Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, New Orleans.

I had a solo show at a local gallery in 2015, and the work has been down for almost a year. Now, a buyer is interested in one of the largest canvases I had in the show. The buyer didn’t see it at the show. They saw it during an open studio night I had last month. So here’s my conundrum: can I sell my work from my studio if a gallery has shown it? What constitutes representation? I’m stumped and don’t want to screw anyone over but definitely want to sell the painting quickly before the buyer changes their mind. Any advice would be much appreciated.
To Sell or Not to Sell

Dear To Sell,
Congrats on having a buyer for a big piece! No matter how fantastic an artist you are, that’s a triumph in and of itself. That said, you’ve presented an extremely interesting question that I don’t think we’ve ever tackled here on Burning Questions. So thank you for writing in with it!
Because there are so many different types of galleries — artist-run, pop-ups, commercial, pay-to-play — it can be tricky to navigate the policies of any single one. It’s worth pointing out, firstly, that every gallery is going to have different guidelines for its business dealings, be it commission rates, consignment duration, or what have you.
Now, based on your question, it sounds like the gallery you exhibited your work in does not officially represent you. Typically, if a gallery chooses to add you to its roster, there will be a conversation about that. What does it mean for a gallery to represent an artist? To be clear, that means that there is a commitment on both ends, and the artist and gallery are expected to honor that commitment. The artist agrees to sell work solely through the gallery, and the gallery collects a percentage of the sale price. (That percentage can range anywhere from 30-60 percent, but most commercial galleries are about 50 percent.) In exchange, the gallery agrees to promote, advocate, and sell the artist’s work to its clients, as well as guaranteeing major solo shows every year or two. Some artists may be represented by more than one gallery, but those galleries are almost always in disparate locations. So an artist may be represented by a gallery in L.A. and in Atlanta, for instance. Or in Seattle and Berlin. That way, there’s no stepping on toes or encroaching on clientele territory for any of those galleries.
So if you haven’t worked out an agreement like that with the gallery you mentioned, I’m going to assume that you are not beholden to them financially. Did you sign any contracts? Many galleries require artists to sign consignment contracts and/or insurance documents. If you did, make sure to go back and review the documents, verify that there aren’t any clauses regarding post-exhibition sales. If there are not, then don’t stress, and trust that you are in the clear to sell the paintings, all of them, out of your studio.
Now, with that said, let’s venture to another dimension of this question, which is not “do you have to” but rather “should you.” That’s right. I think the more pressing question at hand is, should you send the gallery a small commission?
Consider this: most galleries do a hell of a lot of work and don’t see much compensation in return. Even some of the best galleries struggle. So during your show, if the gallery did a really stellar job in helping you curate the show, install the work, and promote everything, maybe it’s the polite thing to offer them a small commission. Did you sell a ton of work at your show? If you didn’t or maybe only sold one or two, they may have taken a financial hit for that month (or however long the show was up). It’s something to think about.
Don’t forget: this is the art world. No one other than blue-chippers in New York and L.A. are rolling in dough. Especially not local galleries who are dedicated to elevating their communities and regional artists. Galleries do a lot for sometimes very little in return. Which is why so many of them open with full hearts and tons of energy and then, within a year, board up their doors. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know artists suffer the same situation. I know that, but maybe in times when there is a little to go around, it might be best to give a nod to the people who helped make that work possible.
I’m not saying you have to do that, or that it’s even expected. Hell, maybe that gallery didn’t do much at all and you had a bad experience with the exhibition as a whole. In that case, just do what you’ve got to do. But maybe, just maybe, you’d like to tip your hat to them for showing that painting, along with all the others, and taking a chance on you by giving you a solo show. Not to mention, it will probably help you down the road if you do, in fact, want to be represented by that gallery or are gunning for another show there. Karma is a real thing, and a little bit of kindness and acknowledgement goes a lot further than you might think.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more:

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