Emerging Artists Navigating the World of Gallery Contracts by Joana Alarcão
The way we perceive value is changing, and so is the art world. As it sheds its skin each season, it threatens to devour the modest and confused flock of emergent artists.
The new trend of NFT contracts is aggravating the already demanding art world, with galleries’ commissions becoming increasingly complicated to navigate. A contract used to simply be something that, for better or worse, bound two parties together. You would only have to worry about the striking 50% commission for a commercial gallery. Now, it is slightly more off-putting...
Contracts based on NFTs are an unreliable and immoral minefield. They typically include enough information to sell the piece, including its name and origin. However, there's no way to verify if whoever minted the NFT actually made or had the rights to the work. This boiling problem is emphasised by Artist Nancy Baker Cahill in her augmented reality installation, Contract Killers. Cahill’s piece shows two hands that quite never reach each other for a handshake, producing a sharp comment on digital art and so-called Smart Contracts’ unreliability.
Yet, as digital art gains popularity, galleries and auction houses are taking advantage of this new trend. For example, Unit London Gallery, founded by Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt, are creating what they call ‘the first art world-led platform for NFTs’ in collaboration with the cryptocurrency trading platform BTSE. This aims to form a ‘bridge between the traditional art world and emerging digital communities’. Additionally, well-known artists like Banksy and Beeple are selling their work in Bitcoin (BTC) or Ether (ETH) via the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase.
These innovative platforms involve complexities that I do not even pretend to fully understand, and I am sure I’m not alone. As emerging artists, we must juggle producing work, marketing, contracts, networking, studio visits, art fairs and gallery representation - and now we need to be experts in the virtual world?
This situation emphasises the dilemma of whether we, as artists, want to fit into the commercial and more profitable art world (and deal with these changes) or if we rather keep it small and try to find galleries or commissions that will let us keep doing the work within our own parameters.
The thing is, the sales these galleries produce are not exactly comfortable baseline material, and commission-based work means dealing with demanding clients that require a lot of time and patience. In reality, to navigate this intricate world without having to sell what makes us artists - our identity and our creativity - we must compromise.
With almost no guidance from art schools on how to deal with the actual ‘work = making money’ part of creating art, sometimes it seems like a labyrinth, where every turn increases the difficulty level. So, how can we understand the demanding roles we are being asked to play? Even if we do not want to get involved in these new trends, we have to if we want to prosper. Plus, there are ways you can protect yourself and increase sales.
Networking is a remarkable tool. Alongside producing, studio visits, gallery openings and art fairs should be a priority. Taking a portion of your time to talk to owners, researching events happening in your area and asking collectors to do a studio visit are a must.
When you are approaching a gallery, never send work before receiving a consignment agreement. This protects both parties and more importantly sets out the terms of sale - your payment for sold work, if you must pay for shipping, the photography/documentation process, and time for which the gallery will have exclusive access to sell the work. Therefore, be extra careful with the fine details.
How can we actually approach galleries, and even get representation? Simple: get the hanging fruit first. Go to local galleries accepting young artists and collaborate with other artists to get noticed more frequently. Nothing is too small if you take advantage of what it is on offer and take initiative. In fact, initiative is the biggest weapon an artist can hone, and little by little you will have the background and feedback to be able to get accepted in more prominent galleries.
Now it depends on you. What do you want to get out of these partnerships? Galleries are always looking for fresh talent but will take advantage if they can. It is a business transaction after all. Therefore, set the rules and you will get further than you could imagine.
It is pretty simple. You may have to sleep, eat and breathe art and the art world, but we are artists - we will do it regardless.