All art collectors aren’t millionaires – but they deserve to be valued

It is usually artists who are heard complaining that galleries are not working for their commission. It’s not great news when collectors are echoing their voice. Is complacency killing our art market?

During COVID-19 I bought a painting. It was by an artist who’s work I had long wanted to live with, so now seemed to make sense as a good time to support both the gallery sector and artists doing it tough.

But it wasn’t entirely the experience I thought it would be, or expected it should be.

I am no stranger to galleries, having worked in the sector for 25 years, and the director of a commercial gallery for five of those years. I bought my first art work back in the early 1990s.

So the lack of communication and follow through by the gallery was a big surprise for me, given I was nurtured into the business with the mantra, ‘Your client list is everything’.

Galleries take a standard 50% on the sale of an artwork – a fee that equates to the ‘business side’ of the relationship – admin, invoicing, exhibition costs, lights and rent, career promotion and yes, time on the phone and facilitating clients.

Read: Do galleries earn their commission?

When I purchased the artwork, prior to the exhibition’s officially opening, I did not receive an invitation to the event, or even a casual one to come and view the artwork over the show’s duration. Nor did I receive a copy of the show list, the e-catalogue, an artist statement or media release – basically anything that communicated the exhibition and artist’s comments on this body of work.

Despite paying for the work within days of invoicing, I received no receipt of the payment and had to chase the gallery to confirm that my payment was received.

And upon the exhibition’s completion, I was not contacted to notify me that the exhibition had closed and the work was packed and ready for shipping or collection – let alone an offer to assist in getting my new painting to me in travel-restricted COVID-times.

All collectors aren’t Rockefellers

While I recognise that I am not a Rockefeller, this experience has left that sour taste in my mouth which comes from a realisation. Maybe the commercial gallery sector is as ‘clubbish’ as it is often accused of being. I have fought against this line of commentary my entire career.

While this may have been an isolated case, and I should maybe reserve judgment, it does raise questions in our new contemporary environment for collecting art.

COVID-19 has made collecting art easier for many, as exhibitions and art fairs have moved online. But galleries put themselves in a perilous position if they do not facilitate those non-in-gallery contact points, and online sales, without the same level of service and professional respect as they would a collector who is known to them.

This is a knife-edge moment for many small businesses making transitions during the pandemic, and indeed fighting for their future stability. Service, more than ever, is key.

And finding the personal in the digital will be what separates those who will thrive and those who will falter through this contemporary shift.

The gallery owner I worked for in America some years back imparted a great wisdom: ‘There’s a big difference between someone liking a work of art and buying it. That difference is called selling.’

In this story, this particular gallery didn’t even have to ‘sell’. I was a sure thing. The least they could do was keep up their business side of the agreement and facilitate a new client for an artist. That would build a business, not just a one-off sale.

And, the scary question, how do artists really know whether their gallery is supporting them to clients, the media and beyond?

There is no room for complacency in our COVID-19 art world. While we may not recognise it, the art business is a service industry based on relationships and care. 

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina