Why Do I Need a Contract? I’m an Artist

When Jackson Pollock signed his first contract with collector and dealer Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, he was able to quit his job decorating ties to concentrate on painting. That first contract paid him a stipend of $150 per month, with guaranteed sales of $2,700 annually (if there were less than $2,700 in sales, Guggenheim would be paid the difference in paintings). His second contract with her two years later raised the stipend to $300 per month and gave Guggenheim ownership of Pollock’s entire artistic output for the year with the exception of one painting that the artist could retain. The terms of those contracts might not satisfy artists nowadays, but it was beneficial to both Pollock and Guggenheim then, reflecting her trust in his talents and allowing him to work unencumbered by financial constraints. This was a true partnership.

Relationships are what bring artists and dealers together, and these relationships (artist-collector or dealer-collector) help to sell works of art. Artists and dealers often have both personal and professional relationships, but when dealing with the business end of things, both sides do need to be clear as to the nature of their interactions. How often and in what context will the artist’s work be displayed? What sales commission will be paid to the dealer? How soon will an artist be paid following a sale? Who pays for framing, shipping, advertising, insurance, catalogues? Is the dealer an exclusive agent for the artist? How long will this agreement be in effect? Tacit understandings and handshakes must give way to sometimes lengthy conversations and even legal contracts that detail how artist and dealer will work with one another.

A written contract does not solve any of the problems that may arise between an artist and a dealer, but it clarifies the nature of their relationship and possibly offers a mechanism by which disputes can be settled amicably. A good contract is dependent upon a sound understanding of the pertinent law and what both artist and dealer are looking to do. In the ever-insecure world of the arts, there are endless opportunities for tensions to arise between artists and dealers; part of those tensions result from the fact that each side needs the other (one to produce, the other to sell). That need should be the basis not of ongoing antagonism but of a partnership, enabling artists to grow creatively within the relationship and earn money from the sale of their work.

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