Artist-dealer relationships are rarely discussed in public—unless things go horribly wrong. It was therefore refreshing to hear the artist Alvaro Barrington and Sadie Coles, one of the five gallerists that he currently works with, speaking frankly and publicly about how they do business together. The occasion was a Zoom panel on artists' legal rights and gallery representation, organised last Thursday by Brixton’s Block 336 Gallery and chaired by the art and intellectual property lawyer and Block 336 Trustee Jon Sharples, along with Fionnuala Rogers, founder and director of Canvas Art Law.
According to Coles there has been a significant shift in the power balance between artists and their dealers since she opened her gallery nearly 25 years ago. “The language around representation is really changing,” she said. “I don't feel like somebody is my artist in the way that I might have in 1997. That sense of a gallery's ownership is not really appropriate anymore. The old hierarchies are becoming irrelevant.”
Despite running one of the contemporary art world’s most important galleries, Coles was surprisingly humble, declaring herself to have "less power” and emphasising that it is the artists who are increasingly calling the shots. “I actually feel grateful that anyone shows with me because they've got so much choice now, which was very, very different when I opened,” she said. Yet she also feels positive about this shaking up of the old status quo. “I think that it's a very, very good time to rethink what we've been doing and what we think is the right way to do things, because everything is shifting. And personally, I find that really exciting.”
So what has caused this change? Sadie Coles HQ currently represents 49 artists and three artist’s estates and she considers the expansion of her artist roster has been a key factor in creating this new climate. “Galleries like mine have gone from representing ten or 12 artists to representing 50—and this old idea that you would represent a small community of artists who were all connected has dissipated,” she said. “In 1997 everyone in my gallery knew each other and was much more connected, whereas the artists I work with now are very conscious of the context of showing with me and the larger group, but it’s a different dynamic.”
Alvaro Barrington epitomises this new dynamic. He graduated from the Slade in 2017 and now features on the artist lists of Thaddeus Ropac, Blum & Poe, Corvi Mora and Emalin galleries as well as Sadie Coles HQ. Barrington regards each of his gallerists as a kindred spirit. “You gravitate to the people who love the same things in your energy wave and who are in that zone,” he said, revealing that he avoids conflict by regarding each of his galleries as a specific context in which to show separate bodies of work as they unfold. “Each of these dealers saw there were all these different ideas in the work and that I could keep pushing those ideas on for long time,” he said. “There isn't any kind of jealousy in that situation, because they know that the works are so different.”
This prolific vision chimes with Coles who praised Barrington’s “multi-tentacular” approach. “Giving us all very distinct bodies of work that are all appropriate to their place and their contexts works brilliantly because we don’t all fight over the same thing,” she said.
She is also unbothered by his multiple gallery representations. “I don’t actually believe in rules—you can have seven or eight dealers, if that suits you.”
They may be challenging the rules but Barrington and Coles were both adamant in citing trust as the crucial cornerstone of any gallery-artist relationship. “We all started from an idea of trust and then moved forward with that trust” was how Barrington summed up his dealings with his dealers, while Coles made the surprising revelation that she has no contracts with any of her artists. “Obviously, we make contracts for artists for commissions, or museum shows, or specific projects, but I've never actually had a contract with an artist, ever.”
For Coles the relationship between gallery and artist is “like a marriage, except that you don't get married”. And she adds: “The worst bit about marriage is actually the divorce. If I had a contract with someone and they wanted to leave the gallery, that's when it gets really unhappy and messy. If someone wants to leave, I’d rather they just leave—I'm not really interested in binding them through any legal agreement.” Barrington agreed with this analogy: “I think of galleries and their artists as being like a couple. And generally, if a person is going to cheat or do whatever, that's because their communication hasn't necessarily worked out. What needs to happen is for the artists and the dealers that they work with to have a real relationship where there's trust, there's love and there's respect.”
Another key factor is communication, with Coles emphasising that “as long as things are transparent and clear, you will have a relationship without conflict”. Instead of drawing up a legally binding agreement, before an artist joins her gallery she described how there will be detailed discussions—“almost like a code of conduct”—to define precisely what each side expects from the arrangement. These range from the size of gallery commissions to the terms of consignment and exactly what expenses or proportion of production costs the gallery will cover as part of their percentage. All of this would be subject to adjustment as an artist’s career progresses. “If an artist becomes enormously successful, and the prices become very, very high, you renegotiate their commission rate because there's much more value in the works. And that's absolutely normal,” she said.
This transparency especially applies to all financial dealings. Here Coles was especially forthright: “The moment the money comes in, you pay the artist their share. This is not your money!” she stated. To underline this point she issued a rallying cry for all gallerists to set up a separate escrow bank account to ensure that an artist’s share of funds from sales were kept separate from gallery finances. “It’s such a brilliant idea,” she enthused, “we all need to get our organisations to lobby for this to become standard practise!”
In her parting salvo to artists, Coles reiterated her overall view that now more than ever the dealer should serve the artist, rather than vice-versa. “It’s your work and you can say and do what you want. Be very, very clear and transparent, and work out an agreement between you and the person who represents you. It's your work, and someone like me wants it. So I will probably agree to your terms.” Barrington agrees: “Artists just have to follow their own truths and find the dealer who champions those truths and understands them.” No mean feat on both sides, but the success of these two in forging a strong yet flexible bond offers encouragement to others to do likewise. Artists and dealers take note: the times they are a-changin’.