I am currently doing a stint at a local art gallery in Singapore, and one of the projects I am working on is a new exhibition in the gallery space. It is all very exciting, but it has in some ways removed my rose-tinted glasses about working with artists.
Talking to artists and working with them in an art business framework can be challenging due to the diverse works and needs of each artist. To put together a successful exhibition, a strong and clear art business framework is required. Between galleries and artists, this takes the form of a consignment agreement.
When an artist consigns a work to a gallery, he or she transfers the work to the gallery’s possession but retains legal title to the work. Usually, the terms specify a period for this consignment (perhaps exhibition dates). They also specify that the consignment is for the purpose of sale of the work.
Agreements on average (and as a concept) are marginally more complex in the art industry; the history of the Western art market relying on the gentleman’s handshake is well-documented. Check out Titia Hulst, A History of the Western Art Market: A Sourcebook of Writings on Artists, Dealers, and Markets for more on the topic. You might think a gentleman’s handshake is less complex in practice than a document filled with legal jargon. But in reality, the art industry is riddled with the complications that can arise from relying on a handshake or similar inadequate methods of reaching an agreement about a complex project.
The focus of this critical observation is large cities where the art market as we know it today is better established. However, it may now be more of an observation of the art market of the past. As the market matures, technical aspects like the consignment agreement become more sophisticated and at the forefront of market activity. Younger cities that aspire to be players in the global art market ecosystem would benefit from paying attention to details of such agreements and steering clear of the laissez-faire practices that the art world has been notorious for.
Ultimately, as shared by my boss, the idea is that the consignment agreement should provide a framework for the entire business relationship. Will it will remain highly individualised and tailored to each project, or veer towards a ‘standard format’ of terms and conditions as the size of the art market and its transparency changes? We may need many more years of observational data before we can find the answer.