Sales agents, artists’ agents, licensing agents… do they make money for artists and suppliers, or are they an unnecessary overhead?
The short answer is that good agents are to be treasured and bad ones can greatly damage an artist’s reputation. Once again, knowledge is power, and you can protect yourself by thoroughly researching both the overall marketplace for agents and the specific agent with whom you are thinking of working.
Artists tend to see agents as people who will save them trouble and, almost too good to be true, make them more money. Galleries and publishers often see agents as an unnecessary complication to their relationship with an artist. In reality, both views are a little simplistic.
There are fewer agents now than there were 20 years ago: it is not an easy way to make a living. Being an intermediary between artist and gallery or publisher is not exactly stress-free, and as competition increases so the margins decrease. Nowadays, there is not enough profit in the average sale or licensing deal, and sales are not frequent enough, to allow for percentages for artist, agent and a third party. It is now more common to see a gallery owner also acting as agent for their own artist, or, very often, the agent is a member of the artist’s own family prepared to work on less favourable terms.
Contacts and negotiation
A good agent can save an artist time, will have contacts not accessible to most artists, and should have the skills to negotiate better financial deals. Busy agents also tend to represent a range of artists, so they may have a better chance of being seen by potential customers than the artists themselves.
Some artists hate selling their own work, which may be very personal in nature, so they prefer to take on an agent with practised sales skills who will be able to negotiate on a more objective basis.
Some artists and manufacturers do not use agents at all, preferring to reach customers through trade shows, the Internet and advertising. Others would feel vulnerable if their relations with customers were all conducted through a third party and they knew nothing about the marketplace; they fear that their income would collapse if the agent dropped them, or feel that they need direct feedback from the marketplace to help them develop their work.
An artist who becomes too removed from the art-buying public may worry about being able to respond quickly enough to changes in taste and demand.
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