Read This Before You Negotiate

by Carolyn Edlund

Selling some artwork? Soliciting a commission? Looking for representation? Know before you go.



Shaking Hands


I’ve talked with many artists who are searching for opportunities to grow their businesses, and I certainly encourage that. It’s smart to find ways to leverage your business, increase exposure and partner up to make more money.

Perhaps you’ve identified a large potential commission. Or, someone wants to represent you. Or, you’ve been approached by a dealer or other party who wants to do business. Are you confident that you are ready to sit down and strike an agreement?

A caveat: Before you walk into any negotiation, or even a conversation about a business deal, do your research and plan ahead. I cringe to think of some of the situations I’ve heard about where major mistakes are made that could have been avoided.

Before you negotiate, know the following:

Who is the decision maker? Are you talking with the person who has the authority to negotiate and seal the deal? Or do they have a partner or boss they must defer to? Don’t even bother trying to negotiate with someone who doesn’t have the power to say yes.

What do you want? You might have a general idea of the conversation you will have, but consider carefully what you will get out of the contract you are about to make. What is reasonable? What is the best scenario you can imagine? Don’t sell yourself short, or underprice your art, or your time. A good agreement works well for all parties. So, what do you really want to get out of this? Everything’s negotiable. Have an idea of what you will ask for; you might strike a better deal than you ever imagined.

What do they need? This is crucial. I can’t tell you how many times artists with potential deals have gotten excited about a negotiation without ever knowing what the other party needs to hear, and what they need to know before they sign off. Put yourself in their shoes, and understand their point of view before you negotiate, or you could lose the opportunity without ever knowing why. What are the benefits to them? What questions will they have? Be ready to walk in with the answers.

What is your bottom line? Know where you can and cannot go, and what your limits are. If you give away the ranch in your negotiations because you are over-eager to work with somebody, you could end up losing your shirt. This is very, very bad for profitability and business in general.

What are you willing to give? Walk into any negotiation with a few things on your list that you are willing to give up. Build these into your proposal knowing ahead of time that they are bargaining chips for you. Will you give a 10% discount to a customer who is buying more than one piece of art? Are you willing to pay for shipping? (If so, you had better know the cost ahead of time, so do your research.) Get very clear up front on your costs, your bottom line price, and the wiggle room that you have built in. And, remember: When you give something, get something.

Get it in writing. Verbal agreements are worth the paper they’re written on, and they won’t hold up in court. I’ve seen dealers and artists doing business without a written agreement, and have been amazed when nobody has gotten stung yet, because it’s just a matter of time. You don’t have to hand over a long contract written in unintelligible legalese, but you need to negotiate terms that make sense for everyone, and get your final contract signed by all parties. This protects everyone. It spells out each person’s responsibilities, and what will happen in the event that things go wrong. Here’s where a good attorney can save you tons of aggravation and money.

Know when to walk away. Maybe this opportunity sounded too good to be true, and maybe it was. No matter how badly you want to make the sale, or pursue a lead, if it doesn’t really work for you, don’t do it. When you are desperate to make the sale, you can get yourself into real trouble. Scammers prey on artists who are so excited to sell their work that they ignore red flags. Don’t let that happen to you.


What else do you do to prepare to negotiate a sale, commission or agreement? Have you learned the hard way?


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  1. Article saved to my permanent ArtsyShark file!

  2. Hi James Thatcher!

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