Art on Consignment

Imagine you were planning a party.  Imagine you rented a hall for your party, paying the landlord the going rate for renting a hall of that size.  Imagine you then sent letters to every caterer in town, inviting them to send “submissions” for the meal, which read like this:

Please provide a list of menu items, with pictures in jpeg format, a list of ingredients for each item, and a brief chef’s statement about your work and a bio with relevant training and previous catered events listed.

And then imagine that you selected the menu items you thought might appeal to your guests and sent an acceptance to the successful caterers along with a contract like this:

You will deliver the menu items selected on the date of the party, ready to be served by 5:30 pm.  You will be responsible for all costs of transport and preparation of your menu item(s) and insurance if you choose to insure your utensils, etc.  You will be responsible to provide all serving dishes, trays, utensils as well as dishes, cutlery and tableclothes. I will provide tables (rented from a supplier of my choice).

If my guests choose to eat your menu item(s), I will receive payment from my guest(s) for the item(s) consumed.  All unconsumed menu items and all dishes, trays, etc. must be removed by midnight at your expense. Any food or equipment not removed by the deadline will be charged a daily storage fee.  Thirty (30) days after the party, I will issue you a cheque for 50% of the sale price of your menu item(s), retaining 50% as my commission on the sale.

Thank you for being a part of my party and it is such a pleasure to support the wonderful catering industry in our city!

I think we would all agree that no caterer would submit to such an arrangement.  It simply seems absurd to offer the product of your labour and training, the investment of your capital, on consignment.

And yet, this is the standard business model in the visual arts industry in most of the world.  A private gallery, a not-for-profit arts group or festival, a public gallery will host a show.  They will pay their directors or shareholders a salary or dividends or both. The will pay the caterer and the string quartet or guitarist for the opening reception. They will pay hall rental. They will pay the printer who prints posters and invitations.  But in almost every case, the artists whose works are on the walls and plinths, the producers of the products which are said to be at the heart of the whole event, will never see a penny unless their piece sells, and then they see 50% of the purchase price, if they’re lucky.

“But you benefit from the exposure.” I hear someone call from the back. Why don’t your directors, or the caterer, accept payment with exposure?

“Support” for the arts often is just treating art like an old frock on a rack in a consignment store

This business model is nothing other than exploitation.  No other industry today would tolerate such harsh exploitations of the producers of that industry’s product.  Recording artists get a royalty every time their song is played on the radio.  There are Equity pay scales in live theatre.  The only other industry I can think of which functions on the same model is the consignment used clothing store.  I don’t think a piece of art, the newly manufactured product of years of training and hard work, is equivalent to an old frock, no matter how gently used!  Even second-hand book shops don’t do consignment!

Thankfully, there is a campaign in Canada, led by Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadians(CARFAC) (Visual Arts Alberta/CARFAC[VAA] in Alberta) to standardize and press for artists’ fees to be paid for all exhibitions.  It is a difficult hill to climb.  VAA sets an example by putting the Association’s money were its collective mouth is, paying artists’ fees even for its fund-raising members’ exhibitions.  I must also mention Edmonton sculptor and art show organizer Pat Jacob, who made a point of purchasing outright some paintings from me for his gallery in Eastend, Saskatchewan.  Imagine that!  Buying a product wholesale and then selling it retail at an appropriate mark-up.  What a revolutionary business model!

I expect many working artists, particularly the young ones, don’t want to rock the boat: as well as their passion, their art is, to varying extents, their livelihood.  Rebelling against the status quo could well end their chances of being exhibited in some places.

But I’m an old guy.  I’ll survive even if I offend gallery owners and festival organizers and curators by asking  again:

You pay the caterer for stuff you give away! Why don’t you pay the artist something for the stuff you’re trying to sell, for the products that actually bring the customers into your place?

CARFAC phrases the question more simply:

“Has the artist been paid?”

Sadly, far more often than not, the caterer has been paid, paid even for the uneaten food in the bin out back of the gallery, but the artists get nothing except a brusque order to get their stuff off the walls and out the door. It’s closing time!

An Afterthought:

“But artists get government grants.” Someone else shouts out.

Yes, some artists get grants sometimes. Many never get a grant. Many never apply for one. Those artists who receive grants are, while the grant lasts, effectively government employees — civil servants. When grant-funded art goes into a gallery without an artist’s fee being paid, it’s a government subsidy of the gallery.

Update, August 29, 2014:  Today, Paddy Lamb, Alberta Representative on the Board of CARFAC posted  a positive and encouraging clarification to my Facebook page and he has agreed to it being reposted here.

I’m really glad you’ve written this John and I agree that it’s often an exploitative business model. However, I’d like to clarify something. Thanks to the efforts of CARFAC, who helped establish and maintain an artists’ fee schedule, most public galleries and artist run centres do pay the exhibiting artist(s) an exhibition fee. I suspect the reason that some don’t is because they are inadequately funded. Your point about “benefiting from exposure” is well taken. I’ve noticed a lot of this lately – not least from charitable, non-profit and fundraising organizations who should know better. A lot of people remain unaware of the inequities and artists have to educate. One way to do this is to join CARFAC. Whatever the method, artists have to become more vocal and less acquiescent about the present state of affairs.


Yes, things are improving for artists, in large part due to the hard work of CARFAC. 

Remember, artists: Join CARFAC, for the Union makes us strong!

7 comments on “Art on Consignment

  1. sydney says:

    Reblogged this on sydney lancaster: hand & eye and commented:
    I wanted to pass this on … another well-argued look at the whole constellation of issues around the fair payment of artists for their work. I’d love to hear comments, thoughts, ideas about these ideas … what do YOU think?

  2. I have been banging on about this for years – my other favourite is when cafes are ‘generous’ to offer you ‘free’ wall space!! More like free art for their walls!! But yes a new business model is definitely needed – and this article explains it really effectively…. 🙂 reblogging

  3. Reblogged this on Dawn Whitehand: Visual Artist and commented:
    I have been banging on about this for years – my other favourite is when cafes are ‘generous’ to offer you ‘free’ wall space!! More like free art for their walls!!

    YES it is time for a new business model within the artworld- and this article explains the issue extremely effectively through a great analogy.

    Artists also need to pay bills and put food on the table – in case nobody noticed the days of art patrons are long gone!!

    • Something I’ve been thinking of today is that often the not for profits and charities find corporate sponsors for the shows. So, money for the group, tax braeck and exposure for the corporation and, again, nothing to support the artists who are supposed to be the reason for the thing in the first place.

  4. nannus says:

    What will the role of these galleries be in the future? Is there a change?
    Could artists not get together to run their own galleries or shows?
    Does the position of the galleries get weaker because artists are starting to establish contacts to their customers more directly over the web?
    I am neither an artist nor a gallerist, so I don’t have any first-hand-experience of these problems.

    • It is changing, nannus. As more and more artists join CARFAC, we’ll have more an more power to demand appropriate treatment, just as Actors’ and Recording Artists’ Associations have set standards for their members. CARFAC already has a minimum fee schedule available here: As, Mr. Lamb mentions above, “most public galleries and artist run centres do pay the exhibiting artist(s) an exhibition fee.” As he says, the problem is strongest with not-for-profit and charitable organizations, and, I think, is most offensive in the case of such organizations who manage to get a corporate sponsor for their event, as I mentioned in a previous comment. These events are also ones which often exhibit young artists at the beginning of their career who may be more vulnerable to such exploitation.

      And, seriously, if a corporate sponsor is involved, there’s absolutely no excuse not to provide an artists’ fee.

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