Reliable evidence of the way living artists work with dealers to develop their careers has always been hard, if not impossible, to find. There is an understandable reluctance of both artists and art market professionals to speak or write publicly about their professional relationships, which by their very nature are intimate and commercially sensitive – and unique to the parties involved.

Art lawyers who have advised and assisted parties to negotiate or construct – possibly also draft – artist/dealer contracts, are bound by professional rules of conduct not to disclose to third parties their nature and terms and conditions; the same constraints apply to the tax and financial advisers of the minority of artists who have them.

After artists have died, such archival material as may pass to their estates can and sometimes does reveal documentary evidence of commercial dealings in which they have engaged during their lives. But access to it may be flatly denied by their successors or, if deposited with archival institutions, be restricted only to accredited research scholars. In any event, any such archive material would probably only be made available many decades after death. In that connection, there survives much reliable documentary evidence of the way artists and their patrons worked together throughout, say, the period of the Italian Renaissance – written commission contracts were evidently the norm, and the artisan’s guild system operated bureaucratically and maintained written records. Throughout the 17th century and the burgeoning of the art market in the Netherlands, good written records of art transactions were maintained, and document the establishment of numerous art businesses (that operated along lines not very far removed from today’s galleries and dealerships); such as the celebrated firm of Uylenburgh & Son, which successfully traded from around 1625 to 1675 dealing directly with artists from Rembrandt to De Lairesse.

How unusual and illuminating it was, therefore, to read a published interview recently given by one contemporary British artist, in which he candidly discussed and revealed new ways of working with the art market and its professionals (The Art Newspaper, December 2008): Keith Tyson. Until recent times, Tyson had followed the conventional route of establishing a professional relationship with at least one gallery/dealership, in London, to provide him with career development advice and pro-active support for the exposition and marketing of his works. Favourable responses from the art market had established his market profile, and this enabled him then to establish deals with additional galleries in Berlin, Milan, New York, and Paris. However, he has also recently developed novel ways of working, which closely resemble the ways other creative and performing artists have worked for many decades.

Actors, musicians, and dancers have customarily engaged professional managers and/or agents to run their business affairs, leaving them freer to devote their best energies to creative and/or performing work. The late 20th century saw the generation of vast and unprecedented sums of money for professional sports, whose star performers have in increasing numbers appointed their own personal managers and/or agents to run their business affairs. Tyson has now explained how and why he has done likewise.

Hogbens Dunphy is a long-established London-based independent firm of accountants and tax consultants providing ‘an integrated range of services. Our aim is to offer friendly, professional, caring, accountancy; business management; bookkeeping; financial services and personal taxation services’. They have recently developed a specialist service that ‘manages all aspects of [visual] artists careers and assists with business development including liaising with galleries’, which they have branded ‘Artist First Management’ (not to be confused with the London-based management agency that represents ‘a broad range of [media] presenters, sport professionals and specialists, and works closely with corporate, publishing and television production companies’, which is called ‘First Artist Management’).

It is unsurprising that Damien Hirst’s business manager, Frank Dunphy, is also the owner of Hogben Dunphy, which not only represents Tyson but other visual artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. In 2005 Dunphy handed over the leadership and management of the firm to Richard Wadhams whom Tyson has appointed as his professional adviser and agent: “I needed an independent person to distribute my work globally rather than having a centralised gallery which fed the other dealers.”

Tyson distinguishes his professional relationship with Wadham from Hirst’s with Dunphy:  “Damien’s model is very idiosyncratic: just because you take an agent does not mean that you want to do a big auction or that you are trying to shave a margin out of the galleries’ profits”. This comment refers to Hirst’s and Dunphy’s decision to consign a large number of new works for sale at Sotheby’s auction house in September 2008, rather than to Hirst’s known gallery/dealers White Cube and Gagosian – each of which apparently held (at that time) in stock a large number of similar Hirst works.  It is not publicly known whether Hirst was contractually obliged to pay his two representing galleries a share of his earnings from Sotheby’s auction.

Tyson also suggests a major benefit of having appointed a managing agent: “The fact that I have a lot of initial expenses means that galleries are not just show spaces, but also production houses, and it made sense to have someone manage that situation, so that I can concentrate on being creative”. For artists like Tyson working in many and varied non-traditional and often expensive mediums, material and production costs can be and often are high. Many galleries are willing to fund such costs, as an advance of money to be set against eventual sales (as has always happened, say, with record labels and recording artists). But such financial arrangements can be problematic for both parties, as Tyson notes: “Galleries will promise you the world in terms of production costs but it comes at the price of complete control. There’s a conflict of interest in having the people who retail your work being the same people that help you with production because they will try and own it”.  This is a valuable and important insight. There has been a longstanding, tried and tested rule for successful management of relationships between so-called ‘cultural industries’ (the commissioners, marketers, and retailers of new creative works) and their artists, namely: whilst the industries may (and usually do) maintain tight control over production costs, they should exercise little (if any) control over their creative artists.

As with Hirst’s unique auction at Sotheby’s London, only the most commercially successful artists are likely to have – and be able to afford – the opportunity of entering into direct engagements with art market professionals such as auction houses, commercial galleries, financial and personal tax advisers, personal managers and agents. Only a handful of artists have the bargaining power to do so, compared with the vast majority who fight the perennial battle for basic survival, exhibition, recognition, and some income earned from their works.

Nonetheless, commercially successful artists like Tyson have demonstrated not only praiseworthy business acumen and enterprise in their creation of novel ways of relating to the art market and its professionals, but also strong resolution and intent to retain or regain management of their own practices. The recent and serious reduction in the fortunes of the contemporary art market, flowing from the general global economic downturn and credit crunch, is bound to present new challenges to the hitherto strong bargaining power of art market professionals. It will be instructive to see how the relatively few commercially successful artists use their new-found bargaining strength in the coming straitened times.

© Henry Lydiate 2009



This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.