Art market news
Art market news
Art market news

Who gets what when artists and galleries split up?

When artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Marc Quinn sever ties with their galleries, it raises questions about assets, shows and production costs

by Cristina Ruiz  |  21 April 2016
Who gets what when artists and galleries split up?
Yayoi Kusama in her studio in Tokyo. © AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye
White Cube, the gallery that made its name promoting the work of the Young British Artists, has taken the unusual step of confirming that it severed ties with Marc Quinn, the first artist to collaborate with Jay Jopling, the gallery’s founder, nearly 30 years ago. A spokeswoman for White Cube told The Art Newspaper it had “terminated its relationship” with the artist in February, ending speculation that it was Quinn who chose to leave. The reasons for the split are not known. The spokeswoman declined to comment further and Quinn did not respond to emails.

When a long-term relationship comes to an end, what is the fallout? Who gets the unsold art? And what if the gallery has invested in the production of work that is still in its possession? We set out to answer these questions by canvassing nearly 40 gallerists, dealers, artists and other art-world professionals. Ten spoke to us and, of those, two agreed to be named in print.

Marc Quinn (above) at a 2015 exhibition at White Cube, before the gallery ended its representation of the artist. © David Levene / eyevine
“Nobody wants their disputes in the public domain,” says a senior art world source who has witnessed difficult breakups between artists and galleries. “When long-established relationships break down, it’s a bit like a divorce. There are lots of emotions flying around and you have to divide the assets. Generally speaking there isn’t a written contract, so the issues are typically: what does the gallery have in terms of inventory? What are the sales in progress and to what extent can the gallery close these sales? What costs of production have been invested? And who is entitled to what? What happens if the gallery has put money into a museum show that is two years’ away?”

Gift or advance?

The key issue is production costs, says another senior art world professional. “Artists treat production costs as a gift, galleries treat them as an advance. How do galleries get the money back if there is a breakup?” It is even worse when there is no written agreement. Multiple sources say that, for the most part, Quinn and other globally successful compatriots such as Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley finance the production of their own work so if they leave their galleries, the art goes with them unless they agree to leave it behind. Any written deal between top-tier artists and their gallery is likely to be skewed heavily in favour of the talent.

For younger artists, contracts with galleries are a rarity. “It’s particularly unlikely if the artist and dealer join forces when they’re both starting out, like Jopling and Quinn,” says a senior source in Berlin. “It’s comparable to students marrying; they wouldn’t sign a pre-nuptial agreement. But if people marry when they’re in their mid-40s and have successful careers and accumulated assets, they’re much more likely to.”

More generally, the sale of contemporary work is often regulated by one-off consignment agreements between artists and their dealers. This “is a standard tool all dealers should be using with all their artists that resolves these issues soundly. The terms of this agreement should cover clearly how long each work is on consignment—that is, how long the gallery has to sell the work before the consignment ends or is extended by both parties,” says the New York dealer Edward Winkelman.

Kusama wanted work back

“For a sale in progress it can be more tricky,” he adds, “particularly if the sale doesn’t conclude before the consignment expires, but unless there is bad blood between the artist and dealer, and there’s reason to believe the sale will go through within a reasonable amount of time, an extension of the consignment for that particular work is generally easy to secure and generally good for the artist, if not necessarily their next dealer.”

Even with a consignment deal in place, things can still go wrong. When Yayoi Kusama left Gagosian Gallery in 2012, she asked for all her work to be returned to her within a month. It took nearly a year, according to a source close to the artist, because the gallery was trying to recoup its costs by selling as much of its [Kusama] stock as possible. “Our arrangement with Ota Fine Arts [Kusama’s Tokyo gallery] was that we would return all remaining inventory at the end of our final consignment agreement. Ends and separations are never easy, but nevertheless we wish Yayoi Kusama and her team all the very best, as always,” Gagosian Gallery said in a statement.

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