The Art of Business: Artist's Rep or Artist's Rip Off?

By day you create tedious corporate brochures and inane illustrations; by night you wonder if there is an artist representative somewhere who will recognize your talent and introduce you to A-list clients with bulging budgets and glamorous projects.

Hey, we’re all human, but before you spend hours chasing down an agent who will, take up to 25 percent of your earnings, first understand the rep game and determine if an artist’s rep is right for you.

The Rap on Reps
Why might you be interested in a rep? Great reps do help great artists get great work, and if these agents do their job well, they will lead a steady stream of top-dollar clients to your door. And since reps are ostensibly expert at the negotiating game, it just might be the case that your rep can boost your compensation by 25 percent, or more, over what you may have been able to negotiate on your own. If that’s the case, than the cost of the rep to you is zero, or better yet, a source of income.

However, a rep is not necessary for success. On the contrary, says veteran fiction and non-fiction illustrator David Niles.

“Of the thousands of truly successful illustrators and graphic artists in the professional field today, many of them have never used a rep at any time in their career,” says Niles.

Some graphic artists and illustrators look for a rep for the wrong reasons: Many artists find it difficult to face the realities of self-employment and dealing directly with clients. They are convinced that having a rep is the best way to shun these responsibilities.

And while it’s true that a rep can generate work for you while you are busy producing work for your clients, you have to weigh the income against the output.

“In many cases, an artist’s rep can be little more than a high-priced delivery service — picking up and delivering work. If that’s all you get, you are being taken to the cleaners for such menial services,” Niles says.

Other artists seek out reps because they’re really in search of that avuncular mentor, someone to turn to for encouragement and vision. Forget about it, says Niles.

“The best reps are not in the business of developing your career; rather, they are more interested in broadening your already strong career position," says Niles. "If you feel unsure of yourself in working directly for clients, and feel that if you get a rep, you won’t ever have to… then you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. A rep is not meant to fill the role of protector or therapist.”

Surprisingly, even with sky-high commissions, most reps are picky; they won’t take on someone without several years experience, a strong list of clients, and a portfolio that shines. Even if you’re good, an artist’s agent may reject you if they feel your work isn’t related to their particular market segment.

Finding the One
If you are still game, you’ll find that selecting a rep, like most things, is best done through word of mouth and personal recommendations.

“The truth of the matter is that there really aren’t enough reps to go around. And of those who are actively engaged in repping artists, a surprisingly low percentage of them are really good at what they do,” says Niles.

Your current clients are often in a good position to recommend a rep to you. After all, some of them, at least, do business with artist’s agents and know them very well.

Look at the artists a rep already promotes. If he has a strong reputation in the field, this can be a good sign as to his command of the market.

Once you get a rep, the work just begins. There must be a clear agreement on goals, and you need to be available and cooperatively involved. A good rep will put a lot of unpaid time into promoting you (one good reason rep’s are often understandably reluctant to take on an unproven artist).

“The curious thing about getting a rep is that one can never predict how well the two of you will work together until you begin. And only after establishing a relationship will you get the chance to see how well the two of you interact with day-to-day pressures. If possible, write a trial period into your agreement,” says Niles.

When it comes time to sign on the dotted line, make sure that any contract provides a release clause with which you agree completely. Finally, remember that you’re enlisting the services of a rep to do more than drop off jobs to your clients.

“If that’s all you get for your 25 percent, says Niles, “save yourself the money and use a cheap delivery service.”

Read more by Eric J. Adams.

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Posted on: October 18, 2004

5 Comments on The Art of Business: Artist's Rep or Artist's Rip Off?

  1. I found this article useful and clear. As a possible follow-up idea, in case it hasn’t already been done, how about an article dealing with the topic mentioned in this article: client relation, including such aspects as: how to manage, what to look out for, useful tools (contracts, pricing guides,etc.), expectations,? ..If such an article has been done, how about including a link to it. Thanks.

  2. I’m a recently retired, full-time, art rep and artist with more than twenty years experience selling art work to galleries, interior designers and architects. The art marketplace supported my family for all those years and the artists and customers I worked with were some of the finest, most talented folks one could meet. I’d like to “give back” some of what I learned to other artists. To do so, I’ve recorded a series of podcasts (talkcasts) FREE to anyone with an iPod, MP3 player or computer. Please listen and, perhaps, learn some tips to better market your art. Here’s how: http://www.salestipsforartists.com

  3. You make my 30 year career out to be nothing…just the type I dont want to have anything to do with….Diminishing our jobs as agents is unfounded….I have made many careers with happy talent.

  4. I am currently using a rep and I have only gotten one assignment. I chose a rep because I thought that I could break into the market quicker and I have tried to do it alone and was unsuccessful. I am now wondering what to do since this rep does not seem to be promoting my work. She has me on a limited representation contract so my work is only shown to a select list of clients. She told me that because I was new to the market that that was their proceedure to see how the relationship worked. I started with this agency last January upon recommendation from a former art director who had worked with this agent and I was so hopeful. The job that I did get was as she called it an art emergency. One of her artists sat on the job and did not do anything with it until the deadline was so close that you would blink and it would be past. So she called me since I had been persistant and wrote many emails asking if there was interest in my work. So I stepped up to the challenge and did some test sketches and and the client liked my style and I got the ok to work on this 12 page reader. I got the job done on time and followed all the instructions and revisions carefully. I waited 60 days to get paid. This job was completed in May 2009 and it is almost September and not even a nibble. I do not believe I would have gotten anything if it was not for this emegency. I am being told by family members to drop this agent and move on but I so not really know what a good period of time is before I should drop this agency.

    Jean

  5. because I was new to the market that that was their proceedure to see how the relationship worked. I started with this agency last January upon recommendation from a former art director who had worked with this agent and I was so hopeful. The job that I did get was as she called it an art emergency. One of her artists sat on the job and did not do anything with it until the deadline was so close that you would blink and it would be past. So she called me since I had been persistant and wrote many emails asking if there was interest in my work. So I stepped up to the challenge and did some test sketches and and the client liked my style and I got the ok to hello that lung

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