Professional Artist: The Art of Getting Paid
By: Dean Kaplan, CEO and President, The Kaplan Group
Whether you’re an artist, a gallery owner, a dealer or a buyer, you have something in common in addition to your love of art. You want to be paid for your time and effort. No one ever wants “starving artist” to be taken literally.
Unfortunately, unpaid bills are as much a problem in the art world as in any other business. In fact, unpaid bills may be more of an issue for artists, dealers and gallery owners as many people consider art a luxury, not a necessity.
When faced with a stack of bills, many people will put art at the bottom of the pile. If you want to treat art as a business, you need to know how to make sure your clients pay their bills.
Research Your Clients
A doctor just commissioned a landscape for his waiting room? That’s great. An interior designer would like to set up an account and purchase items for clients? Fantastic. A mysterious stranger wants you to paint a portrait that looks just like him so he can hang it above his fireplace? Maybe slow down a little.
It’s natural to be excited by a new client, especially if that client looks like they’ll be an ongoing interest. However, that excitement might lead you to overlook some key facts about the client.
As a gallery or dealer, it’s important that you have any new client fill out a credit application and that you run a credit report. A good credit application and report can help you avoid clients who won’t pay their bills.
For independent artists a credit application might seem like overkill (although many credit reports are inexpensive enough that you could afford to run one). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t research your clients. Even simple internet research confirming business names and phone numbers can help weed out con artists.
Don’t be swayed against doing research just because you know the person, we’re recommended by others or recognize their name. Many people depend on seeming wealthier than they are to get away with cheating others.
Deposits and Contracts
An independent artist should never begin a commission without a deposit and a contract. A good contract includes clear definitions of the responsibilities of both parties and a timeline for any deliverables including your work, timeline and payment requirements.
For galleries or dealers loaning works of art to prospective buyers, you’ll want to make sure your contract covers issues such as delivery, return and any damage done to the work while out of your possession.
Make Payment Easy
There are so many ways to exchange money today that no business should rely solely on being paid in cash or check. Make it easy for clients to pay you electronically, by credit card or by third-party sources like Venmo, Zelle or PayPal. If you have a website, having a secure payment portal will help those who want to pay quickly and eliminate excuses from clients who are stalling.
Avoid collecting any processing fees you may have to pay for electronic or credit card payments. The amount is usually small, especially when compared to the trouble you’ll go through trying to collect on a bill.
Don’t forget that in the business world, to get paid, you need to send an invoice. Bad record-keeping and sloppy invoicing confuse both you and the client and make it hard for you to get paid. If, as an artist, you don’t feel like you can handle the accounting side of the business, consider hiring a business manager, accountant or investing in good software that will take care of billing for you.
Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for your payment, even if it is only a day late. We recommend a phone call, followed by an email so that you have both a personal touch and a paper trail. If you allow people to pay you late, they’ll learn that it’s OK to pay you late.
It happens to every business owner at some point. No matter how beautiful your work, how careful your research, how well written your contracts, how modern your gallery – at some point someone won’t pay you.
When this happens, it’s important that you act on it as quickly as possible. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to be paid. This is especially true if you have a client on the verge of bankruptcy or other financial problems. Rather than continue to call and email a client, consider hiring a collection agency.
A reputable collection agency will only charge you if they are able to collect. So, while it’s true that you will not get the full amount owed, you will save yourself time and effort, and likely receive more than you would have on your own.
Whatever you do, don’t be impulsive and use social media to shame those who don’t pay. This is never a good idea. The artworld is small and you risk hurting your reputation by taking to social media. Even more importantly, you risk legal action. A trained collection agent can handle the matter professionally and quietly, preserving your brand name.
For many people, making a living creating or handling art is a dream come true. But, making the transition from artist to business person can be difficult and confusing. If you want to treat your art as a business, it’s important that, like any other business, you ensure that you will be paid.
Dean Kaplan is president of The Kaplan Group, a commercial collection agency specializing in large claims and international transactions. He has 35 years of manufacturing, international business leadership and customer service experience. Today, he provides business planning, training and consultation to a variety of global companies.