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Consignment Contract Closed - What shall I do?

Dear Ask Harriete,

I've had a consignment relationship with a gallery in my hometown for three years. My work has been selling regularly (about one piece a month) and occasionally I get commissions through them.  Our current contract goes to January 2008.  Yesterday, I got a curt phone call from the gallery manager informing me that the owner of the gallery has decided that she detests my work and wants it out of her store yesterday.  But we have a contract! What should I do? The whole thing has me very upset.
- Confused & Hurt

Dear Confused and Hurt,
Prepare yourself to move on and look to the future. Yes, the gallery owner should honor the remainder of the contract.  Alternatively, after communicating her new opinion to you, the gallery should have “offered” to let you agree to terminate the contract early if both parties mutually agree to terminate.  However, in this case, even if you had the will or means to legally force the gallery to continue representing your work until January, do you really want this gallery to represent your work further?   If your work is displayed at all, it would be in the least desirable location, perhaps in a bottom drawer in a dark corner.  Trying to enforce the contract for only three months can only create additional ill will.

Most importantly, how do YOU want to be viewed in the art community?  The gallery owner has behaved poorly.  Therefore, I think your best course of action is to put on your professional and most pleasant “face.”  Reply immediately with your preference for return shipping (for example USPS, registered, insured mail) and say something to the effect that you “have enjoyed working with the gallery and feel that it has been a productive relationship.”  Keep on the best terms possible.  You might also thank them for representing your work for so many years and that sometime in the future, when you have a new body of work, you will contact them with images of your new line.  With this most positive and professional reply, perhaps next time they host a group show, they might consider including your work if it is appropriate to the theme.

When you receive the returned work, unpack and check the condition of the work within three days or less.  If everything is returned in good condition, follow up with a letter or email saying that the work arrived safely and in good condition and that you will look forward to working with them in the future.

Your reputation as a professional is important. Artists and galleries do talk among themselves.  Your demeanor in this difficult situation will hopefully show other galleries that you work as a professional and a new gallery will want to represent you soon.

Contracts only help to organize an ongoing business relationship.  If the relationship is finished, then the contract does little to revive it.  The real value of a contract is to convey the initial intentions of both parties – to itemize mutual agreement on specific items and to guide preferences for handling most potential situations (such as early termination of the contract or subsequent modifications to the contract).  As business relationships change,  expect that contracts should be modified or terminated accordingly. 
Harriete Estel Berman

This post was updated on December 17, 2021