The Artful Collector: Handling Difficult People Part 1: The Artist (or) Why I Couldn’t Be Your Agent

Let’s say, for the sake of this posting, that our corner of the collecting world consists of two groups: The Creators and The Collectors.  Which group, do you think, has the monopoly on “crazy”?  I’ll get to picky, obsessive and demanding collectors next week: for now, I want to deal with Artists – the group that creates the stuff that we collectors have to have. 

Yes, I’m including myself in that category because for more than 20 years now, I’ve continued to wear the “collector’s hat,” in addition to wearing two others;  agent, and dealer.  And each role, as it turns out, requires me to deal with what you might call “difficult people” – or in today’s idiom “High Maintenance”  🙂  I’m talking here about unstable, needy, sometimes borderline neurotic individuals who create the art I buy and sell, and who buy it from me, or sell it to me.  And who have the power to drive me – and each other – nuts.

Sure, there are reasons why artists fire their agents.  Sometimes they’re just not needed any more.   And sure, the fact that artists might perceive me as being just as “difficult”  – –  isn’t lost on me. 🙂   But beyond the death of an artist (it happens) or career changes that make it infeasible or unnecessary to have me (or anyone) selling an artist’s original art…..there are times when an agent fires the artist.  Because the reasons tend to be embarrassing for the artist, I am not the kind of agent who will disclose those reasons unless it’s absolutely vital (ie., damage my own reputation).  So when a collector innocently asks “didn’t you use to represent xxxx” or “how come you don’t rep yyyy anymore?” I’m not likely to spill the complete beans.  But here we are, and I figured this could be an ideal way to “share” my peeves – with the suspects remaining anonymous.

For a long time I thought dealing with difficult people was just part of the job. Something I had to put up with, because, well, it’s SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY and HORROR ART, dummy!  Not paintings of bowls of fruit and flowers, or Parisian street scenes, or flocks of ducks flying over Chesapeake Bay.  We’re talking unconventional, even weird art, so maybe it’s gonna attract its share of even weirder (than usual) creative types to create it.  As it turned out, and fortunately (for me) the number of such people was relatively small.  Mainly because commercial artists earn a living by painting, and you can’t do (get jobs, and satisfy art directors, and keep to deadlines) by being a loony tunes.  But at the same time, the few that I came across, were enough for me to say . . . aaagghhhhh!!!!

CREATIVE TYPES.  I could write a book about them, and others already have.  But nothing other than tolerance, love of their art, and yes – a brief time spent as a psych major –  prepared me for the job.  Let’s start with illustrators, SF/F artists to be specific.  I loved’em.  I loved what they do.  So-called fine-art galleries wouldn’t handle that kind of art, and museums weren’t showing it – and that still largely describes the scene, today.  The art needed exposure.  And the artists needed a way to connect with, and have access to, potential buyers.  I saw the need, and stepped into the line of fire, so to speak.  In my innocence, I thought I could confine my representation to just those artists whose work I knew, and admired…whether I knew them personally, or not.  I figured I could get to know others…if I had something of value to offer.   What I didn’t anticipate was how rough it would be to represent even those artists I knew…

Patience?  I am not known for it.  Pragmatic?  That’s my hallmark.  That’s why, over the years, I have essentially “honed” my reasons for why I have parted ways from, or have felt compelled to decline representation of, some artists.  It’s easy for me to list the ones who DO NOT fall into this group.  There are artists whom I began representing in 1991 that I still represent – or would be, if they were still alive.  I’m not saying they weren’t eccentric, or that there werent “Issues” from time to time . . . I’m saying there are artists who have eccentricies (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call them that) I could live with.   Or even strike me as amusing.  The artist Richard Powers comes to mind.   Others, let’s just say, who have come and gone, were not so amusing.

So here goes:  a list of things artists do, demand or expect from me that makes them “high maintenance.”  Difficult people

Bet you'll recognize this examplar of the "High Maintenance" type - Fortunately rare among SF/F artists!
Bet you’ll recognize this examplar of the “High Maintenance” type – Fortunately rare among SF/F artists!

are not just difficult in psychological ways…they are just incredibly demanding in ways that makes me say: Life is too short to spend it this way!

10 Reasons Why I couldn’t be your art agent:

1. You tell me a work is for sale and what you need for for, if I sell it.  I advertise it in my catalog.  You call me 2 months after the catalog comes out and tell me you aren’t satisfied with the price, or that you’ve changed your mind, and it’s not for sale.  Sometimes even after I’ve sold it!  [so I had to cancel the sale, give the money back . . . ]

2. No matter how many paintings I sell for you, you are depressed every time I give you the good news that another one has sold.  Even though YOU are the one who set the prices, “after the fact” you moan that you should never have done it, it was one of your favorites, you asked for too little.  No matter what you get for it, it’s “seller’s remorse”

3.  You are perennially clueless when I ask “how much do you want?” for this or that piece – independent of whether your art has established market value.  Whether you’re a professional who has never sold your art before, or an artist who just can’t wrap their mind around the concept of having to set prices for what you want to sell – If you don’t know the value, and don’t trust me to set it so that it gets sold, where can the relationship go, but nowhere?

4. You readily admit to not knowing the difference between wholesale and retail (and like being ignorant that way).  You believe artists need to stay away from all that business stuff and discussions of money, because it will contaminate your mind.  This gets very tiresome.  I can draw a palm tree.  You should be able to compute my commission.

5. Speaking of $, you think I’m a magician and can get more for your art than you have when selling to collectors.  That’s probably because you don’t realize that marketing (advertising and selling) takes time, money and expertise – and someone has to do it.  You’ve just been paying yourself for doing that work before I came along without knowing it – because that work is always reflected in the market price, no matter who does the work (see wholesale/retail above).  If you don’t “get that,” I can’t represent you.

6. You only want me to sell works you don’t care about, or are hard to sell  i.e., inferior, secondary, old or atypical.  If you keep all the “good stuff” off the table because it’s easy to sell, and you can do it without giving me my commission….you can forget about me wanting to represent you.  I catch on to that game, pretty quickly.

7. You need the income from sales of your originals as income to live on…vs. viewing those sales as “added income’ to your main job as commercial artist.  So you call me every other day, begging me to get you a sale or . . .  make private sales without telling me.  If you need the money, and you’ll end up with what you would have gotten anyway, after I take my commission, you’ll go around me and take the offer.   I can’t be competing with you for sales.  You’ll win every time.

8.  You don’t have a reputation in the sf/f field and don’t care about building one. You view yourself foremost as a commercial artist and will take any job in any market, and look at the art as “just another job.”  As a result, you’ll use your art for barter, valuing it as it conveniences you, even when you know it has a known street value (and trade with other artists irrespective of differentials in market value) Your indifference makes it very difficult for ME or potential buyers to care – because collectors like to think the artist LOVES and VALUES what they’re creating.

9.  I represent a relatively long term commitment.  If you’re planning to drop out and go into another line of work, or will soon make life-changing decisons (divorce, marriage, disease) I need to know.  I can’t represent Artists who keep big secrets that will affect our relationship, and who then spring them on me, time after time.

10. You value your works by unpredictable measures and irrationally…. emotionally, with sentimental attachment to some leading to high prices unrelated to quality or market comparables, or because (you believe) they are never-to-be-duplicated masterworks (“a genius in your own mind”)  You think because your art is just as good as (for example, a Hugo award winner’s) – which it might be – that it can (or should) command the same price (!)  I can understand one or two valued that way, and then I say “keep them”.  When those sentiments perpetually interfere with being able to offer your art at reasonable prices, I can’t help you.


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