Agent or No Agent? What's Best for Your Artistic Career
Do artists need an agent to be successful?
As a happily independent artist, I don't think that artists *necessarily* need agency representation. In fact I’ve had some pretty terrible luck with agents in the past. But that doesn’t mean I’m totally against artists being represented.
Depending on where you are in your career, the sort of work you're trying to do, and the overall quality of the agency, getting an agent may be the right move for you.
But before you sign that contract, you do need to consider a few things.
What does an art agent do?
An art agent’s job is to represent you and help you promote and sell your work. This includes selling your pieces to collectors or handling licensing, as well as landing you commissions, publishing deals, or opportunities to speak or teach.
The pros of having an art agent
Agents are *supposed* to have more connects with brands, collectors, interior designers, event organizers, journalists, and other people or organizations that may be interested in your work. Ideally the right agencies are going to be able to open doors for you that you couldn’t get through on your own.
An agent should be able to take care of the business side of things – such as finances, contracts, negotiations, client relationship management, and communication – while you get to focus on simply making art.
If you're one of the lucky few with a *really* good agent who is deeply invested in all aspects of your art career (not just the transactional commissions) you’ll have a consistent support system and a team that is willing to fight for you, grow with you, and seek bespoke opportunities for your work.
The cons of having an art agent
All these pros come at a cost, of course and it’s important to know that there’s always a risk with signing a bad deal. Not all agents are good agents and when assessing an offer from an agency it’s important to weigh the pros out with the cons.
In the commercial illustration world, many agents could request anywhere from 20% – 35% of your commissions. And some extra predatory ones may even require a high percentage of your royalties from books and residuals.
Commercial art agents have two clients: you and the brand they are trying to sell your art to.
A lot of agencies may claim in their marketing that they are very artist-focused but it’s super important that you understand how their business makes money.
Agents with a nice client roster want to maintain a good working relationship with the brands and publications they work with. And while that makes total sense, some go too far in that pursuit. Remember, they work for you, not the other way around so here are a few red flags to look out for:
- The agent consistently offers low paying commissions with high volumes of work (3 figure deals)
- The agent is reluctant to negotiate on your behalf when you ask for more
- The agent is okay with selling your work "in perpetuity" (forever!) without a major pay day.
- The agent won't share the final client contract with you. (Always get the contract for every project because this is how money is stolen.)
Too Many Artists
The best agencies have a selective roster of artists whose styles are dissimilar, but quality of work in line with the same caliber of clients.
If you’re working with a large agency that represents dozens, or even hundreds of artists with a bunch of random styles you might not be getting the support you want.
Agencies who have an unclear theme in who they choose to represent, are in the business of acquiring artists, but not always utilizing, developing or seeking relevant work for them. To top it all off, these agencies might not be as motivated to negotiate the best deals for you because their bottom line is padded by the 50 or more other underpaid artists on their roster!
This one is huge. Sometimes agents include small clauses in contracts that bind you to them, even if your partnership doesn't work out. With the way the creator economy has evolved and the power that artists have to promote themselves, these standards seem very out of date and out of place with the way the industry works now. Here are some examples from my own bad agency deal and those of some of my contemporaries of clauses that you should absolutely negotiate out of your contract:
- Royalty Cuts: An agency insists on receiving royalties for books or residual projects you’ve worked on in perpetuity (again, forever!)
- Forced Exclusivity: An agency forces you to bring them onto any deal you take on, even if they didn’t acquire it for you.
- Unrealistic “Cool-off” Periods: An agency blocks you from seeking new representations for 6 months after leaving their agency. Or they try to block you from working with particular clients without their permission even after terminating the contract.
- Percentage Penalties: If you leave the agency, they try to enact an increase in their percentage cut for remaining projects. (.ie from 20% cut per project to 40% cut per project for a certain time period.)
So, do you need an agent to be successful as an artist? Of course not! In fact, I would highly recommend representing yourself first. But if you do decide to go down that road of seeking traditional representation, be sure to do lots of vetting before signing anything.
When seeking an art agent, you need to be alert, aware, and equipped with knowledge and strategies that will help you protect your work and make the best decision for your creative career.