Why Artists Should Avoid Gallery Representation

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Guest blogger: Alyson B. Stanfield, Art Biz Blog

Galleries have a lot of other artists in their stables.

You are not the only artist that the gallery is looking after. It is also nurturing the careers of many other artists.

It is rare that a gallery can tell an artist (honestly), “You are my #1 priority.”

On the other hand, you should always be your #1 priority.

You are your best salesperson.

Nobody cares about your success more than you. Nobody knows your art better than you.

Even if you find a gallery where your work will fit, you still have to sell yourself to the gallery. You could be spending this energy selling your work directly to interested buyers.

You still have to do a lot of self-promotion.

Contrary to popular opinion, galleries do not do all of the work for artists. You are expected to promote your art at the gallery as if it were your own space.

If the gallery’s commission is 50%, it’s hard to motivate yourself to do a lot of work for them.

Galleries usually earn 50% of the sale.

Notice that I didn’t say they “take” 50% of the sale. If a gallerist is doing his or her job, they are earning the commission. Moreover, galleries have high overhead costs that help them justify this high percentage.

Still, 50% is 50%. And sometimes it stings. If you can sell your art and keep 100% of the profits, do it!

Galleries are hopelessly behind the times with their marketing.

In the art world as a whole, galleries have been the slowest to adapt to a changing economy. They were slow to embrace email and have been much slower with social media.

If they aren’t careful, they may become the Blockbuster or Borders of the art world.

Heads Up!

Any of the following six situations could be a red flag when looking at gallery representation.

1. New galleries without an established list or connections.

This wouldn’t necessarily break a deal, but you do need to be cautious of gallerists who haven’t been in business. Ask a lot of questions and know what you’re getting into.

2. Bad location.

Locations without parking or mass transit access can mean the death of a gallery. Or they can mean nothing. If a gallerist has great connections, location might not matter as much.

3. Clueless people on the sales floor.

Do all salespeople understand how to talk to clients and close a sale? Do all salespeople know the artists and the selling points of each? If not, they have little business selling your art.

4. Staff members are bad communicators.

It’s not a good sign if a gallery’s staff isn’t telling you about events and opportunities. Ditto if they aren’t updating you on your sales. If they aren’t communicating well with you, they probably aren’t communicating well with collectors.

5. Difficult personalities.

If you don’t like the people who run the gallery, what are the chances that other people want to do business with them?

6. Out-of-date or ugly website.

When will galleries understand that their Web presence is the point of entry to many potential buyers? If a gallery’s site hasn’t been updated since last year’s exhibition, reconsider your involvement with them.

By the way, you should heed this warning for your own sites. Keep them updated!

Where Do You Stand?

The counter-argument to this post is
Why Artists Should Embrace Gallery Representation
. It’s posted on the Art Biz Blog today.

Where do you stand with galleries? Do you embrace them? Or avoid them?

aly-2013-250Guest blogger Alyson B. Stanfield is founder of ArtBizCoach.com, ArtBizBlog.com and author of I’d Rather Be in the Studio: The Artist’s No-Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion.

Image credit: Cynthia Morris looks at Kathleen O’Brien‘s portfolio at a home show of Kathleen’s work.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve been going mostly the self-representation route simply out of necessity: I haven’t found anyone else who sells as well as I do myself! I certainly wish this weren’t the case. I’d def. like someone else to do the sales for me. I’d gladly give 50% of the sale price for that luxury. :/

    • says

      Julie: Even if you find someone to sell your work for you, you will still have to sell yourself to that person. So you have some valuable skills already that will help you when the right gallery or other representative comes along.

  2. says

    At my last Open Studio Exhibit I sold SEVEN paintings all by myself. I enjoy not only being an Artist but also Social Interaction with people. The only two times my Art was sold through Galleries were by MY COLLECTORS. None of the Galleries have promoted my Art the way I can on my own. I know what I am talking about as I have created the Art. I blog regularly about my Art. Send out NEWSLETTERS about my Art and the direction it is going, I engage with my Art Lovers on my facebook page, have lunches/dinners with my Collectors and get to know them personally and really do enjoy their company. The reason I create Art is to communicate with my audience. Imagine the joy I feel when people are eager to listen right in front of me to what I have to say. The exchange of thought that inspire me to create even more. I like being in charge and I rather have more Collectors who can afford my Art than a few through high end Art Galleries. Your book totally changed my life as an Artist. Thank you for an amazing blog post as now I know that I am better off by myself as an Artist and as a Business.

  3. says

    I feel fortunate that I’m not dealing with galleries with these red flags. For a long time I was selling my work only through myself or guild events (which is great because of the zero to low commission). In the past year I have had 2 galleries approach me directly which is little or no footwork for me, they have been estatic about meeting me in person and it gets my work visible to a broader audience. I am my own best salesman, but until I have my own space that people can wander into, I love having the gallery representation.

  4. says

    Excellent points, and I would like to add a few of my own Red Flags to your list:

    *Galleries that won’t sign a fair consignment agreement;

    *that don’t carry insurance to cover your art in the event of fire, accident, theft, etc. (yes, there are a few of these out there!)

    *that want an EXCLUSIVE to extend beyond their town or local area (never agree to this)

    *that don’t pay on time (have your consignment agreement say that 1-1/2% interest is charged for late payments, then bill them for that)

    • Lori Woodward says

      Maria, I know a couple of artists who signed an exclusive agreement with a gallery in new York city. It worked well before the recession, but has limited their careers, as they can’t show at other galleries, sell on their own, or even participate in national events/shows at other galleries. It’s unfair.

      Thanks for mentioning avoiding exclusive agreements. In my estimation, they only serve the gallery, not the artist.

  5. A. Brunelli says

    This advice is way of base. Artists need to create art not sell it. How will an artist know how to price their work, when it should go up, have a client base that can sustain their body of work? Reputable galleries are worth the 50 % commission. Only amateur artists sell their own work.

    • ODbrush says

      Bruneli

      “Artists should just create art not sell it? “Wow. So middle men like you can be a parasite and keep artists ignorant of their real value? Galleries , critics or people like you aren’t blessed with some sort of value judgment on “talent”. All value is perceived. Artists are completely capable of selling, branding, marketing, and managing themselves. Most just don’t know anything about business. Its not rocket science. Its 6th grade math. And people like you are conjurers of myths and oppression. Alison and others here who are teaching and empowering artists are needed to abolish the lies people like you perpetrate.

    • Rama says

      I disagree with this comment. The idea that artists should only create work and not sell it is extremely naive. As someone who considers himself both an artist and an entrepreneur, I should have a handle on the business side of being an artist. That includes knowing how to price your artwork, when to raise prices, and how to build out your clientele. Relying on a gallery to handle all of the the business side of it for you is relinquishing control over your brand as an artist. Developing the business skills of how to sell and market yourself as an artist doesn’t make you an amateur, it gives you the tools to thrive as an artist-entrepreneur.

    • Cory Huff says

      Please define what you mean by “amateur” artist? I know quite a few artists who make substantial money from selling their own art.

  6. says

    I would say something different than “why artists should avoid gallery representation”, I would say that artists should go into gallery representation with eyes wide open and with positive expectations. The fact is that gallery representation is still a major avenue to marketing art and artists need to learn how to make it work for them rather than avoiding it.

    You list a lot of helpful suggestions about what to look for that can be very useful. But also if an artist goes into a gallery arrangement with a lot of suspicions then perhaps they should not be doing it at all. I think an artist has to like the look of the gallery and also respect the gallery owner, director and staff for it to be a good relationship. And an artist needs to see themselves as entering into a joint relationship, not just turning the marketing over to someone else. I would also say that an artist is not always the best salesperson of their work, sometimes they are the worst. I know my wife can sell my work much better than myself any day. She has a detachment that helps her see what a potential buyer is looking for and appreciating in my work. Not that I am the worst, just that she is better at it. And this is what one might expect a gallery to provide.

    But finally I would say that the real issue behind all this is the need of artists to know and implement ways to market their work (if selling is important). A gallery is one piece of the marketing puzzle. Selling on line is another. Seeking after collectors is another. And there are many more. In other words it is not sufficient for an artist to just go after galleries alone, a broader market strategy is needed. And finally I know of many artists who spend 4-5 hours a day on marketing and that is their key to success in sales along with knowing what and what not to spend time time on.

    • says

      Points taken, Stan. It’s interesting you brought up your wife because I think a spouse is the only person who can sell the art as well as the artist. That kind of arrangement usually works out well and you’re lucky to have her on your side.

  7. Carol Springer-Wifoth says

    In 2009 I started painting abstracts. I entered two in the Nebraska State Fair and got the first and third place ribbons. Second place went to the big kahuna of abstracts here. Three years later she offered me an associateship in her gallery. Conditions: I could NEVER show my abstracts and I got the worst place in the gallery for my works! I am actually pleased I said no because my career was not in her best interest.

  8. says

    Stan’s comment aligned perfectly with what I have seen in the art market. Galleries do have their place and artists need to pick carefully and wisely where they put their time. The market on the Internet seems to gear itself to a fairly low money cap so where does one sell big oils, sculptures, etc? Coop galleries ( except in wealthy areas) also don’t attract that market. Maybe I am missing something, but I can ‘t see where else one could sell those pieces except in a gallery.

  9. says

    This is an interesting and illuminating perspective! Thank you for sharing. I suppose I neither embrace nor avoid galleries. I have a rule: Wait for them to reach out to you. I don’t waste time doing footwork or trying to sell myself to a gallery. I put that time into creating and selling my work on my own. I enjoy it far too much to let it fall solely into the hands of a gallery owner. That being said, I’m fortunate in that I have had several galleries contact me about representing my art. I’ve also been contacted about being included in a TV series and book. When all is said and done, you are always going to represent your work better than anyone else because it is a reflection of yourself.

    • Cory Huff says

      Rachel – I know a number of artists who do very well selling their art online. Most people won’t spend on a large painting online when they first encounter an artist, but after developing a relationship with the artist and purchasing several smaller pieces. I have seen collectors then move to buying very large sculptures and paintings.

    • says

      I also think waiting around for a gallery to seek you out is not the most productive way. If you wait for them to make the first move you could wait a long time, maybe even a lifetime. A much more productive way is to begin by realizing the need to first do some research that can help identify the galleries you might want to be represented by. Those artists who I see that have most success are ones who realized this need, that identified and researched the galleries who they think their work will best fit, identified those that have attractive and well located spaces, and those who appear to be run by owners and staff that demonstrate a real interest in best serving both their artists as well as their client buyers. Then they prepare their presentation carefully and make a well planned approach.

  10. says

    Great topic! Like many readers, I’ve I’ve sought gallery representation — not because they actually sell more of my work than I do — but because I’ve believed it means more if a gallery sells it than if I do it on my own. More prestige, more money (?!), more validation that my work is legitimately good.

    Today I realize this is pure myth. All of the things I’ve hoped to get from gallery representation and shows, I’ve been able to give myself. That said, I still sometimes suckered by invitations to show my work elsewhere.

    When I’ve succumbed, I’ve seen my efforts undermined not only by all of the things other contributors here have mentioned, but also the most subtle and/or thoughtless actions of the gallery. In one case I turned up for an opening to find my 3 best pieces stuck in the back room. (When I asked the person who hung the show to point out the piece she liked best, her choice was the smallest and least expressive piece — it was clear to me she didn’t understand or even like my work.) One gallery owner where I show a certain body of work repeatedly tells me I shouldn’t expect to make a living selling my art. (In the face of the fact I am making a living selling my art and so is she!)

    Even through the recession I have steadily been improving my work, building my art business, and inviting collectors to value my work with good, albeit modest, results. A surprise to me, my most consistent sales have been on the higher end — larger, more expensive paintings (the ones I love to paint) rather than smaller works (that I imagined people could afford).

    Part of building my business has been to create my own studio/gallery space where I can welcome people to see my work. My collectors and I enjoy meeting one another. I love sharing my art-making environment and answering questions about my process.

    Today I am looking carefully at the part of me that looks to galleries for validation of my art. Whatever my ego might gain from any prestige or exposure associated with a gallery show seems lost in the soul-satisfaction that comes of midwifing my art from start to finish, including sending the work to a new home with a collector I know.

    Today I’m all about that kind of fulfillment. I trust that what I might sacrifice in terms of public recognition will either be compensated by my own marketing efforts, by the appreciation of those who purchase the work from me, or by some other means that I have yet to learn about. And, perhaps, the realization hat no external validation at all is required in the making of Art will be enough to feed this non-starving artist.

    • ODbrush says

      Brick and mortar gallereys are outdated. Very few are actually legit, profitable or have any clue how to market or sell. Artists should never “look” for “representation”. Make your own name, and when you have one the galleries will come to ( or as they like to believe, “discover”) you.
      Galleries have high costs and extrememly small margins. If you think that is a great business model, where you can afford to mark your work up 100%. Go for it. Just dont sign any kind of exclusive contract. If anything work with a gallerey that has ALOT of exposure. And most of all treat galleries just like vendors. Thats really what they are. Storefronts. Never sell on consignment.
      Artists have to stop looking at galleries as some sort of end all be all. They are just stores that sell artwork.

    • says

      Ellie: I really appreciate your soul-centered response. You have obviously been thinking about this and it appears to have been a difficult decision for you. I’m glad you have followed your heart.

  11. says

    The single biggest reason to avoid galleries (philosophically; there’re always occasional exceptions) is that THEY have the customer, not you!

    This means that unless the gallery forks over the name and contact info of the client – and very, very few do because they feel they’ll be cut out of the next transaction – you as the artist loses the vital ability to keep in touch with that client!

    FAR too many artists have the notion that “all I need is to get into galleries” and they’ll somehow be on Easy Street, but this just isn’t so! Galleries want you to be relatively established already so they can take advantage of YOUR client list and they have very little desire to kick start an artist’s career from scratch…which begs the question: if you’re already established with a nice track record of sales, why give up 50% of sales?

    Then there’s the whole phenomenon of placement in the gallery, paid vs consignment (here’s a tip – don’t!), and of the constant coddling of the relationship with each and every gallery you deal with. I contend – and I’ve been a full time artist since 1996 without gallery representation – that the amount of effort it takes to maintain gallery representation just isn’t worth it.

    Lots of artists may disagree with me, but I say that in the vast majority of situations, artists are far better to put the time and effort into getting clients yourselves.

    • says

      Owen: As the preacher who promotes list-building for artists, I can’t believe I forgot this very important point. Yes, if you sell through galleries, you won’t get the names of your buyers. That’s a big downside.

      Some of it may have to do with fear that artists will undersell them. (Some of those fears are well founded. I’ve heard horror stories from gallerists whose artists have undermined them.)

      HOWEVER, and this is important – thus the all caps – like artists (or at least like artists should), galleries have privacy policies. Their relationships with their collectors depends on discretion and privacy. I think it’s important to remember that when negotiating a contract with a gallery. I do think artists should ask for names and contact info of collectors, but they need to be sensitive to the privacy policies of the gallery.

  12. llael says

    Hi, I find this post a little sweeping and general. Yes self promotion is great and we artist should all learn how to do it properly but if you intend to be a serious contender in the art world I feel gallery representation and exhibitions hosted and marketed by reputable galleries are of extreme importance. Most established galleries have good long term relationships that benefit both artist and gallery. The %50 thing is not by any stretch a standard percentage. The most important thing is background research when looking for representation so I think your red flag suggestions are spot on.

    • Cory Huff says

      Hi llael – thanks for commenting. You said, “if you intend to be a serious contender in the art world” then you need to be in a gallery. What does this mean? Do you mean if you want to be taken seriously by the famous critics and wealthy collectors, or do you mean if you want to make a living as an artist? If the you mean the former, then I’d agree with you. If you mean the latter, I’d say there are hundreds of artists who making a living from their art without any “art world” credibility.

  13. adele knowler says

    I fully support the galleries that I have been with, most notably, Lando Gallery in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I have been with this gallery some seven years and have had great success. Long gone are the days of Rauschenberg et all where the studio visits resulted in buys and representation. My gallery works hard behind the scenes for everything from sales to grant applications and placing of work in public venues, something I am not prepared to do. I paint. They take care of everything else to promote my art. They are well worth the 50%. Next time you buy anything retail, understand that the mark up is upwards of 100%. You would not ask your lawyer or doctor for a deal. Cost overhead to house, insure and celebrate your art is done by qualified individuals who know the market and have the connections. Be sure to investigate the history of your gallery before signing on and have a contract that has been written up by a qualified lawyer..

  14. says

    One thing that always troubled me is that galleries are not buying inventory. They are given it, free, with hopes they can earn income by its representation.

    Today, most companies have COGS from either buying products to resell, or making their own products for resale, both which cost them capital and they STILL have all the overhead of marketing and selling the product.

    I’m not established enough to warrant consideration for Gallery representation. But I don’t think the value proposition is high enough. 50% is too high a commission. You have to sell twice as much to earn the same income from one sale on your own.

    That commission rate is higher than many organizations pay their professional sales people…most pay 30% flat commission, or a base plus smaller rate of commission.

    There are those people who don’t like to sell, don’t have the skills. I do like to sell and have the time. So i’m not sure for all artists that Galleries offer a value proposition that works.

    I do thing galleries are being left behind. As you point out, their websites are usually atrocious. I don’t know how many times I’ve visited an artist friend’s website who says he’s represented by XYZ Gallery. You visit their site, and you can’t even find the name in the directory, a bio, or works online on some of the gallery sites.

    So I think it has to come down to looking at if it is a win/win situation. Is the gallery WORKING for you? Are they EARNING that 50% commission and representing you? Or are they making it seem like they are doing you a favor by even considering giving you wall space, leaving it up to you to provide supplemental marketing, etc.?

    The art market is changing significantly. Art in the hills. Self-representation, offline and online. Independent artist galleries.

    I’m glad you had the courage to point out your list. All too often I think there’s fear of critically thinking about the issues you raise about gallery representation, as if one will get black listed for wanting to ensure a fair business exchange with a gallery.

    I found this really poignant, the points you make.

    • says

      Thanks, Robert. You’re right that there is a world of difference between a good gallery and a so-so or not-good gallery. It’s our job to do the homework before entering into a new business relationship.

  15. Eric Siebenthal says

    Great read! Thank you for this exploration into the depths of Art Galleries! lmao! Very good points across the board, self promotion is a lot of work, but well worth it as you stated here. Thanks!

    • says

      I was struck by Cory’s response to being taken seriously in the art world. To me the art world is galleries, museums, critics, collectors, art historians, and just plain serious art followers and buyers, those who go regularly to the Venice Biennale and Art Basil. Being taken seriously as an artist is about creating a body of work that gets the attention and praise of people in this art world.

      Now there are artists who, on one end of the spectrum, are following that gallery route, searching out shows and museums to show there work so that they can grow a reputation and get attention and get invited into high end shows and sell more work at high prices. But as Cory says there are those artists, maybe many more, who are making a good living off sales of their work and never really get much involved in the gallery or museum world.

      Listening to an online webinar the other day one of the participants mentioned an artist who is making many thousands of dollars from sales of her paintings, primarily through people seeking her out, from her web site, word of mouth, etc. She has no galleries representing her. So being curious I looked at her web site and found she did mainly landscapes. many from Italy and Greece. They were well done and pleasant enough but not unusual, and I could imagine her work not getting much attention in the art world. But then if she is selling well why should she really care?

      A number of years back I had an artist friend say to me when discussing where I was going in my work “so what would you like your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for as an artist? That got me thinking in another direction. Life is really short and do you want to make a mark as an artist or just make a good living? I find that a really intriguing question for which I have no really good answer. But if I would like to be remembered for my art then maybe I have to pay attention to galleries and the art world. If making a good living and living a good life is more important then perhaps I don’t.

      I guess it all comes down to, as always, knowing what you really want.

      • Cory Huff says

        Great points here Stan. It really comes down to what you want your life to be like, doesn’t it?

        That said, I think that there is a burgeoning movement of innovative, original artists who choose not to go the gallery route. Hazel Dooney is a good example of someone who eschews the art world, but makes a great living and whose work sells for large sums of money on the secondary market. I’ve seen more and more artists recently who create their own followings, and then receive attention from galleries.

      • Odbrush says

        Stan

        I think you made a good point, but you have one concept wrong. The “art world” (galleries and museums) are not gatekeepers. They dont determine if you are legit or not. If you are making good money, have a strong following, and your work comtinues to go up in value the “art world” will do business with you too. Artists have to stop making these so called institutions and businesses a “goal”. If your art is in a well known gallerey or musem, it is a RESULT of your sucess. So start making, selling, and marketing your work. If enough people recognize you will find yourself in more than those two places.
        Btw, museums are in the business of exhibitińg “rarities”. Meaning, some exhibits are there becuase you cant see it anywhere else. Not becuase its Worth anything necesarily. Lol

      • says

        Cory, in your comment about artists who eschew the art world and do not go the gallery route you mention Hazel Dooney, the Austrialian artist. Looking at her bio and list of exhibitions I see that she started exhibiting in galleries back in 1997, and has had many shows in museums and galleries since then. Perhaps she keeps her distance from them but she does seem to realize that in the art world one does have to deal with galleries and museums to show one’s work and establish a reputation.

        And Odbrush, the art world (galleries and museums) might not be considered “the gatekeepers” but if you want to make a place for yourself in that art world you do have to deal with them at some point, for better or worse. I also cannot figure out what “success” could mean in this context outside of galleries and museums and recognition by “art world”. Many artists have success at selling in all kinds of venues but not all of these also gain and enjoy a reputation in the art world.

        • Odbrush says

          Stan

          I agree.ofcourse artists will deal with galleries and museums. Nithing wrong with galleries. I just think the point being made is that they are not the gatekeepes anymore, nor should artists pursue them exclusively. They are just one piece to the puzzel. Remmember, galleries that sell art are just storefronts. Nothing magical or special about them. Their margins are so thin, that the industry has created this facade and myth that art is exclusive and scarce. Nonsense! Scarcity is the worst business model to follow when you are starting out. Limited, exclusive, and “collectables” are a savy strategy when your art is highly collected and in extreme demand.

  16. says

    In the past , I have always worked well with galleries, and I LIKE dealing with them, as I’ve enjoyed a great relationship. But, three of those good galleries closed last year, and I find myself without representation for the first time in 20 years. I am surviving by some on line sales, teaching, some giclees in local venues, and studio sales. I want to find some new galleries, but the “good” ones are not even interested. I agree that many really need to change their way of getting, and more importantly keeping collectors. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  17. says

    Thank you for this!! I am always saying these same things to my clients and start to feel like I must be the only one who realizes this stuff. Galleries aren’t evil, but there are certainly drawbacks and danger zones. You have to be aware of both the positives and the negatives and not get caught up in the excitement that a gallery is actually interested in your work.

  18. says

    Ha ha ha ha ha… in my 40 yrs in the art business the only [day to day] artists who don’t want gallery representation are those who cannot get it! Not one commentator on this thread would say NO THANKS if – say – Pace or Marlborough called to say ‘join us tomorrow’. There is nothing wrong with DIY making and selling but, the fact is, its all a bit amateurish and only rarely do the artists make a good job of it. It’s never been tougher but – quite frankly – there is too much ‘art’ and certainly too many ‘artists’ around today. Probably 20-30% live of their art and the rest have other means of support for their fantasy of being ‘an artist’.

    • says

      There’s elements of truth in your comment, but I for one would politely decline an offer from these two galleries. Sure, everyone who’s ever made a clay ashtray seems to think they’re an artist now, (a different topic), and very few artists go a good job of marketing, but that’s the point of blogs like this: to help them get better!

  19. says

    Alyson,
    You peaked my interest about selling artwork online. I have been painting a lot time off and on and now that I am retired I can devote more time painting. I need help getting started selling my artwork. Actually, I would like a coach and I can take it from there. I read the comments and someone mentioned that you have a book. I would be interested but I want more than general steps to get started. I live in a small area in Florida and I am finding it difficult to know where to start. I could probably paint pet portraits everyday but I do love to paint landscapes. I need help getting started!
    Thanks
    Sharon Bray

  20. says

    Thanks for these useful tips! I have been a self employed artist and graphic designer for just over a year and have debated about getting my work into galleries (I have encountered all of your red flags!). So far I am kept very busy with commissions and recently set up an etsy shop http://www.etsy.com/nz/shop/ErikaPearce?ref=l2-shopheader-name which has been successful already. If I find the right kind of relationship with a gallery I would love to see how it goes. Till then, I am happy marketing myself and getting a lot of new clients simply by word of mouth.

    Ps: you are very right about the marketing!

    thanks again,
    Erika

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