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Debate: Do Galleries Deserve Perpetual Commissions for Sales to Clients They Discovered?

by Jason Horejs on August 16, 2013 · 59 comments

Yesterday, I wrote a post on splitting commissions between galleries. The article resulted in an interesting and lively conversation in the comments, a conversation that raised additional questions. One of those questions was whether a gallery deserved an ongoing commission for all future sales to clients who discover an artist’s work through the gallery.

Calvin wrote the following in a comment

What gets more complicated is when a collector buys a painting from a gallery where you pay a commission, but then that person becomes a collector and buys one or more others in the months ahead NOT through the gallery, but directly from the artist. Do you still owe a commission even though it is months (or years) after the gallery sale, and the gallery had nothing to “do with that sale”? Is this collector a “forever” commission-collector, because they were the initial client of the gallery? My answer would be no, because buying from you directly would be no different than buying from another gallery that carried my work. But I have had a gallery say that if it is “their client” and they claim that client forever and they should receive the full commission if I sold something directly. (We parted ways, and any future relationship, on that claim.)

There have always been questions (and even lawsuits) over this issue, but the internet brings it into even sharper focus as collectors are more easily able to connect directly with artists.

I’m going to try to tread carefully on this subject because I know that there are very strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Rather than coming at this from any kind of moral or emotional ground, I want to try and approach it from a purely pragmatic standpoint. I’m going to advocate an approach that I hope will be beneficial to all sides in the question: artists, galleries and collectors.

So with that in mind, I want to approach this question from a slightly different angle. Rather than asking, “Does the artist owe a commission?” and then throwing an answer and supporting arguments at it, I want to try and look at the big picture and then reverse-engineer our way back to some kind of understanding.

Motivation

First, let’s look at the artist-gallery relationship. Why do artists agree to consign their work to galleries in the first place? I know this is fairly obvious, but bear with me. I suggest that there may be a number of reasons. An artist may feel that their work will gain wider exposure by being displayed to the gallery’s clients. The artist may also feel that showing in a gallery adds credibility to their work. Ultimately, however, I propose that the main reason an artist should show with a gallery is to achieve more sales and attain greater financial stability. In essence, working with a gallery allows all of the parties involved to focus on what they do best. The artist can spend more time in the studio creating artwork because they have a gallery handling the promotion, marketing, sales and logistics involved in getting their work into the hands of collectors.

While the internet is certainly making it easier (in some ways) to connect with potential buyers, it is still extremely difficult for an artist to get enough exposure and generate enough sales to be successful without showing in galleries. [I'll pause here to say that I know there are certainly exceptions to this rule, and that the whole equation is changing rapidly because of the internet - that's a discussion for another post. For the sake of this discussion though, let's assume that you agree and want to show in galleries because you believe it will lead to greater sales and allow you to spend more time in the studio.]

If, then, the goal is to generate long-term sales success with the gallery, it makes sense for you to do everything in your power to maintain and strengthen the relationship with your gallery. The gallery should also be doing everything in their power to makes sure they are providing value to you. In a sense, when you are showing with a gallery, you have entered into a partnership with them, and partnerships only work when both parties are doing everything in their power to make each other happy. If both the artist and the gallery are working hard to make the relationship profitable, you’ve got your best shot at long-term success.

Does the Gallery Deserve an Ongoing Commission?

Now let’s come back to our original question and look at it pragmatically in light of this idea that we are trying to work together for our mutual benefit. If that is the case, the question won’t be “Does the gallery deserve an ongoing commission?” The question will instead be “What will happen to our relationship if I don’t pay a commission to the gallery for sales I make directly to a client who discovered me through the gallery?”

This is a substantially different question. The word “deserve” brings us back into the realm of morality or emotion, and I want to keep us looking at this question pragmatically.

From the gallery’s perspective, you wouldn’t be making future sales to this customer if the gallery hadn’t gone to great expense and effort to provide a physical location where that client could encounter your artwork.

Bill Inman put it this way in his response to Calvin’s original comment

If a collector finds me through a particular gallery and comes to me directly for future paintings I send the gallery their commission because they are the reason I have that collector – and I have had this happen and sent the gallery their rightfully earned commission – if I am no longer with that gallery we have no contract.

Adrienne Tybjerg weighed in by saying

I think I tend to follow a kind of real estate model. Within a year or so of a show (real estate is usually 6 months, but applies to all sales), the gallery should get their commission if the person buying saw it at their gallery. It is just like selling homes. Real Estate agents need to know that their efforts will not be abused, but at the same time they must accept that their work to sell does have a limited shelf life. If a gallery wasn’t able to sell during the showing time or within a year, the artist should not be penalized for it for life.

So who’s right? Calvin – that future direct sales shouldn’t result in a commission for the gallery? Bill – that they should, so long as there’s a contract in place? Or Adrienne – that there should be a shelf life to future commissions?

if you are asking “who’s right?” you’re asking the wrong question

And I would say that if you are asking “who’s right?” you’re asking the wrong question. I would say that it’s not a question of who’s right, it’s a question of, practically speaking, what are you trying to accomplish?

If you feel that the value of the commission from direct sales is more valuable than the future relationship with the gallery, then I would say that Calvin and Adrienne’s answers make sense. As Calvin said in his comment, the issue has lead to the termination of a relationship with a gallery. Right, wrong, black, white, none of that matters – the result matters.

You may have the best arguments in the world as to why the gallery doesn’t deserve the ongoing commission, but the gallery is simply going to say, “if you don’t value our having generated the relationship with the collector (if you valued it you would pay us for it) we aren’t going to show your work anymore. Instead we are going to work with artists who will pay us ongoing commissions.” No argument you make is going to change how they feel about this, and even though they may be wrong, their feelings are going to guide their actions and you are going to find your work on the street.

Now let’s look, practically, at what happens when an artist takes Bill Inman’s approach of paying the gallery a commission. Whether or not the gallery deserves the commission, you can bet that when they receive it, they are going to look more favorably on Bill and his work. That gallery is going to be more willing to invest in Bill’s long-term success because they are going to feel that it’s worth the investment. They are going to ask for more work, and hopefully Bill is going to have more sales in the long run. In a sense, by paying the ongoing commission, Bill is making an investment back in the gallery.

A Gallery Has to Earn Your Respect

Before you rush to the comments to start arguing the point with me, I want to say this clearly, and emphatically:

NOT EVERY GALLERY RELATIONSHIP IS WORTH MAINTAINING!!! 

In the last few paragraphs I’ve been talking about how an artist can work hard to sustain the relationship. There’s another side to it, however, and that is that the gallery better be working just as hard at the relationship. I know just as well as you do that there are galleries out there who are not pulling their weight. In this business, just as many others, there are those who believe that throwing up a sign and opening your doors for business is enough. It is not.

Frankly, there may be instances where you run into the issue of ongoing commissions and rightly feel that the relationship with the collector is more important than the relationship with the gallery. If the gallery has been lackadaisical in their marketing efforts, if they’ve been poor communicators, if they’ve been slow to pay, I suspect you’re going to look at all of that and say, “I don’t mind risking the relationship, because it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to find a new gallery.”

In other words, I want to turn this whole debate around and say that if a gallery is doing a great job of promoting you and is selling your work like crazy, this won’t even be an issue. You, as the artist, will be happy to direct the collector back to the gallery to make the sale because you love working with them and would rather have them handle the sale details. If you don’t feel that way, if you feel like you would be better off making the sale yourself and retaining the full commission, I suspect that the gallery hasn’t earned your respect and thus hasn’t earned the commission.

Working with the Collector

Finally, we need to briefly discuss how to handle the relationship with the collector in light of the above discussion. If, as an artist, you have a collector approach you after discovering your work in a gallery, and if you wish to pay the commission to the gallery, I suggest that you make this very clear to the collector. Let them know that any purchases they make will be handled by the gallery. Keep the gallery up to date about your contact with the collector. Get them involved in shipping and installation of the artwork. Let the gallery deal with any negotiation that occurs over the price of the piece, or at least keep them in the loop. In other words, give the gallery the opportunity to continue to earn their commission.

This openness will be appreciated by your gallery and by your collector. They will appreciate your professional approach to the business as you let them know that you value your partnership with the gallery.

Please Share Your Thoughts!

I’ve had my crack at this subject, now it’s your turn! Please leave your thoughts below in the comments. I’ve tried to approach this topic in a thoughtful and respectful way, and I’ve tried to see the issue from both sides – I hope you’ll do the same in the comments even if you disagree!

Please Share This Post!

If you feel I’ve shared something of value in this post and have added to the general dialogue about the art business, please do me a favor and share this article with the artist’s in your life and in your social media circles. I would love to get feedback and readership from as wide a cross-section of artists as possible on this important issue. Please pass the link along via email, post it to your blog or share it with your FaceBook friends, Tweet it, Plus One it on Google. Anything you can do to spread it around is tremendously appreciated!




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About 

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

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{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Michaelin Otis August 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

I so not sell directly, nor do I want to. I have worked hard to develope my art to the level that galleries feel they can sell. They are good at it. I want to paint, not market . While I use all social media, I use it to promote the galleries I am in. On my website, I tell potential clients which gallery each piece is in. They can then contact the gallery for sales. They handle taxes, another thing I do not have to worry about . I owned a gallery for 18 years, so I know how hard gallery owners work to sell art.

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Lu Martin August 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Congratulations. You are a real professional. Your grateful attitude will pay off. Word does get around and Galleries are very expensive to maintain,and appreciate the loyalty of their artists. If all artists play by the rules,the public will soon learn that the business of art is no different than that of the furniture Industry etc. Send them to your representative Galleries.

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Nancy Pirri August 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Hi Jason – I have read both of your last posts… and do feel that it is really between the gallery and the artist and their personal relationship. I had a similar situation with a piece that I sold on my own showing a picture, but it was IN a gallery. The gallery asked for a 10% commission because they ‘housed’ it for 2 years… which is a completely different situation that any of the ones you mentioned. I paid the commission but felt a little odd that they asked for it… but let it go because I’ve been with them for many many years.

What would you do in that case? Would you as a gallery owner ask for a commission on a piece that was in your gallery but the artist met the collector on his or her own?

I also just had two sales which I made on two pieces that another gallery had in their possession. they never asked me for any sort of commission and I was very happy about this. We have a great relationship and don’t feel it hurt their respect for me nor mine for them. In many ways it made me proud to be an artist in their gallery as they were incredibly accommodating and even hand-delivered one of the pieces which was a substantial amount of money.

Thanks as always for your great posts.

Nancy

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Jason Horejs August 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Nancy – I think the situation with the gallery asking for the commission in that case is a little odd. As an artist, you could easily have asked them to return the piece to you, and after that long I can’t imagine how they could do anything but agree. If you had then sold it I also don’t see how they could ask for a commission. So the fact that it sold while they had it after so long doesn’t seem quite right. I guess they could ask for it, but I think you would have been okay to say no.

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Nancy Pirri August 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Thanks for getting back to me. I did think it was a bit odd – but did not want to burn a bridge as the gallery owner and family have become huge collectors of my work over the years. I was happy it was a higher-priced piece but I do feel that next time if this happens I will not agree to a commission.

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Julie Bernstein Engelmann August 17, 2013 at 12:18 am

I appreciate you bringing this up, because it gives us a chance for more clarity. Personally, I would definitely think twice and ask the gallery about this before bringing a potential buyer into the gallery to show them my work. If I am on their premises, probably the gallery venue is providing me some credibility, or in any case a sales location. To put the situation in reverse, how would you like it if the company that manufactured your desk came into your office with some clients and stood there making a sale based on how lovely the desk looked there? Even if you were okay with that, wouldn’t you at least want the respect of being asked ahead of time whether you minded not receiving any compensation? I have always avoided this situation by waiting until my artwork is back in my possession. Thanks, Nancy–and Jason!

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Lori Woodward August 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Jason, I so appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas with artists. You’ve really helped clarify some answers to a confusing problem. Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with this scenario, but I know artists who have.

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Alison Philpotts August 16, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I never want to burn bridges, or sneak a few extra bucks away from relationships I have forged with a gallery. Being honest and having a discussion with the gallery on their thoughts, has always worked for me. This was the case when an individual saw my work in a gallery, but wanted to commission a totally different painting. I paid the gallery 20% of the commissioned piece, and let the gallery owners know I appreciated the exposure. Maybe I should have paid more but that felt fair that the time.

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Victoria Pendragon August 17, 2013 at 5:42 am

I’d be curious to get your feelings on this one, Jason, as it is a variation on the theme.

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Helen K. Beacham Fine Art August 19, 2013 at 3:35 am

Jason, I feel like Victoria does…interested to know your thoughts on this scenario that Alison presented for us. Having owned a gallery, I had a contract in place for this kind of situation, but having been in some other galleries, I know they didn’t broach this subject in their contracts. What’s a fair % to give the gallery?

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David McCullough August 16, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Jason – I have had to deal with this issue for the past forty years and what it comes down to is as you said -What
kind of relationship do you want with your dealer. When this issue came up I would first let my dealer know that a previous collector was asking to buy my art from my studio and since I had to make the presentation, what % did they want for the sale transaction. Usually it was a referral fee of 20% not a full commission fee, but that depends on the gallery, especially when the gallery is a long distance from my studio in another city. Over the years most gallery directors have become very good friends and any time I had a question they were good about answering them. It seems to me that it is better to dialog with the gallery director and define together the rules of this exchange. These issues should be worked out in a contract agreement. Peace, David McCullough

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SHAKEY WALLS August 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Jason, I don’t have that problem yet but I wanted you to know that your ongoing directions and discussions has made
me very enlightened about sales, promotions and marketing… someday I hope to be in your gallery XANADU…
thank you for your continuous information about this world of ART… I want so desperately to be a selling artist…

Shakey Walls

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Cathy Carey August 16, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I agree with you on this 100% ! If its a good one – the ongoing gallery relationship is worth more than the sale.

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Fran Decker August 16, 2013 at 2:49 pm

As both an artist and a gallery owner, I think you answered this question very well. Fair to both artists and galleries. I enjoy your articles and input very much, keep em coming!

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Dean Russell Thompson August 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I have come to think of all sales channels (direct sales, internet sales, gallery sales, whatever) as having a certain cost. It costs me to frame work to send to a gallery. It costs me to ship it to them. I pay them commission on a sale. There may be an opportunity cost associated with not being able to show the work in another venue. There are time costs associated with communications, inventory management, etc. It all adds up.

So when I think about when a certain channel is worth maintaining, it is a matter of weighing those costs against the sales that they generate.

Some costs are fixed: they are incurred regardless of whether a sale is made, others are incurred ONLY when a sale is made. Goodwill always remains an intangible: difficult to measure and to put a value on. However, if a channel has high fixed costs and isn’t generating sales, then all the goodwill in the world isn’t worth much. Time to move on.

The flip side of that is that even a direct sale has costs if you account for them properly. It’s easy to think of that commission that you didn’t pay as free money, but it isn’t necessarily so.

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Don Nicholson August 16, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I agree with your comments Jason. A good gallery relationship is worth the commission and a good collector knows this. My guess is that if a collector wanted to cut out the gallery, they would be looking for a discount equivalent to or close to the commission. So the Artist would not only loose the Gallery relationship but would loose on the pricing to the collector. Where is the Win-Win in this transaction. These kind of games don’t benefit Artists nor Galleries nor Collectors in the long run. Dealing straight will always pay off the greatest dividends in all relationships.

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Rebecca Westeren August 17, 2013 at 8:41 am

Support your galleries as one day they may not be around to support you back.

Long Live The Art Galleries!

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George Lucas August 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm

The devil is always in the details- so spell out all the specifics in the Gallery Contract-
Studio sales, private sales to previous gallery clients, duration of relationship after leaving the Gallery, exclusivity as to regional sales (seldom a good idea for the Artist), and so on and so forth.

If it is in the Contract there should be fewer arguments

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Nick Tarr August 16, 2013 at 9:14 pm

I agree….spell things out and dont be afraid to outline what you need keeping in mind to be fair to the gallery who pays rent, works long hours and so forth. I always try to think outside the box. For example, maybe offer only one style to a gallery….then if someone comes a knocking and wants more of the “Fruit” paintings you know clearly they saw it at THAT gallery. Then let the gallery know you will be doing art shows but will only sell the landscape paintings. The other thing is to always sell at the gallery prices. Then it makes no difference to the buyer because the cost is the same. Also wait to burn that bridge cause baby…it is a small world and you just might need to get off that island you are on. :)

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Jorge Alberto González August 16, 2013 at 3:40 pm

When collectors have called me directly to purchase a consign painting that they saw ether at the gallery or my website I always refer them back to that gallery. Also I always let the gallery know when one of their the collectors has contacted me, and leave up to them to close the deal. As a rule I nave do business behind the galleries’ back because I find it unprofessional. I expect the gallery to have a crystal clear relation ship with me, I am sure they expect the same!

Jorge Alberto

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Jeremiah Johnson August 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Great Article! I completely agree with the gallery on this one, if the collector came to the gallery, then the artist should always keep the collector in connection with the gallery. I once had someone email me about a painting (“Fishing” I call it) directly, and asked me if it was still for sale, i immediately knew he must’ve seen it at the art fair the previous spring, and gave him the full retail price for it cause I was fully aware I owed commission where commission was due, to the gallery for exhibiting it. All the time and money and risk in doing this promotion, it’s not right for the collector to attempt discounts from the artist directly, I could offer him an incentive to buy, upon my choosing (for example, an extra sketch for the painting, or framing) but I still asked full price, and directed him to the gallery, and then let them know of his interest. But….
What about when a gallery gets linked to a previous collector of your work, and they try to sell to them, even though they already were collectors of your work?

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Helen K. Beacham Fine Art August 19, 2013 at 3:49 am

Oh, Jeremiah, such another good question that you leave us with! Jason?
My feeling is that if the collector walks into your new gallery, they get the potential commission on a sale of a piece in the gallery.

What about if the collector has been someone you’ve been nurturing for years, and they’ve been buying from you during the many years you were NOT in a gallery… then attends a reception at the new gallery at your invitation…and subsequently wants to buy art that’s still on your studio easel, not in the gallery (like they’ve been doing for years). Do you now owe the gallery a commission? Will that make artists more or less likely to invite their collectors to visit the new gallery? I already know the answer (and, no, you can’t necessarily guess my position from how I’ve worded all of this…., but I AM curious as to how others see it.

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Jeni Bate August 20, 2013 at 5:00 am

I’m also interested in the perspective on this one as I lost a gallery relationship with a similar issue. I have a collector who I have know for over a decade and he has bought a few pieces from me over the years. The painting in question, while in my possession, was also listed non-exclusively online with an gallery in another state. (And to be clear, it wasn’t Xanadu, though we are in different states). My old collector saw the piece and wanted to put a deposit on it because he couldn’t afford it all at the time. I emailed the gallerist and explained and said it was up to them to decide if they wanted to mark the painting sold or not – I wasn’t 100% certain my sale would go through and also because as an established collector, I had given him a discount, I was still open to the possibility of accepting a 100% sale, if he decided against it. I guess the gallerist forgot and months later did some online promo on Facebook, which I saw. I commented that the painting was under deposit. There was a quick reply from the gallerist that they ‘hoped I would pay their commission’ (on the full price, doubtless) and chided me for accepting an offer behind their backs. When I explained the situation (by email, not on fb, publicly) and said I thought the commission was perhaps not appropriate, all my work was promptly delisted without another word of negotiation. I’m not sorry to have lost the representation, as they were not selling any of my work, but disappointed that the parting was as it was and would have preferred to maintain the relationship. Should I have considered offering a smaller commission?

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Regina Hona August 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

In Australia things are much the same, but the issue gets even more complicated if the collector first bought directly from the artist and then later also through a gallery. I always like to find out where a buyer first saw my work and if I can’t then I would send the commission to the gallery closest to the buyer. This builds trust between the artist and the gallery as often buyers can see work in a gallery and contact the artist direct hoping to get the work cheaper. It can also create another set of problems if the artist discounts when selling direct. A good relationship between the artist and gallery is paramount in my books.

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Johanna Goodman August 16, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I know how hard good galleries work for their artists. One of my may jobs when I got out of art school was working for a gallery.I learned so much from the experience. I have also sold my art on my own. Both experiences have taught me respect for marketing.
I feel that while my first priority is my art, I can not do it all alone.
I keep track of the gallery when they have my work, communication is the key.
The gallery deserves my attention and respect, if they are working for me.
If not, time to shop for another gallery.
A good gallery earns their commission.

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Vere Nekoninda August 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm

I agree with what is in the article, including the futility of trying to convince everyone that a single viewpoint is “right”. However, I think the section on the collector’s viewpoint deserves a bit more exploration. Many, many collectors want a personal relationship with the artist. That can take different forms. Some want to be able to chat on a first name basis at the exhibitions and fairs. Many want to visit the artist’s studio, see new work there, and buy pieces that have never been displayed anywhere. Some artists like this, some don’t.

For these collectors, being sent to the gallery for every sale is not satisfying, and will decrease sales. The artist who enjoys interacting with this kind of collector will see many more sales through the personal interaction, in whatever form it takes, than they will through gallery sales. This doesn’t mean that the gallery shouldn’t get a commission, but if this type of collector is to be satisfied, then their interest in a personal relationship with the artist is a part of the equation.

I don’t believe that the personal-relationship collector *deserves* a discount (each artist must decide that for herself). It’s rather bizarre that the $500/hour lawyer, doctor, or executive often wants the artist to take a pay cut, “because we are friends”. I think they should pay more, because we are friends. They, with the large financial resources, can afford to increase my pay more than I can afford to decrease it. I tend to mention this only if the collector asks for a discount, and you may be surprised that some of them agree. If they value my work and our relationship, they often see the sense in this arrangement.

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K. Henderson August 16, 2013 at 5:53 pm

I give my galleries a commission if I know the collector ‘discovered’ me in that gallery and I’m still showing in that gallery. Sticky situation since most galleries won’t tell the artist who purchases their work and collectors frequently tell you they saw the work on your website without giving any further info.

Here’s a new question: I always ask my galleries “Do you want THIS painting” (I don’t automatically send work, it must be approved first) What if they say “No, I don’t want that painting” then ‘their’ collector sees the painting on your website and wants to buy it from you? Does the gallery get a commission or not?

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Helen K. Beacham Fine Art August 19, 2013 at 3:52 am

Jason??? Another doozy of a question.

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John Burk August 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Jason, I met you at one of your seminars in Baltimore/Washington several years ago. I appreciated your candor then as I do now. Your views that I have read are reasonable, mutually responsible and fair, favoring professional behavior. This is a potentially thorny issue that is probably best addressed on a case-by-case basis. I have learned enough by now to know that under some circumstances the artist isn’t working hard enough for the gallery, and vice versa. There may be a touch of justifiable adversity in the relationship. I’m inclined to agree with the real estate model, but my action would be heavily influenced by my feelings for the gallery. I would do nothing to harm a good relationship with a great gallery. I’m certain you have artists that feel the same way.

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Christine Rossi August 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I believe it depends upon the relationship of the gallery and artist and the type of contract the artist and the gallery have.
I have not had the opportunity to have a gallery represent me on an exclusive basis. All of my experience has been show to show with the contract ending at the end of the show.
I tend to sell work at the same price that I would sell at a gallery so a collector is not going to get much of a break in the price. I have not had someone come to me after a show and want to buy a piece they saw at a show. I think it would be only fair to offer the commission to the gallery in that case.

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Melody Sears August 16, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I once had a painting at a gallery in a distant town and a neighbor of mine saw an image of the piece in an annual calendar I produce and wanted to buy it (he had never heard of or stepped foot in the gallery). Since the gallery had housed it and (hopefully) talked about it and my other work to visitors and potential collectors for almost a year, I explained the situation to them and OFFERED them a commission. We mutually agreed on a price and even though I left that gallery soon after, I feel right about having paid a commission and furthermore feel that my reputation as a fair player was worth the price, knowing that word gets around, especially in smaller towns.

I absolutely agree with your analysis, Jason. Well thought-out and presented. Thanks.

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Dale Laitinen August 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm

When an artist sells a work to a collector who visited a gallery and then buys directly from the artist; the artist then owes a commission to the gallery, but what if the artist generates clients that eventually go to the gallery and buy paintings shouldn’t the gallery then be beholding to the artist for developing sales? Shouldn’t the artist be awarded some discount on the commission?

On another note, if a gallery demands exclusive representation in a specific geographic territory, shouldn’t there be some guarantee by the gallery for a set amount of income? It is not commonplace for such agreements to exist. In many cases these exclusive agreements bar potential income to the artist from other venues, and the artist has little control over the marketing by his gallery in the exclusive territory.

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Nancy Eckels August 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Jason,
About the subject of a gallery “investing” in an artist……..
Several years ago, I was approached by a prospective client who told me that one of my pieces “spoke” to him, but he saw no reason, since he was a consistent purchaser of art, that he should have to pay more to an artist than a gallery would pay… as in 50%. While regaining my composure and reigning in my anger, I explained that when marketing my own art, I do everything a gallery does…marketing, sales, showing the work, paying for festival spaces, etc etc etc. Therefore, I should be getting the entire amount. This argument was, of course, lost on this individual. HOWEVER, this situation pointed out to me that I really didn’t know for sure what a gallery SHOULD be doing for me beyond the obvious….having a place to show my work. I can list a few things that occur to me, but I would love to hear your comments on my list. A gallery should: Show the work, not store it in the back room, pay on time, let me know as soon as it’s sold, perhaps have a show or feature my work in some way. Send mailings or emails introducing my work to their mailing list, call or respond to my call when something has been in the gallery too long so that we can change it out for something new. (Many galleries let it sit forever if the artist does not intervene), check the artists website to inquire about pieces that may interest them for the gallery, perhaps invite clients who have expressed interest in my work to come in and meet me next time I bring artwork to the gallery, (I have a gallery that did this and it resulted in an immediate sale) etc, etc, etc. So what does “investing” in an artist involve? Any comment?

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Nick Tarr August 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm

For 30 years I worked as an entertainer. The topic of commission is not that different in the art world as it is with entertainment. I needed my agents to make money or I would loose out on work in the future if they went out of business. So, if an agent found me work with a company or person and then that person contacted me directly I always shared this information with my agents and what we did was lower the percentage or price and called it a finders fee. I would never have meet that client if they had not spent the money to be found by the agent. So I made a little less but the agent ( or in this case gallery ) , who would most likely find out about the now working relationship and I am sure it is the same in the art world, was able to make a little from the contact. I think the best thing to do is to have this converstaion up front and hash things out in a paper agreement before it happens. Then th elines are clear and both parties can keep earning money on the other’s talents. And trust me…it is a talent to sell as well as to paint or make art.

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Pamela Neswald August 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm

As a former gallery owner, I agree with the general consensus that supporting your gallery is supporting yourself. An uncomfortable issue that sometimes comes up when clients come to you directly is when they want a very large discount for cutting the gallery out. Complying with this is devaluing your work in my opinion.

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Dori August 17, 2013 at 5:20 am

Hi Jason, as a new gallery owner, I enjoy and appreciate the information you impart or bring up for thought. As I read the thoughts you’ve put together it seems to me that although there could be legal ramifications, the most important piece to this puzzle is the relationship. And from that, like any relationship, it’s what both parties put into it. Hopefully, particularly for smaller galleries who represent only a few artists, the relationship is a partnership and because of that, respect and honesty will always rule.

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Paul Volker August 17, 2013 at 7:05 am

I am an artist, and I have also operated a gallery, so Ii can see both sides to this. An artist and a gallery owner are in essence, business partners, and the business they are in is the business of selling the specific works that the gallery offers. But, beyond that relationship, keep in mind, the gallery is working for the artist. The artist is not working for the gallery. If an artist shows a work in a gallery, it should be specified under the conditions for the representation and sale of that particular work, that the gallery is entitled to a commission for a specified period of time following its exhibition and original offering for sale. However, if a collector is interested in other works by the artist, works that are not offered by that gallery, then the gallery is not entitled to a commission on those other works. Otherwise, this is not a commission, but essentially a perpetual matchmaker’s fee. Such a fee (a commission for works sold that the gallery itself did not offer) removes the incentive for the gallery to actually exhibit more of that artist’s paintings, which it obviously has the option to do, if it wants to legitimately earn a commission from the sale of those works. If the artist feels some obligation to the gallery owner for the introduction of a steady patron, a bottle of good wine would be a nice way to say “thank you”. Beyond that, if the gallery wants a commission, it should display & promote the works from whose sale the commission is derived. Otherwise, the whole business partnership falls apart.

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William Lesch August 17, 2013 at 8:34 am

Jason – great way of looking at this situation by looking at the goals of each party and then going backwards to how to attain that. Most artist’s have a very simple goal – to be able to spend as much time as possible working and be able to make a living from it. In an ideal world, the artist would have one gallery that represented their entire body of work, that gallery would promote the artist and sell enough so the artist could work full-time, and in return the artist would continually provide the gallery with new work. In such a situation, there would be no reason for an artist to make direct sales, they are too busy working. While the ideal world seldom happens, the closer the relationship comes to that, the less problems like this occur.

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clifford riley August 17, 2013 at 8:37 am

Earned is the key word here I believed on the part of both parties. A good partnership is worthy maintain and all parties within should be rewarded. A bad partnership deserves no more that a quiet termination and an end of financial rewards on both parts. Above all, remember this is a business above all and should be conducted as such, in a professional manner. The artist is no more than a producer of a product and the gallery a sales agent.

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Margaret Bobb August 17, 2013 at 8:40 am

Jason–another excellent article! I have done as you requested and posted this to my Facebook Artist Page at http://www.facebook.com/artist.m.bobb

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Kim Ellington August 17, 2013 at 8:55 am

Reverse the situation. The collector goes to the gallery because they represent an artist they are interested in. The only reason the patron is going to the particular gallery is because of this artist. The collector goes to the gallery, buys the work from the artist they went there for, plus a work from another artist. Does the gallery owe the artist a commission because the artist brought the customer in? The artist has already been “discovered” by means of their work, not the gallery’s. The artist is furnishing the gallery with customers, not the other way around.
I would not have a career today if I had not done my own marketing, which consisted mostly of making good work and giving the public access to it through sales at my home a few times a year. Perhaps there is a fantasy gallery out there somewhere that can accomplish that and sell enough of my work for me to not worry about it. By the time I found them or they found me, I could of already sold a lot of work. I have sales out of my yard 3 times a year, people come from all over the Southeast to buy. Sale starts at 10:00 am, everybody’s gone by noon. This can work anywhere if the work is up to snuff. I live in nowhere Vale, NC. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. However, I am talking about pottery, not fine art. Fine art would probably sell even better….

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Nadi August 17, 2013 at 9:11 am

Dear Jason,

Here is my comment: Paintings should be handled via a contract. In the contract should be all details outlined (including the subject ‘commission’ stated precisely and who gets what, e.g. paintings involved, commitment to the artist, etc.) how it should be handled. Once both parties sign the pertinent contract they have to adhere to it. Of course, a good relationship should be kept with the gallery owner(s) and the artist(s).

All persons involved should honor the contract(s) – abide by it.

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Excellent point Nadi – unfortunately many galleries don’t provide contracts with this level of detail (it’s also difficult to plan for every possible scenario). You are right though – the contract should provide some level of guidance, and the more detailed that guidance, the less room for confusion down the road.

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Susan Klinger August 17, 2013 at 9:15 am

Very interesting and thought provoking discussion. Thank you to Jason for putting such an interesting spin on this topic.

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Teri Malo August 17, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I would like to pose another situation that can arise between an artist and their galleries. I am in a number of galleries and choose to send all retail sales to my galleries so that I can just paint. The issue is what to do when a potential client contacts me through my website/blog and asks to buy directly from me. I respond by telling them that I am under contract with my galleries and, that the galleries wil take good careo f them. Through my blog, they can even link my galleries’ websites. The problem is when they keep coming back to me instead of going to the galleries. I am not a salesperson, and don’t want the hassle of retail (sales tax, quarterly reporting, shipping, etc.). Any suggestions on how to diplomatically handle the situation would be helpful.

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Jeni Bate August 20, 2013 at 5:11 am

Teri – perhaps explaining to the client you are not set up for retail – don’t have a business license to do retail from your home (if that is where your studio is), maybe not set up for credit card payments and as you said – don’t have a retail tax license. I no longer sell work in my home county since the downturn in the economy – they have an exorbitant business license fee, and it’s just not economic to do small-volume business here!

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Michael Rieger August 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Very well said. Good partnerships are worth the commissions and create longer term profits for all.

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Tina Holden August 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm

I am very interested in reading all the points here and a great subject! I had a wonderful beadembroidered collar that an opera singer bought at a Gallery. The Gallery would not tell me her name (which I wanted for my portfolio), but requested a commissioned hand piece to go with the collar. They took the full 45% on this which I thought was very unfair since I had to go take time out to do this asap and to certain specs. Told the Gallery that in this case a 10% ‘finders fee’ would be more appropriate but they said ‘no’. Since I wanted to make the ‘full’ set for the purchaser I kind of felt blackballed into getting this done. Wondering how I should handle this in the future?

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Tina – this would be another great topic for a blog post. In short though, it is rare that a gallery will reveal collector information to the artist. In an ideal world we would all be able to share information openly and you would be able to have all of the client’s information. Unfortunately, galleries have been burned when an unscrupulous artist takes client information and begins marketing to the collector directly.

Also not uncommon for a gallery to ask for full commission on custom pieces where they are coordinating the transaction. I would point you to my post and the discussion at http://www.reddotblog.com/wordpress/index.php/ask-a-gallery-owner-why-do-galleries-get-such-high-commissions/

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Jeni Bate August 20, 2013 at 5:19 am

There is one gallery I frequently work with during the summer. They do not allow me to give my promo material – even when I demonstrate in the gallery. While I am quite happy to pay them commission for a client gained during the demonstration who purchases later, from several interested potential customers’ attitudes when I explained I couldn’t give them business cards or brochures and they would need to contact me through the gallery only, I feel that we have both lost those customers because of this limitation. Or they will google my name, contact me through my website in a few months and when I ask them where they first found my work they will not remember. Then, when they buy directly from me and the gallery will sadly be the loser.

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Dawn Russell August 18, 2013 at 11:27 am

Jason,
Thank you for the work you’ve done in helping artists become successful, and tangential to that, providing a lot of insight to gallery owners!
As and artist and the owner of a newer gallery (2.5 yrs), representing many wonderful LOCAL artists, I’ve learned a great deal from your writings, about selling art, and the gallery/artist relationship.
I’m located in an extremely popular area for summer tourism in Northern Michigan. Although there are many special challenges in representing local artists (as i’m learning!), I would love to continue this local emphasis that has made Gallery 22 very popular with visiting customers.
Jason, thank you for your generosity in sharing hard-earned knowledge… I would love to hear thoughts from you and/or your many insightful participants in this blog!

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Terry Bray August 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I fully believe that the relationship between the artist and the gallery is one that has to be maintained as a win-win. This requires an artist to accept the fact that we are talking about the BUSINESS of art. This is the left-brain, black & white, bone-dry, eye-glazed-over part of having a gallery relationship that most artists HATE. It’s not fun, nor creative and lots of artists just can’t do it! This is where I suggest a business friend may be of help to an artist. As an artist myself I am very protective of other artists and their business endeavors. I gotta look out for my peeps! Easily, and often, artists become overwhelmed and taken advantage of when trying to get their art into a gallery. Way too often galleries are no more trust worthy than the shady used car dealer down the street! With that said, I have to also say that this entire article has been a GREAT discussion on topic(s) that I personally deal with…constantly. I have served the arts community in a variety of ways for over 30 years using the Left & Right side of my brain. A little bit of my background: I am an artist and have sold my work independently and through galleries. I have also been on the “left brain” business side of the art world by being in the position of Director of a fine art bronze foundry and Production Manager of another fine art foundry, producing limited edition fine art bronze sculptures for an international clientele. I have been the Manager of 3 different art galleries and currently am the art Curator (for the past 4 years) of one of the largest galleries in Ventura County, California. At this gallery I show fine art for sale in 3 shows a year, consisting of 11-14 artists in each show, exhibiting 65-85 pieces of work in each show. The viewing audience consists of more than 100,000 people per year from all over the world. So how do I operate? I have a plain-English, user friendly contract for each artist in EACH show. This contract addresses their short term and long term relationship agreements with me regarding commissions paid on in-gallery and out-of-gallery sales within specific time limits. The contract also addresses MY needs as a gallery and specifies the expectations I have of the artist. (i.e. the delivery of their art and the removal of their art so I do not become a “warehouse”.) As for “territorial issues” of what and where an artist I am showing can show elsewhere, all I ask is that if the art is the same art (i.e. limited edition work of the same image) that it not be closer than a 5 mile radius to my gallery. If they are wanting to show different work than what I have then I don’t concern myself with where else they want to show. Arrangements, agreements, understandings can become very misconstrued when only done verbally. What was said may not be what was remembered or not mean what you thought it meant! When the agreement is in writing, each party is clear on each others expectations. My personal goal is to assist the artist in being successful in their career, while both of us make money to put food on the table and mutually promote the importance of art. This makes it for a long term win-win relationship if both parties are honest and forthright. When I find out that an artist has been underselling me out of their studio, on the internet, at an event, etc. (and this has happened more than once!) I do not invite them back to show again in my gallery. Why should I? This dishonesty by the artist not only stains their reputation but can also compromise my reputation and integrity regarding fair pricing to consumers. The pricing of the artwork that I show is the price it would be out of the artist’s studio, on the internet or anywhere else. When you (the artist) maintain your pricing galleries and consumers know that they are getting the best deal. Another perspective is that the gallery incurs expenses 24/7/365. This is a component that many artists do not realize or accept as a reality. Having a retail establishment is EXPENSIVE! Rent, insurance, utilities, payroll, maintenance, and then some… is incurred by the gallery, daily, regardless if there are sales or not, regardless if the doors are open or not! So the commission a gallery gets usually has little profit in it after their incurred expenses are deducted. Overall if a gallery refuses to put anything in writing I suggest you don’t show in that gallery. The red flag has been raised!

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Terry – thanks for the excellent input. I love the idea that an artist needs to be able to look at this side of things as a business, and if they just aren’t able to do this, they should find an advocate or councilor who can help them look at things objectively. It’s so easy to get caught up in the emotion of a given situation that you might make a decision you later regret.

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Richard Smith August 18, 2013 at 12:37 pm

It would be interesting to hear what a client would think of the situation. They might not take it too well to find out the gallery believes they have a perpetual hold on them. Seems this is one of those “gentlemen agreements” where the artist and the gallery don’t reveal to the client what’s going on behind the scenes but a galleries arrangement with a client could sour quickly if the client felt they were being treated as a cash cow. As has been said before, is it felt the gallery deserves a commission? If I’ve got a gallery that busts their butt to get me sales, sure they probably do. But if I’m doing most of the work, forget it.

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Agreed Richard. The continued commission only makes sense if the gallery continues to maintain the relationship and provide service to the customer. What I’m suggesting is that the artist should try and give the gallery that generated the lead the opportunity to do so. If the gallery doesn’t keep up the relationship, neither the artist nor the collector should feel any obligation to the gallery, and frankly should be thinking about finding a representative that will do a better sales job.

I guess that ultimately what I’m suggesting is that the client should see the gallery and the artist as one entity (the partnership that I mentioned in my post literally makes this possible) and should feel that both are working to fulfill their needs.

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Bill Lee August 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm

There is little doubt that the extent to which a gallery and an artist work well together does and should drive the consideration each has for the other. And yet unfortunately there are opportunists and bullies on either side.
As an artist who has never worked in or owned a gallery and who has never had the clout necessary to be a bully, my point of view is necessarily colored by my position in the food chain. That said there are some circumstances that might, in my view, play into the treatment a gallery receives from an artist and possibly rightly so.

1. How much time, effort, and expense does the gallery put into the artist, relative to that of the artist?
2. How does an artist get and maintain his position in the gallery?
a. Certainly there are galleries that collect artists just so that they will have control over the market.
b. Probably many of you know that there are galleries that charge artists to show or somehow represent their work,
knowing full well that that artist does not stand to recoup their investment, let alone make a good living through
the relationship.
c. Then there are also galleries that pay the rent and hang things, but leave everything else to the artist.
3. At some point most gallery artists are in the position where the gallery is all powerful and as such not to be
trifled with. That hardly leaves them in a position to negotiate changes in contracts. The vast majority of us never
progress beyond that point, and as such sign on the dotted line with (possibly underserved) gratitude and without
protest.
4. Just a few of the scenarios that would sooner or later grace this discussion.

Possibly a partial answer to the dilemmas that arise would be contracts that relate only to specific pieces of art for specific periods of time.

In closing I would like to throw one example into the pot for consideration. There is a gallery in town that has for decades been known as one of the best locally. We have been on a first name basis for many years and they have shown and represented my work on different occasions over a good period that time. I recently brought new work (to the gallery manager). The work branched off from one of the two avenues I have been pursuing for years. She and the group she consults when making decisions all loved it and wanted to fit it into their show schedule. The show happened and a few pieces sold at the opening. (In fact she remarked that it was good to be selling again.) A couple of months ago, which was well over a year after the show I told her that I had a fair body of work along that same line which was new since the show. Her answer: “Well, I will look at it.” With an obvious “but” hanging there.
I will always have a fondness for the gallery (especially the owner) and am unaware of any factors that would keep them from showing my work at their convenience when they think it might work well for them. The consideration in my mind is what degree of allegiance I should feel toward them as a gallery.

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Another great comment Bill – thank you. As far as allegiance to the gallery, they haven’t yet committed to the relationship, so it doesn’t exist in any real way. You should pursue any leads that come your way. At the same time, you can continue to court the gallery and keep them up to date on your latest work. If they do eventually commit, then you can reposition your marketing efforts to direct future clients back to the gallery.

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Jason Horejs August 18, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Wow – overwhelmingly awesome comments everyone. I appreciate the time, effort and thought that have gone into your comments. And within the comments are seeds for dozens of additional discussions, along with a great deal of additional food for thought.

I do want to through one more thought into the mix. I can see how this could be different in every artist/gallery relationship, but what happens in our gallery typically is that we continue to cultivate and nurture the relationship with the client. If the client doesn’t see what they are looking for in the gallery, it’s us that goes to the artist to find alternatives. If the client wants a commission, we coordinate the details and handle the logistics. In other words, we stay very actively involved in the sales process. This is what I mean by continuing to earn the commission. I wouldn’t want you to think that I am suggesting that the gallery deserves to passively continue to earn a commission.

I hope that we are very good at maintaining those relationships and providing service and value to the client. I also hope that the artist, if approached directly by a customer who discovered the work in our gallery, will direct the client back to us not only because they feel some obligation to do so, but because they believe we will provide the client with an outstanding level of service and will help ensure that the customer goes on to become a collector because of the work that we’ve put into the relationship.

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Mary Iselin September 5, 2013 at 7:50 am

I feel that your paragraphs about RESPECT between artist and gallery say it all. I am always very happy to give a GOOD, professionally run gallery, which actively promotes my work, its well-deserved commission. I love these galleries, and I value our relationship. I have also noticed that these galleries are always the most fair in the discussion about who owes what to whom, because they, too, value the relationship.

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