Should Galleries Split Commissions?

Debate: Should Art Galleries Split Commissions?

by Jason Horejs on August 15, 2013 · 60 comments

I recently received an email from an artist who ran into a bit of a dilemma (or at least she thought she did). She had been showing a piece of art in a gallery in her home town for a number of months. When the piece didn’t sell, she rotated the piece, along with several others, to a gallery out of town. A short time later, she received a call from the first gallery saying that a client had come in and was interested in purchasing this particular piece of art and wondered if it was still available.

The artist’s question to me was, “What should I do if the piece sells through the first gallery? Should I pay the second gallery part of the commission since it is now in their possession? How do I handle the situation without stepping on anyone’s toes?”

I’ve heard countless variations of this question over the years, and I’ve heard reports of artists who have experienced real problems related to the issue. It would be great if there was some kind of universal standard of how to deal with the split commission, and a guidebook that we could all get the rules from; unfortunately, there isn’t. Each gallery seems to have a different opinion and every situation seems to require a different approach.

I like to think I let common sense be my guide in this area, but I guess common sense is a pretty subjective thing. Here is my approach, and what I would have said if I were the second gallery in the above scenario (and I have been in exactly this position on a number of occasions). As far as commissions go, I have a simple philosophy: if our gallery was actively involved and helpful in making the sale, I expect a commission. If we weren’t, I don’t.

In other words, if an artist calls me and says, “One of my other galleries has a client who is interested in purchasing a piece you have in inventory, will you expect a commission?” my answer is “No, just tell me how I can facilitate the shipment of the artwork.” I believe that a commission is earned by the gallery when we are actively promoting and displaying the work and working to sell it to our customers. If another gallery sells the piece, I don’t feel I’ve earned that commission.

I know that a counter-argument would be that by removing the art from my inventory, the artist and other gallery have prevented me from having the opportunity to sell the piece and generate revenue for my gallery. This is certainly true, but in my experience, there are no guaranteed sales, and I may not have sold the piece anyway. The mere fact that the piece is in my possession doesn’t, I feel, entitle me to a commission. As long as the artist can replace the inventory in a reasonable time, I have no problem with the artist making the sale through the other gallery. I understand that every sale is critical, and I would never want to stand in the way.

Caveat: If I’ve invested advertising dollars by placing the piece in an ad or catalog, the issue becomes a bit more complicated. In addition to the overhead involved in carrying the artwork in the gallery, I now have an additional investment in the piece. I would argue that even if I don’t deserve the full commission, I should at least expect that the promotional costs would be reimbursed.

I guess that my guide in these kinds of circumstances is a simple old rule, a golden rule, that goes something like this

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

I would hope that if the tables were turned and I had a client come back interested in a piece I no longer had in my inventory, the gallery that now had the piece in their possession would be just as accommodating as I try to be.

As for the artist who emailed me, she did end up selling the piece through the first gallery, and her concerns ended up being for naught. Even though she had come up with a whole strategy for splitting the commission, when she asked the second gallery if they would mind if she sold the piece through the first, they didn’t even bat an eyelash and gladly shipped the piece back to the other gallery.

What Do You Think?

What has your experience been in splitting commissions? How do you think a situation like this should be handled? How have galleries you’ve worked with handled the situation? If you are a gallery owner, what is your approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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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 }

Melissa B Tubbs August 15, 2013 at 9:32 am

Jason, I think you’re right. If a second gallery didn’t have anything to do with the sale, they shouldn’t expect a commission. And, yes, I agree that the gallery should be reimbursed any advertising expenses explicitly done for the art work. I think we all work harder than we realize to complicate things that, as you said, just needs some common sense. Real common sense is not that subjective.

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Pat Sharp August 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

sales?commissions? I vaguely remember………..

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Jason Horejs August 15, 2013 at 9:54 am

One problem at a time, right Pat!

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margaret bobb August 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

Wow…I continue to learn from you, Jason! I have not had this experience. I guess it will now be something to talk about when I make a contract with a gallery. I appreciate you so much!

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JANE TROUP August 15, 2013 at 10:56 am

I’ve had this come up & it was a problem that ended a relationship. I’ve also worried about this with new galleries, but it ended up with the new gallery not expecting a commission. Thanks for this topic!

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Richard Smith August 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Good philosophy. If you helped sell it, you deserve something, if you didn’t help you shouldn’t receive anything. A problem similar to someone coming to your studio looking to buy a piece after viewing your work in a gallery. The gallery promoted your work and so deserve a split. If the client came directly to the artist without any connection to the gallery, then I don’t feel the gallery should get a split. Some galleries feel they should get something from all sales of their artists work.

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Jason Horejs August 15, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I agree Richard – it’s a brave new world where artists have more direct access to clients. I also believe that if the connection was created by the gallery, the gallery deserves a commission, but not if they weren’t involved. In essence, the artist has become a gallery representing themselves.

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TBiggs August 17, 2013 at 9:43 am

How about this scenario: A collector calls me out of the blue. She was introduced to my my work via my nephew who sold her a piece of veterinary equipment in my area. I suggested she first go to the gallery which represents some of my work, being that she was going to be near the gallery on a particular day. I suggested if she did not see anything there she is more than welcome to visit my studio. She visited the gallery, liked a piece or two there but was more inclined to visit the studio, which she did the very same day. We spent several hours combing through my inventory sample books (I have over 700 pieces of art stored in moveable 10′ racks and therefore impossible to go through every physical piece). She chose several paintings which I pulled from inventory. She made two selections to purchase, 1 oil on paper which I offered to frame for her on the spot. The question: is the gallery entitled to anything? It was basically my connection which introduced me to the client, I prompted her to go to the gallery first to give them an opportunity to make the sale, but it came down to the visit to my studio that she found the pieces she was attracted to the most. I absolutely adore the gallery owners I work with but still feel that this was my deal. What are your thoughts? Stay well and thanks for the consistent information.

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Mary Aslin August 18, 2013 at 10:55 am

I think you did exactly the right thing. If the point of initial contact comes through the gallery–if your gallery had sent this person to you–then you would have an obligation to pay the gallery a commission. But, this contact came from you. Your graciousness, in suggesting that she go to the gallery first, given it was convenient for her and would also benefit the gallery, speaks to your ethics. I’m sure your gallery owners love you too….

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Desley Rolph August 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with the situation you outlined Jason. I have had it come up a couple of times and my galleries have done as you suggested. I did have a sticky situation once, although it eventually worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. I had a painting in a gallery and a client from another gallery who saw it on my personal website, approached the other gallery about its availability. This lady was a loyal customer to this gallery and did not want to approach the gallery holding the piece. So the gallery approached the gallery holding the piece and they decided to split the commission between themselves.

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Lese Corrigan August 15, 2013 at 1:52 pm

When I have a client who wishes to purchase a piece that has moved on to another gallery, I contact the gallery and offer to split the gallery commission with them. If it is a piece of mine, I facilitate the sale. If a piece has moved on to me and the prior gallery has a client then I offer to facilitate. If I have invested advertising, invitation printing and mailout highlighting the piece, I usually have included that aspect in the discussion/agreement with the artist before it leaves the gallery. If I send a client to another gallery to find a piece of art, I expect nothing. When I am aware that another dealer sends a client to me for any specific artist’s work, I plan on giving a 10% finders’ fee.

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Jason Horejs August 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Great input Lese – you’re approach seems very reasonable, and I think the finder’s fee is also a great idea.

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Lese Corrigan August 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Thank you Jason – especially as our world becomes smaller, much due to the internet, it means we are all one community and we have to live and continue to work with each other. Charleston, as wonderful and highly visited as it is, is a very small community!

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Calvin August 15, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I agree with you Jason. Whoever had an active hand in selling the piece should get the commission. However, it becomes more sticky when you are dealing with internet sales… For example, all pieces are on my own site… but some are on other sites (although only mine and one other at a time). If someone contacts me through email or comes into the studio inquiring about a piece, I try to ascertain where they found out about me and my work. If they say the internet, I try and get them to figure out which site they saw it own, my site or the other it might be on. If the answer is mine, I don’t worry about it. But, if they say they saw it on the other site I figure that site owes the commission even if they did not actually facilitate the sale or handle the dollar transaction through their site. I am not sure what other artists do, but that is what I would believe…

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.)

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Jason Horejs August 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Profound question Cal – and I’m going to take up the internet sale question on a future blog post – it deserves it’s own discussion.

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Julie Bernstein Engelmann August 15, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Oh Jason, you must answer the “forever-commission” question! This seems to be much trickier than the original question you posed. Certainly most galleries try to preempt this ethical issue by not divulging the collector’s name to the artist. In other words, it is extremely clear to the gallery what the answer to this question is. However, with artists having web sites, it is easy for the collector to contact the artist directly. The farther down the road this occurs, the bigger the question mark gets for the artist whether they really need to cut the gallery into the deal. In fact, some artists don’t even have a question mark about it. Your thoughts?

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Adrienne Tybjerg August 15, 2013 at 9:40 pm

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.

I had one gallery owner say he wanted to buy a painting almost two years after the show. But it had been shown other places, and he wanted it less the commission and at the same price. At the time he had it I had low-balled everything because I desperately needed money. The total would not have even covered the materials involved, and only a fool would think a gallery owner would not be aware of this. I wrestled with making it a gift or saying no. In the end, I decided that I loved the painting too much to sell it, and respect and trust are too important especially to business relationships. A gallery owner asking for a commission after too much time has passed, or the buyer didn’t see it in their gallery, is a bit disingenuous.

It might make sense for artists to be clear about this if it is not spelled out in the agreement and there is yet no norm.

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Bill Inman Art August 16, 2013 at 4:06 am

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. I agree with everything else you wrote Jason.

ecc August 16, 2013 at 5:16 am

The internet sale will be interesting. With respect to the gallery owners and each of their guidelines, I would certainly not like to cause disrespect and a negative ripple effect in the art industry. An online gallery that has branched the artist with new connections should have a percentage. However if the online gallery is already taking monthly installments from that artist perhaps not. Compound that with a gallery sale of the online artwork and complications begin. Lets step it up to say… that an artwork is on several online galleries as well as the artist own gallery and in publications … what say thee then?

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William Park August 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm

What would you do if the artist sold the painting (not through another gallery) and not in your marketing area? Would you feel the same way?

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Jason Horejs August 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Absolutely – if the artist sold it to one of their clients, I wouldn’t expect a commission. If one of my clients contacted them directly after having seen it in the gallery, I would expect commission.

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David Gomm August 15, 2013 at 3:36 pm

As stained glass artists, we can simply make another one using the same colors in the design. It’s one of the few times that being a handmade, reproducible medium works in our favor.

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Aaron bryant August 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Less emotional sensitivity on this subject would clear up the muddy waters. Whomever sells it gets commission. If a peice moves to another gallery it is now that gallery’s chance to sell. Regardless of how long it takes. Don’t forget galleries spent alot of time and money making sure they are in the right area, and have the right traffic in the show space. If an artwork sells in any given gallery its because many factors came together all at once. If a good piece sits in a gallery for many months without s sale, then rapidly sells at another location its evidence of failure in the previous gallery.

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Catherine Stone August 17, 2013 at 9:06 am

I absolutely disagree that no sale shows “fault”. If a buyer walks through the door and buys something I just hung this week…that means it was the right buyer for the piece…if it had been there 6 months, they still would have bought it…and if the artist would have pulled it out the day before…they would have lost the sale and it would have seemed the gallery blew it. I have had things hang that I thought were unsaleable…and then one day, the stars align and it sells. The way to find fault with the gallery is if they do not generate reliable foot traffic or do not generate sales for any artists or works. The example of one good piece not selling does not define fault.

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marion August 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

The gallery I am represented by wants 40% on works I receive a commission for and they have never had in the gallery. I do not agree with this and would not even let them know if it occurred.

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Julie Bernstein Engelmann August 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Interesting situation. Are you talking about being commissioned by a client to make a painting for them? If the client found me through the gallery, then I would want to give the gallery their commission off my commission (oh man I wish those were two different words!). But if the client found me independently, that would be crazy for the gallery to expect a commission. However, if that was their way of doing business I would drop them rather than lie to them.

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Dara Daniel August 15, 2013 at 4:47 pm

I totally agree with how you would do it. Honestly, sometimes it seems(in general)like there or no real rules or regulations regarding the art world. But, I would like the gallery that I am associated with to be ethical, understanding and respectful in all transactions and, I feel that this is what you are talking about. Also, as an artist I know it goes both ways.

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Carol Fairlie August 15, 2013 at 5:20 pm

I am in the business of making art; I pay someone else to sell it. With a 50% commission, I expect the gallery to hustle for me and market my work. If I am in a non-commercial gallery, I usually pay 30% and deal with the customer myself.
The way I understand commissions, if I sell it through a gallery they get the commission. Unless I have a contract for a specific work to be show exclusively, I just trade out work and give the commission to the gallery that sells the work. I also pay the gallery if a client comes to my studio because of the gallery.

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Joyce Wynes August 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm

This a lot of food for thought especially since I am going to be contacting some galleries soon for representation. Do you think that this should all be spelled out in a contract before hand or do you think that would spook the gallery owner? I just want to be represented by ethical, respectful galleries and it is my opinion that this should all be settled before the contract is signed. There are so many factors involved today and I agree with you Jason, if you really look at the situation and use common sense, the matter should not be an issue but there are all types of people in the world and just because we look at this one way, I am sure that there are going to be disagreements if everything is not spelled out clearly.

When I was doing illustration you always made a contract with the client before starting work. That was how work-for-hire finally got written out of contracts about 10-15 years ago-because illustrators banded together and wouldn’t sign contracts with that included. It is always better to have everything clear so that misunderstandings do not occur.

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AnnE Dentler August 17, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Finally a mention of a “contract”! I use a standard contract, stating that if I sell a painting previously hung at this gallery within 30 days of removal from the gallery, and it was due to the efforts of this gallery, then I will pay them 10% of the sale price, and the other 30% will go to the present gallery in which the painting hangs. It is worth the extra 10% to have the good will of gallery #1, and it’s referrals. Never close a door you may want to walk back through again!

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The Artist Hines August 15, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I wondered how did the client see the painting in the first place. I try to make sure that when I take a painting out of one gallery and put it in another that the first gallery removes any image they may have on their website that a visitor to their gallery might see. I do that because the painting I removed is now commissioned to the second gallery. It makes it much easier. The exception is if someone saw it at the first gallery before it was removed and made a decision to buy after it was removed. It is also good to stipulate this kind of situation in your gallery agreement or at least inquire their policy when you begin doing business with the gallery.

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Dawn Sutherland August 16, 2013 at 4:36 am

Well that is exactly what happened. I took it out, placed it in the co-op gallery, then heard the potential buyers might still be interested. Worrying that someone might walk in to the co-op gallery, fall in love with it, and purchase it, I took it out the following day to avoid such complications. The last I heard from the first gallery the “somewhat-interested” potential buyers wanted to know the outside measurements. I responded to the gallery director and still nothing. So the painting hangs in my studio in a sort of purgatory. Our Open Studios Tour is scheduled next weekend and I would like to make this painting available to the folks on the tour. The voices in my head tell me it might be prudent to let the director of the first gallery know of my intent. She would be able to communixate that to the seemingly-interested buyers, gently and tactfully telling them that if the snooze on this one they may lose.

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Kanika Marshall August 15, 2013 at 8:18 pm

There is no other interpretation. I agree with you 100%

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Aïda Schneider August 15, 2013 at 9:11 pm

Here’s another situation: a gallery client bought my painting from the gallery. On another occasion they come to my studio and buy another painting either previously shown at the gallery but not seen by them there, or buy a painting never shown at the gallery. In either case, do I owe a commission to the gallery?

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K. Henderson August 15, 2013 at 9:17 pm

I was actually thrown out of a gallery because of a situation like this! I had one of my higher priced paintings in Gallery #1. It didn’t sell and I sent it to Gallery #2. About a week later I got a call from #1. A Client had seen the piece in #1 and now wanted to buy it. The galleries were not willing to share the commission with each other, both wanted their 50%. My choice was ‘No Sale’ (This was a high priced piece and had remained Unsold for quite a while) or ask for the painting back from #2 and let #1 sell it. I guess my third choice was to let the 2 galleries both get their commissions and me get NOTHING! Anyway, I chose the sale at #1 and gallery #2 threw me out of their gallery. Too bad, too because I was one of their top selling artists. Did I make the right choice? Who knows. Neither of these galleries is still in business and I continue to make my living with my paintings.

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Dman August 17, 2013 at 2:10 pm

You are in a better position now to find a reasonable gallery as both past galleries deserve to be out of business, in my opinion. 50% is unconscionable.

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Cheryl Holz August 15, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I have had this situation before and it ended badly. Started up with a gallery and gave them a dozen pieces. 6 months later, a collector contacted me and wanted to buy a large painting they had seen at a fair (that i paid a very hefty booth fee to participate in) . She had been following me for years and finally decided to commit. The new gallery owner not only wanted 50%, but refused to ship it. I ended up having to drive 7 hours on short notice to retrieve all of my pieces.

Your perspective is very refreshing Jason! if you worked to make the sale, you deserve the commission. If you invested in printing /publishing, you deserve to be compensated. I completely agree! But it is unnerving when galleries act like pieces left on commission are property of the gallery, which has been my experience in the past. Since learning these hard lessons, I try to always have a contract in place before leaving works anywhere. By definition, pieces left on commission remain the property of the artist until paid for. If they want the freedom to do with them what they will-there is an easy answer-buy them outright! Of course, as we know, thats not a normal occurrence in this industry….

Thanks for your ongoing conversation jason!

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Margaret Evans August 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Oh what a tangled web we weave! I have had similar problems in the UK and managed to resolve them without falling out with galleries, mainly by the common sense approach that Jason applied regarding the input of the gallery.

It is in our own best interests as artists to work with the galleries, and appreciate the exposure they give us, and how much their commission is earned. But lately, a bigger problem has been with some of my galleries who don’t update sales on their website, don’t let the artist know something has been sold, and ‘sit’ on the money for months on end…it seems as busy artists trying to make a living, we must also ‘police’ the galleries weekly to see if anything has sold, and this does not inspire confidence or trust, which is part of an important relationship we rely on with the galleries we chose to work with. This is an ongoing problem these days as everyone seems to be having ‘cash flow problems’ and yet the artist is expected to live on fresh air while we wait!

Another problem I had with a very up-market gallery was this….I took a client on an 80-mile round journey to see a gallery which had the best of my recent work, only to find no paintings on the wall. When I enquired ( hopefully thinking they had all been sold!) she informed me that they were wrapped up in the stockroom for returning to me, and nobody had thought to tell me! Needless to say, we fell out, yet I had enjoyed a good ratio of selling through this gallery.
I think it’s fair to say we all want a good and fair relationship with galleries, and work together more. I am now being more selective with galleries over here, and scarily starting to deal with overseas galleries now – fingers crossed!

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John Kemple August 16, 2013 at 12:19 am

It Is an interesting question. Not surprising that an art gallery would try to get an additional piece of the artist pie. The question is quite ridiculous. If you sell the art you get a commission, if you didn’t sell it than you get nothing. The good news is the second gallery now has a piece that they know will sell. Though the artist may then have second thoughts of moving the art back to the previous gallery. This may in fact be why the question comes up at all.
Artists should include in the contract a sliding scale on the commission paid, less if the piece doesn’t sell in a timely manner, or more if they sell it very quickly. Galleries have lived off the artist talents for well, forever. Most galleries do an excellent job of showing, promoting, and really pushing the artist work. These galleries should be well compensated. However, all artists should hold the gallery accountable and agree to commissions that fit the sales record.
As a foundry owner, I would have suggested that they make another piece for the first gallery, and then informed the second gallery that the commission should be less on this obviously very hot item!..lol
An artist without a gallery still has a chance to sell their work, a gallery without art is an empty building.

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Rani Garner August 16, 2013 at 2:50 am

This has happened several times, and the galleries I work with have been more than gracious in letting the painting go, even shipping it for me. It all comes back around.

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Elizabeth Cavanaugh August 16, 2013 at 3:01 am

I think the gallery that actually sells it
should get it if their staff facilitated the
sale.

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Sylvia Doucet Stanton August 16, 2013 at 6:29 am

Hi , I have rented a room in a gallery for 11 years but I also sell on ebay and other galleries at the same time. I pay $500 a month rent for my studio gallery which is in a very good location in a very artsy gulf coast town. If they sell my painting they take 25% commission. If I sell it on ebay I pick it up and even tell them I have sold it on ebay or somewhere else. They ask for no commission when I do this. Once a month they have a reception. I hold a separate reception in my own studio gallery room . If I sell something myself that night I pay no commission. If a client comes back the next day and buys it thru them I pay their commission . We have a great relationship.
I have 65 painting in the room and change out one wall every month. I have also shown in NYC and SF at the Montserrat Gallery and Artist Alley Gallery. Shown at 2 New Orleans Galleries until Katrina closed both. I even had to wait 9 months for my Bay St Louis Gallery to reopen after Katrina.
It’s been a hard road for a 77 year old artist. You can see my web site at http://www.sylviastanton.com I have only had 1 sale from my web site in 4 years .

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Jeremiah Johnson August 16, 2013 at 7:50 am

I deal with this issue much more than I’d like to with 3 different galleries. It seems that none of them can come to grips with a set standard for this issue. I try to make enough work to keep them all happy, But a lot does depend on the particular piece and promotion of it. Promotion is an investment. It’s always more complicated then it has to be. For some, 10% commission (of the 50%) to the first gallery that exhibited a particular piece is enough, but then others start demanding 25% just out of possession. I always cringe when I find these galleries running into each other, and do my best to keep them out of contact. I really wish there was a set standard for this issue to keep galleries from fighting like children. I live by the “do unto others” principle myself and will still give 10% commission to the gallery that exhibited the work first even if I set up a show at a college or university, and now find the various works from out of territory exhibitions have commissions assigned to various galleries.

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Deb B August 16, 2013 at 8:29 am

I look at it this way, once a piece is removed from inventory from a gallery it is no longer theirs to sell. It’s the same as if say Walmart sells a particular vacuum cleaner and then the vacuum company takes their product and moves to Kmart because Walmart isn’t selling any or enough. And Kmart sells the vacuum like hotcakes because of maybe it’s location is just better or the clientele are different, better marketing–who knows? Should Walmart be able to take a cut? Doubt that would happen! To me it’s no different within a gallery setting.

What about contracts that prevent an artist from rotating their art amongst galleries in the first place. Or a contract that states how long a gallery can exhibit a piece and if a piece is not sold within X months then the artist has the right to remove it and take it to another gallery. Seems like upfront contracts would lesson all the hassles, worries and arguments.

If art is moved to another gallery, the gallery who used to have the art just politely tells the customer they no longer have it in their possession but ..the artist might still have it …here’s their contact information. Then the artist can let the customer know where the piece can be purchased at.

Then if you consider how much effort the first gallery put into it….. Were they actively selling and smoozing with the customer regarding that piece and eventually the customer came back for it? Or did the customer just happen to have seen it there and later came back and wanted it. Not much ‘selling’ going on in the later case. Yet the new gallery could have invested lots of money advertising it and they would get nothing or have to share the commission? Doesn’t seem right either.

Seems like upfront contracts would lesson all the hassles, worries and arguments.

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Jason Horejs August 16, 2013 at 11:18 am

Deb, you’re right that having something in writing could help.

I think what you’ll find the gallery arguing though is that your statement

“Or did the customer just happen to have seen it there and later came back and wanted it. Not much ‘selling’ going on in the later case”

doesn’t describe how they feel about the situation. After all, they are spending thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars to have a gallery location where a client can “just happen to see it”.

I’m afraid that your suggestion that the gallery send the client to the artist isn’t going to happen. The gallery instead would just say “it’s no longer available.”

Have a look at today’s post on a related topic, Debate: Do Galleries Deserve Perpetual Commissions for Sales to Clients They Discovered?.

Thanks for your comment!

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William Lesch August 16, 2013 at 8:54 am

I have been in this exact situation numerous times as the artist, with many variations, and I heartily applaud your viewpoint on this. I have seen sales of my work nearly disappear in the past because galleries and consultants could not agree on how to split up the commission. The sense that all of us are in this together; artists, galleries, consultants, and even the collectors, and that all of us must live by the golden rule is the bottom line. Yes, sometimes it gets complicated, but it boils down to respect for each other, as in any relationship. A gallery that has done the work to promote it’s artists, to get their name and the work out there, deserves to be compensated for their time and expense, and collectors who find an artist through that promotion and then attempt to go around the gallery and buy direct deserve no more respect than the artists who accept that promotion and then seek to circumvent the gallery. Neither one is being honest.

I would like to suggest another situation, related to this, that I would like to see you address. Given the increasing use of the internet, both by artists and by collectors, it is sometimes difficult to determine how someone came in contact with the work. My first question to someone who contacts me direct is always to ask if they saw it at a specific show or gallery, and if so, then the sale must go through that gallery. What is becoming more common, however, is someone from out of state contacting me over the internet wanting to see a selection of work. Usually they are familiar with at least one aspect or body of work, other times maybe they have just seen one piece and they are not sure where. I create a lightbox or send them website links, and they come back wanting to buy a piece, or sometimes pieces. As a gallery owner, do you feel it is my responsibility to turn that sale over to you and in effect give you a commission you did not earn and that I could keep for myself simply for fulfilling the sale, and of course also running the risk they might return the piece and all the other things involved in completing the sale?

Many collectors seem to derive some satisfaction from dealing directly with the artist. Maybe they think they are getting a better deal, maybe they like the personal interaction of the direct sale, maybe they want to see all their money going to support the artist and feel like by buying direct they are being more like a patron than a customer – most likely it is some combination of all these things. As the artist, the only one of these three things I am wanting to avoid is the person who is consciously going around a specific gallery that they know represents me to save a few bucks. Those who want to be patrons, who are fans of my work and who want to buy direct and support me in continuing my work, these people I love and need. They are the ones that keep me and my family eating and it is very difficult to reply to them with a note that says something like, thanks for your interest in my work, please contact such and such gallery for sales information. I would like to see you address this specific situation, an artist’s relationship to his or her patrons, to long term collectors who are looking for more involvement with the artist and how that may or may not be changing in light of increased communication. – thanks, and I appreciate what you have been doing to try to help artists with learning to do their work and survive by it.

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Catherine Stone August 17, 2013 at 8:51 am

Just a quick complication to this debate is…is retail price retail price? I tell all my artists the price should be the same…whether they sell it, I sell it or a gallery with a higher commission than ours sell it. No one should save money by dealing directly with the artist….that undermines your gallery representation. You just make more on the sale!

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Jason Horejs August 17, 2013 at 11:02 am

Good point Catherine – I didn’t even bring this up because I hope this is a given. If the artist is offering deeply discounted prices it would completely undermine the relationship with all galleries.

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Bernard Poulin August 16, 2013 at 10:47 am

Simple. You trust these galleries to represent you – otherwise you would not have consigned your work to them. Let them do what they do best : sell artwork. It’s up to the 2 galleries to work this arrangement out. It’s not as if this is anything new. As long as they pay you the expected balance, you have nothing to say. Now, go back to the studio and do what you do best – paint. :-)

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Jason Horejs August 16, 2013 at 11:07 am

Excellent advice!

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Erlene August 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Great discussion. I will be adding a timeline and culmination statement to my gallery contracts.

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Catherine Stone August 17, 2013 at 8:45 am

I have sent a buyer to the second gallery ( they saw the piece in our possession) but called the gallery first and told them I was sending them. The second gallery was kind enough to send a check for half the commission without a direct ask. The phone call was enough to start the reciprocle process. We are a nonprofit and they were a commercial gallery. That seems to put us in a different light, tho, and people like to show their support. We sent people through their door, a benefit to them, and we supported our artist..one of our missions.

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Mabel Peck August 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

It all comes down to integrity and ethics. We have poured money into advertising and promotion into several artists just getting their start. Some have moved on to other galleries, the parting has been amicable, but we have never heard anything from some of them after the fact and we know that they have sold pieces we have shown, either out of their studios, or at the new gallery. There is really nothing we can do, just hope that artists we represent presently have the respect for us and honesty to be open about their pursuits. We hope that everything we do is in the best interest of promoting our artists, and of course, our gallery and its reputation.

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TBiggs August 17, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I should have put this at the top. Sorry for the redundant question. How about this scenario: A collector calls me out of the blue. She was introduced to my my work via my nephew who sold her a piece of veterinary equipment in my area. I suggested she first go to the gallery which represents some of my work, being that she was going to be near the gallery on a particular day. I suggested if she did not see anything there she is more than welcome to visit my studio. She visited the gallery, liked a piece or two there but was more inclined to visit the studio, which she did the very same day. We spent several hours combing through my inventory sample books (I have over 700 pieces of art stored in moveable 10′ racks and therefore impossible to go through every physical piece). She chose several paintings which I pulled from inventory. She made two selections to purchase, 1 oil on paper which I offered to frame for her on the spot. The question: is the gallery entitled to anything? It was basically my connection which introduced me to the client, I prompted her to go to the gallery first to give them an opportunity to make the sale, but it came down to the visit to my studio that she found the pieces she was attracted to the most. I absolutely adore the gallery owners I work with but still feel that this was my deal. What are your thoughts? Stay well and thanks for the consistent information.

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Mike Kelly August 17, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Agree. This happens all the time when the gallery is doing it’s job and showing a client additional
work from the artists website.

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Sharon Menary August 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm

I agree, no commission to the second gallery, but reimbursing advertising cost might be a nice overature.

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Steve Alpert August 18, 2013 at 5:54 am

To me this is a question with a simple answer. Whoever sells the painting earns the commission. Having a piece in inventory in the back room or the basement doesn’t mean you made the sale. It just means the painting in question is in inventory. I understand that gallery #1 feels proprietary about a particular artist. They have spent time and money on promotions, advertising, etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have dibs on the artist forever. As individual artists, we create relationships with any different gallery owners. This is the nature of the business as it stand right now. A customer wants to buy the work of that artist in gallery #2, but the painting lives at gallery #1. The right things to do, the gracious thing to do, the thing that makes the most sense to all involved is to do what Jason Horejs suggests; ship the painting to gallery #2 so they can make the sale. The artist is then respected, gallery #2 is respected, and gallery #1′s relationship with the artist remains intact. There are people in the world who have a smaller view of this I am sure. But,
I am more interested in long term relationships with gallery owners, and this would be the the right way to do this, in my opinion.

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Bonnie August 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm

Jason, I have been reflecting on your article for a couple of days. I have always felt the gallery relationship too important to risk (if it is a good relationship to begin with) alienation. When in doubt, just send the commission. That said, I have a situation on which I would love to hear your thoughts.

A couple of years ago, a gentleman saw my work in an exhibit in town and came to the studio to purchase a piece and order two commissions. One of my close artist friend’s studio was just down the hall, so when we finished our meeting I took him to see her work. The studio manager was in the building at the time. The contract we had all signed indicated we owed a commission to her if it was the result of her marketing effort. However, when my client subsequently contacted my artist friend, the manager demanded a commission. To be clear, she was not instrumental in arranging my exhibit elsewhere and my client had never been in the building until he contacted me for a studio visit. There ensued a major disagreement which caused a complete fracture of the relationship between my friend and the manager, both certain of their correct position. In the end the situation became so uncomfortable that my friend found another studio. So, Jason, in your opinion who was right?

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LMS August 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Thanks for posting this topic. I am an artist but I also help run a gallery so I’ve been on both sides of the situation. I recently ran into this scenario however, and it ended badly, and would like an opinion: The gallery I work with signed an artist for a two month contract with the gallery. We insured their work and promoted them. The artist had a client who decided to buy an artwork that was at our gallery (but this client was the artist’s client and had never been into our gallery). The artist called us up, asked for his artwork back so he could sell it to his client (at a reduced fee less our percentage), and did not feel that we were owed any percentage since it was ‘his’ sale, not ours.

As an artist myself, I’ve been in a similar situation where I had a buyer contact me directly for a piece, and if that piece was currently at a show, I had them go through the gallery for the sale and gave the gallery their percentage, even though the buyer was from out of town and had never set foot in the gallery and only knew about my artwork from seeing it online on my website. When I asked for the above artist in the scenerio I mentioned to have his client contact us so we could facilitate the sale, he refused and said he would arrange the sale and he was pulling the works out of the gallery (a month before his contract ended). When I told him his contract stated the work for sale in our gallery for a certain period of time, he said he’d just wait us out and sell the work to the client as soon as he got it back from us.

My question is, do you feel that this is unethical on the part of the artist? The gallery had spent considerable money insuring his work and in time spent promoting him and his artwork. I understand it was ‘his’ buyer, but I wished he had even approached us first to see if we could work out something instead of handling it the way that he did.

What do you think? Were we presuming too much or did he act unethically?

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