Ask A Gallery Owner: Why do Galleries Get Such High Commissions?

“I won’t work with galleries, the commission is too high!”

I frequently hear some variation of this statement as I am conversing with artists. You’ve probably heard fellow artists say something like this as well, or perhaps you’ve even thought it yourself.

Galleries typically take a 50% commission on the sale of two-dimensional artwork- paintings, photos, monotypes, etc., and anywhere from 33.3% to 40% for three-dimensional work. For an artist who feels that they are “starving,” it’s difficult to imagine how it could possibly make sense to “give away” half of their sale price. What could a gallery do that would possibly be worth the commission?

 The truth is, it doesn’t makes sense for every artist to show with galleries.

As a gallery owner, you’d probably expect me to say, “of course it’s worth it!” but my response is actually a little more complicated than that. The truth is, it doesn’t makes sense for every artist to show with galleries, so let’s take just a moment and look at the variables to decide whether it makes sense for you.

The first thing you need to do is forget the question in the title of this post, “why do galleries get such high commissions?” and the related question “are gallery commissions too high?” These questions simply don’t matter because gallery commissions aren’t going down any time soon. You may as well ask “why is gravity such a downer?” or “is gravity too strong?” You might be able to come up with some great arguments against the effects of gravity, and reasons why you should be lighter, but gravity, just like the gallery commission, is immutable.

The correct question is, “do I feel it’s worth it to pay the gallery commission?”

A little math and the answers to a few simple questions should help you decide.

Let’s begin with the math to see what you are really giving up when you pay a gallery commission. In order to do this, we need to understand the value of your art. Let’s create a hypothetical piece of art and consider its value. Let’s say you have a painting, sculpture, photograph or other work of art that you have priced at $1,000. If you sell the art yourself, you’ll get the full $1,000. If a gallery sells it for you they will keep $400-$500, and you’ll make $500-$600.

If that were all the math you had to do, this would be pretty simply because obviously $1,000 is better than $500. We need to dig a little deeper though, and dissect the value to better understand where the original $1,000 value is being created.

I would argue that the value of any piece of art is comprised of two distinct components. One part of the value of the art is created by you as you are in the studio employing your talent and creativity to produce this masterpiece. The second part of the value is created by all of the time, effort, and creativity that goes into marketing, promoting, and selling that work of art.

Which is more difficult, creating the art or selling it? Every artist would have a different answer to this question, but I suspect that a majority of artists feel it’s much easier to create art than it is to sell it.

When you sell the work yourself you’ve done all of the work and you earn the full $1,000 value. If a gallery has sold the work for you, in essence you have hired them to take over the marketing, sales, and customer service for you.

Now, all you have to do is figure out how much value you can create per hour in the studio, vs. how long it takes you to sell a piece of art yourself. If you generate more value in the studio than selling, you should be working toward finding galleries to take over the sales for you.

I have met many artists over the years who are born salespeople as well as great artists. If you, like them, find it easy, fun, and exciting to sell, then securing gallery representation is not going to be your highest priority.

Again, if that were all the math you had to do, this would, I think, be a pretty easy decision. There are other variables to consider, however.

First, getting into galleries takes preparation and work, as does maintaining the gallery relationship (might I humbly recommend my best-selling book, “Starving” to Successful as a guide to this preparation?). There are also costs involved in getting your art to the gallery. These hidden costs need to be taken into account when calculating the viability of selling through galleries.

Second, not all galleries are created equal. Some galleries work hard to earn their commission. They actively promote their artists and engage their buyers. Other galleries seem to take the spider approach by opening their doors and waiting for buyers to get caught in their web. Sometimes fate smiles on the second type of gallery and they sell well due to their location or some other combination of factors, but you are far more likely to be successful in a gallery that’s hard at work. In other words, you want to work with galleries that earn their commission.

Third, early in an artist’s career, it is often difficult to secure good gallery representation simply because the artist hasn’t established her/his reputation. Often artists are forced to pursue their own sales to establish themselves in the marketplace.

Fourth, the art market is rapidly evolving as many tools formerly available only to artists through galleries (brochures, international exposure, the internet) make it possible for artists to promote their work effectively to qualified buyers. As the internet and technology make all of this easier, the calculation changes, and I don’t blame artists for running the numbers to see if it makes more sense to manage their own marketing and sales. I believe that galleries still offer consistent exposure that is difficult to duplicate in the virtual world, but the equation continues to move in the artist’s favor.

If the gallery can eventually sell the work for twice or three times what you would have been able to sell it yourself you end up making more money and doing less work!

Those are all factors that weigh against the gallery relationship. On the “pro” side you should consider that you may gain some credibility in the eyes of your buyers by showing in galleries. Many artists report buyers often ask what galleries they are showing in. It is also often the case that a gallery can sell your art at a higher price than you can sell yourself at art shows or out of the studio. In the long-term, the higher prices a gallery can command change the initial arithmetic pretty dramatically. If the gallery can eventually sell the work for twice or three times what you would have been able to sell it yourself you end up making more money and doing less work!

Ultimately, you should consider what a gallery is offering – a professional sales staff, gallery display space in a prime art market location, marketing, gallery prestige, etc. is worth the commission.

What do you think – are you willing to pay gallery commissions or do you prefer to market your work on your own? What benefits do you see to self-representation? To gallery representation? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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