Debate: Should Art Galleries Split Commissions?

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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