Ask a Gallery Owner: Should Galleries Get 50% on Commissioned Art Projects?

I recently received the following question from an artist:

What is a reasonable split on commissioned work? I’m all for the gallery receiving 50% on work in their regular inventory, as it takes up wall space and has likely been shown to several potential buyers and marketed by the gallery as well. However, I wonder if 50% to the gallery is justified on a commission, especially in the case where the artist has been put in direct contact with the buyer and essentially does all the leg work (apart from the initial introduction).

Considering that a commission project does not take up gallery “real estate” and also the artist has the burden in materials cost and production time (not to mention risk in some cases), the artist will actually make less money on the project than the gallery if the split is a 50/50. As a former gallery employee I have seen commission splits as 50/50, 60/40 and even 70/30. My personal opinion is that a 70/30 may be a bit lopsided in favor of the artist (unless you’re a high end portrait artist and the split to the gallery is more of a referral fee so to speak), but 50/50 doesn’t seem quite right to me either, again, especially if the artist is doing all the legwork. Your insight would be appreciated!

Name Withheld by Request

Artist

 My response

Great question. We do ask 50% for commissioned work, but I feel we can justify it because we stay very involved in the process. Rather than just handing off the client to the artist we act as facilitators, scheduling phone calls and meetings, passing along photos and taking care of all of the financial dealings. My artists tell me they appreciate this because it takes away a lot of the pressure and makes the process easier for them. If there are any problems the client is passing them along to us instead of the artist and we can moderate the resolution.

Granted, a lot of galleries do less on commissions and still expect the 50%. In those cases it comes down to what you can come to terms on. If a gallery is a good sales producer for you and you value the relationship, it may still be worth the 50% to help sustain the ongoing representation.

Jason

What Do You Think?

Do your galleries ask 50% on commissioned work generated through the gallery? Do you feel they deserve the full fee on commissioned work? Share your thoughts, comments and experiences in the comments below.

 

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24 Comments

  1. If the gallery is getting a 50/50 split, then I think it would also be reasonable for the gallery representative to suggest that the patron add a tip for the artist if they are particularly pleased.

    The difference between an artwork hanging/being sold at a gallery and a commission is imbedded in the process.

    Works that hang in a gallery were made by me, with my own vision, on my own schedule and to my own satisfaction before I handed it over to the gallery.

    A Commission, at its inception, is a totally different process. No matter what the customer says, there is the added pressure of pleasing the customer, sometimes feedback and adjustments while the work is in progress, working to a deadline, etc. Even if the gallery is handling phone calls and financials, it is a different art process to make a commission.

    If the gallery is not willing to change its split, then I believe they should suggest to the customer that they tip the artist, especially if there was a lot of customization or responding to special requests along the way.
    I believe art commissions are a place where a tip earns its true meaning–a gratuity for service above and beyond the typical transaction.

    I do charge more for a commission than I would for a similar “ready made” piece. An alternative would be that the gallery gets 50/50 on what the price of a similar “ready made” artwork would be, and the artist keeps the entire price increase that is commission related. (I.e, if a 30×30 would sell for a base price of $1500 and I made a commissioned 30×30 for $1900, then the gallery retains 50% of 1500 and I receive my 50% plus the $400 commission premium)

    1. Maggie: How do you determine how much more to charge for a commissioned piece? How do you suggest calculating a commission premium based a similar “ready made” piece?

      1. I have not used a formula per se, but it’s usually about a 20% increase. I will go up more if they are looking for a brand new concept. Maybe less if they want me to repeat a previously sold piece. It will honestly depend on how complicated the requested work will be.

  2. As a gallery owner, 50% commission is justified during a showing at the gallery. In the case where a buyer sees art work in my gallery, but commission’s the artist to do something different, my gallery takes 35%. The gallery makes all arrangements and contacts all those involved. We deliver the work if possible.
    Orazio Salati Gallery
    204 State Street
    Binghamton, NY 13901
    http://www.oraziosalati.com

  3. I am so happy you have approached this subject!
    I have painted for 35 years and ask galleries to work with me on the commissions!
    I feel 25% to 30% is fair! We are buying supplies working on a immediate deadline sometimes have contact with client if the gallery is accepting. Some gallery do not like this and I have to work 50/50 .
    I do but it leaves a bad taste for me personally but I do it and say to myself is is giving me pleasure to paint pays for supplies but my my talent. I love my commission work cityscapes abstracts figures I enjoy all subjects and different mediums. I actually love the boundaries commissions allow !

  4. Since we are talking about gallery fee, I have a question about the fee for sculptures and 3D in general. I am a sculptor, making bronzes. For now, I do everything myself : the mold, the wax, the investment, the bronze pour, the chasing and the patina. In that case I still make some money even if I give 50% to a gallery. However, many sculptors after they have created the original piece, have a foundry handle all the tasks listed above, which is quite expensive. (In my case more than what I am selling my pieces for…)
    A rule of thumb is that the piece should be priced at 3 times the cost of the foundry. In that case, if the gallery keeps 50%, it is making three times more than the artist. (Assuming that the foundry cost is $1000, the piece priced at $3000, the gallery keeps $1500, and the net for the artist is only $500, three times less than the gallery). Do you think it is fair ? I believe the gallery should take 50% of the difference between the sale price and the foundry price. or 33% of the sale price.
    What do you think?

    1. I agree with you Eric. I can tell you as a gallery owner, that selling sculpture can be more of a challenge then 2-D art, and the profit margin is not always as good as a painting for example. Regardless, the artist needs to be considered, and his expense and financial well being needs to be considered. I only handle up to 3 sculptors at a time, and require that the sculpture include a receipt of foundry expenses to establish a fair payout agreement. From the retail price the foundry expense is taken off and given back to the artist with the remaining profit split 50 – 50. If the sculptor has his or her own foundry, then a trust factor with prudence comes into play.

    2. What Eric suggests is that the gallery commission should be based on the retail price minus the cost of materials and production (in his case, the foundry fee – in my case, the paint, canvas, and frames for my paintings). Of course, creating and casting bronze sculptures is much more costly. Some galleries charge a slightly lower commission for sculptures to acknowledge this.

      However, whether it’s bronze, canvas, marble or other materials, the price an item sells for is never based on the cost of materials or labor to produce it. It is based on the quality of the finished work and the reputation of the artist.

      A gallery may have two bronze sculptures the same size (which probably cost about the same amount for the foundry to cast) – one will sell for $1,00 and the other for $10,000. The same is true of paintings and other artwork. The 3X “rule of thumb” quoted is irrelevant. It’s quality and reputation that counts.

      Beginning artists in any medium will rarely make enough to cover their costs. “Star” artists will get rich. The rest hope to make a decent living. Of course it’s not “fair”, but that’s the way it works in real life.

      1. Cynthia, I’m not sure that’s the case. If I create a sculpture and offer it in plaster, fiberglass, paper, terra cotta or bronze, there is a range of value determined by the material in which it is cast. The same artistic expression, but different material, can make a big difference in value and therefore price. I cannot ask the same price for a plaster cast as I can for a bronze cast of the same sculpture. I’m not saying that quality and reputation are not important, but the material an artwork is cast in can play a large part in its value.
        Also, size does not determine the cost of a bronze casting. A small complex sculpture can be much more expensive to cast than a large simple form.

        1. I stand by my earlier comment. Although plaster sculptures will be priced at less than bronze castings, in both cases it is the quality of the piece and the reputation of the artist that govern the gallery price. A sculpture by a star artist will sell for more than a similar size piece IN THE SAME MEDIUM by an unknown artist, even when the quality of the piece and cost to produce is similar.

          Cost and value are not the same. This was impressed on me in architecture school by one of my professors: It may COST just as much to build an ugly house of the same size and quality of materials as a beautiful house, but the beautiful house will sell for more because the beauty adds VALUE beyond the cost of construction.

          Similarly, the quality of the artwork and the reputation of the artist add VALUE beyond the basic cost of production.

  5. My gallery takes 50% and like you, Jason, they handle the financial end of things including holding a deposit that is refundable only if the work is not completed. My gallery owner creates these commissions by referring clients to my work, by showing my work, and by talking up my work. I feel the gallery really earns its share by being able to close a deal. I enjoy interacting with the buyers but I’m not great at closing a sale. I get to focus on what I enjoy and am good at and the gallery earns its cut. Even when a client saw work in my studio and was not aware of my gallery, I included the gallery in the sale because we ended up selling a piece that was in the gallery, not the one in my studio. Again the financial aspect was handled by the gallery. I have great communication with the owner and I know she really supports my work.

  6. I sculpt animals in clay and sometimes take commissions through galleries to sculpt collectors’ pets. I usually charge the same price as a “ready-made” piece which is split 50/50 with the gallery and an additional 15-20% added which is paid entirely to me. The additional charge helps offset the stress of creating artwork to match someone else’s expectations.

  7. Illustrators reps typically make around 25% on commissioned work. Since commissioned work is all they deal with, their overhead is usually much less- the cost of an office and a phone. And yes, the reps usually stay very involved in the process- running interference with the client and handling financial details. That’s what the cut is for. So, I think the commission on a commission should be somewhere between the two figures.

  8. Jason expressed it well when he described the involvement and services that he provides for the client and artist. Unfortunately, most galleries don’t do that – especially small local ones.

    If the gallery merely provides the client with the artist’s contact information and the artist does all the rest, then the artist is doing the gallery’s part of the job (communication, negotiation, finances, etc.) and should be compensated for it. In that case a “referral fee” rather than a commission is appropriate – perhaps 20-30% to the gallery.

    When I do a commission for a client who contacts me directly as a friend or via my website (not via a gallery) I price the painting at whatever it would sell for in a gallery PLUS a “commission fee” of an additional 20%. I explain that that fee is for my extra time in meeting with them, research, developing sketches for them to review, etc. which I would not have to do on a non-commissioned painting. So far I have not had anyone object to that.

    I have not done a commission handled by a gallery, but it seems fair to use the same approach: The gallery would get their fee (50% or less, depending on the extent of gallery involvement) based on the retail price if that painting was in the gallery, but the artist gets to keep the “commission fee” add-on to cover the extra work involved for the artist.

  9. Who’s doing the creating? The Artist, or the gallery? They don’t stay up late thinking, readjusting, painting and losing sleep over a piece. We as artist do. They just help sell our work. Which can be greatly appreciated. But 50/50? Or worse, taking more than the artist. Is that right? Not in my book. I’m speaking from experience. I had one that charged me $250 for Nothing! Supposed to help sell, didn’t do it. Supposed to hang work, didn’t do it. Supposed to post work on their site, most of work you couldn’t see. They make me feel like I’m dealing with uncle sam. I don’t know. 30-40% sounds better to me. It’s just coming from an artist who’s tired of being ripped off.

  10. Another great topic. Personally I feel that if a Gallery brings me a customer they deserve a commission. After all they did invest in me and advertising my art. They have expenses like the rest of us. The amount commission I feel is dependent on the amount of work they contribute to the sale and should be negotiable. I would rather have them negotiate the sale, terms, client meetings and money until the piece is created. I normally tell my commission buyers that after I create the piece they have the right to say that’s not what they wanted etc. At which time I would consign at the gallery and wish the customer well. At this point it is up the gallery in how they want to deal with down payment as the actual transaction is theirs.

  11. First, I would never collaborate with any gallery that offers 50/50 commission. I won’t do less than 60/40. I prefer being part of a co-op, where I put in my time and energy, and thus have more of the money that *I* put into the art … in one gallery that’s 85/15 split.

    I know how to market (I do so for the art classes which I also do – part of my own business). I want the gallery to get their FAIR share. 50% is NOT fair.

  12. I believe that 50% is a bit much and takes away from the respect the artist should be given. When ‘they’
    say that they are investing in the artist? What they are actually doing is giving some wall space to share
    in whatever they sell and some economical marketing. The artist has done all the heavy lifting, by years
    of perfecting their ‘voice’ in the crowded art world and they should receive a respectable percentage of
    the sale.

  13. I have completed many commissions and galleries have agreed to take 40% instead of the usual 50%. I also require a deposit as there is a possibility that the buyer may not like the piece after completed and I would be out material cost plus have a piece of sculpture that I have to market on my own.

  14. Well, my gallery takes 40%, and that’s how it is for commissions. as well He is very hands-off, he trusts me implicitly, and I just tell the customer the truth–that the gallery’s commission must be included in whatever I charge.
    The gallery owner acts basically as an agent in this case. I work up the price myself with the customer.
    My reputation is very important to me as it is to my gallery owner.
    We both aim to please the client, so it’s a win-win for both of us.

  15. I work primarily on commission and would never accept a 50/50 split. The artist has travel expenses, meetings and or sittings with the client. Travel over great distances is often required. Sometimes adjustments are necessary, even on occasion a second painting has to be produced.

    A gallery commission of 30% is good, 40% is acceptable but more is not.

  16. Personally as I artist, I wouldn’t agree to a 50/50 split for custom commissioned work. When I create art for fun, and a gallery is selling it, that’s worth 50%. But when I have to work FOR a client doing custom commissions, I’m not self employed anymore, I have a boss again. I’m the one spending maybe hundreds of hours in the studio. Handling the financials and photos and communication isn’t worth 50% for me, I’ve handled all that myself on over 300 original paintings so far, somewhere around 80 of them having been commissions. I only ever ever had one unsatisfied client, and in retrospect it was my fault for taking that job, the client simply couldn’t make up her mind about what she wanted, and kept changing her mind as the process went on. Now I just don’t take on jobs from people who aren’t clear about what they want. So for me, no, a 50% split on commissions is not worth it, and I wouldn’t enter into a agreement where that was the case. I’d feel more comfortable around 30%. I worked in sales for years and years, the highest commission I was ever paid was 21%. That being said, I have a track record of doing commissioned work, nailing it on the first shot, and meeting deadlines, so the gallery wouldn’t be taking a big risk.

  17. You all have valid insights. Unfortunately there will never be an exact formula, and no one is ever going to pay millions for a double blind study.
    However listening to the issues as an outsider, I know for a fact that clients often wish their beloved artist would receive the majority of earnings which more often reflects the true $ value of a piece.
    If there was a better balance regarding price there would be more buyers. As for commissions why not offer the gallery a tip! The artist has as much overhead. Often travel expenses, yearly workshops not to mention lack of health insurance.
    There are arguably sticky issues both ways. I wish real art was accessible to the majority, not the other way around. We could actually become collectors. That is why so many art lovers seek original work out of normal gallery venues. We are perpetually on the hunt. Art shows should command high sales.If not, than a reevalutions is at hand. Artist who are in the right vocation should be earning a living. Buyers want that, gallerists should also set this as a priority and help the artist no matter what. A bronze cost a fortune to make. A good gallery in my view will always take good care of their artists. So artist are you being taken care of, in an absolute undeniably fairly honest way?

  18. As somebody who has been in a similar business, I can say that 50% is reasonable considering the overhead, presentation, exposure and sales experience. As a painter, the cost of framing is already killing me. I can’t put my stuff in a gallery, income would go negative instantly. What to do?

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