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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33 Comments

  1. The gallery should be compensated for the referral, as well. They still have overhead to pay for the presence that created the referral. It’s a support/support, win/win situation.

  2. Good response Jason. 100% agree. To some extent, as a gallery owner and the top sales person, I would remind artists who accept commissions that these do not come easily. Personally, I work harder, longer hours and use expert selling skills to get these commissions. The majority of commissions always come with specific requirements that have to be vetted out by scheduling visits to the customer’s home/space during off hours to confirm size, color preferences and other factors. Building the customer’s trust and a long-term relationship doesn’t just happen. A recent example I’d like to share, included investigating the possibility of contracting with more than one gallery artist for an oversized, large scale painting that took many conversations to determine interest, desires and cost not only with the customer but with the multiple artists. This event involved taking paintings off the gallery wall and seeing examples in the customer’s space to determine which style worked best. It is rare that the gallery works this hard to sell pieces off the wall. I always suggest my artists carefully consider their decision to accept a commission before I spend extra (non-paid) hours finalizing the customer needs.

    1. Many of my art pieces are commissioned. Rarely do they come from Gallery referrals, but when they do, I am happy to have the Gallery do the leg work and take the usual commission. Naturally if I am approached directly by a client it is not a consideration. Many artists refuse to accept commissioned work because of the stress that often goes with it.

  3. As an artist, I feel much of the risk is on my side of the transaction and not on the gallery side. If the client and I cannot reach a shared vision, no commissioned work will be produced, yet I will have devoted 100% of my time to the effort. As a facilitator, the gallery’s efforts are important, but the commitment of time is not equivalent, nor is the risk. I’m also an entrepreneur in the high tech arena. An advisory firm that acts as facilitator on a transaction for my company might get a 5%-7% fee.

  4. If the gallery is not actively involved in the commission work. I think a 60/40 split would be more equitable for the artists. Commission works are always a challenge and I don’t know too many artists that enjoy them as much as creating work for themselves. In addition, the commissioned piece is purchased without any space or advertising commitment on galleries part. With that said, sometimes you have to just “bite the bullet” and work with the gallery’s terms if they are a good business partner. It should always feel like a win/win for both the gallery and the artist. I also think sometimes the artist may be a higher selling price on a commission based on the efforts of the gallery, so that must be a consideration.

  5. I generate my own commissions without the gallery that represents me. I don’t accept many commissions because I love the freedom of expression which isn’t generally possible with commissions. I get 100% of my fee. I do understand the 50/50 approach if Artists don’t want the hassle of dealing with some clients but I have learnt to be quite a good negotiator & it has always worked out well for me…

  6. It all depends on what the gallery does and what the artist does – and fair compensation to each for their part of the work. The role of the gallery that you described is at one far end of the spectrum – you handle the “business” end of things (contacts, payments, etc.) and the artist produces the painting. On the other end of that spectrum would be a client who sees the artist’s work in more than one gallery, magazine, on-line or exhibit and contacts the artist directly to request a commissioned piece. All of the contact is directly between artist and client, with no gallery involvement.
    The 50% split seems fair only if the gallery does the work to earn it. If not, then the artist is doing that part of the work and should earn that part of the fee. So a referral fee of 10% to 30% for the gallery might be fair, depending on how much involvement they actually had in securing the commission for the artist.
    Some top artists have exclusive gallery representation, and the gallery does indeed do the work that you described. But many galleries don’t really “represent” the artist. If they just include the artist in a group show once a year, that doesn’t entitle them to a cut when a client seeks out the artist and arranges for a commission.
    I am an “emerging” artist included in shows at four galleries in our local area each year – but none of them keep any of my inventory or promote me in between shows. An acquaintance of mine has seen my work at those shows for several years and asked me to do a commissioned painting. Based on your logic, I would owe each gallery 50%, and come out negative. That does not make sense.
    I’m creating the art, and doing all of the business end of the work too. Each gallery had an opportunity to sell my paintings in their shows (and did sell some), but none of them did anything directly to facilitate this commission. Why should I pay them for work they did not do?

  7. Guess I would be more inclined to pay the 50% than I would to work with the gallery as a middle entity. It is critical for me to have direct access and communication with the client to be able to capture their vision. Through experience over many years I know what questions to ask and what details I need. I have always worked that way and have always honored terms of the referring gallery.

  8. This is very timely for me, as I’m in negotiation right NOW, with my first commission! A prominent interior designer/retailer, took one of my paintings, a 30×30″ to show a client, as the colors in the painting were an exact match to the project. He came back saying he wants the same painting, but 40×40″, plus two smaller ones with variations on the colors. I came back with a contract for doing the work, with a 25% up charge for commission work. Further, he is not representing me, but he plans to double my fee to the client. He balked at this up charge, and I told him that when I paint for myself, I can do whatever I want. For this situation, I want them to be happy, and it will take a lot of extra concentration to recreate what I’ve already done to their specs. Still awaiting the signed contract. I’d like your thoughts on this….

    1. First Karen, congratulations on the opportunity! It’s not that unusual for an artist to request this kind of increase for commissioned work. Any increase in pricing has a potential to slow a buyer down, but if, as you say, the extra work involved in creating a commission would make it impossible to sell the work at your regular rate and make it worth your while, you should definitely add the surcharge. While it’s great to get a sale, it’s critical that the sales are worth your time.

  9. I believe that if the gallery does all the leg work promotion etc. as stated by you above they should get there 50%. When working that way add up the cost of framing ,supplies and your time etc. and double that and you should come up with your share of the sale and the gallery adds in their cost.

  10. I was very curious why the ‘author’ artist decided to go anonymous with this piece. Is he/she SO concerned about the possible fallout from friends or galleries? Perhaps my utter lack of Machiavellianism found that aspect rather hard to digest.
    Many are the galleries out of which artists pull their own work because nothing has been sold in many, many months. Sometimes the works are stored away, never or rarely to be viewed. This is NO way to run a gallery.
    Some years ago, a few friends and I walked into a large San-Francisco gallery to determine what exactly they sought in an approach from artists. The wholly beleaguered looking guy behind the desk quickly closed his laptop, making us feel he must have been playing ‘Patience’ or some other game and proceeded to inform us that it was ‘imperative for the artist to do his/or legwork first’.
    We expected that he would come up with an entirely new formula, but instead drudged his way through the usual procedures that galleries spout ad nauseum. Far from impressed, we left.
    The last gallery that represented my work took a third – which I found not unreasonable. This was in Westerham, UK – a wealth, leafy area with much through-traffic, especially USA collectors.
    Commissioned or ‘custom’ work through the gallery should adhere through the agreed %, which may or may not replicate the usual percentage. It’s worth negotiating this as well. However, the gallery should keep in mind that the collector could work outside the gallery immediately after the first purchase/commission.
    In short – I firmly believe that the gallery’s commission scale should proceed downwards as time progresses. Perhaps 60/40 (in favor of artist) in the first month(s), followed by 70/30 and 80/20 if they haven’t what it takes to sell the works.

  11. I do a lot of commissioned work and for me, it would be counter-productive to have a gallery in the middle interpreting what the client wants. A successful commission requires a lot of listening, understanding, back and forth conversation. Having a third party in the middle prevents that. Immediate feedback — one to one conversation — is so much more effective. I would prefer to give a finder’s fee to the gallery and relieve them of their position in the telephone game. I am comfortable with handling the money and agreement and particulars of the delivery. Too many cooks spoil the broth!

  12. My concern when listening to these comments are in the situation where a client is not satisfied, and the artist receives nothing ( or the gallery for that matter). When I relate this to working as an interior designer, it was always part of my contract that work put into the conceptual process required a non refundable design fee. This is where most of the creative brain work is utilized that will determine the direction the project will go. I never had a client not proceed with the project, but nevertheless, I wanted to protect myself. For one thing, a client could always decline to go further and then adapt the ideas to implement themselves or pass along to another source to create. Different Designers have different fee schedules, but I believe that artists/galleries should have a non refundable fee involved for protection.

    1. This doesn’t answer the commission question of the OP or Jason, but it’s a good piece of business smarts. I used to do this when I made jewelry on commission. It has an emotional context to it that is in the artist’s favor. The prospective client may balk when it comes time to pay for the finished product. But, often the “prospective client” changes to “actual client” when they must pay any fee up front; a non-refundable fee is best. It’s almost an “in for a penny, in for a pound” reaction of the client. They’re more likely to finish the transaction and buy the painting then.

      My question to that would be is that non-refundable fee a part of the gallery compensation or the artist’s?

  13. It’s been some time since I accepted a commission through a gallery that represented me. At the time, the percentage was standard regardless of displayed work or a commission. The only thing the gallery handled was payment. An artist needs direct contact with the patron, phone number for appointments, questions, input, etc., without unnecessary delays involving a third party. One must always remember a commission is a collaboration, particularly with portraits. Equally, the artist must keep her partner/gallery informed of the progress of the commission and completion … they are the fourth leg of the chair: artist, patron, the work itself, and the gallery.
    I have no issue with gallery commissions considering the expense of brick and mortar space … I do have issue beyond 50%. I have done 60/40% for simple consignment with a decorator, which I find interesting … they’re making it on 40%. I know of no other product in any industry that commands half an artist’s paycheck, except in music. Splitting hairs over who earns what under specific scenarios is a bit much.
    Now, I’m nearly a one-woman operation with every aspect of my art business. It is certainly more work I would rather have a gallery do but I’m happy with my autonomy.
    It’s worth restating the one-on-one interaction between patron and artist is still vital … that part of the commission relationship will not change.

  14. I agree with you, Terri. I require a non-refundable 50% deposit up front before starting a commission. This ensures the clients commitment and prevents them getting cold feet.

  15. Most of the comments that I have read here, suggest that a client approached the gallery/dealer first, and then the gallery talked to the artist. If the situation is one where the client goes directly to the artist AND if that artist happens to have more than one gallery representing him/her … why would any of the galleries expect a commission. Or more to the point, which gallery should receive a commission? The artist should not be expected to pay a commission to all of the dealers who represent him.

  16. Jason, I think that what you offer the artist–follow-up, meetings, phone calls, handling financial dealings, etc are TOTALLY WORTH the 50% commission!! You provide a great buffer between the artist and the client if anything goes awry. That helps keep any angst to a minimum for the artist. It’s hard to resume work if the client is difficult to work with. But I suspect you are rare among gallery owners who do this.

  17. It is hard to find a good gallery. I have had a bad taste in my opinion on some galleries.
    I have put out hundreds of dollars in high end cards and food for opening nights as well as my own marketing. Once at a gallery opening, Other artist showing at the gallery, came up to me and said they were all enjoying my gorgeous cards. What????
    The gallery owner was suppose to send out the cards to all of her potential buyers.
    But that was not the case. And all of the guests that showed up were people I invited. Including some big name people. I did sell several images but with my own marketing. And then I had to pay her. I have been skeptical
    about most galleries. I have had success at galleries, but with my help.
    I think the job for us should be as little as possible when you are at a good gallery. And hopefully they have the influence to help you. But I found Galleries want you to be the people giver, and be popular on social media, this all helps, so why a gallery!!! if you already have what it takes. I think it is very expensive for most artists to be in a gallery? What can a gallery really do for an artist that will make them any real money? They ran me dry with all the details they asked of me. I did not find it easier to be in a gallery. But then again maybe I have not been in a good honest gallery.

  18. I think it comes back to the the relationship an artist has with the gallery through which the commission referral originates. If an artist has no formal relationship with a gallery and has only shown there once or a few times and is not part of the gallery stable of artists then if a commission comes through someone seeing their work at a show at that gallery the artist would owe nothing or very little to that gallery as they really have no formal business arrangement. However if an artist has become a member of the stable of a gallery and shows there regularly or semi regularly then even a commission should be treated the same as any sale of work off the wall of the gallery. In this case the artist and gallery are equal partners in the show and sale of art works and any profits from that would fall under an agreed upon split of profit just like in any other business.

  19. There is a gallery in Connecticut I like who takes 40% of sales. I don’t mind a 50/50 but only if the gallery is doing their work properly too. Do they promo the shows? do they hang the work appropriately? ect. If they just hang it, do nothing and charge 50% or 60 to 70% I look for another venue.

  20. In my experience there are a lot of galleries out there that don’t really earn their 50% to begin with. Obviously not all galleries will fall into that category. However, I have often thought that as it is the artist who does 100% creation of the work to facilitate any sale, then at times even 50% can be a high commission to pay. Regarding commissions, that should depend on the business relationship between the gallery and the artist. As an artist friend of mine once remarked “It would do some gallery owners well to remember, if there was no such thing as artists, there would be no galleries. If there were no such thing as galleries, there would still be artists.”

  21. I do commissions often and always charge a 25% non refundable deposit before I begin. The balance is due on delivery, but if for any reason the client isn’t happy with it, they are free to walk away. I keep the painting, and can add it to my inventory. This works for me, and I’ve had happy contented clients. I have only once accepted a commission where the gallery was involved, and it was a disaster, because communication was lost or misinterpreted between the client and gallery and myself. I always prefer to deal directly with the client for commissions. However if the gallery suggests me for a commission, I would be happy to pay a ‘finders fee’; not sure exactly what that would be but 50% feels too much to me.

  22. My husband’s gallery takes 50/50 but buys the work outright. Any consignment work is 60/40 in favour of artist and the same for commission work. Commission work interrupts the flow in the studio and usually means reconfiguring tools and jigs to create the piece of work. He has been with his gallery for over 25 years.

  23. It all comes down to a relationship with a gallery. I’ve had galleries that worked very hard for me and I’ve had galleries that hardly worked for me. I’m a sculptor so I’d have to hope that in working with an experienced gallery, that the foundry costs were considered in setting a price and the artist wasn’t left with only a small percentage after all was said and done. That said, I would welcome help with the other aspects of a commission when I’d rather be in the studio. Getting a commission, especially a monumental one takes a great deal effort when you consider the time it takes to write a 10-page proposal, collect or take photos, gather a host of information related to past similar works, gather references and contact each of them, gather prices from several different foundries and related contractors, have it printed and professionally presented, following through with contracts….all of this adds up to many hours of work.

  24. I would really like to know what a normal contract with a gallery looks like.
    Sales, marketing, advertising, PR, wall space all sounds great at 50%. Does the gallery get that 50% no matter where you sell your work? Would a gallery expect 50% on top of an online gallery 35%? How long is a gallery contract? Is there a time limit for sales, so if the gallery sells nothing for 3 months is the artist free to move on?

  25. I have yet to figure out how I could do a commissioned painting given the abstract nature of my work. I would have to really think about whether I could produce under those conditions so at this point it is not an issue for me.

  26. A gallery has costs, as does the artist. Rental or ownership of the space, business taxes, business costs like bookkeeping and accountancy, furniture, phone and internet fees, wages for sales reps, owner’s salary, representation or the artist whether in time, advertising or press releases, transportation and delivery costs, maintenance costs like cleaning, re-painting walls, to name a few costs.
    In addition, gallerists need to maintain client contacts and constantly find new ones.

    The artist also has the business and administration costs, rental or ownership of a studio and office (even if it’s your kitchen table), The artist bears material and supply costs, framing, transportation and delivery.
    Frankly, I wonder how any one makes a living in this business. But I find that artists and dealers are both very pleasantly addicted to art, and that is wonderful.

    I have no problem with a 50/50 split. When I was taken on by a gallery, the gallery validates my work to customers I never could meet; and he increased the prices to ensure it was worthwhile for us both to meet our costs of doing business. The gallery has made important contacts for me. I’ve now been included in the permanent collection of a few city galleries. It increases my visibility and prestige. Again, it’s not likely I could have made these contacts without the gallery’s help.
    And I don’t really want to spend my time on this either. I just want to paint.

    It’s important to know what the gallery will do for you when you agree to a percentage fee. Will they advertise? How, where and how often? It’s important to be clear with each other. How much display space will you have? Will you have a group or solo show? Will you be touted as a “gallery artist”, or something lesser, on line? What is their vision for you? And what is yours?
    These are the things for me that make the percentage fee reasonable.

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