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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44 Comments

  1. The commission issue is complicated. I respect the dealer’s needs but when I consider going though a gallery I do gag on the 50/50 split. If I sell about 4 paintings a year myself, sure I can’t say I’m successful commercially but I retain full control and also I don’t feel taken advantage of by a gallery. After all, what came first… the artist’s work or the gallery?

  2. In a case where the gallery only refers the potential buyer to the artist and the artist is left to close the sale, and do all the work I think at 10-20% referral commission is all that is required, if on the other hand the gallery stays very involved and irons out all the details and just leaves the artist to create the piece then yes I could see a 50% commission because while it is not taking up wall space they will be very involved in all other facets of ensuring the sale.

  3. Hi I disagree with the 50/50 commission on cast sculptures. Comparing to paintings or even ceramics , there is a lot of upfront cost to cast sculpture . If a gallery takes 50% on those, the price of sculptures will go very high , with the artist still not making hardly anything on it . I paint and do ceramics also and believe me, it cost a LOT less to produce so happy for those to get 50% commission on top but it become crazy on bronzes or even resins ….

  4. I recently was contacted by one of my gallery owners who had a client that requested a commissioned piece. She had seen my work because the gallery owner had taken the time to show it to her.
    He put me in touch with this client and I took it from there. All communication, planning, photos, pricing etc, has been between the client and myself.
    I talked to the gallery owner and we agreed that a 20% commission was fair in this case.

  5. When one of my artists has a commission through the gallery, I give them 75% as they do most of the work and I think that is fair. I do get commissions for artists via marketing, plus during an exhibit I’ve had clients like a painting that was already sold and get a commission for the artist to replicate that piece for the client. I give the artist 75% on this as well.

    I do this because I want to help the artists out that are in my gallery.

  6. I am both an artist and a former gallery owner (1985-96). I believe that the gallery earns its 50% share on a commissioned piece of art because it lays the ground work and procures the client for the commission. In essence, the gallery has made the sale already, and the artist does not need to produce a piece of art on speculation. However, the gallery has been investing over many years to develop the clientele that will come in and buy a piece of art, practically, sight unseen, based on the gallery owner’s preselection of artists, and based on the years of investment to make the gallery the place where art buyers go to see and purchase art. All this aside from handling the customer relations and financial arrangements.

    With cast pieces – bronze and resins – I believe I have heard Jason say that Xanadu takes only 40%, not 50% on sculptures, but Jason will have to confirm that.

    1. Barry, I truly agree with you! If my work sells through Xanadu or another gallery, the gallery is very welcome to 50% (even 60%) because theyou have the contacts and the pr knowhow. That leaves me nothing to worry about but creating.

  7. I’ve been exhibiting with Galleries since 1971 and have always honored the commission arrangement with each individual Gallery. Without the “referral”, I probably would not have received the commission. Most galleries that I have received commissions through have handled all the contracts and financial matters as Jason said was his policy.

    I have even paid galleries their commission on sales they knew nothing about much to their surprise and delight. If a client contacts me and a sale results, the question I always ask them is; “How did you learn about my work”? If they respond that they saw my work in a particular gallery, then I see to it that the Gallery gets its % of the sale based on our contract. This policy has resulted in increased exposure in the galleries that represent me and a cement-like bond of trust with the Galleries.

  8. I’ve heard that back in the day, galleries took a 30%commission and did a lot more marketing on behalf of the artist than they do today. And, unlike retailers of almost every other product, they don’t have to deal with unsold merchandise, they just call the artist and say, “Come pick it up.”

    A commission is unlikely to generate any overhead (unless there’s some kind of delay in pick-up from the buyer), nor does it require promotion, so the gallery’s investment is much lower than the regular consignment. And in the case of portraits, they’re generally of less interest/value outside the family. So if the customer backs out of the deal, and the gallery takes its usual 50%, the artist is left with less revenue than if they had used the time for a regular painting.

    Then you have the issue of multiple galleries. If an artist has agreements with multiple galleries and/or direct sales channels, what’s to stop the consumer from “shopping around” for the best deal? How does a gallery “prove” they’re the channel that created the commission?

    I agree that the gallery should get a referral fee, but I don’t think that it should be equal to consigned work. As a gallery owner, would you rather receive, prepare, and display five works at 50% commission, or receive, prepare, and display one work and get five 20% referrals for commissions?

  9. Would anyone chime in on the issue of asking for a deposit for a commission. I had a potential customer approach me directly, not through a gallery. They asked me to do a commission. We agreed upon a price, but then they refused to pay a deposit, and I refused to paint without a deposit. I explained my reasons politely, but probably in much more detail than they wanted to hear, and that was the end of that. I can’t imagine any artist with sales experience taking the risk of making a commission with no deposit. I know one might do this if one had a genuine desire to do the project, and thought it might be easy to sell to someone else, but if not?

    1. Christina – we always require a 50% deposit and make sure the client understands that it is non-refundable. I want to make sure the client is 100% serious about the purchase and that they understand that they are making a commitment just as the artist is. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining why – we just let the client know that’s the way it works. Most clients understand, and those who don’t or want to argue are clearly not ready to start a commission.

      With that said, if a client requests something that is well within the artist’s typical style and subject matter, and something the artist might have created anyway, there are times when my artist will offer to create a piece on spec and give the client first right of refusal, knowing though that the piece will easily sell to another client if the first doesn’t buy.

      1. I would say, this is the crux of the matter. A gallery and its personnel are seen as business people. The paint-splattered shoes are not in evidence.
        It seems there is the expectation on all sides (including the artist) that business will be the central issue.
        It takes a unique combination of skills for an artist to be their own business rep but even there, if one were to look at the time they spent “in the business” side of the ledger, that time would be worth something also and that would be the commission fees.

        1. A fair question – we’ve actually never had a situation where we weren’t able to work something out with the client in the end and make everyone happy. I suspect that what we would do is a split, but we would still have the piece to sell and that would be split as well. I would probably be tempted to refund the client their deposit once the piece sells.

    2. I do almost exclusively commissioned work, have been for 40 years. I never begin work until I have a 50% deposit. For some pieces, the clients pay 100% upfront. If they won’t pay a deposit, they’re not committed to the process, so you’re much better off not starting with it. You’ll end up getting burned.

      1. Judith, If handling the commission myself I always ask for 1/3 upfront, this is on approval of any sketch, colors to emphasize and other considerations. 2nd 1/3 due on midway, painting well on it’s way to finish, but with room to make changes. If client is local I will bring it to their home to see how it looks in the light and space. the finale 1/3 is due on finish. This keeps the client engaged and they have a great story to share beyond the painting. This why I try my best to get an extra 10% on all commissions. the time e-mailing images, phone calls or driving art to clients homes adds up. We also sign simple contracts.

    3. Christina,
      If someone is not willing to make a deposit they are not a reliable client. I have a 50/50 deal on commissions with my galleries and I won’t start painting until I am paid in full. The gallery earns its %50 by taking the responsibility of getting the client to pay the remainder or they get stuck with a painting they need to sell. Artist need to stop looking at retail price as ever being their compensation. My paintings have a wholesale price which is what I expect to get from the gallery, the retail price is wholesale plus the gallery mark-up. This mark up, which covers everything from overhead to marketing, was never your money to begin with so its best to get realistic and make a wholesale price that you are happy with because that is your cut as a wholesale provider.

    4. Hi Christina and Jason. I know this is a side-track to the original post. I have done a great deal of commission work and have never taken one deposit, though I have provided a payment plan once the painting was completed. I’ve even had customers offer a deposit, but I don’t accept. My reason is because it often takes me awhile to get the painting done. I don’t want their money tied up while on my wait list and I don’t want them using the deposit as a reason to micromanage my process. If they choose not to move forward when I get to their request, I move on to the next customer in line. I’ve never had a problem, I think because before I accept a commission I make sure we are compatible and on the same page, and that they know what to expect once I begin to paint.

  10. I am more then willing to pay a gallery that does all the selling and handling of the shipment. In this case 50% is what most want. On the other hand if the gallery only refers the client to the artist and the artist does all the work, such as handling the sale, shipping follow up etc. in this case a 20% or less should be enough for the gallery, .I imagine that is why galleries want mostly work that sells in the $1000 + range so that they can make more money, which understandable. Most don’t consider work that is selling for much less then that.

  11. I create bronze sculptures and my galleries earn every cent of their 50% commission. That said, I have lost commissions because the high foundry/artist’s cost plus 50% commission is more than what most customers want to pay. To help the gallery make the sale, I make sure the staff is well informed on the casting process so that they can explain it to the customer and help them understand the effort/costs involved. Also, when the gallery asks for an estimate on the retail price of a large commission, I get them the foundry cost and add how much I want for my efforts, and then I let the gallery add whatever commission they want. That way they can work with the customer to make the sale.

  12. I am OK with the 50/50 split IF the gallery is truly working for and with me. Am not very happy when a gallery asks me to pay for advertising and openings. I do not mind if the Gallery and I split a designers commission, meaning we each just get 40%, designer gets 20%. Just have to figure in that occasional possibility.
    Commissions…When I am handling them myself I add on a 10 percent fee. It is a lot of work interacting with the client, sending images of the work in progress, and dealing with any afterthoughts the client may want.
    Having someone acting as the go between can result in problems. One time a request for specific colors was not passed on to me, The 5 x 7 foot painting had to be completely repainted! I’m very specific now with my questions on what they are wanting.

  13. If a gallery works with you, puts up more than just one piece of your work, advertises and works the sales then they are worth the 50%. It’s the ones that do nothing for the sales and want that commission rate that peave me.

  14. There seems to be a lot of variables with a gallery collecting 50% on a commission. First, is if the gallery actively cultivated the commission for the artist with the customer, that is a big consideration- a 50% consideration. Second, if an artist is not making that much on his art to begin with, is 50% fair? This would be especially true for a small commission. As Marie Ackers points out above some mediums like sculpture have very high overhead or up-front costs. Third, at what point does the gallery’s right to a percentage of the commissions an artist gets end? Of course, taking a side-commission from an existing gallery customer is unethical. If the commission is independent of the gallery that commission should be the artist’s.

  15. I have different levels of galleries, some notify me immediately of sale, pay right on time and move work. Other Galleries don’t sell as well, never notify me. even when i ask, they only post sold on their website (who know how long ago it sold) and i must constantly inquire for payment or tax etc. Cheques go “astray’. these Galleries will not get 50% from me. only my top dogs. they’ve earned it. I won’t paint a “commission’, I will work with size and colour preference and roughly something like past work I’ve done, I call it “first right of refusal’ , the client gets it first, if its a no go, it goes into that galleries inventory. the internet has made things tricky. they may see your work in a gallery or even purchase a few works from different galleries, then down the road contact about a piece in the studio. if all galleries want a commission or finders fee we artists would have nothing left. like Jason said, the galleries must earn their pay.

  16. If the gallery can jack up my prices so that losing the 50% is not a loss, I’d say fine. On the other hand, I do mostly commissioned work and I have a buyer from Brooklyn who commissions me regularly. He actually resells these to customers in his area. So since he does the work of getting the customers, dealing with them and all I have to do is paint a portrait, get paid online and ship, I am OK with giving him a substantial discount on what I regularly charge. Plus he has commissioned 19 portraits so far and that has been great for supplying regular income.

  17. The commissions I have had have all been from clients visiting my studio or from seeing my digital portfolio. Often they have been to many of my exhibitions and like my style before they finally decide to buy a piece. I couldn’t identify the gallery that deserves a commission. If a gallery brings a client to my studio who has seen my work at the gallery or calls to see if they can come on their own, I would pay the gallery’s commission. I want a gallery to do the work and gladly pay their commission so I can spend the time painting. I always ask for 50% down. Commission work is more difficult because you have to meet someone else’s expectations instead of just your own. I just finished totally re painting a commission piece because of the changes that I had to make. The client paid in full at the beginning but when I first showed him a photo of it, he asked me to change a major part because it brought up bad memories. After I made the changes, I was not happy with it, so I started from scratch and am pleased with the final piece. Hopefully he will be too since I told him no refunds. I am glad he never saw my work anywhere but in my digital portfolio so I don’t have to pay a commission.

  18. Absolutely they deserve a 50% commission . They have a lot of expenses and if you find the right galleries and they promote and you develop a relationship it is so worth the commission!

  19. The gallery should get their share. If they bring me a commission it’s something I would not have gotten myself most likely. My galleries always deliver or ship the painting. That is worth so much to me. I hate that job. I’d rather be painting.

  20. I think it depends on the situation and the relationship between the gallery and the artist. If there is a good working relationship and communication between the artist and gallery, I think that’s fair. I recently left a gallery that was a bit shoddy by my estimation. Their communication was poor, and their displays in the gallery were horrific. However, one of my daughter’s galleries negotiates with buyers for her, pomotes her work and even sold a painting for no commission when she was preparing to go to Italy (for a show). She values their support and feels a 50% commission is warranted. However, her work sells for an amount that 50% still leaves her with a fair amount for her work.

  21. If the gallery facilitates the contract, takes care of deposits, fields questions from collector to artist, provides advice and critiques, does final billing, collects sales tax, facilitates shipping or delivery, then sure, the full commission is well deserved, and probably more really. However if things are turned over to the artist who is a long time professional, who takes care of contracts, deposits, sales tax and all the rest, then perhaps a smaller commission to the gallery is more reasonable payable to the gallery when the artist receives payment. Most of the artists at my gallery want help with all of the above, come for critiques in process and advice over correspondences as the commission is executed. So it really just depends.

  22. As a jewelry artist, who was the number one seller in a Philadelphia Museum Shop for over ten years, I was willing to work with the Shop on a 60/40 consignment basis. I was able to quickly make modifications and adjustments for their clients (to facilitate sales) as well as attend the occasional “meet the artist” sales events. When the Shop manager was facing over all lousy sales at the beginning of last year, I was told that their new consignment was going to be a 50/50 split. After several dead end conversations where I made some suggestions to help bolster the Shops poor sales, I asked that they pack up my work and ship it home.
    This particular shop did carry some national big production lines that they did have wholesale accounts with. That is who you have a 50/50 split with. Not the independent artist that lives in your community and makes each piece by hand. If the Shop is not willing to purchase the work they need to follow the time honored guidelines. If we are asked to leave our work with no payment, and it sits next to work that the shop has more incentive to sell (wholesale), we need to make that 10% more with each sale.

  23. I appreciate this topic being raised. I recently had a gallery contact me about a commission. The customer was buying one of my pieces and asked the gallery to contact me about commissioning a matching one. I don’t mind the 50% as much although I have learned whenever I join a new gallery, to always ask for a consignment agreement. It always makes me feel better.
    As far as getting a deposit on direct commissions, I always ask for 50%. I need to know that they are invested as much as I am.
    I wish everyone a very successful 2017!

  24. What about one off exhibitions where the conditions of entry state that the organiser is entitled to 30% commission on the sale of the exhibited work, and 30% on any works commissioned? Does this mean any works commissioned where the query has come via the organiser, or any works commissioned within a certain timeframe regardless of where the query originated, or any works commissioned ever? Is this up to the artist to ask where the client saw the work (ie. the exhibition or elsewhere) and then do the right thing and notify the exhibition organiser if the query arose from the exhibition?

  25. Jason, after working w three galleries, I’ve come to believe 50% is fair if the gallery and you work as partners. Many large galleries my take your work with 70’other Artist and you are just a perhaps sale. My very best galleries.. know me.. and can speak of the person, technique etc of all artist, 2d or 3D. But it they cannot, a less commission I think is better or find a better match. I Do think good gallery relationships earn that 50 percent. For commission work: always a 50 percent deposit. My question is designer discounts????

  26. As a gallery owner I know there is a lot more time that goes into commission work than if someone were to buy a piece straight off of the wall (which I vastly prefer). There are lots of back and forth calls to make for commissions. Also, commissions do take wall space because the reason a client discovers an artist and gets interested in a particular artist to begin with is because they have seen their work on the wall. And I do hope that the artist does acknowledge with payment (perhaps 30% in this case) when a person contacts them privately because they found them and their work on the wall of the gallery and works out a commission piece without the knowledge and involvement of the gallery. When an artist does this, the gallery has a much stronger reason to advocate for that artist in the future and it also leaves lots of warm fuzzies that are worth gold to the relationship between the artist and the gallery who has been building up the artist’s reputation for years, sometimes with little pay back for doing so.

  27. It’s kind of like the difference between managing your own rental or having a property management company do it – 50% is surely fair in the case where the gallery is doing ALL the work, and particularly if it is a repeat gallery visitor/buyer (in that case Isee them sort of “owning”the buyer…) I would be THRILLED to give 50% to a gallery so I could just paint/sculpt/throw all day! (Hmmm… maybe I should be working on getting more recent stuff in that portfolio…) That said, I am not sure a simple hand-off qualifies for that large a cut (particuarly with some of the commission clients I have known.) It should be clear in adnvance what the fee will be, referral or management style, and whose responsibility it is to deliver/install/frame etc. of course.

  28. One person brought this up, should artists charge more for commissions? I think yes, or at least raise their other prices to cover the extra work with commissions…the example of a 2nd painting to ‘match’ the first would have been a tricky situation, and difficult to charge more, but beyond that, why not?
    I paint but also have been in the custom design jewelry business for years, every piece is a one-off, so it’s fairly easy to charge more for commissions. Commissions are hours more work, (and can involve costly gem searches) than just filling my showcase with my designs.

  29. Well maybe this has been expressed already but if the initial contact came thru gallery to the artist the Gallery is entitled to a commission. The artist would not have met this client otherwise and that is worth something. If the Gallery stays closely involved as a go between as Jason has explained then I’d say 50% is fair. If Gallery owner doesn’t stay involved and allows artist n client to work directly then a smaller commission is appropriate. Tina

  30. I have been asked by interior designers for pieces for their clients, and how much commission would I pay them for their efforts? I think that if this is someone that will partner with me more often for sales, then a higher commission would be fair. But in dealing with others, who just need my work every now and then, without good representation for me, then a lower percentage seems fair. Some have simply purchased my piece or asked for a 10% comm. But I do keep my pricing firm, as a local commodity driven gallery calls about works on my website…they generally already know the prices due to its format and dimensions. What to tell a “new to me” ID when they flat out ask me what percentage will I pay them? If 50% is the going rate, then ok, but I have not been able to find a good guideline calculation for this question in any art forum.

  31. As a business owner, I understand the 50/50 percentage. Most people do not understand the cost of maintaining a physical business structure, salespeople, advertising, paying for lights and electricity. I definately think that the partnership of 50/50 is fair.

  32. You are working in a free market – negotiate your rate with the gallery ! If they have a surfeit of artists wanting to exhibit and you can be confident exhibiting with them results in good sales and a good price or good exposure then they can charge more, if they need to attract artists they will have to negotiate with you a lower rate . If you can’t make a living at the rates they are wiling to go down to then exhibit elsewhere. Don’t let pride push you into a gallery you can’t afford . Use churches, cafes community centre or get together with other artists to form a co-operative gallery or exhibition place.
    Every artist musician and creative freelancer has to learn this. YOU decide the fair price!

  33. I agree with R Raya that 50% is fair if the gallery is pulling its weight – like doing the shipping for a more distant client. It is perhaps not so fair if it is more of a referral fee. I am curious though about how “gallery involvement in the whole process” works out if an artist is quite capable of handling the entire process alone.
    An up front deposit is reasonable, but perhaps it could be less than 50% if the artwork being commissioned is not so personalized that it could not be put into the artist’s stock if the client doesn’t like it in the end. I’ve sometimes done two variations when doing commissions, so for the client at the end the question is not whether or not they like it, but which one they prefer – with the understanding that the un-chosen one is mine to sell, whether or not it was created with their photograph or idea as a basis.

  34. If the gallery brings the client or is the facilitator for obtaining the commission, then, yes, the gallery should get its commission. If the client comes directly to me, then, no, the gallery should not get a commission. However, I prefer to have commissions go through the gallery for the very reasons Jason stated above.

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