Debate: Do Galleries Deserve Perpetual Commissions for Sales to Clients They Discovered?

Yesterday, I wrote a post on splitting commissions between galleries. The article resulted in an interesting and lively conversation in the comments, a conversation that raised additional questions. One of those questions was whether a gallery deserved an ongoing commission for all future sales to clients who discover an artist’s work through the gallery.

Calvin wrote the following in a comment

What gets more complicated is when a collector buys a painting from a gallery where you pay a commission, but then that person becomes a collector and buys one or more others in the months ahead NOT through the gallery, but directly from the artist. Do you still owe a commission even though it is months (or years) after the gallery sale, and the gallery had nothing to “do with that sale”? Is this collector a “forever” commission-collector, because they were the initial client of the gallery? My answer would be no, because buying from you directly would be no different than buying from another gallery that carried my work. But I have had a gallery say that if it is “their client” and they claim that client forever and they should receive the full commission if I sold something directly. (We parted ways, and any future relationship, on that claim.)

There have always been questions (and even lawsuits) over this issue, but the internet brings it into even sharper focus as collectors are more easily able to connect directly with artists.

I’m going to try to tread carefully on this subject because I know that there are very strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Rather than coming at this from any kind of moral or emotional ground, I want to try and approach it from a purely pragmatic standpoint. I’m going to advocate an approach that I hope will be beneficial to all sides in the question: artists, galleries and collectors.

So with that in mind, I want to approach this question from a slightly different angle. Rather than asking, “Does the artist owe a commission?” and then throwing an answer and supporting arguments at it, I want to try and look at the big picture and then reverse-engineer our way back to some kind of understanding.

Motivation

First, let’s look at the artist-gallery relationship. Why do artists agree to consign their work to galleries in the first place? I know this is fairly obvious, but bear with me. I suggest that there may be a number of reasons. An artist may feel that their work will gain wider exposure by being displayed to the gallery’s clients. The artist may also feel that showing in a gallery adds credibility to their work. Ultimately, however, I propose that the main reason an artist should show with a gallery is to achieve more sales and attain greater financial stability. In essence, working with a gallery allows all of the parties involved to focus on what they do best. The artist can spend more time in the studio creating artwork because they have a gallery handling the promotion, marketing, sales and logistics involved in getting their work into the hands of collectors.

While the internet is certainly making it easier (in some ways) to connect with potential buyers, it is still extremely difficult for an artist to get enough exposure and generate enough sales to be successful without showing in galleries. [I’ll pause here to say that I know there are certainly exceptions to this rule, and that the whole equation is changing rapidly because of the internet – that’s a discussion for another post. For the sake of this discussion though, let’s assume that you agree and want to show in galleries because you believe it will lead to greater sales and allow you to spend more time in the studio.]

If, then, the goal is to generate long-term sales success with the gallery, it makes sense for you to do everything in your power to maintain and strengthen the relationship with your gallery. The gallery should also be doing everything in their power to makes sure they are providing value to you. In a sense, when you are showing with a gallery, you have entered into a partnership with them, and partnerships only work when both parties are doing everything in their power to make each other happy. If both the artist and the gallery are working hard to make the relationship profitable, you’ve got your best shot at long-term success.

Does the Gallery Deserve an Ongoing Commission?

Now let’s come back to our original question and look at it pragmatically in light of this idea that we are trying to work together for our mutual benefit. If that is the case, the question won’t be “Does the gallery deserve an ongoing commission?” The question will instead be “What will happen to our relationship if I don’t pay a commission to the gallery for sales I make directly to a client who discovered me through the gallery?”

This is a substantially different question. The word “deserve” brings us back into the realm of morality or emotion, and I want to keep us looking at this question pragmatically.

From the gallery’s perspective, you wouldn’t be making future sales to this customer if the gallery hadn’t gone to great expense and effort to provide a physical location where that client could encounter your artwork.

Bill Inman put it this way in his response to Calvin’s original comment

If a collector finds me through a particular gallery and comes to me directly for future paintings I send the gallery their commission because they are the reason I have that collector – and I have had this happen and sent the gallery their rightfully earned commission – if I am no longer with that gallery we have no contract.

Adrienne Tybjerg weighed in by saying

I think I tend to follow a kind of real estate model. Within a year or so of a show (real estate is usually 6 months, but applies to all sales), the gallery should get their commission if the person buying saw it at their gallery. It is just like selling homes. Real Estate agents need to know that their efforts will not be abused, but at the same time they must accept that their work to sell does have a limited shelf life. If a gallery wasn’t able to sell during the showing time or within a year, the artist should not be penalized for it for life.

So who’s right? Calvin – that future direct sales shouldn’t result in a commission for the gallery? Bill – that they should, so long as there’s a contract in place? Or Adrienne – that there should be a shelf life to future commissions?

if you are asking “who’s right?” you’re asking the wrong question

And I would say that if you are asking “who’s right?” you’re asking the wrong question. I would say that it’s not a question of who’s right, it’s a question of, practically speaking, what are you trying to accomplish?

If you feel that the value of the commission from direct sales is more valuable than the future relationship with the gallery, then I would say that Calvin and Adrienne’s answers make sense. As Calvin said in his comment, the issue has lead to the termination of a relationship with a gallery. Right, wrong, black, white, none of that matters – the result matters.

You may have the best arguments in the world as to why the gallery doesn’t deserve the ongoing commission, but the gallery is simply going to say, “if you don’t value our having generated the relationship with the collector (if you valued it you would pay us for it) we aren’t going to show your work anymore. Instead we are going to work with artists who will pay us ongoing commissions.” No argument you make is going to change how they feel about this, and even though they may be wrong, their feelings are going to guide their actions and you are going to find your work on the street.

Now let’s look, practically, at what happens when an artist takes Bill Inman’s approach of paying the gallery a commission. Whether or not the gallery deserves the commission, you can bet that when they receive it, they are going to look more favorably on Bill and his work. That gallery is going to be more willing to invest in Bill’s long-term success because they are going to feel that it’s worth the investment. They are going to ask for more work, and hopefully Bill is going to have more sales in the long run. In a sense, by paying the ongoing commission, Bill is making an investment back in the gallery.

A Gallery Has to Earn Your Respect

Before you rush to the comments to start arguing the point with me, I want to say this clearly, and emphatically:

NOT EVERY GALLERY RELATIONSHIP IS WORTH MAINTAINING!!! 

In the last few paragraphs I’ve been talking about how an artist can work hard to sustain the relationship. There’s another side to it, however, and that is that the gallery better be working just as hard at the relationship. I know just as well as you do that there are galleries out there who are not pulling their weight. In this business, just as many others, there are those who believe that throwing up a sign and opening your doors for business is enough. It is not.

Frankly, there may be instances where you run into the issue of ongoing commissions and rightly feel that the relationship with the collector is more important than the relationship with the gallery. If the gallery has been lackadaisical in their marketing efforts, if they’ve been poor communicators, if they’ve been slow to pay, I suspect you’re going to look at all of that and say, “I don’t mind risking the relationship, because it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to find a new gallery.”

In other words, I want to turn this whole debate around and say that if a gallery is doing a great job of promoting you and is selling your work like crazy, this won’t even be an issue. You, as the artist, will be happy to direct the collector back to the gallery to make the sale because you love working with them and would rather have them handle the sale details. If you don’t feel that way, if you feel like you would be better off making the sale yourself and retaining the full commission, I suspect that the gallery hasn’t earned your respect and thus hasn’t earned the commission.

Working with the Collector

Finally, we need to briefly discuss how to handle the relationship with the collector in light of the above discussion. If, as an artist, you have a collector approach you after discovering your work in a gallery, and if you wish to pay the commission to the gallery, I suggest that you make this very clear to the collector. Let them know that any purchases they make will be handled by the gallery. Keep the gallery up to date about your contact with the collector. Get them involved in shipping and installation of the artwork. Let the gallery deal with any negotiation that occurs over the price of the piece, or at least keep them in the loop. In other words, give the gallery the opportunity to continue to earn their commission.

This openness will be appreciated by your gallery and by your collector. They will appreciate your professional approach to the business as you let them know that you value your partnership with the gallery.

Please Share Your Thoughts!

I’ve had my crack at this subject, now it’s your turn! Please leave your thoughts below in the comments. I’ve tried to approach this topic in a thoughtful and respectful way, and I’ve tried to see the issue from both sides – I hope you’ll do the same in the comments even if you disagree!

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60 Comments

  1. DEFINITELY !
    The Gallery is essential to most artists success and should get what they deserve, every penny of it for perpetuity.

  2. The Gallery did the work of connecting the artist to the collector. In my opinion of you have an existing relationship the Gallery should be kept informed and paid their commission. This should be stated up front in the consignment agreement.
    William Baker

  3. Such an important topic! To me, this paragraph says it all: “If the gallery has been lackadaisical in their marketing efforts, if they’ve been poor communicators, if they’ve been slow to pay, I suspect you’re going to look at all of that and say, I don’t mind risking the relationship, because it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I had to find a new gallery.” I have no qualms about paying a commission, after the fact, if the gallery is working hard to sell the work. But when the artist is expected to market the show and invite people to attend events and pay for any postcards and give up 50% (or more) of sales, I do not think that gallery should get a commission on sales made two months after the last show. I like to ensure that there is an end-date, such as two-months, written into every gallery contract.

  4. For me, the most critical aspect of your response was: “And I would say that if you are asking “who’s right?” you’re asking the wrong question. I would say that it’s not a question of who’s right, it’s a question of, practically speaking, what are you trying to accomplish?”
    And that, I think, as a person who is equal parts artist and mentor for those in transformation, it is also a good answer for darn near any tricky personal (ie: legalities not involved) situation. “Right” is so often in the mind of the beholder and taking personal responsibility for any decision carries with it, at least, the weight of ones integrity,

  5. Jason, you’ve addressed a difficult question well. Thank you for looking at it from several different perspectives. Is a “finder’s fee” ever paid to a gallery in lieu of a full commission?

  6. What if a collector finds you outside of the gallery not knowing about the gallery and wants to purchase something not showing in that gallery? Is that also a time when the gallery should be given a commission? That could be very confusing if you are in many galleries.

    1. I believe the key words are “if the collector finds you” they have no connection to the gallery and hence no fee is owed the gallery.

  7. I think the key here is whether you value your relationship with the gallery. Keeping the relationship positive is essentially, so if the gallery is working to make sales for you and the person discovered you through the gallery you should absolutely make sure the gallery gets the commission.
    If the piece is currently in the possession of the gallery, then when someone contacts you, whether they are a former client of the gallery or not, I think you still should be sure the gallery is either involved in the sale or received their commission.

    Here is my question, if a piece is not at the gallery (and never has been) and someone contacts you about buying a piece, how do you find out whether they discovered you via that gallery? Maybe you are in more than one gallery so the source now matters. Maybe you don’t know the name of your buyers through the various galleries. You can make a good faith attempt to find out how they know your work, but is that sufficient? You can’t pay commission to all the galleries that represent you.

    1. That’s an easy one, at least for me. I ask them how they found out about me. When asked directly, most people answer with the truth. I then know what I need to do. I used to have trouble asking questions like that, but reading about marketing (thank you, Jason) helped me realize that it’s a very normal, expectable question. People just assume it’s for marketing purposes. In this day and age with people being asked to review purchases and services so frequently online, nobody bats an eye when I ask something like this.

      1. I would certainly ask how they know my work, but hoped there might be some magical approach that nearly always works. I’m glad to hear it is that simple.

        If they answer, “your website”, should you circle back and ask how they came to find your website in case they are being specific about a particular piece and not your artwork generically?

  8. What stands out to me as I read this is, “How certain are you that the gallery was a significant factor in the relationship?” Say you’ve got this artist, Amy. She’s got work at Gabby’s Gallery, and takes her work to the Fairy Fair. Candy Collector sees her work at Gabby’s, admires it, but isn’t ready to buy. Later, she sees it at the Fair, and strikes up a relationship, eventually buying several paintings directly. Doug Driver sees her work at Gabby’s too, and buys a piece. Later on, he’s out driving, and his car happens to break down near Amy’s studio, and while he’s waiting for the tow truck, chats with her and ends up buying another piece. Bargain Betty goes to the gallery, likes the work but not the price, and later seeks out Amy, hoping to buy her work “wholesale.” In each case, the initial contact was the gallery, but how much did the gallery contribute to the eventual sale? And, more importantly, how do you prove the gallery’s part in it? Keep in mind, if you use the “value-added” argument for determining price, buying at the artist’s studio saves the artist the cost of packing and shipping it, which has it’s cost, even if it’s only across town.

  9. I think Jason is right, if you like the Gallery you are working with, they are making sales for you, then it is best to work with your gallery and even pay them a commission after the fact for a sale of work that was once consigned to them. All businesses know that they need other businesses and need good working relationships with them for the long term success. But then the question still remains that the more time that elapses from when the work was in a gallery and the work sells a year or more later then the issue gets more complicated. But in the end it still seems like the bottom line is how much do you the artist value your gallery relationships and are you willing to work with them to find common ground when faced with an unusual sales situation.

  10. Jason, this is one of the most thoughtful pieces you have done, thank you for addressing it the way you did. Civil discussion, looking at an issue from the opposite point of view, and a consideration of the long term effects will benefit everyone. Its possible that looking at all of those things will result in parting with a gallery – but if thats the case it probably wasn’t the right relationship in the first place. Personally, I want my galleries to Love my work and to be enthusiastic about promoting it; I want to feel proud to be on their walls and happy to promote them in return. If we start from there we can really do great things…

  11. Another consideration: Does the gallery represent you as an individual, or was your work part of a group show curated by someone else and exhibited for a fixed time period? If the latter, and the sale was of a piece of work not shown in the group show, then there is neither an obligation nor a practical reason to remit a commission (unless you’d like to establish a relationship with the gallery).

  12. Well, for starters, it’s not the same for every gallery or every client.
    For one, if a client see’s the work in a gallery the sale should be through the gallery. However, if the gallery doesn’t have what they are looking for and the artist does at the studio, it depends on who handles them, but if it is the artist and not the gallery then only a fraction of the commission should be paid. Some galleries do not work for the artist, some do. If a gallery has promoted you and given you space and a client tries to go around them, then they deserve some compensation. If a gallery shows your work but doesn’t sell much and does no advertising and no promotion then they really are not worth it…and you should think of dropping them anyway. There is a value to what galleries do and offer, but it has to fairly reflect the reality of the situation. Commission in perpetuity is egregious.

  13. During my time in the custom furniture business I’ve had occasions when a client I had met through a designer would attempt an “end around” to avoid paying the designer’s mark up (and who doesn’t like a better price?). I would simply call the designer and let them know about the situation and ask them what they wanted me to add on their behalf. As a general rule this ended up being less than the typical forty to fifty percent mark up but still compensated them for having brought the client to the table in the first place. The customer ends up with a slightly better price while feeling very good about it. The designer ends up with a little more income and the knowledge that they weren’t cut out of the deal and the furniture maker (me!) ends up with a happy client, a happy designer and another sale. “You dance with the one that brung ya”

  14. I prefer to work through the gallery. If I have a piece that is not in a gallery but the customer found me in that gallery, I prefer to go ahead and make arrangements with said gallery to handle the purchase. It saves me the headaches of sales tax and shipping issues. It also protects my privacy if it is someone I don’t really know and helps me rule out potential scam artists.

  15. If someone had purchased my work at a gallery and then came to me directly to buy more, I would refer them back to the gallery and send the work they want there. The work the gallery does is not something I particularly like to do and am happy to give them that commission.

  16. If an artist signs a contract for representation with a Gallery and the gallery goes through the expense of producing a show, every art piece that is included in that show and that is sold off its walls or out of its catalog should be considered part of that contractual agreement and the gallery should be paid its due commission. Hence, if one of those pieces of art that was exhibited in that gallery’s show sold after the fact, that piece is still under the contractual agreement with the gallery and the gallery should still get its due commission. But if the artist sells pieces of her work that were not included in any show directly to a client, be it a client of the gallery or someone else off the street who became aware of the artist by any other means, the money earned by selling that artwork should stay with the artist but a portion of the proceeds should be given to the gallery as a finder’s fee – say 10% if the contract is current.

    Galleries do not own an artist forever simply because she/he was under a contractual agreement to show her work either in part or as a whole through a solo show. Again, the gallery does not own its clients – preventing them from using their money how they see fit.

    Let’s say an artist’s work is seen at a client’s home by a neighbor and that person loves the artist’s work so much they visit the gallery but find nothing from that artist they like. Then they visit the artist’s studio and see something they want to buy. Should the gallery who sold the original work to its client (neighbor) be given 50% of the proceeds just because they have a contract with the artist, even though they had nothing to do with the artist being discovered on a client’s wall? Or should the neighbor who incurred expense by purchasing the artwork gracing his wall be given the commission? Or should they both be given a 50% commission and leave the artist penny less even though its the artist’s labor, blood, and soul, that they are splitting up and getting paid for? And should artists be prevented to sell their work to anyone who sees their work (old or in progress) just because they have a contract with a gallery to show other work that was accepted by the gallery? Especially if it is old work or a “work in progress” that might or might not make the cut to sell on the gallery’s wall?

    If a gallery incurs expense to fund an artist’s solo show through advertisement, exposure on the walls (real estate rental of space), and other overhead for the solo show, then all work sold at that time or after the show is over but which appeared in the show should be subjected to the contract and the gallery be given its commission. But if the artist sells old work that would never be good enough to grace the gallery’s wall, why should the gallery be paid its 50% commission? If you say yes to this question, you are saying that the gallery “OWNS” the artist and the client. The gallery dictates what goes up on their walls and if the old work is not good enough to sell on its walls it can’t be sold unless they get a commission for work they didn’t want in the first place. And the gallery dictates how a client should spend their money – directly through the gallery and not through direct contact with the artist. Well, you might say that the gallery DOES NOT prevent the client from purchasing directly from the artist but the artist’s hands are tied in producing work for the gallery alone. If you agree the gallery should get its 50% or more commission for all work produced by the artist, you are saying the gallery has a right to dictate what the artist should produce and sell. You are saying that the gallery OWNS the artist. Where does that leave creativity?

  17. Excellent topic. I agree that it comes down to whether or not you feel that the gallery is still working to promote your work and is the relationship between said gallery and yourself still a positive experience.

  18. Since the artist and gallery are essentially a partnership, I have learned, mostly through a few bad gallery experiences, to let a prospective dealer know I expect payment within 30 days of the sale, no discounts over 10% without having contacted me, ability to switch out work after a specific amount of months, and that my work actually hangs for most of the time the gallery shows it. If the gallery does not have a written agreement, I give them my own and have them sign two copies. I do keep in mind that agreements can include revisions by either party. That all said, nothing I request is unusual or unreasonable. I’ve just run into “very slow to pay” too often and that stresses me out.

    Now, as far as who gets the commission.. Someone always gets the sales commission. When art is sold directly, the artist gets the sales commission. There are no wholesale direct sales for my work. I think a gallery that’s working hard and producing sales deserves a commission, but if the painting is bought at an outdoor show even though the collector has purchased from her gallery, the artist gets the full commission because she paid to do that show. Studio sales get a bit tricky.

    Another tricky scenario is when the collector has seen the artist’s work in several galleria, ads, and perhaps magazines… Or juried exhibitions, which is not too strange in the world I work in, I say, whoever sells the piece gets the sales commission. That said, I believe an artist should never pull a work out if a gallery to sell it directly. I’ve heard of that, and I think it’s unethical.

    Several artists I know sell one kind of work via their websites and another at their galleries. Usually larger originals at galleries. They don’t mix the two.

  19. As long as your in that gallery, they deserve their split! You wouldn’t have that collector if it wasn’t for them and it’s just respectful. I think a courtesy like this will give you a better relationship with that gallery, which hopefully will lead to better sales and good relationships with other galleries.

  20. I think if someone buys my piece at a gallery and then that collector approaches me later through my website, I owe the gallery a commission. Getting the client in the first place is a huge accomplishment that must be compensated. I was a product designer for almost 20 years and I came to believe that sales is actually more than half the work. If it were so easy, we’d all be doing it on our own.
    I think the desire not to share the commission partly comes from living in a culture that doesn’t really value the arts, therefore making it so difficult to make a living as an artist, that every penny feels so scarce, so improbable. But I think not wanting to share the commission can also come from a discomfort/disrespect for art of marketing and selling as well. So many artists I know describe the gallery’s commission as their “taking half!” But I believe if you price your work correctly “wholesale,” (pre-commission), you’re happy to give the seller their fair share. (This belief comes from years of working as a designer where my work was sold to stores not the public directly.) If I want respect as an artist for my skills, it’s important that I respect the gallery owner’s skills as well (that is, the ability to sell my artwork.) As we all know, our art doesn’t sell itself…or we wouldn’t be reading this blog! 🙂

  21. April, that is exactly what I questioned one comment before yours. Perhaps we were typing at the same time.

    I have a handful of collectors of my own that I’ve worked hard to collect and worked each and every sale on my own. Most times through several e-mails over several days and shipped the artwork as well. None of which have found me through a gallery, but through my personal websites and my own marketing or social media. One asked me where I may be showing work in a city they happen to be visiting. I told her the name of the gallery and let the gallery know someone was coming to see my work specifically. They bought one of the pieces and the gallery got their commission as they should have and will do every time a situation like this arises or if they want a piece that is being represented in one of the galleries that have my work taking up valuable space on their wall.
    I’m on the fence about amount of commission the gallery should be allowed to take if the artist made the sale happen either because the artist was in the gallery doing the sale or doing the sale outside the gallery the artwork is in. Seems to me that an agreement should be in play of a less commission to the gallery for special circumstances like that…
    …I’m not sure if you are saying that a gallery that represents an artist is representing their body of work (and working to find collectors of their art) so therefore must be paid commission for all sales even those done fully by the artist (Some collectors prefer buying straight from the artist and some sales wouldn’t happen any other way). Including from collectors that are the artist’s collectors, not the gallery’s, despite the fact that the artist did all the work (including shipping) and the art was not represented in that or any gallery.
    It is important to build trusting relationships with galleries. Very important, but that trust must goes both ways. The galleries wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for artists willing to let them try to sell their work through representation and the work that comes with there 50%. A gallery is not doing themselves or the artist any good (in the long run) by owning them and all rights to everything they create.
    I would never dream of screwing over a gallery. Ever. That’s just stupid and bad business. The artist shouldn’t be screwed over either.

  22. I love this article. I am a Gallery Owner and my relationship with the Artist that I represent is very important to me. The Artist should expect me to work hard for them to earn my commission. I completely agree that the right question is “what are you trying to accomplish?” When an Artist gives me a commission from a collector that found them via my Gallery, I become even more loyal to that Artist – and I promote their work more. It is business….but the relationship is very important.

    1. May I ask what you would expect in some of the other scenarios posted in the comments : work sold through the artist where the work hasn’t been in the gallery for a long time ( and how long is long from a galleries perspective?) or the buyer came to the artist through channels other than the gallery, or possibly as a result of multiple galleries and other marketing efforts by the artist? I would never want to jeopardize a good relationship with a gallery, but would love another gallerist’s perspective.

  23. These discussions have great value, Jason! I follow every one of your blogs and discussions and I always find them relevant to the business of art and selling. I personally am so grateful for the huge investment in resources, time, money, and marketing that my gallery has put into their own business as well as the business of selling my artwork! As an artist, continuing growth and improvement…becoming better and better, going to a deeper level of skills and knowledge, and presenting exceptional artwork that is recognized as professional and highly desirable…are my goals. That can only be accomplished with massive amounts of time at the easel. Having the support of an active gallery with a strong collector base is worth the commission that is charged when I sell a piece of art! I would not want to do something to jeopardize that relationship. I am a rookie considering this is my first year with gallery representation. Prior to this, I sold online for a couple of years and it took a huge amount of time, marketing, posting, shipping, communicating with buyers, and I found online buyers frequently want a “good deal”. I’m not opposed to that but gallery representation suits my needs a little better.
    Thanks for all of your generous information and these discussions.

  24. I have a slightly different situation in that I am in a gallery that hasn’t sold anything. It is a beautiful gallery in Hawaii. I’m not sure if you have covered how to part ways with galleries that still have work and are reluctant to return them? I have even mentioned their representation in magazines where I have paid the advertising. After a 2 year period I finally got this gallery to return some paintings but they still kept one. This gallery hasn’t done anything that I am aware of to market my work. I found out on a trip to this gallery that they had been using my artwork to stage houses without my knowledge or consent, so the artwork wasn’t even on display in the gallery for months at a time! I would love to split a commission if they ever sold anything or acted like they cared about my work. Should I part ways with this gallery?

  25. This is a complex question, in part because the gallery business doesn’t seem to have agreed on standard practices in this area. They have on the commission question. Everyone knows that 50% is the norm for a gallery commission, and if someone wants something different, they have to explain why. The same is true of most business sectors, where production/creation is separate from sales. As people have mentioned for real estate, there are standard practices for these questions. With the changes in the art world, if these questions are not worked out on a general basis, there will be more conflict between artist and gallery, to the detriment of both.

  26. Here we go again with protocol … there isn’t much.
    Gallery representation with the painting hanging in the gallery, absolutely they have earned that commission; no debate.
    One of the main reasons for gallery representation is their patrons, collectors, and their contacts … the artist is tapping that clientele through the gallery. You didn’t develop that following, the gallery did. Assuming the patron comes back regularly to the gallery saying, “I’m interested in acquiring ____. Who do you have that creates that?” The patron is basically asking the gallery owner to act as a broker/agent. That patronage is invaluable and you should pay that commission even if the piece is not physically in the gallery. The patron and gallery likely have a longer relationship than you and the gallery do.
    The only blip I see in the whole process is if a patron tries to circumvent the gallery thinking they can acquire a piece for less money because they are going to the artist directly. Again, you would be wise to pay the gallery their commission and impress upon the buyer you are selling the piece for the same price regardless if it is bought from you or the gallery. Show a little integrity here.
    One last consideration is if you have left the gallery. You’re not married to any of them. The weight of owe or not owe may ride with how you left and under what circumstances. If you left because they weren’t paying the artist I wouldn’t pay a commission either. If the gallery just faded out of existence, well, maybe you do. We’d all like to have long term satisfying relationships with viable galleries but in this present day you will change galleries often in your career. It’s the in between that gets sticky.

  27. Good job with this post, Jason.
    I am a little dismayed that a few artists mentioned offering a discount for their work, in one way or another, when contacted directly- this is what perpetuates the problem of clients going directly to the artists. Artists should be pricing their work to allow for a 50% commission – if they are marketing directly they will spend at least this percentage in show costs and fees, time on the computer, advertising costs, time spent outside the studio not creating art, etc. In 34 years we have had artists cut us out on a few occasions and we have had a few artists try to ignore our contract, which they have signed, that requires that the retail price is consistent no matter where their work is available. When this surfaces we are no longer interested in representing them. For the vast majority of the artists we have represented over the years, it has been a truly wonderful experience that we really enjoy and value. I have several artists we have represented in our region for many, many years. They have become family friends as well as fellow artists.

  28. I think the gallery deserves a commission the first year after showing work AND as long as the gallery is carrying the artist’s work. If the gallery no longer reps the artist then a smaller commission would be appropriate as long as the gallery is not involved in any way with the sale.

    Here’s another topic. Artist’s that don’t charge the same as the gallery. Major pet peeve and sure way to be excluded from a gallery.

  29. Jason, this is such an important post. I have experienced so many variations on this theme, and therein lies the issue. Every art dealer has a different take on the obligations that a gallery artist owes in the business relationship. I appreciate that you are willing to spell it out with as much clarity as you do, but many gallery owners are not so forthcoming. Moreover, as many artists will also attest, the rules often change in mid-stream. This is true even when there is a contract or consignment agreement, which I have always had with my galleries. Trust is everything, but when some galleries feel justified in changing the rules with little or no notice, then artists are left wondering: what is the standard? Or is the standard that there are no standards? I suspect that the popularity that your blog enjoys is largely due to our willingness to bring these difficult subjects out of the shadows. Thank you for airing them will such even-handedness. We all benefit from the discussion.

  30. Jason, this is such an important post. I have experienced so many variations on this theme, and therein lies the issue. Every art dealer has a different take on the obligations that a gallery artist owes in the business relationship. I appreciate that you are willing to spell it out with as much clarity as you do, but many gallery owners are not so forthcoming. Moreover, as many artists will also attest, the rules often change in mid-stream. This is true even when there is a contract or consignment agreement, which I have always had with my galleries. Trust is everything, but when some galleries feel justified in changing the rules with little or no notice, then artists are left wondering: what is the standard? Or is the standard that there are no standards? I suspect that the popularity that your blog enjoys is largely due to our willingness to bring these difficult subjects out of the shadows. Thank you for airing them with such even-handedness. We all benefit from the discussion.

  31. I had a sticky situation a couple of years ago. I was in a kind of coop gallery. I also exhibited work at a few shows. A customer was interested in two of my paintings that I exhibited in a show, but did not buy them. A week or so later I put the paintings in the gallery. My customer later came to me to purchase one or both of the paintings that he had been interested in. I took him to the gallery to have him look at them again and we concluded the sale at the gallery. The person sitting the gallery saw what we were doing and I explained that the gallery had had nothing to do with the sale and that I thought that I did not owe them a commission, since the customer had seen the paintings in a show first. The person who was the leasee of the space and to whom we artists paid a space rental fee, disagreed. He felt so strongly that I did owe him the commission that I finally did pay him the commission. I am not sure who was right, but I did not want hard feelings. I wonder what you would think of this situation.

  32. I have had situations where my work was seen at a gallery and then the client wanted a custom piece. If I take over and handle all the communication, shipping, transaction, etc., I give the gallery 20% of the sale price. I think it depends on how much work the artist needs to do to complete the sale.

  33. I guess one just has to do what seems like the right thing. I was in a group show at a gallery last year, and one of the gallery’s repeat customers contacted me, saying she loved my piece in the show but wanted to see others in my collection. I gave her my website address and asked her to take a look, She chose a different painting and we transacted the sale at the gallery. I offered the gallery a 30% commission on that sale, because I would not have met this collector without them and I wanted to leave the door open for a possible future business relationship with the gallery. The assistant director graciously declined my offer of the commission and said she loves my work and would like me to have a one artist show there in 2017. I just felt that the possible future relationship with the gallery was more important than 100% of the sale. Now I wish I could find a gallery who would honor such a relationship and represent me on a continuous basis.

  34. This is a very thoughtful and helpful blog, including all of the responses. Thanks, Jason, for posting this and encouraging the conversation. As a member/exhibitor in a gallery co-op, where I both work several days per month and exhibit my art, this is a very important issue to me. Our unofficial policy has been not to charge a commission on works sold distinct from the gallery, particularly in cases where an artist has his/her own website, but we have not dealt with the question directly and haven’t addressed the case of a work once exhibited and purchased after it was no longer being shown. This is clearly something for us to think about further. Thanks again!

  35. Yes, it is an issue of trust. We have it written into the contract that if our gallery was instrumental in a sale, say if the work was seen there and the collector approachs the artist directly, then a commission is due. If the artist makes the sale, does the paper work and sales tax and all that, then it is a smaller commission due back to the gallery. I would say that all artists in our gallery direct the collector back to the gallery for the purchase details, even if seen in the gallery and picked up at the artist’s studio. Artists who circumvent the gallery become known as unreliable and dishonest, and ties are severed, it is not worth it. Believe me, we find out. Once I even walked into a framery where an artist had delivered a work for framing, that was seen in our gallery, the collector contacted the artist directly, the artist removed the work and sold behind the galleries back!! So the dirt does come out! However, once the artist is no longer represented by the gallery, the relationship ends. I have never had an artist come back and pay commission once they have left the gallery. The cause of leaving is almost always because of a poor relationship to begin with, things like I described above, and that’s just water under the bridge. I am just as happy to no longer represent an artist I cannot trust. As an artist myself, and a gallery owner also, I know both sides, and respect the honest and loyal artists, and the galleries who are the same.

  36. It’s very interesting to see the range of positions expressed. One thing that hasn’t come into the discussion much so far is compassion and respect for the collector, and her/his views. One of the positions discussed is that the gallery owns the collector forever, and deserves a commission on every sale into the future. My guess is that many, probably most, collectors would be offended by the idea that they, their tastes, their artistic choices, their autonomy, and their purchases are a commodity a gallery thinks it owns.

    Many collectors want a good, lasting relationship with their galleries, and most want a good relationship with the artists whose works they collect. The collector’s choices and preferences must be a part of the partnership, in addition to the artist and the gallery, if the partnership is to thrive over time.

  37. Such a interesting topic…. Both sides have a lot of valid frustrations with the current commission structure in a world of entrepreneur artists.

    Perhaps in the future we will be done with commissions and adopt a wholesale/retail approach where “gallery boutiques” buy the art at wholesale from the artist…… And both artist and gallery go on their happy way selling at retail prices. Traditional Commission galleries will be for the top 1% of artists who are the “Picasso’s” of our current culture.

    Could this work?

  38. Everything you said makes a lot of sense, Jason. I haven’t seen this talked about yet. I had gallery owners retire and sold the building to a book store. Soon after retiring, they mentioned something about future commissions from their customers. I thought they were joking and let it drop. I was shocked that they would expect that until they die.
    There was never any contract and they sold a lot of art for me over the years. Any advice on this one?

  39. What an invaluable article for artists and gallerists alike. The discussion to follow is equally insightful ~ so many different perspectives to consider. It’s funny ~ before I started showing in galleries, I had heard of residual sales and was under the impression that a six-month or one-year period was standard. As of yet, however, I haven’t yet seen a contract with a residual/perpetual sales clause. Since I also have a store on my website, it’s important to me to keep track of how buyers discover my work, for both ethical and marketing reasons. So, at checkout, I present a list of venues and websites and ask buyers to check off the appropriate box.

  40. Really great post Jason. Agree with all said – a robust artist/dealer relationship is the only model I’ve seen where artists can make a reasonable living. It is a thing to be sought out and nurtured.

  41. I think you have put it all really well Jason. I have always worked to create a good relationship with the galleries that represent me so that in situations where I am in doubt I can simply ask. I think as an artist we can get very caught up in gaining our own success but we forget that the gallery is a business too and also relies on our honesty. For me personally I take great delight in seeing the galleries I work with have great success and I know they care and work towards mine. Otherwise I would not work with them (The way I look at it, I am an investment for the gallery just as much as they are for me. If I do well it makes them look good and do well also). I have only had a tricky situation happen to me twice and both times I contacted the galleries. Each time we quickly resolved the issue so that everyone was happy. No fuss or drama.

  42. Exactly as you say Jason. if the relationship is good there is no issue.

    many people think they are getting a deal from the artist. and many artists don’t have the backbone to say no to one. if your pricing is consistent as it should be there is no advantage for the collector (expect maybe fresh unseen work and meeting the artist).
    BUT i have galleries that are hours away and I don’t want to be constantly delivering work for a POTENTIAL sale. with time and gas or shipping I end up on the losing end financially. I work a lesser commission for work offsite into my contract to cover these expenses.

  43. I have been on the retail end of things working with artists and craftspeople and was constantly surprised that they felt as if they were paying a lot just to have their work on display. They had no business concept of the time and expense involved (starting with paying for the physical space) in order to sell their work.
    I feel that if an artist’s work is in in a gallery and the gallery is in touch with their clients on a regular basis ( sending out now work as if comes in etc.) then the artist should refer all of the sales of their work to the gallery and let them deal with the business end of things.
    If the Gallery had your work but no longer is representing you then it would be up to the artist to decide how they wish to proceed.

  44. I feel that if the gallery handles the sale, collects the sales tax, hosts and promotes a show, ships the work, and handles any negotiations, they are indeed deserving of a 50% commission. On the other hand, if all they did was “find the collector” who then purchases additional work not shown in the gallery, and if the gallery had no direct expenses leading up to the sale of the additional work (like promoting the artist, including the artist in a catalog, etc.), then a “finder’s fee” or reduced commission would be in order.

  45. I think that this area is so vague that it all comes down to a contract that includes a transparent business relationship between artist and gallery about outside sales. Word travels FAST. For any gallery to survive surely they must be used to ethically celebrating ANY sales of their stable, whether it be direct or eroneously otherwise.
    Selling outside the gallery is often about putting food on the table. Try getting money off an artist! Studio sales do create a healthy business tension. It also helps guage if a gallery is committed to your work . If you dont like a contract NEVER consign your work.

  46. I agree with Bill Inman. If a collector comes to me, I direct them to the gallery. I don’t want to sell the work, deal with sales tax and shipping. I encourage the collector to go to the gallery because they will sometimes deal with price but I have to sell at the listed price or I am not being fair to the people who represent me. The gallery is the most important part of my work other than the work itself. I don’t keep many pieces in my own gallery or studio anyway once the painting is done somebody has to have it to sell. Isn’t that the point?

  47. I like the reverse engineered way of looking at the subject, and removing what’s “right” or “wrong”… I also think that the key to the issue lies in what Jason said about some relationships not being worth keeping…
    We have a “Back Alley” Clause in our current contract, which makes it valid for 30 days after a piece has been exhibited. This is more to plant the seed of a relationship, though, than anything else (as there’s no real way to enforce it.)
    We would hope that artists consider the services we provide to be valuable but also understand that some artists may not agree with (or even think about) the idea that we put them in touch a potential collector every time they sell something through the gallery…
    Ultimately, people are going to do what they want, and what they believe is in their best interests. I think/hope, if we do a good job, the artist will feel like it (hooked up) and want to return the favor.

  48. When I had consigned pieces in my shop, back when I ran a business, while they were under contract and hanging on my premises, I got paid if they sold. Once a piece was handed back to the artist and the contract was ended, I made no claims on any sale made after that point. I personally would never think of keeping an artist hostage for the rest of their artistic careers. The catch is the under-contract. If under contract then before the problem arises, make it clear before signing. I know a friend of mine was under contract and it specifically stated that gallery had first option and the artist could not place any work in another gallery and could not sell privately any work that had been in the gallery. It was part of the contract.

  49. I have a question and if anyone has any feedback, I really appreciate t if you would share!

    Recently, I entered a juried competition and had two of my pieces shown in a month long show at a gallery/frame shop.

    The only “contract” I signed was a terms and conditions for the show stating that the gallery retains 40% commission if one of my pieces is sold there, along with framing specifications and drop off/pick up details. This is only for the show, I am not being represented by this gallery.

    Upon going to pick up my paintings after the show had ended, the owner told me that someone was asking about seeing my other works to possibly purchase. She told me that if I do sell them something, because I met them through their gallery, I have to pay them the 40% commission, still.

    In all other circumstances, I completely understand giving a gallery that represents me their fair commission, especially if they are promoting my work. What bothers me about this specific situation, is that they are not asking me for a commission on a piece at sold at their show, and because j am not represented, nor have a contract with them – so do I owe them a commission on work I sell outside of their gallery? Especially if it is after the month long juried show? And I do not have a contract with them, and they were not promoting my work, but their gallery show?

    Any thoughts are greatly appreciated, I am having trouble deciding what to do here.

  50. very good points. I definitely can see both sides. I tend to think that if the gallery is working hard to promote me then I do not mind paying. But if they have an open show and my painting sells from that show, then I do not believe that I need to pay on future paintings that I may sell elsewhere.

  51. What if the contract for a juried group show says “gallery shall retain a 30% commission from the sale of artwork in the exhibition, including sales that occur as a direct result of the exhibition for up to 6 months following the close of the exhibition,” and the same work sells in another gallery exhibition before the 6 month period is up. Will the first gallery expect commission if the sale was not a result of their exhibition? How would the artist prove this? Will the artist have to pay commission to two galleries and end up with very little? Should the artist have refrained from exhibiting the work for 6 months after the first exhibit closed?

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