Debate: Should Art Galleries Split Commissions?

I recently received an email from an artist who ran into a bit of a dilemma (or at least she thought she did). She had been showing a piece of art in a gallery in her home town for a number of months. When the piece didn’t sell, she rotated the piece, along with several others, to a gallery out of town. A short time later, she received a call from the first gallery saying that a client had come in and was interested in purchasing this particular piece of art and wondered if it was still available.

The artist’s question to me was, “What should I do if the piece sells through the first gallery? Should I pay the second gallery part of the commission since it is now in their possession? How do I handle the situation without stepping on anyone’s toes?”

I’ve heard countless variations of this question over the years, and I’ve heard reports of artists who have experienced real problems related to the issue. It would be great if there was some kind of universal standard of how to deal with the split commission, and a guidebook that we could all get the rules from; unfortunately, there isn’t. Each gallery seems to have a different opinion and every situation seems to require a different approach.

I like to think I let common sense be my guide in this area, but I guess common sense is a pretty subjective thing. Here is my approach, and what I would have said if I were the second gallery in the above scenario (and I have been in exactly this position on a number of occasions). As far as commissions go, I have a simple philosophy: if our gallery was actively involved and helpful in making the sale, I expect a commission. If we weren’t, I don’t.

In other words, if an artist calls me and says, “One of my other galleries has a client who is interested in purchasing a piece you have in inventory, will you expect a commission?” my answer is “No, just tell me how I can facilitate the shipment of the artwork.” I believe that a commission is earned by the gallery when we are actively promoting and displaying the work and working to sell it to our customers. If another gallery sells the piece, I don’t feel I’ve earned that commission.

I know that a counter-argument would be that by removing the art from my inventory, the artist and other gallery have prevented me from having the opportunity to sell the piece and generate revenue for my gallery. This is certainly true, but in my experience, there are no guaranteed sales, and I may not have sold the piece anyway. The mere fact that the piece is in my possession doesn’t, I feel, entitle me to a commission. As long as the artist can replace the inventory in a reasonable time, I have no problem with the artist making the sale through the other gallery. I understand that every sale is critical, and I would never want to stand in the way.

Caveat: If I’ve invested advertising dollars by placing the piece in an ad or catalog, the issue becomes a bit more complicated. In addition to the overhead involved in carrying the artwork in the gallery, I now have an additional investment in the piece. I would argue that even if I don’t deserve the full commission, I should at least expect that the promotional costs would be reimbursed.

I guess that my guide in these kinds of circumstances is a simple old rule, a golden rule, that goes something like this

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

I would hope that if the tables were turned and I had a client come back interested in a piece I no longer had in my inventory, the gallery that now had the piece in their possession would be just as accommodating as I try to be.

As for the artist who emailed me, she did end up selling the piece through the first gallery, and her concerns ended up being for naught. Even though she had come up with a whole strategy for splitting the commission, when she asked the second gallery if they would mind if she sold the piece through the first, they didn’t even bat an eyelash and gladly shipped the piece back to the other gallery.

What Do You Think?

What has your experience been in splitting commissions? How do you think a situation like this should be handled? How have galleries you’ve worked with handled the situation? If you are a gallery owner, what is your approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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37 Comments

  1. In contexts like employees who work on commission and real estate agents, there is a “procuring cause” doctrine that gives the commission to the person or entity that was the procuring cause of the sale unless the commission or employment agreement says otherwise. Jason, it sounds like your common sense approach is similar.

  2. Jason, I always look forward to reading your articles. Your keen advice has helped me many times. Thank you and please keep writing! Your advice is invaluable.
    Thank you,
    Anne B Schwartz
    annebschwartz.com

  3. Jason, this is a very well reasoned and rational approach. If only everybody saw it that way. One question – does your perspective also shift if, as the second gallery, you have the work on display versus in your inventory? I ask because I can envision the second gallery claiming to have invested in selling the work by using valuable gallery space to display the work. Does it have any impact on how you perceive the situation? Thanks.

  4. Jason, your articles are so very informative. Your advice has helped me many times. There are not many who willingly share their experience and advice. Come to think of it, I know no one ! Please keep your articles coming! One day I would love to meet you and thank you in person for all the advice you have generously offered so many artists

  5. My experience as a business consultant has lead me to the belief there is no such thing as common sense as soon as a dollar is being divided. Well sometimes it works out but even reasonable people may feel a sting. The best thing is to include the cut off date in the consignment agreement. No fooling around then. If there is a period after the consignment has been released back to the owner than the new gallery needs to be aware and agree. Even this causes complications etc etc which everyone can imagine. My advise to the owner of the property is leave it at home till the after consignment period is over. Easy peasy…no complications.
    GSW

    1. Awesome reply. We artists too often neglect to look after our own best interest in signing up and the excitement of the moment Once you lose the written limits in the negotiation process, you are at the mercy of the gallery.

  6. In my 45 years as an exhibiting artist in Galleries, I have to agree with you Jason that each situation has to be weighed carefully depending on expenses incurred, the attitude of the gallery owner/director and prior sales or consignment contracts etc. Only once did I have a negative experience with a gallery and that relationship had already begun to sour long before the issue of “split commission” came up. That gallery closed shortly thereafter.

    It’s always best for an artist to ask questions concerning various scenarios upon being accepted for representation by a gallery. Knowing up front and before an awkward situation arises is always in everyone’s interest.

  7. What a complicated issue, that you have made simpler. I do like you common sense and generous approach. But it seems that there are so many factors at play in scenarios like this ! Jason, its interesting that you don’t seem very possessive of your gallery inventory. What would have happened if the desired painting was currently on exhibition/view and part of a nicely curated one or two person show you were presenting/promoting in your gallery (and not just in the racks)? What if you had pending interest in that very piece from your own clients? Would you still have happily shipped it or would you have waited? And would you have sent it back to the artist if the artist herself said she had a direct sale to someone who had seen the piece at the artist’s art festival booth? And I presume that in the actual case, the first gallery paid for the return of the artwork…(the second gallery didn’t bear that cost, with no commission).

    1. Great questions Karen. When I’m featuring an artist in a show, the situation is different, and my artists understand that they have a commitment through the end of the show. If I have pending interest on the piece, I will simply contact my client, let them know the situation and ask if they would like to proceed with the purchase before the artwork moves along. We have made sales to clients many times by doing this, and I feel justified in asking for this “first right of refusal” for artwork that is in my inventory. If my client doesn’t act, I don’t feel any hesitation about moving the artwork along. “Interest” doesn’t put food on my artist’s table.

  8. This happened with an artist-studio sale. One collector said she wanted a painting at a set price, then left on a trip expecting to have it. Meanwhile a second collector claimed prior desire and offered to pay for the piece before the other collector. In this case I should have seen the second collector as a bogus envy offer since the first offer was from a trusted and reliable source. The second collector paid for and acquired the piece with slow installments and I risked the ire of my first collector but we’ve reconciled and the second collector faded away from sight and connections.

  9. That is a very considerate and fair approach to the situation. I think the world could use more galleries with an interest in and support of the artists. I commend your efforts.

  10. I had a sale recently through my web site, but the collector had initially found some of my other work through a gallery in Santa Fe. Even though the gallery never represented the particular piece of art that sold, I offered them a partial commission, a sort of referral fee, because the collector became aware of me initially by seeing my other works at the gallery. Jason, what do you think of that practice? The gallery is a co-op and usually takes 30% commission on sales made by them. On the sale through my web site, I gave them a 10% referral fee. Does that seem fair?

    1. This is one of the great questions of our age – how to deal with internet sales. This probably merits a post of it’s own, but in brief, I think you’ve handled this well. First, you found out where the collectors discovered your work, and second, you shared a commission in order to compensate the gallery for showing your work. It’s the details that can get tricky.

      To a certain extent, this is going to depend on your gallery and how they work with their customers. My preference is that when an artist is contacted by a client who first saw their work in my gallery that they refer the client back to us so that we can handle the sale. This isn’t just about the $. I want my artists to be able to focus on their work and not have to deal with the intricacies of closing a sale and all of the logistics involved.

      Obviously there are many different variables that can come into play, and you have to feel confidence that your gallery will do a good job handling the sale. If you feel that confidence, you can refer the client back to the gallery – if you don’t feel that confidence, it’s probably an indication that you should be looking for another gallery.

      1. If a potential customer I met through a gallery later wants to buy a piece he or she saw online or commission a new one, I handle the sale through the gallery where we met. A different situation arose recently when a couple buying a new piece of mine at Gallery A told me they first saw examples my work at Gallery B. Because Gallery B staff expends little energy toward greeting visitors or making sales, I did not send it a portion of the sale. Should I have?

  11. II have not had this situation actually happen, but my policy has always been this: When a painting comes back to me from a gallery I keep it in my studio for 30 days. On my website I leave it listed as available through that gallery for those 30 days. If the gallery gets a call from someone who saw it there & wants to buy it, I’ll bring it back for the sale. If I get a call from someone wanting to buy it I refer them to the gallery and take it back to the gallery for the sale. After 30 days I am free to put it in another gallery or sell it. The price for any given painting does not change, whether sold through the gallery or my website or studio, until it is over three years old.

  12. Jason, you are definitely one of the “good guys!” I deal with reputable galleries and have never had a problem in this area. But I would go one step further. ANYONE who helps me sell my work should be rewarded. I recently dropped off a large giclee canvas to my framers to have them stretch it. One of their long-time clients came in, saw the giclee and wanted to buy the original. My framers graciously sent him directly to me and he bought the painting. I immediately sent my framers a check for 20% of the purchase price. I didn’t ask them because I knew they would decline payment. My feeling is that my galleries, framers, associations and even friends, are valued partners. I couldn’t succeed without them. I never want to demean or cheat them in any way. As in business, you only have one reputation. And once you lose it, it is gone forever.

  13. I do disagree, as when a work is in a gallery, regardless of where it has been shown before, it is then under contract with the new gallery. Said nea gallery has allowed precious wall space to be occupied, and committed to promoting that artist and that particular piece. It may be that quite some time has been spent talking to collectors about the work, web work done adding that piece to listings, promoting via social media and other ways. I think the right thing for both galleries is for the former gallery to refer the collector to the new gallery for purchase . Then, the Current gallery should send the first gallery half of the commission as a referral fee should the sale take place. It creates good will between the gallery, and no one looses, especially the artist or the collector. Customers appreciate that kind of service, but galleries invest in time and space when showing work, and should not be used as a storage space.

  14. Thank you for answering this, I have actually been in a similar situation… What I do for my gallery reps is, my price is actually higher on pieces showing in the gallery, just in case people try to find me and circumvent – works for the gallery and for me, because a gallery show is much better than a tent in the rain trying to sell. So essentially, there is this urgency to buy the painting, appeasing both the gallery and I – works, had a fan drive 25 miles out of her way to go to the gallery to purchase a piece she saw advertised on my Facebook. She knew the online price, saw the gallery had it, went, bought it. Not sure if that is ok, but I really love working with the galleries and supporting them – but in respect to this post, I like the do onto others as the do onto you…I try not to rotate to close together the works when I can help it between shows and galleries to avoid this type of situation – create a sense of urgency whenever possible so sales, no matter where there are at…close.

  15. Super helpful blog post. I’ve had a piece cycle out of a gallery and before I put it elsewhere they called me to tell me they now had a buyer. That case was easy, but I am so glad to now know what to anticipate if this occurs. Thank you.

  16. After running my gallery for 16 years, I did a lease/purchase option with a “friend” so I could have more time to paint. She kept several of my pieces on consignment. One day I received a call from an art dealer I had met at an art show I did annually. He had started buying some of my art outright at a wholesale price in stead of taking it on consignment. He was unable to attend the show that year, so had called to see what I had new. I emailed him several images and he chose 3 of them to purchase. Later that day I went to the gallery to pickup two of the pieces that were there. My “friend” wasn’t there, so I told the clerk I was taking them and why and would bring something back to replace them. A couple of hours later I received a call from my “friend” who wanted to know what her commission was going to be. I told her there would be no commission as the sale was done with no involvement of the gallery. The art dealer had called the gallery as that phone number had been my contact phone for 16 years. He had no idea it was even connected to a gallery and he had never set foot in it as we had only seen each other at the at show. The “friend” then said because she had given him my home phone she deserved a commission for transferring the call to me. I refused to pay her anything so then she said she had to make money off me some how so was going to start charging me rent of $100 a month for the wall space. I told her I would be coming to pick my art in an hour and by the time I got there she had pulled it all off the wall and had shoved it in a backroom. By the way…her business failed and the gallery came back to me at the end of the year lease. That was 6 years ago and me and the gallery are still going strong

  17. I agree with your approached. Unfortunately, not all galleries think that way and I was actually thrown out of a gallery ( gallery # 2 who was in possession of the painting ) for suggestion that solution. Now, when this happens I tell Gallery #1 that Gallery #2 has the painting and I give the contact info to each gallery and let them decide what they want to do.

  18. I have in the past encountered galleries that spell out how to deal with such circumstances in an artist agreement signed before an artist ever delivers works to the gallery. Often times these say the artist is obligated to pay a commission for a certain time frame after a work leaves the gallery, maybe 30 or 60 days, if the work is sold after leaving the gallery. As it is in many situations, I believe it is helpful to have an agreement in place before entering into any sort of business arrangement. It can avoid future problems. However at the same time I do applaud Jason’s reasoned and sensitive approach which respects both the artist and the gallery.

  19. A variation on a theme: while filling out paperwork for the gallery I had just juried into (one of those galleries where artists gallery-sit for reduced commission) a woman came in and asked if the LARGE painting I was still holding at my feet was for sale. She’d seen the images on the gallery site as I was welcomed as a new member. BUT THE LARGE BIRD PAINT HAD BEEN REJECTED UNTIL HOLIDAY SALES ETC.
    Was uneasy to say yes, and didn’t know if commission was expected since I had brought it down there to hang. On the other hand, she didn’t have room to store it until holidays.
    I took the high road (I said it was not for sale). Regrettably.

    1. That was a strange decision, Susanne. If the painting is there already, and customer is interested, you didn’t have to hesitate about the sale. at the holidays it would’ve been hung for the same reason, to be sold, but then it would be questionable if it will or not. Seems like you just got lost in an unfamiliar situation. Next time use the opportunity to make a sale.

  20. Too bad there isn’t an established protocol that stops the debate before it begins. Most member associations have some sort of agreement … do retail galleries have such an organization? It would lend some goodwill in an industry that could use a little more love …. 😉
    If a gallery has my paintings hanging on their walls I owe that gallery a commission, period; even if someone contacts me independently. I immediately refer them to the gallery. With website sales I make a point to ask the buyer how they found out about me.
    I had a frame shop refer me once and firmly decline a commission. But, I had him frame three paintings afterword and he was happy with that (“I’m in the framing business. I’m not a gallery.”). I recommend him often to other artists and patrons in that city.
    I have happily given “finders fees” over the years to individuals.

  21. My experience has been positive. The gallery commission is not my portion of the sale. So I contact both galleries and ask if they are willing to split the gallery commission. No one has ever said no. A portion of a sale is better than no sale. Everyone wins.

  22. I’ve read this blog post and today’s blog post in reverse. My questions on today’s post was pretty much answered by this one.
    So far, I have not had any troubles with an unfair split on gallery/artist commissions.
    Once I brought a piece of art that was not hanging in the gallery, but was still on there inventory list (I didn’t realize that piece hadn’t been removed) and met a collector at the gallery. My intention was to give the gallery a commission (less than if they had had it in their gallery) for letting me use their gallery as a meeting place. The collector and I later went to lunch to discuss how payment could be made. The sale didn’t end up happening. I told the gallery who promptly told me that they would have expected the full commission if it had sold because it was still on their inventory list. That puzzled me as it wasn’t something stipulated in the original contract I signed. I thought I was being gracious and more than proper by offering any commission if it sold. At that point, I respectfully made sure that I understood them clearly and it ended up making our relationship stronger.
    So very important to keep in active communication with the galleries that represent your work to avoid disasterous rifts due to miscommunication.

  23. The good will of the second gallery depends on many things. how long have you been with them? how well do they move you work AND your relationship with them (if you’ve ever under cut them before etc)
    how long was the work in the second gallery? a couple days, weeks or months.
    if a gallery has put the work out there online, in print etc then they have advertised it and could lose the sale.
    my response to the first gallery , as the artist would be; ” the piece is now hanging in ….. gallery. you many contact them directly and work out an agreement”

    I will not pay for shipping or pick up the work from the second gallery. the First Gallery can do that. I would end up losing money in gas, and time to do their work.

    I don’t want headaches. that’s why I work with galleries 🙂

    when removing work from a gallery I always give them time to contact any interested parties before its removed. you snooze you lose. I need to make a living. and so do the Galleries.

  24. Maybe a finder’s fee would be appropriate to the gallery where the piece was hanging when the client saw it as without the client having seen the piece hanging in the gallery, the client would not have known about the piece to begin with.

  25. I had a similar situation recently. A client had bought one of my paintings at a gallery show in the fall. She liked another painting in the show but didn’t purchase it then. 5 months later she called me and asked if she could come by my studio and see some of my paintings. On seeing the painting from the fall show which I still had, she decided to purchase it. Because she saw it first at the gallery, and because my contract with the gallery specifies that they are entitled to a commission if someone who sees a painting in their show buys it within 6 months, I sent the gallery a commission check. At the same visit, the client saw another painting of mine which had not been in the gallery show, and she also bought it. The gallery was not entitled to a commission on that additional painting, because they had no involvement in its sale.

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