On Friday, Susan Burns of Douglasville, Georgia, USA wrote, “I received a call from someone that had seen my work in a gallery in Colorado. Then she bought a piece from my web page and I mailed it. I called the gallery to tell them the good news and let them know that I owed them some money. Our agreement is 50-50. I told them how much I owed them and they said they’ll take it off of my next check. Great! Yesterday, I got a call from a neighbor of this art buyer, and the neighbor bought a painting as well. Should I also credit the gallery another 50% from the neighbor’s purchase? Both paintings were on my website, and not at the gallery in Colorado.”
Thanks, Susan. It looks like old Santa’s really coming down that gallery’s chimney this season. Perhaps you might think about a more sliding scale in future. In my dealings, kickbacks to galleries for private sales range from 50% to 10%. It’s my point of view that an artist needs to take control of this part of the business. You need to write the gallery commission checks yourself — not get it done by them. For a gallery that arranges for the customer to either come to the artist’s studio or to buy direct — then the full fifty is justified. Less connected and second generation sales where you do all the work, framing, shipping, etc, deserve a lower percentage. Also, some galleries put in a terrific effort to advertise, feature, and actively promote, and they should be rewarded. Galleries that only bring your stuff out when asked deserve less. Furthermore, where an artist has more than one gallery it may be difficult to attribute the origin of interest. It’s one of the ironies of the business that sometimes you’re sold in one gallery and bought in another. Fortunately for galleries, and yourself, this works all ways. When a customer wants to meet you and claims to get a kick out of buying direct, you have to watch out for those who only want a “deal.” Be firm. As there is little or no advantage for a customer to deal direct, you might preserve your private joy and precious muse by sending them to one of your galleries.
Being generous with your galleries is an excellent idea. Great friendships need to be nurtured and maintained. But it’s an inexact art, and conditions vary. Always remember that you are the chief elf up there making the good stuff. And it’s the nature of dealers to be both naughty and nice.
Esoterica: Because situations are generally in a state of change, long-term contracts can be troublesome. For artists and dealers an understanding is better than a rigid set of clauses. It’s better to go for mutual caring and try to prove it up with regular deeds. Extreme generosity when written into a contract is called a Santa Clause.
by Jim Rowe, Lakefield, ON, Canada
I don’t believe it, Robert, you have to be making this crap up. I can’t believe someone would be so stupid as to be sending a gallery a commission on what they sold off their website, something that the gallery had never even seen. In the future private websites will be where paintings are bought, they put an artist in business from any location on the planet and galleries will be a novelty. In reality, I haven’t sold anything on my site, I refuse to deal with a gallery. I am sitting here letting my paintings pile up, ranting on about the future of art sales on the internet and the demise of the galleries, and maybe after I am dead my wife will have a big sale and give everything away, but there is still no way I am going near a gallery.
(RG note) You answered your own question here, Jim. For the time being, artists and their websites do well when they empower the friends they develop in brick and mortar galleries.
Took it into her own hands
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
I live in an area that is poorly served by galleries, especially those dealing in representational art. The small gallery I was with refused to show clients my larger work. He looked at photos of the work and said it wouldn’t sell. These pieces take me 4-6 months. The last large piece he sold to a client went for a ridiculously low price, so low it did not cover my expenses. I knew a certain wealthy client liked my work and had bought pieces of mine from that gallery. Since he refused to show these pieces, I went direct to these people and sold two large pieces for more than three times what he had asked for a similar piece.
Needless to say he was furious and wanted his commission for work he had refused to show! He did not get it. I used the rather sizable sum to revamp my studio and spend the next year and a half painting. As a result, after a recent mailing of my work, I have two very good galleries interested in me. One in New York and one in Washington, DC.
by Glenda Dietrich, Lincoln, NB, USA
I’m wondering if anyone has ever run into a situation like this. A buyer wants to purchase a painting seen on my website. The painting is actually in one of my galleries, let’s say in Kansas City. Further, the same buyer does not contact me directly, but goes to yet a different gallery that also represents me and that is in the buyer’s hometown, say, Chicago. (The buyer found the gallery through my listing of galleries that represent me on my website.) So the Chicago gallery contacts me, and I then need to contact the Kansas City gallery. What in the world happens to the gallery commission on this transaction? Would it be expected that both galleries would receive half of the usual commission, so each would receive 25% of the selling price ? Does an artist need to talk this over with the gallery owner in advance? Or am I worrying too much?
(RG note) The Internet is forcing substantial changes to the way art galleries do business. Dealers are finding that it is no longer easy to operate in an insular way. With the universal convenience and availability that the internet provides, this sort of co-operation and sharing is happening more and more. The artist need not get involved. Most dealers are gracious, handle the transactions efficiently, and are willing to split commissions–generally down the middle.
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA
I especially appreciated this letter as I am also trying to determine commissions and fees regarding dealers, licensors, and even other artists or craftsmen who want to reproduce my artworks in other media. What adds to the difficulty in this is the desire to have my dealers give me the names and contact information (or at least city and country) of my collectors. Yes, I wish to add these people to my marketing efforts (while encouraging them to buy from the dealers who found them), but more importantly, I would like this information for the record of where my art is going. This information is not only important to verify the authenticity of the work later (should I ever become a famous dead artist — ha!) but also to help me market my work. Another reason the percentage issue interests me is that as I receive different offers or have other ideas about selling my work, I want to be able to speak with potential partners from a place of knowledge. If I mention a percentage too low or too high, I worry I will be seen as the naive artist I sometimes am.
(RG note) I believe in leaving the main marketing effort to your dealers. Your main marketing effort should be doing good work. Regarding names, some galleries give you the names of your collectors, others do not. Over the years a vast crowd of nameless people have collected my work. In order to rectify this we set up a page on my website that lists known works and invites people to register. With the magnificent medium of the internet, people are pleased to drop a note to mention their ownership, or just make inquiries about the work. Thus we build an archive and extend our friendships. With regard to percentages, forty/sixty and fifty/fifty are pretty well standard. I have several galleries who continue to operate at two-thirds/one third. Fees for reproduction and licensing have been discussed on our site.
Value of gallery exposure
by Katherine McLean, Seattle, WA, USA
Direct transactions tend to be essentially working against my best interests and here is why:
My work has gone from my studio directly into someone’s home or office without the gallery exposure element even though in most cases, I have paid something of a commission. I have determined that each piece I do really has the most value to me if it receives gallery exposure prior to a sale. It is difficult to place a monetary value on exposure but over time I have found it to be absolutely essential to the overall development of my career as an artist. In a direct sale, I feel I have missed an opportunity with that piece. Unlike a website, the gallery exposure has placed my work among my peers, invited review and discussion, and in the eyes of the larger buying public has accorded my work a certain status and traceable value and basis for raising prices as time progresses. I make most of my sales through the gallery, do not sell from my studio or from my website at a reduced price, and offer a commission to a gallery if ever I deal directly with a client. I believe that the best artist/gallery relationship is symbiotic in the sense that it should be to our mutual benefit.
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA
I know there are other artists who will agree that “understandings” are dangerous. The problem with an understanding is that the parties to the understanding change — gallery owners, their employees, etc. Additionally, understandings are only as good as the memories of the parties. If a gallery represents lots of artists, there could be a variety of “understandings” and they are only human and subject to forgetting what they promised to which artist.
The most important thing to remember is that written contracts need not be restrictive. Contracts can also be amended in writing and changes can also be negotiated to be more equitable, including changing “Santa Clauses” into clauses that are more fair. Though changes are best negotiated prior to signing, modifications or change orders are not just to add items to a contract but can be used in a variety of ways, including changing existing terms and conditions or even the boiler plate (fine print). If the galleries are as reasonable as you are indicating, the change should not be an issue — just get it in writing.
by MJ Rusu
I have a body of work created over the past 7 years. My hope is to have them exhibited in a gallery setting. I am stuck on where to exhibit them. The images are on large format transparencies and have a “modern” look to them. I have thought about forwarding my package to contemporary art galleries. This “sticky situation” has been going on for over a year. I have had offers to show work at a local artist’s run gallery and a cafe but the setting just doesn’t seem right. Could you share your thoughts and responses? I am looking for some answers to these questions: How does an artist determine how and where to exhibit work? Have other artists felt they desperately wanted to show their work but did not know how to proceed? How did they do it?
(RG note) Make a list of desirable galleries and other venues from the top prestigious to the barely tolerable. Cafés seldom make the list but artist run spaces sometimes do. Don’t be afraid to scout out commercial and public galleries and try to figure if your work might fit. If your work has a modern spin to it, and perhaps a controversial message, public galleries may be your route. If sales and connectivity are your goal, fire off your material to galleries that are doing business. Ten percent of the galleries do ninety percent of the business.
Gallery drops the ball
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I’m in a group exhibition. I met with the gallery owner in October and she was enthusiastic about showing my work. She told me she makes the invitations, advertises and has food and wine for all openings — so she takes 50% commission. As it turns out she didn’t make invitations, didn’t advertise and was sick so her husband represented her at the opening. Things were disorganized and I had to ask him to make some labels to put near my paintings, giving at least my name and the price. I have heard this is all unusual for her. She generally has a very good reputation. Unfortunately this was my first experience with her and it doesn’t feel very good. Do you think she should still get 50% for any work sold? How would you handle this situation?
(RG note) She may have been sick, and that is unfortunate, but she is also an amateur dealer. If she manages to sell anything during this show, give her the agreed commission, but look for someone else who won’t make those kinds of mistakes. You don’t want to be seen hanging out with unprofessional dealers.
Running an art gallery
by Ken Segal, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
As a gallery owner I am trying to be honest and would like to know that the artists I deal with would call me with the sale of some work from some connection to my gallery such as mentioned in the letter from Susan Burns.
Recently an artist I contacted from another city asked what my shipping policy was and I did not know what he meant. Artists from outside this city have usually shipped me artwork. I was not sure what the policy should be. Another artist asked me about my storage policy. I was not sure what he meant. His issue was that his work should never be placed on the floor other than temporary display while moving. That works should be stored on shelves or wall. He also had a series of issues I needed to address.
Do you have a series of concerns or issues that you need to deal with? I want to be an art dealer like Betty Parsons and Leo Castelli to push the visual arts and make it more accessible. Just as there is much to learn on how to create art, there is much to learn in regard to marketing and the artist/dealer relationship. That should be one of mutual trust since together we will both prosper. I would welcome any advice.
(RG note) I don’t have too many concerns about my dealers. With regard to shipping etiquette, the artist pays for shipping to the gallery, and the gallery pays for the shipping to the artist. With regard to storage concerns, they get more damaged around my studio than at my dealers. Ship them out, I say.
In praise of cookies
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
A sliding scale is best on second-generation sales, even if referred by the gallery. Also, sending cookies in the mail around the holidays to your galleries will sell more art than hoped for, unless I’ve failed to get the paintings done and shipped to those galleries. In that case, I’ve had to press a couple of elves around the house here into service on painting “prep work.” Of course, since I am connected with the “big guy,” they fall in step without too many complaints. I need to remember my elves at US Postal Service and the UPS guy with cookies too, since I have many times relied on their careful handling… Cookies are the least expensive way to say thanks to someone without over-doing the gesture. Cookies disarm the most difficult confrontations and situations. They are wonderful reminders of the sweet things life offers. Now, I know you’re wondering where your cookies are… Season’s Greetings!
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Paul Kane who wrote, “I have to wonder how good is Susan Burns’ gallery. Susan is the one who closed the deal, as I understand it. Knowing that, the Gallery should have volunteered to take a lower percent. Trust and fairness are a two way street.”