Business practices


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “Many online galleries these days have a money-back guarantee. I recall your father mentioning that if a buyer didn’t like a painting and wanted to return it, he would gladly take it back in exchange for another. When I think of business practices, this great customer service ranks at the top of the list. On pricing, if an artist has work showing in an online gallery and that gallery takes 40%, and she/he has work hanging in a local gallery at a 50% split, and then they also have work for sale on their own website, how does the pricing work for all those different venues?”


Untitled 1959
oil and graphite on canvas
by Agnes Martin (1912-2004)

The simple answer is that if you’re a living, working artist, your prices need to be standardized across all platforms and be transparent to your collectors, no matter how they choose to shop. The only variables should be discrepancies in currency, taxes, framing and shipping costs. In our brave new world, where collectors can find you in their pyjamas, while on holiday, at an art fair or on the main street of their hometown, they deserve to be honoured and rewarded for their good taste and speculation with this basic fairness.


“White Flower” 1960
oil on canvas by Agnes Martin

A bit old school, maybe, but if a brick-and-mortar gallery has endeavoured to represent you, give them a respectable territory — if you live in the same town, don’t cramp their style by making private sales from your studio unless you’ve agreed on some terms up front. And don’t undercut gallery prices, online or otherwise, undoing all the value and integrity you’re supposed to be building. Online art portals may dangle a big reach for a lower commission, but they often warehouse more artists and do less work, banking on volume over specificity. You may discover some benefit by association with certain sites, especially if they cultivate a targeted audience or elevate your work’s context with other meaningful content and professionalism. Your brick-and-mortar gallery might appreciate this, or they may prefer to post on your behalf, as your representative, as many do on curated sites like Artnet, which funnel collectors to galleries and auction houses.


“My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind. ” (Agnes Martin)



PS: “Thou shalt start out cheap.
Thou shalt publish thy prices.
Thou shalt raise thy prices regularly and a little.
Thou shalt not lower thy prices.
Thou shalt not have one price for Sam and another for Joe.
Thou shalt not price by talent or time taken, but by size.
Thou shalt not easily discount thy prices.
Thou shalt lay control on thy agents and dealers.
Thou shalt deal with those who will honour thee.
Thou shalt end up expensive.” (Robert Genn, The Ten Commandments of Art Pricing)

Esoterica: Art is a long game. Evaluate regularly what kind of business you’re in, what kind of partner you want to be and what type of distribution is working best for this stage. I recently visited with an old friend, an artist who after years of steady effort is well established. Part of her success has come from being represented by an important gallery in her city, though they’ve since parted ways. Now independent, my friend makes steady sales from her studio and shows in public exhibitions, art fairs and alternative spaces, allowing her more control and eliminating commissions. Her great web and people skills, work ethic and chutzpah have made it easy for her collectors to stay up to date and cared for. In spite of all this, my friend looks forward to partnering with a gallery again, because she appreciates the value. A dealer equipped to get behind you — who spreads the magic and widens the net — deserves your loyalty, steady deliveries and referrals. In return, your collectors can benefit from professional care, authentication, framing, shipping and installation services and, yes, a customer satisfaction guarantee. All while you go to your room and paint.

agnes-martin_tate2015-2Did you know you can sign up to be a Premium Artist for $200 a year? Many artists have found this beneficial. Sign up here.

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” (Warren Buffett)



  1. Sara – I break several of these rules and can’t figure out what to do about it. I have an annual 1/2 price sale, one day only. The only retail outlet I’m associated with is a framing shop/gallery that carries a small amount of my work. I have discussed the 1/2 price sale with him and taken steps to allow him to discount my paintings that day.

    Pricing is the issue. The sale day I sell more work than I sell all year. Should I just lower my prices and get on with it? I am reluctant to do that. The sale day gives customers the sense of having made a bargain whereas just lowering prices makes me look like I don’t value my own work . . . also I occasionally discount for friends and family. I guess I could stop doing that.

    Here’s a link to my fb artist’s page in case you want to browse to see my prices. Thanks – I really value your newsletter . . .

    • Charles Eisener on

      If I know that a hardware store has a 50% sale every March, am I going to buy a big ticket item in January? As one who paints for pleasure, I do not worry about sales, to put my comments in perspective. I feel that your sale only serves to diminish your value – perhaps it may be wise to consider another option. If you do note cards featuring your work, a “free” set of 6 with a purchase might not sell as many paintings, but would not diminish value for a buyer who paid full price for another work.

      Unsure why you list pieces with price “TBD”. Price should be part of the listing. What is waiting to be determined?

      I do not discount for friends. I do not get groceries at a discount because I know the store manager. This again undermines the value for a collector. I have included framing or a field study of the work for family, but you are better served to keep prices uniform. It is surprising how many relatives you find when they have financial incentives.

  2. It is exactly the scenario of my life. A great gallery that sold my work extremely well, but recently closed. Having own studio, selling on my own but prefer to have a gallery setting again. If feel myself retreating from activities and places where my work would get seen and sold and know that is not the answer. Perhaps on line sales may be the answer.

  3. my only digression is my “Art with Heart” – and I am proud of it! :-) My whole family used to be sure to do its share of community response, and I served redcross in wars and shelters in the recession. When I “aged out” , it was so easy to just use my art to help and I like it BETTER! I do them more good with less danger – I was endangerd several times during the years of daily response. My Art With Heart breaks only rules that were actually mine to make in the first place. I negotiate with the charities or causes and we make an event and in the end everyone wins!

    But as for the rest, I am very “by the book” – In my entire career only one scenario over sales – somehow the shipping for the Painting US to IE – tallied to more than the cost of the painting – the buyer and I decided to put the cash toward a visit and have fun completing the transaction.

    It’s a good work place – arts.


  4. Good article and right on target. Very bad practice to undersell your galleries, who do their best to represent your work. Good way to lose representation…

  5. A very important letter , especially number 4 of Bobs 10 Commandments of pricing . Clients are much more in tune with the art market with the advent of the internet . Work hard , respect your work and your brick and mortar galleries , and be honest at all times .

  6. To any new artists entering the markets, whatever the type of market you’re considering…the above is all good advice. Robert’s Ten Commandments are right on and concise. And this note from an old guy who has been in the art market for at least six decades…read this letter again, print it and hang it on the wall of your studio to be read regularly.

  7. Hello Sara – I learned to guarantee my work from your dad. I recall a story he told of re-vamping a painting for someone – adding an airplane, I think. I make small jewelry items, and tell all my customers that everything is guaranteed unless they drive over it or lose it. About 2 years ago I had to totally remake a rather intricate ring, but the owner was so thrilled that it was worth all the time it took. I always want the owner of a piece of my jewelry to wear it happily, rather than have it sit in a drawer. I think of your dad whenever I tell someone that my work is guaranteed. It was and is a good policy, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Thank you so much for this important information. I have read similar “rules” of pricing and appreciate the confirmation. One question — when paintings don’t sell and you want to reduce your inventory what do you do with the older paintings? I have heard of having an annual “burn” but just can’t bring myself to burn my paintings. I sometimes store them in the attic for my kids to do what they like after I’m gone.

  9. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell artists NOT to price their paintings for one person or another. Or sell their work at a lower price than a gallery. This gives the gallery a bad image, as if they are “ripping off the public”. I won’t represent any artist that does not have a price list and stick to it. I’ve had artists say “but this took me 3 weeks” and want more money. I tell them no, it isn’t fair to the people buying their work. 2 years from now, the painting in question won’t be “the favourite one”. I often send artists your Dad’s email of the 10 Commandments of Art Pricing”, it is priceless information. This will be my new guide. Thank you.

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