Yesterday, a subscriber who asked to remain anonymous wrote, “I recently got into a very good gallery in another city. I included the retail pricelist used by all my galleries. When they posted my paintings on their website, each painting was marked up from 5% to 20%. I phoned the gallery and the secretary told me the owner sets the prices and marks things up for administration and handling. On my invoice, my 50% cut reflects my prices, and not the ‘marked up prices’ — so the fees are extra coin for him. I don’t want my customers to pay this extra fee. I’m wondering if this situation ever comes up with you, and how you might handle it?”
Thanks, Anonymous. I also have a couple of dealers who give themselves a little bonus with some of their artists, especially the low priced ones. Commercial galleries are businesses. True to their roots in hunting and gathering, in the need to maximize profits, these businesses can be predatory. With their roots in the need to create, artists can be less businesslike.
Dealer padding has gone on since cave art. But things are changing. Serious artists at all career stages have realized they need to establish universal price consistency. Dealers need to realize that with so many people looking around online these days, it’s to the dealer’s advantage to offer work at the standard, worldwide prices — the only variation being the cost of the frame.
I could cite several recent situations where customers were so turned off by minor dealer padding that they felt justified to start buying from another dealer.
Padding is most commonly done by dealers with walk in, one-time tourist or diplomatic customers who don’t have the time or inclination to compare prices. Padding doesn’t work as well for dealers who tend to develop long-term, serious collectors.
Situations vary from one gallery to another. The gallery you mentioned is in a culture where padding is pervasive, and you are a young artist who might use the extra push. For the time being I’d overlook the padding and just continue working with them. If you start to do well with this gallery it may be because of your work or it may be because of the padding. You can make a decision in a couple of years whether to ask them to stop padding, continue to look the other way, or switch to another dealer in the same city. However, if it was happening to me I’d tell them to take the noon balloon to Rangoon.
PS: “Perhaps the Internet is the wave of the future and the gallery will become obsolete.” (John Ferrie)
Esoterica: A related problem is where dealers cut deals with amateur, security-minded or unsophisticated artists, get control of their output and manage their distribution by planned rarity — often at an above-average mark-up for the dealer. Some dealers can and will sell almost anything to certain customers. This situation puts an unnatural spin on the art market, confuses customers, and does little to advance the evolution of quality. Affected artists need to note when this is happening and be prepared to take control, even at the expense of perceived security. While most dealers, at least in my experience, are sweethearts, it’s also true that the art world is littered with well-promoted, “kept” artists, dead and alive, who never achieved the happiness and lifestyle of the dealers who represented them.
Get agreements beforehand
by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
I was surprised by your subscriber’s situation of dealer padding. Didn’t the artist sign a consignment agreement with the dealer stating clearly and unequivocally the gross retail price of each artwork and the dealer’s commission? Prices need to be agreed upon between artist and dealer from the onset as well as commissions and discounts, and should be reflected in the consignment agreement at the very least or a contract.
Pricing is your territory
by Linda Anderson Stewart, AB, Canada
I think it is often the case that dealers assume that the artist will be willing to give up the extra money (which is what marking up the commission always does to the painter) in exchange for their exalted services… and perhaps a sale or two. All I have ever found is that the buying public is savvy enough to know when a price is just too high (read young artist starting out) and won’t buy anything! Don’t be too sure your gallery owner knows best… they are clueless usually… and you’ll be the one who will have to absorb the losses. Pricing is your territory — claim it.
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Principles trump pragmatism
by Jaana Woiceshyn, Calgary, AB, Canada
Principles always trump pragmatism — nothing is as practical as valid principles — if you want to achieve your long-term self-interest. So absolutely the artist should not look the other way, no matter how desperate he is for gallery representation. There are moral gallery owners out there, as you know from your experience, Robert, so “Anonymous” needs to drop the immoral “padder.”
(RG note) Thanks, Jaana. Dr. Jaana Woiceshyn teaches ethics at the University of Calgary. I’m currently reading her excellent book How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business.
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Surprise benefit from padding
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
I had my work in a gallery where the cut was 60% to them, 40% to me. He had a pretty aggressive sales force; most of the work was ‘tourist’ art. My work didn’t really fit in, but he liked it and wanted to keep displaying it. I never could get it across to him how he was losing sales – I had an avid fan base at the time that knew the prices across the board, and would not shop at his gallery because of the extra padding. This was before the Internet, too. Nowadays, as you say, it’s even easier for buyers to find out prices and shop accordingly.
The one thing that padding did for me was show me that people still bought my work at higher prices. So I increased my own home/studio and other-gallery prices. It was a good boost to the old who-do-I-think-I-am starving-artist ego. But when it got to the point that he was getting more than 60% – that was it for me. Several years later, he had sold the gallery, and felt ripped off when I wouldn’t sell a piece to him at wholesale. I don’t think so!
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by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have had the same problem. An out-of-town gallery raised the retail price of my paintings from $900 to $2800 without informing me. I paid an unannounced visit and when I discovered the price discrepancy I confronted the gallery owner, who gave me this explanation: her clients always expected a big discount, so she’d automatically knock $1000 off the price, and then they’d expect her to frame and install the painting which accounted for the balance. I understand that galleries may know their market better than I do, and I’m willing to let them raise the price of my work if they feel it’s necessary, but now I make sure the galleries know in advance that I expect 50% of the full retail price.
No harm to the artist
by Kate Fowle, Baltimore, MD, USA
I am a glass worker and jeweler, not a painter. I have a slightly different perspective on this. One gallery with whom I’ve done business routinely inflates prices by 10-15% because many of the repeat customers have their egos stroked by being given a 10 – 15% discount. So they end up paying the same price they would have paid at another gallery, but they are made to feel “special” by this particular venue.
If the gallery is still getting the job done, selling the artwork, I don’t see the harm (except potentially to them if their customers see the discrepancy). And savvy customers who shop several galleries will feel like they’ve gotten a deal if they purchase elsewhere at a lower price. In the end, I think it reflects on the gallery, not the artist.
The shaky world of online galleries
by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA
In recent years I’ve noticed more and more websites that call themselves galleries and even claim to have a physical address where you can send your work. I’ve Google-mapped a number of them, with very varied results. There was one big-named gallery near San Diego asking for entries. Upon Google-mapping it and seeing the street view, it became clear that their “address” was a Boys & Girls Club on a wide highway. There was nothing else to be seen there. Which made me wonder, if they were having a show at a Boys & Girls club, how were they going to offer protection of one’s artwork, or even a way to keep track of it?
I wonder how many artists ship their work off to these places, never really knowing if they exist at all. How could anyone know if they would be responsible and pay them for work sold? Another one was in Ohio and was only the upstairs of a sign-less brick building that was on the outskirts of town with a realtor down below. And without being able to actually go see the gallery exhibit in person, how does one even know how many people were juried, were accepted and were in the show? Or was there an audience? It seems like a shaky way to do business, don’t you think?
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Give to the needy, withhold from the greedy
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
Albeit I’m an artist, I consider myself a business and I try to go about my business in an above board manner. In describing some businesses in your letter, greedy might be the better word to describe what you call “predatory.” Because artists are inherently in the business of sharing, greed would contradict what an artist is all about. All the same, I do think we artists might take a Robin Hood approach to dispersing our work; giving to the needy, withholding from the greedy.
In the past year, I pulled all my work out from one of the dealers. Several late payments and finally, a “lost” painting all contributed to my doing this. More recently, I’ve had reason to be concerned about another gallery that represents my work. Earlier this month, the owner of the gallery sold my work for less than our agreed upon price. She tried to justify this by saying, “Either this, or losing the sale.” Hello, would somebody wake up here? This is my work, not hers to negotiate. I’ve had this happen behind the scenes, but still received the amount that was due me. If a gallery cuts a deal by discounting a piece of artwork without the artist’s consent, the discount needs to come out of their piece of the pie.
Not to end this on a sour note, I have my work in several reputable galleries that I consider business partners. What works for me, works for them, and works for the customer. Greed is not part of the equation in running a good business. Honesty and integrity win out every time.
p.s. I was finally reimbursed at gallery expense for the “lost” painting.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Dealer padding…
watercolour painting, 15 x 22 inches
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, 2013.
That includes Alex Nodopaka of Lake Forest, CA, USA, who wrote, “I really appreciate your ending your rubrique with the exclamation, “I’d tell them to take the noon balloon to Rangoon.” That’s the way I feel about banks. It crossed my mind the reason there are different banks at every major city intersection is because it’s so easy to fleece a gullible public. Artists top the heap and that’s how the story goes back millennia to when God painted the best trompe l’oeil garden and Eve sold us a bag of rotten apples for a hefty price.”
And also Jenny DeLury at Woodlands Gallery, Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “I’m shocked that some galleries will do this. It’s unfair to both collectors and to artists.”