The Gallery-Artist Debate: Is Each Earning Their Percentage?

Recently a well-meaning artist posted this statement on Facebook:

“The standard gallery practice since I started selling in galleries has been a 50/50 split of the retail price sale with the artists. However, in the last 7-8 years it seems like galleries are doing much less for artists but still demanding the same split. So many shows now require that artists pay for shipping both ways. So many shows feature artists the gallery does not represent. If you are not representing me and trying to build my career, if you are not trying to get magazine articles for me, if you aren’t really presenting my work to collectors, then you are no longer earning 50% of the sales. Is anyone else standing up to galleries? Are we so afraid of missing out on being part of shows that we all just do whatever galleries ask of us? Why are we, as artists, giving so much power to people who are offering us little other than wall space?”

The artist isn’t necessarily wrong, but he isn’t necessarily right. Here’s why:

Complaint: “In the last 7-8 years it seems like galleries are doing much less for artists but still demanding the same split.”

Maybe instead of the question being “Why aren’t you doing more for me?” the question should be, “Are you selling my paintings?”

From my perspective, though it would be nice to have a gallery promoting and advertising me, I look at their primary role. They are a sales agent, to whom I pay a 50% commission.

What matters to me is whether my work is selling. Everything else is gravy. Though many of the outlined promotional activities can lead to a sale, they are also expensive to implement. If they are not necessary, and not part of an agreed-on expectation, that shouldn’t matter if the gallery is doing its primary job … selling paintings.

If someone wanders into a gallery and buys a painting without ever having seen an article or an ad, does it really matter? The sale is what matters. 

Another way to state it: If a gallery has figured out how to sell my paintings without articles, without PR, without ads, do I really care? Again, the sale is what matters.

If paintings are NOT selling, then one has to question the entire relationship. But every business has unpredictable up and down cycles, which is why I think all artists should have galleries in different regions, and probably have at least three. Some years my gallery sells every painting I send, other years not a peep. But I know they are trying.

Start With an Agreement

Unless he had an up-front written or verbal agreement, the artist could be complaining about not receiving something he never should have expected. I think it’s important that every gallery have an agreement in place. Start with a dialogue: “This is what I hope you can do for me. Can I expect this from you?” And it’s a two-way street; the gallery should explain exactly what they need from the artist.

I like written agreements — not to avoid future lawsuits, but for clarity. A simple one-page doc stating the artist’s and the gallery’s expectations is important.

Oh, you’ll also need some protections. I’ve watched friends lose paintings when a gallery when bankrupt and the court seized inventory. You should have it in writing that the gallery does not own your work, and that in the event of a bankruptcy or at the first indications of financial problems, they will give you a chance to get your work out. You’ll have to be willing to go collect it — if a gallery is going through a financial crisis, don’t expect them to pay for shipping.

Complaint: “So many shows feature artists the gallery does not represent.”

This statement assumes that the gallery should sell only artists it represents. However, as an artist, I celebrate when a gallery does something like an OPA show, AIS Show, etc. Why? It’s helping put the gallery on the map, it’s making new people aware, it’s bringing outside promotion, and ultimately, it’s driving traffic to the website or the gallery where potential buyers can find my work.

Frankly, anything that keeps money coming in the door and keeps a gallery healthy is a good thing. If they are having a cash crisis and decide to do a special show to make some money, support them. Otherwise you may be picking up your work when they go out of business.

Complaint: “So many shows now require that artists pay for shipping both ways.”

Guess what: Things are not the way they used to be. It’s harder than ever to be in the gallery business. Rents are high, expenses are high, and galleries are seeking ways to save money. We as artists cannot expect them to behave like it was still the good old days. We have to work in today’s market. Shipping terms should be part of your written agreement.

Complaint: “in the last 7-8 years it seems like galleries are doing much less for artists but still demanding the same split.”

The split is a commission, as I mentioned above (unless there are other terms). Here is a fact: More galleries have gone out of business in the past five years than have survived. Galleries cannot operate the way they used to operate. In the old days droves of people walked in the doors; now those expensive rents do not produce foot traffic. So they may be paying $25,000-$50,000 or more for a retail space when there is no retail business. 

One gallery, which since has gone out of business, asked what I would recommend for them. When I asked what percentage of their business was from locals, walk-ins, or in-person visitors, they said 10 percent. I suggested they close their retail space (which was costing them $25,000 a month), deck out a small showroom in an inexpensive warehouse space, and focus on selling more to the 90 percent. For half of that $25,000 a month, a gallery could dominate all the art magazines and drive more business by Internet and phone. But their egos got in the way, they were in love with their space (which was incredible), and that $300,000 in rent drove them out of business. Would it have been better to downsize and survive?

You and Your Gallery are Partners

It’s a good idea to have an ongoing dialogue with your gallery about what you can do to help them and what you need them to help you with. Find out what is selling. One gallery owner told me recently his art was no longer selling, so he got all new artists and moved in a different direction, making his business healthier than ever. Galleries cannot control the market, they can only reflect it. If you understand trends, maybe you can make adjustments in your work to meet those trends. Also, though you’re looking to the gallery to market you, they need your help too. Are you letting people know who your galleries are, how to find your work at galleries, and referring customers to them? Again, it’s a two-way street. 

Complaint: “If you are not representing me and trying to build my career, if you are not trying to get magazine articles for me, if you aren’t really presenting my work to collectors, then you are no longer earning 50% of the sales.”

I can’t emphasize this enough: Unless you have an agreement for articles and other career-building, the gallery’s only job is to sell your work to earn that commission. Of course they will present your work to collectors and buyers — by giving you wall space and talking you up.

Complaint: “Are we so afraid of missing out on being part of shows that we all just do whatever galleries ask of us?”

If a gallery is asking for help, ask yourself why. They want your participation because they are seeking new ways to bring customers in the door. I’d much rather cooperate with reasonable requests than be the one artist not in a major show. If I’m in a partnership and my partner needs my help, I’ll be there. 

Selling with Honey and Not Vinegar

Two artists I know have different approaches. One calls the gallery and berates them for not selling enough work. He calls frequently, and, other than bringing people’s attention to his work, or possibly doing a show or advertising, it sells if it sells. But this artist completely alienated his gallery and they fired him. Why? He was not worth the hassle. They dreaded his calls. He made them feel bad even though they were trying everything. People were just not buying his work, and they could not make him happy. And they had lots of choices of other artists who were selling.

The other artist is the nicest guy in the world. He doesn’t call much, because he knows the gallery is busy, and if every artist called every week, they would never get anything else done. When he calls, he doesn’t even ask if things are selling or what they are doing. Instead he simply says, “How can I be of service? What do you need from me? Is there a kind of painting anyone is seeking I might be able to paint?” Oh, and he sends a small gift to the salesperson each time they sell a painting. 

Who would you rather do business with?

Complaint: “Why are we, as artists, giving so much power to people who are offering us little other than wall space?”

Oh, I’m sure it seems that way. But keep in mind, some months a good gallery may not sell enough artwork to pay the bills. They may be wondering, “Why aren’t these artists earning their 50% by helping us more? After all, we’re putting out tens of thousands in rent, ads, electric for all that lighting, employees, sales commissions to employees, shows, food for shows, public relations, etc.”

It’s important to make sure you understand both sides of the story. Wanna really feel empathy? Ask your gallery if you can come there for a week to be a salesperson. See just how easy it really isn’t.

The bottom line is that you and your gallery can both gripe about a lot of things the other could be doing. But be thankful they have selected you when there are 200,000 other artists they could pick. If you’re one of 30 or 50 they are hanging, you are in the upper 1 percent of artists in the world. Be thankful that they are exposing your work, hanging it, lighting it, and paying for that wall space. Be thankful they are doing everything they know to bring people into the gallery. Could they do more? Of course, and they will if they can afford it. Be thankful they can sell your work while you’re sleeping, or painting. It beats trying to do it all on your own, and the expense that goes with that.

A Message to Artists

Consider this. The gallery business is at risk. This is the time we all need to support them, help them survive and thrive, and celebrate that they are doing what they do for 50 percent. I know an artist who gives the galleries 75 percent and is now one of the richest artists in America because they favor his commission over the others. He’s not complaining because he did $5 million in sales last year.

A Message to Galleries

Consider this. Artists put their heart and soul into their work, and you exist because they don’t want to have to learn to sell on their own. If they wanted to be business people, they would have gone into business. They need you to communicate with them, and they need to understand your issues so they don’t look at everything as one-sided. 

Both artists and galleries can do a better job of communicating. There is no right or wrong, we’re all in this together. If one falls, the other could fall. Let’s all work harder on communicating.