Understanding Commissions (Or, How To Piss Off A Salesperson)


Now go home and get your f**kin’ shine box.  Ok, ok, we don’t mean “you’s” no disrespect, and sure, a lot can happen or be said by accident.  As we have said throughout The Gallerist: never take anything personally.  We don’t, but snide cheap shots, delusions of grandeur, and wasting people’s time is well… a waste of time.  Much of what we write about in our Blog is based on real experience, and we feel compelled in an honest way to share that experience with the rest of the world in order to foster a better understanding for how it all works.   

The Gallery is a Casino (Sort of)

Maybe instead of Goodfellas, we should have used a Casino meme?  In the world of the non-finite/non-guaranteed, dealing with artwork is somewhat of a gamble for both the Artist and the Gallery.  Why? 

For The Artist:  most galleries require you to spend money to ship product, and perhaps charge a small fee to participate.  The further away, the higher the shipping, and the higher the gamble.   If you price too low, you risk losing money, but, if you price too high, you risk not selling anything at all and also paying to get your art back.  Most of the time you might not know the experience level of the Gallery, or whether anybody staffed there actually does anything at all to sell.  Or- you don’t care if it sells or do the “NFS” thing, in which case, you are wasting someone’s time unless you’re showing with a school or a non-for profit, and you understand there are no stakes or very little sales incentive.  If you live in the same city as a gallery, then you’re not needing to recoup anything for shipping, so don’t expect to price things slightly higher.

For The Gallery:  Although art is their business, art is a huge gamble, especially when there is overhead involved.  As we have said in the past, unless you operate at the highest echelons, most artists (and mid-level galleries that host them) generally fall into the category of “untested”.  The word means exactly that.  Nobody knows who you are, and whether anything will sell.   If the curator selects work that is terrible, nothing sells.  If the work is too high priced for your target clientele, you risk that nothing sells.  Most of time, a gallery is exhibiting in order to test the untested, in the mere hopes that they can make some money by selecting nice works of art, and not waste their time.  Likewise, an Artist tests different markets for who might be interested in their product, and that’s normal.  

What Are Commissions?  

As you may or may not know, commissions are typically an amount of money paid to a salesperson in order to sell something for you.  For some people, they seem to fixate on the idea that this is somehow a scam, or that the salesperson is ripping them off.  Worse, fixating on the idea “why do they deserve the money for something that is mine?”   Remember- if you could sell it yourself, you would.  The majority of the time (to the benefit of a gallery) it is artists looking for galleries, and not the other way around.  However, that’s not always the case.  High-end galleries do select artists that they want to work with, and in turn, it is a higher stakes gamble, usually involving a larger “bet” (overhead, rent, etc.)  Prices of works in these types of places are as you can imagine, considerably higher, and typically, the gallery is taking 50% commission and feels confident that the price tag is normal for their level of clientele. Remember also, they may only show 1 artist at a time and likely have a “no solicitations policy” for everyone else.  Back on Main Street, USA however, the reality is somewhat different although all of the galleries are competing for the same thing: selling art.  

Should you opt to listen to Social Media, and all of the “do-it-yourself” type ads decrying art galleries as some sort of scam, just remember that the gallery is one of the fewest (and shrinking) ways to display physical art in a setting conducive to selling that art.  For most consumers, seeing is believing.   All of those “do it yourself” online art markets, are also, by the way, charging you fees and commissions.  And guess what?  There’s nobody selling it for you but yourself!  It’s you versus the entire world (and you probably still lose out on the shipping). 

Gross Assumptions

As we said, commissions are an amount paid to a salesperson to do work for you, assuming they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.  Gross assumption #1 however, is that the gallery or salesperson is just sitting there doing nothing and customers and art buyers/collectors are just magically walking through the door.  No, that’s not how it works.  With any sale of something expensive (say, over $80), there is a lot more involved.  This usually means “courting” and/or gathering leads and retaining the proper clients, or you go out of business.  Courting can be anything from texts, emails, and phone calls, online and physical marketing and advertising, to driving art to peoples houses, hosting receptions, to dropping money at restaurants and bars.  Additionally, it also means having to open the gallery and sit there for long periods of time and off-hours for special appointments, and make the shows look cool and interesting .  Hint: all of this work is unpaid.  On average, VCG is open about 23-30 hours a week, but the work never stops.  Those hours include every Friday and Saturday night, and both Saturday and Sunday mornings (peak hours).  This doesn’t include “off the clock” time for home appointments, attending other receptions, artist studio visits,  shipping and handling, and managing 3 shows at a time (the 1 in the gallery, and the next 2 that haven’t even happened yet).  

So, the next time that you are sitting there wondering why a salesperson should get paid “for doing nothing”, remember, that while you’re out having fun with your friends and family, eating breakfast, going on vacations, playing with your kids, and enjoying your weekends, there is somebody else working their ass off to sell your stuff That’s also not to mention the time that the Artist gets to spend working on art, and not having to deal with sales.  Conversely, the Gallery is in business by choice, but money is made through hustling, sacrifice, and having the motivation.  Unless you have a trust fund, the hard work is needed to stay in business.

How To Piss A Salesperson Off (And Not Be Invited Again)

There are a lot of variables that are out of the control of the gallery.  Sticking to the topic of price, there are a myriad of ways to piss off a gallery or salesperson.  Most artists might think they are being clever (and that’s fine, please do the homework and the math), but the reality is that no one goes unnoticed. The crux of what we are about to say, (whether as an Artist you are doing this inadvertently or not), is the situation where you feel that you need to raise your price in order for the salesperson to “earn” their money.  In a sense, making it that much harder to sell your stuff (because you deserve “all of it” i.e. what you feel you “deserve” for it).  We’re not saying that your time and art are not valuable, but at the very least, try to meet in the middle somewhere.

The Passive Slap:  The passive slap is marking up the commission on top of your price on a form and thinking no one will notice.  How can you tell?  Well, basic math, or the fact that the art just isn’t worth that much money.  (BTW-  it is still showing on the Artist’s website listed for the lower price.)  Depending on sheer time and any potential interest from a Buyer, the gallery will pick up the phone or write an email to ask an Artist what is the case with the markup, and start to negotiate (or just hang up the phone).  As part of the gamble, if you remain firm, you risk losing it all.   From the onset of the show, there just isn’t enough time to email and call everyone who pulls this move.  If that’s the price you want, sure, that’s the price that we’ll list.  BUT- funny when the price sheet has that glaring $6,000 price tag for something that may be worth $900 (minus commission of course) and everything else on the price list is $2,000 or below.  Truthfully, as much as it is kind of sweet for trying, it usually gets a few more looks and a round of laughs from people at the opening reception (and we’d probably tend to agree with them).   Bottom line, don’t think it goes unnoticed.  The work looks great, and that’s fine too, but you’ll likely get it back in the end.    It’s not that the skills of the salesperson are bad and they don’t dream of making thousands, it’s simply that the object is overpriced for what it is, skill level aside.  Everything has a limit and most salespeople are not Don Draper.  

The passive slap also comes in the form of sheer cluelessness.  As a gallery, we reach out to people online from time to time and ask for a price.  Here’s an example:  

Not sure if this Artist assumes we wanted to buy the piece off of them directly?  Either way, a gallery is not buying a piece of unknown art into inventory for $4900 and then trying to resell it.  Nor are they going to take it on loan and mark it up to earn their commission.  Maybe in some far-off world of the wealthy elite, in The Hamptons on planet Neptune.  We would venture to say that if you’re making that much money, you’re not probably not answering Instagram messages.  If you have 40K followers- why is it still unsold?  Even if this Artist assumed a 50% split, that means the piece is worth half as much, and then another 50% of that.  So, the piece’s actual worth is $1,225 on the high end, which should be the real list price, and get split another 30%-50% on commission if sold.  So, the artist’s true “worth of the art” here (i.e. their take-home price of the piece), is $612.50, which is about what it is worth at first glance.

(P.S.  The hilarious part is that the artist then offers a 10% discount and free shipping, as though this is some kind of concession!  Think that’s rude to them?  An equally sized piece was listed on the web for half as much, and the piece in question was made 3 years ago (i.e. sitting around doing nothing).   Two words: “good luck”.  

The Real Kick In the Junk:   The real kick in the junk of them all– (aka the real jerk-off move of the century) is to actually tell the salesperson or gallery that you are “marking my price up with your commission so that you can make your money on it.”  Or the slightly more flirtatious:  “I’m raising my price so that you can make some money.”   Gee, thanks.  You have just completely and utterly de-incentivized that person to do anything for you.  In other words, both parties are basically telling each other to go fuck themselves and waste each other’s time.  But hey, the Art looks great in the gallery to accentuate the other works, sometimes it’s not all that bad.  In other words, don’t act like you are doing somebody else any favors by doubling the price.  

Standing Firm:  While it’s great to not have to take things personally, and we really don’t mind that Artist’s have a certain sense of pride, but being firm can sometimes be another chump move.  Standard practice dictates that whatever you say your price is, the Gallery or salesperson can go 5%-10% (sometimes 15% off) if it means making a deal and ESPECIALLY, if it is an Art Collector.  Sure, Art Collectors have money- but they DON’T NEED MORE ART.  This is commonplace.  What Artists sometimes don’t realize, is that a Buyer might be interested in 4 different things, with the intention of only buying one of them.  This is where in all fairness, price matching sometimes come into play, especially if that means all 4 things fall into the same price range.  Something is getting sold, and by this point in time, the salesperson isn’t taking into account your personal feelings on the matter.  

Therefore, if yours is the art that sells, don’t cry over the discount.  Remember above, the amount of work it took to even get to that point, and that out of a room full of art changing constantly, yours was even considered up to that point in time.  

Worse yet, don’t tell the salesperson that they somehow fucked up or say something to the effect of “well that should come out of your commission.”  Grossly underselling is one thing.  Discounting for a Collector is another, especially when it means more business- and more potential business for the ARTIST.   When dealing with extreme amounts of money, sure, by all means maybe be upset (or maybe go to court).  But in the realm of the mid-range, just don’t.  The businessman is going to do what the businessman is going to do.  If you don’t like it- there’s the road, and, you lost the money to bring it, frame it, or ship it.  

Coffee Is For Closers

Not many people wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to go by a wall hanging today”.  As you might imagine, selling art and getting people interested in art (outside of certain major cities), can be a challenge.  This is also not to mention competing with the Internet, and places like Ikea, West Elm, and the like.  The role of the Gallery is to find the most unique objects possible, and invite people who buy those types of things to come and hang out at their place.  Let’s take a 30% commission for example.  On a $500 painting, the Gallery takes $150 and the artist takes $350.   If the gallery costs $2,000 a month to operate, they would have to sell nearly 14 $500 paintings just to break even- and they aren’t even keeping their commission, let alone taking a salary. 

Maybe however, they sell one $3,000 painting- that’s still only $900 for the gallery.  You can see where this is going.  In addition to a commission paying a salesperson, it is also paying for a sublease of a wall.  What?  We’ll explain:  if the piece sells in the opening night, you may wonder what skill was involved in selling it and why pay the commission for not a lot of work?  Well, a.) the reception in and of itself is a lot of work, and b.) your artwork is going to hang there for a month or two with a red dot on it, thereby occupying a piece of real estate that could otherwise be used to sell something else.  

What are we trying to say?  That in the end, the constant winners are the landlords who really do nothing, and not the art galleries or the sales people, or even the artists.  That’s not to say that money can’t be had if all of the cards are played correctly.   Either way, commission is price that artists have to pay, sometimes not scratching the surface of the salesperson’s overhead.  Low price items are there to attract walk-ins, who in turn, may spend on higher priced items.  Not all commissions are equal to the relative size of the space they occupy.   Whatever your bet may be, low or high, it’s all part of rolling the dice.  You could sell 100 $10 paintings, or 1 $100 painting.  Either way, there are two roads that lead to the same place.

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