Understanding Commissions (Or, How To Upset A Salesperson)

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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 with outrageous pricing 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 a Goodfellas meme, we should have used a Casino meme?  In the world of the non-finite/non-guaranteed, dealing with artwork is 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 (or large) fee to participate.  The further away, the higher the shipping, the higher the gamble, especially if you factor is something like size and weight. If you price too low, you risk losing money, but, if you price too high, you risk not selling anything at all, and subsequently paying to get your art sent 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’re not “in it” for sales or do the “NFS” thing (with a for-profit business), in which case, you are wasting someone’s time; unless, you’re showing in an exhibition 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, you’re not needing to recoup anything for shipping, so don’t expect to price things higher.  

For The Gallery:  Although art is their business, untested 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 you will sell.  However, even “tested” work can be a gamble if their is no market or demand for it.   If the curator selects work that is terrible, nothing sells. If the work is priced astronomically high for your market range, you risk that nothing sells. Most of the time, a gallery is exhibiting in order to test the untested in the mere hopes that they can make some money by selecting quality works of art and building repeat clientele that trust their vision and/or expertise.  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 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 necessarily the other way around.  However, that’s not always the case. High-end galleries typically select artists that they want to work with, and in turn, it is a higher stakes gamble, usually involving a larger “bet” (i.e. overhead, rent, etc.) Prices of works in these types of galleries are, as you can imagine, considerably higher. In many instances, the gallery is taking 50% commission and feels confident that the higher price tag is normal for their level of clientele.  The other 50% is in theory what the artist is comfortable accepting for their work.  The downside is that high-end galleries may only show one artist at a time and likely have a “no solicitations policy” for everyone else.  Regardless, all galleries that don’t rely on a trust fund are essentially 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 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.  Guess what?  Membership based organizations are charging you dues with the trade-off that their member shows have a larger marketing range.  They may only host 1-4 larger shows per year.   There’s also nobody there selling anything.  One recent member show we attended in Pittsburgh was staffed only by elderly volunteers and had inconsistent hours of operation.

With online marketplaces, it’s you versus the entire world (and you’ll probably still lose out on the shipping). 

#1 Assumption


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. Assumption #1 however, is that the gallery or salesperson is just sitting there doing nothing and customers and art buyers/collectors are just magically lining up at the door.  Unfortunately, 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. Courting can be anything from texts, emails, and phone calls, targeted marketing and advertising, to driving art to peoples houses, hosting receptions, and dropping money at restaurants and bars. Additionally, it also means having to open the gallery and be there for long periods of time and during off-hours for special appointments, and, curating pieces that you think a client will like. 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 gallery receptions, artist studio visits, shipping and handling, and managing up to three or more shows at a time (the one in the gallery, and the next two that haven’t even happened yet).  

So, if you have ever wondered why a salesperson should get paid “for doing nothing”, remember, that while you’re out having fun with your friends and family, eating brunch, 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 the art, and not having to deal with marketing and sales. Conversely, the Gallery is in business by choice, but money is made through hustle, sacrifice, and having the motivation and sheer energy to do it. 

How To Upset A Salesperson (And Not Be Invited Again)


Most artists might think they go unnoticed when it comes to pricing (and that’s fine, please do the homework and the math), but the reality is, salespeople check. The guaranteed way to upset a salesperson is a 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 more challenging to sell your stuff.  We’re not saying that your time and art are not valuable, but at the very least, try to meet in the middle somewhere and for God’s sake- don’t even say the words “for you to earn your money” out loud.

Passively, you may mark up the commission on top of your price on a loan contract and think that no one will notice. How can you tell?  Initially you stated “A”, and then you wrote “B”.   Beyond that is the fact that the art just isn’t worth that much money (BTW–it is also still showing on the Artist’s website listed for a much lower price).  

Depending on 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 the process of negotiating.  As part of the gamble, if you remain firm, you risk losing it all.  With group shows, most prices come in ranges, and unless there is something egregious, there just isn’t enough time to email and call everyone who pulls an increase. If that’s the price you want, sure, that’s the price that we’ll list.  It’s funny though, 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.  Overpricing (especially when done at the last minute) makes both the Artist and the Gallery look bad.  A good Gallery will however select works within price ranges that are compatible to everything on display (but that’s not to say that sometimes there is a Wild Card or two).   

Bottom line, don’t think it goes unnoticed and when in doubt, ask the Gallery or Salesperson.  If they don’t respond or give you a rude response, than they probably aren’t somebody that you want to work with.   It’s not that the skills of the salesperson are bad and they don’t dream of making thousands of dollars, it’s simply that the object is overpriced for what it is, skill level aside.  Every sellable object has a limit and most salespeople are not Donald Draper.  

Sheer Cluelessness

Unfortunately, a Gallery cannot fix plain dumb.   As a Gallery, we reach out to people on social media, etc., from time to time and ask them for a price.  Here’s a great example (and the art wasn’t that good):  


We are assuming the Artist thought 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 waste their time taking it on loan and marking it up to earn their commission.  Maybe in some far-off world of the global cabal of elite galleries and collectors. We should venture to say that if you’re making that much money, you’re not probably not answering random Instagram messages. If you have 50K+ followers, why is it still unsold?  Because BOTS don’t buy art.  Even if this Artist assumed a 50% split, that means the piece is worth half as much, and then another 50% of that.  Therefore, 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 take-home price of the piece is $612.50, which is about what the piece was it is worth at a 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 from this Artist was listed elsewhere online for half as much, and the piece in question was made 3 years ago (i.e. sitting around in your Inventory).  Three words: “Adios, good luck“.  


Standing Firm

While we respect that Artist’s have a certain sense of pride, being (or acting) 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% discount without permission, 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.  What Artists may not 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 relatively the same price range.  Something is getting sold, and by this point in time, the salesperson is not taking into account your personal feelings on the matter.  

Therefore, if yours is the art that sells, don’t cry about the 10% 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, whether as a goal of the salesperson, or from the interest of a Buyer. 

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 something is one thing. Discounting for a Collector is another, especially when it means more business–and more potential business and/or exposure for the artist.   When dealing with extreme amounts of money by all means be upset (or maybe go to court).  But in the realm of the mid-range, haggling over $25-$40.  If it went from $2,500 to $2,250. Just don’t. The businessman is going to do what the businessman is going to do.  If you don’t like it, don’t loan the art in the first place.

Not many people wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to go buy a wall hanging today.” As you might imagine, selling art and getting people interested in art (outside of certain major destination art cities), can be a challenge.  This is also not to mention competing with the Internet, and home decor places like Ikea, West Elm, and the like.  Mass produced aside, a Gallery is looking for the most unique objects possible, and inviting people who buy those types of things to come and hang out at their place.  All art is unique, but in the larger world of art, many styles and motifs are not.  Abstract art may be in high fashion, but that doesn’t mean that yours is going to sell. 

Space For Lease

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 per month to operate, they would have to sell nearly fourteen $500 paintings just to break even- and they aren’t even keeping their commission, let alone a livable salary. 

Maybe they sell one $3,000 painting–that’s still only $900 for the gallery.  You can see where this is going.  Look at things from a  different perspective:  instead of paying a commission, you are paying for the a sublease of a section of wall within a building.  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 whole lot of work?  Well: a.) the lead-up to the Reception in and of itself is a lot of work, and b.) your artwork is still 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.  If your art is large you pay large, and if small, you pay small.  

This is 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 (in a brick and mortar setting).  Low price items may be there to attract walk-ins, who in turn, may spend more on mid-higher priced items. Not all commissions are equal to the relative size of the space they occupy.  They are reflective primarily to the expertise and market position of the salesperson.   Whatever your bet may be low or high, it’s all part of rolling the dice to get work shown and hopefully, some money in your pocket. 

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