Continuing on from Wednesday’s blog, But Aren’t Galleries Evil? And Other FAQ’s (Pt.1), which covered, “As an artist, how do I approach galleries?”, “How do I choose a gallery?”, and “Why do I have to show in galleries?”, we have a few more perspectives to offer on some of the most common questions we receive. Let’s start with a goody:
How do galleries determine their commission percentages?
Well, folks, galleries shoulder the business side of art, and like all things in business, you get what you pay for. Most of the services galleries provide have associated costs that they need to recoup from somewhere- and just as an artist has only one place to recoup their costs– it’s from the sale of the art object. The artist makes upfront investments in the potential value of their art, and the gallery makes their own upfront investments in an artist’s work. The gallery does this because it believes in the ability of that work to connect with their typical demographic, so they put their money where their discernment is. What are some of the costs of galleries (and other exhibition spaces) that work into their percentage? Well, here’s some questions you can ask to find out:
Will they be displaying your work in a brick & mortar space? What are the conditions of that space (is your work well lit, in a dedicated, prominent space, with clean walls?)? Is your work insured while it’s in their care? How often is your work made viewable to the general public? Is there a reception, and who covers that cost? Who lays out and installs the work and what is their experience? Is there always a gallery attendant and are they informed about your work? What are the gallery’s promotion efforts? How many strong is their newsletter subscription base? Do they have a web presence? Is your work photographed? Written about? Do they provide consultation services?
There are some other intangibles that maybe cost galleries some significant money over time, things like client relationship development and reaching out to particular collectors by attending art-related events, donating to charities and other community-building activites– those things that resolve into what is typically called ‘connections’; what are their connections to collectors? What value does that access have? Have they built a reputation, a name? Do they have a clientele that follow their aesthetic, and does the gallery know their audience? How long have they been in business and what is their expected longevity?
So it’s all of these costs and values that are taken into consideration along with the typical price range they sell within. If a gallery works primarily with emerging artists who’re still building a name and a collector base, the work is most likely selling for less than $2-3k and so a gallery will request a larger portion of the sales. When works begin to sell for $5-10k or more, it takes less of a percentage to create the same income for the gallery. However, it is a balancing act with a whole network of variables, because it often costs more to sell more, e.g. a reception for collectors who’re buying works over $10 or $20k might look a little different than one where the average of the work is $700. Schmooze, turns out, is expensive. So you may have some selling clout to negotiate your percentages eventually, but the gallery might be able to offer some compelling push-back. It’s worth the conversation at least, so that the lines of communication are open, and everyone knows what’s at stake for one another. It really, really, really should be a good partnership.
In essence, galleries set their percentages at what they feel they’re worth. And if respected artists show with them, and show with them again, then that’s a good sign that they’re pretty on the mark. Also, I have the same advice for new gallerists as I do for new artists, don’t undervalue your work, but also, be able to justify and demonstrate what you ask the collectors, a.k.a. The Market, to bear. The work has to be priced in that sweet spot for all parties– artist, gallery, and patron. Trifecta. As well, for artists whose work is selling in the hundreds versus the thousands, and for the gallerists/dealers who represent that range, it helps to diversify your sources of income in the arts to keep yourself developing professionally, making connections in the sector, and honestly, to keep food on your plate. Work part-time for an arts organization, teach classes, host workshops, consult– use your skills from your main passion to keep the financial stress on that love to a minimum.
Can I exclude any of my materials cost from the commission breakdown?
Short answer? Typically, no. And mainly, because there’s no reason to.
First, there are no single side-by-side costs that accurately compare the comprehensive costs of one artist’s practice to another’s. Every medium has standards and associated costs that crop up at different points in the process– materials cost, equipment/workshop costs, and finishing costs that vary dramatically across mediums, processes, and practices. Many galleries represent a variety of mediums and cannot favor one over another by making allowances for one practice’s costs over another’s, e.g. we would not advise an artist to exclude the cost of framing from their pricing equation anymore than we would suggest that an artist leave out a portion of their foundry rental fees. The cost of the process is the cost of the process– and those costs are different but existent for each medium and each practice, and each cost-factor is intrinsic to the final exhibition-quality object d’art.
We get this question most often in regards to framing. We have a belief, and one we share with our clientele, that the frame on a piece that necessitates one, is a part of the artwork. The good news is that arts collectors who purchase through auction houses, dealers, and galleries, are used to this standard service. And though typically works on paper (photography, watercolor, prints, etc.) have to be framed and priced that way for exhibition, often artists will offer editions with the option of being framed or unframed, at the two different price points. As an artist, it’s good to make the framed retail price and the unframed retail price known to the gallery, and that you would be willing to offer your pieces that way. Collectors tend to be more time-poor than money-poor, so often they still opt for the framed piece. That’s just something we’ve found to be true in the numerous photography, print, and framed fibers shows we’ve hosted over the past six years.
And, for the sake of debate, if the artist is removing some of their costs from the retail price equation, when is it, or is it ever, justifiable for a gallery to request the same?
So, how do I determine my pricing?
Haha! Guess what? I already wrote that blog. Read it here at That Dirty P-word….Pricing! Make sure to read the blog cited within it (Bamberger’s), and also take into account : it’s all checks and balances, context, and self-awareness. Anything that has been an investment in your craft is justifiable in your pricing, however, like I mentioned above, some artists recoup some of their costs through consultation, workshops, teaching, or other ancillary activities, so that they can keep a portion of their overhead out of the price of their artwork to keep their prices down to market to a certain audience. A lot of it just depends on who you target as wanting to sell to, and your ability to invest (or find a gallery to invest on your behalf) in reaching those varying economic strata.
As a closing thought: gallery models will vary dramatically across geographies, and more so, across selling-tiers. I think, were this article written by Larry Gagosian, you would be seeing a slew of entirely different words on your screen. Again, as I mentioned in (Pt. 1), it’s about figuring out where you fit, where you WANT to fit, and playing according to those contexts. And learning along the way. Hopefully, as artists and as galleries, we have the flexibility to learn and grow as needed!
Well, have additional questions that we didn’t cover? Feel free to comment below, who knows, there may be a (Pt. 3!). Or! Dare ask us our opinion in person over a few drinks at tonight’s Happy Hour and Field Trip! The Emerging Arts Leaders group will be joining us between 5p & 7p for the bevvies, and then we’re off to Mystery Stop #1— and, surprise, there’s TWO tonight!