“The oppressive heft of gallery psychiatry” conte and chalk on card, 30 x 25 cm
I have just politely refused to work with a New York based gallerist – and it was not an easy decision to make. The only deciding factor was that the gallerist expected to initially take 65 percent of the value of any work sold. I replied that I had never given more than 50 percent in commission and I wouldn’t be happy in changing that any time soon. The best offer that could be made in response was that should my work sell at an “extraordinarily high level” the commission figure could be potentially negotiated down to 60 or 55 percent. And I should also be aware that the gallery’s existing artists were very happy with this arrangement.
Today most galleries charge a 50 percent commission to artists on sales of their work only because it has become the established practice. When someone starts in the gallery business they clearly look at other galleries and see that a 50 percent commission rate seems the standard. Admittedly this is not always the case and even today it is possible for a high value, established artist to negotiate a commission rate that is nearer to the artist receiving 60 or even 70 percent of the sale price – but that is the exception.
At the start of the twentieth century the commission many galleries charged their artists was between 20 and 30 percent, but for this lower level of commission the artist was expected to aid in the selling of the work by attending every opening night; they were expected to contribute towards all transport costs, framing costs, publicity costs and contribute to any discounts offered to art buyers. Also the gallery had no formal expectation of loyalty from the artist should a better offer arrive from another gallery. But even with this comparably low rate of commission there were still notable exceptions. In the first quarter of the twentieth century the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, through the policy of its director Felix Fénéon, paid outright for the work on delivery to the gallery and the artist would also receive a commission on the sale. Similarly, during the same period of time, the artist/dealer/gallerist Herwath Walden only charged a commission to the artist of 10 to 15 percent on sales of their work.
As some artists felt less able to contribute to all the aspects of the art business outside of making the art they accepted higher commission rates to the galleries on the condition of the galleries taking on various financial and business tasks associated with selling the art. As more galleries saw the benefit of taking control of the administration and publicising of their businesses away from being reliant on their artists so they also followed this model. The gallery charged 50 percent commission on any sale but if they wanted the artist to attend the opening then the gallery paid for the artist’s travel and accommodation. The gallery covered all framing and hanging and exhibition costs, all art transport costs from and to the studio, any discounts offered to collectors, exhibition and artist publicity.
Now it has become standard practice that a gallery offers to sell an artist’s work for a 50 percent commission (because… that’s what all other galleries are doing) but in some cases they are also now expecting the artist to pay for the transport of work to (and sometimes from) the gallery, they frequently demand artists attend openings (even at the artist’s expense), they often expect the artist to also share the cut in their earnings should the gallery negotiate a discount with a buyer and they occasionally even expect the artist to financially contribute to advertising and publicity costs.
Because most artists consider themselves the least powerful part of the gallery/artist/collector relationship they have been reluctant to refuse demands put upon them by the other parties. The galleries often forget that if an artist has an unsuccessful solo show then that artist is dependent on other galleries or other sources of income as it would be near impossible again for the same artist to show at the same gallery inside a year. The gallery however can immediately present another artist that may attract a better financial reward. And this can be done, dependent on the energy of the gallerist, as many as twelve times a year; there are not many businesses that operate with the assistance of perpetually renewed stock taken on unpaid consignment.
The established familiarity of the 50 percent commission rate has now led to some new galleries approaching artists and asking for 60 percent commission on the understanding that the gallery will provide all the services that the 50 percent commission rate once offered. Unfortunately some artists, particularly those at the start of their careers, are sometimes so desperate to show their work that they accept these higher rates. It is a sad day when the galleries earn more from the sale of artwork than the artists themselves. The often repeated justification is that the gallerist has the expenses of the building to consider – as if the artist was living and working in a rent-free, bill-free bubble.
Perhaps the gallery is justified with higher commission rates if they are situated in a particularly expensive area – but equally the siting of a gallery in a wealthy tourist area, or established ‘art gallery quarter’ should remove some of the risk of not attracting buyers in the first place. Perhaps the gallery is justified with higher commission rates if they consider an unknown artist or ‘difficult’ artist a commercial risk – but they also know that discovering a new talent can be immensely rewarding both financially and in terms of reputation.
It is ironic that this gallerist considers the artist taking 50 percent of the galleries potential income (before government taxation etc) to be unreasonable but it is fair for the gallery to take 65 percent from the artist. That level of charge is today considered unacceptable when it is applied via formal taxation (in exchange for public services) – so why is it acceptable for a commercial business relationship contract?
Perhaps, if the gallery expects 60 percent, or even 50 percent, of the price of the artist’s work they should expect to provide not only the appropriate venue for the exhibition, sales and marketing expertise, but also the circumstances that enable the artist to concentrate solely on their respective area of expertise – the making of the art.
So should any New York gallerist be interested in my work – feel free to get in touch. Just don’t offer commission rates that make the mafia look reasonable.