​The Complicated Business of Gallery Commissions

If there is one topic in the business of art that is very fraught, it is the question of whether or not to employ the services of a gallery to show and sell work. On the one hand, galleries take often a very high commission with the sale of each piece—up to 60% which feels like quite a hit when you are trying to start out making a living from your art. On the other hand, having your art in the right galleries can be a serious career booster. So what’s an artist to do? Let’s break down some of the pros and cons of gallery sales. The good, the bad, and the ugly, to help you unpack whether this route is right for you.

Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that we spend a lot of time talking about how to sell your art independently online as well as with a gallery. Heck, we even created a whole course series on the subject! (Along with a whole bunch of other courses too…) Making the decision to be your own salesperson requires some work and research, as well as a clear understanding of your own strengths. Some people are very comfortable with self-promotion. For some, sales come as easily as creating the art itself. If this is the case then it may very well be worth your time and effort to become your own rep and marketing person. By doing this you add personal time dedicated to the same piece of art in the form of customer relations, publicity, and marketing. In other words, deciding to be your own salesperson adds work and in so doing, decreases the value per hour of work based on the set price of your art.

Don’t let this be a deal breaker. If you are truly someone who knows that self-marketing will be a comfortable position, and if you feel that you have a clear plan and understanding of exactly who you intend to aim your artwork at, by all means proceed with this method. For many artists, some of whom we have profiled in past blog posts, online art sales have led to a lucrative career.

If, on the other hand, you are someone who finds joy in your studio time but cannot possibly imagine having to market and sell your own work, if the idea of self-promotion just feels fundamentally wrong, connecting with galleries may be the right option for you. Yes it is true, you are going to fork over a hefty commission at the end of the day. A gallery will often take somewhere around half of your final sale price, give or take, but let’s break down what you will gain by sacrificing some green. As soon as you hand over your artwork to a gallery, you are essentially employing them to do all the work involved in the marketing and sale of what you have created. While it is important for you to remain involved in this process, you are eliminating the need to be a self-marketing artist. You can think of the commission as your way of buying back precious studio time.

For many artists, time in the studio—while not easy per se—is far easier than time spent on the business side of the art world. Galleries are literally in the business of the art business and have the tools and experience to market your work in the most efficient way possible to your given audience.

That being said, we all know that not all galleries are created equal. In the past we have discussed pay to play galleries and why these are not only bad for business but potentially bad for your career overall. Be savvy about which galleries you court. Make sure your art fits their vision, and ask around to find out which are the best and most reputable galleries in your area.

Of course getting into a gallery isn’t going to be a snap. Competition for space is high and you shouldn’t expect to simply walk in the door and be exhibited immediately. There are steps you can take to increase your chances of being accepted into a gallery and if the above criteria lead you to believe this is the best route for you then it is worth your time and effort to make connections with galleries in your area.

It must be said, while there is merit to selling your art independently, it is also true that finding your way into a gallery can be a career booster. Some galleries carry with them a reputation that can translate into a serious boon for any artists whose work graces their walls.

A final note, like anything in the art world, getting into a gallery can depend in some part on who you know. Use your network, connect with gallery owners, and if you know some already by all means reach out. There is nothing wrong with using your connections, it is not something exclusive to the art world and it is how careers are made in the 21st century.

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