Selling your work through galleries – the pros and cons
I am regularly asked why I do not approach galleries to show my artwork and I have many artist friends who love nothing better but before I give you my answer, let me break down the pros and cons for you.
Having your artwork shown through a real, “bricks and mortar” gallery is seen by many people as being the validation necessary to be called a successful, selling artist.
Showing work through a gallery can certainly give you a wider audience reach. After all, if your work is hanging on their walls, potential buyers are more likely to see it than they will if it is wrapped up and stored away in your home ready for its next outing. Some artists I know use galleries, coffee shops and restaurants as an alternative way of storing their work, where it is also visible and could just find someone who falls in love with and has to buy it. It makes sense.
The flip side is that wherever your work is hanging, it runs the chance of being damaged and I can promise you that whoever has your work on their walls will not take responsibility for any damage or pay to repair damaged frames or artworks. They will expect you to take out insurance to cover this eventuality. Unless you are selling artworks for £10,000 and upwards, the insurance costs versus what they will pay out just don’t add up. So, be prepared to accept that damage can occur, and it will be at your cost.
The next negative aspect is the commission charges. Most galleries charge 50% or higher, with one gallery I heard of recently taking a massive 85% in commission. I appreciate that central London galleries have very high costs they need to cover, e.g. rent, rates, insurance, wages etc. but 85% feels like a stretch too far to me. However, your work is unlikely to command the sort of price that an 85% commission gallery would charge unless you are regularly in London galleries. I hope that makes sense.
To put it another way, if your work commands a price which allows you to earn the amount you want for it and give the gallery their 85% commission then you are charging very high prices to begin with. This is in itself an important point. You need to be happy with the sum the gallery will pay you, regardless of what commission they take on a sale. There is no point getting upset about the amount they take; as I have already alluded to, they have overheads they need to meet, and they are providing wall space allowing your art to be seen.
So, if you are asked to show in a gallery then you need to be clear about the way they calculate their rates and exactly how much you will receive from a sale.
This is where things can get a bit tricky. I know of one gallery owner who says that they charge 50%. They don’t and this gallery is not unique. The one I’m thinking of will get very upset with you if you ask why they have sold your artwork for £1,000 but have only paid you £446.00.
I recently looked at the figures for a friend who sells through this gallery (I used to be an accountant) and they are not being honest about their charges. The gallery owner has refused to sell people’s work if they question them and I am pretty sure that the VAT figures they report to HMRC are as muddled as the calculations they make on sales commission.
My advice to anyone wanting to work with a gallery is make sure from the start that you have a contract, and that this contract is clear about how commissions are calculated. Don’t fall for VAT being added, either. They make the sale with the VAT calculation included unless you agree to paying them the additional amount. It is probably a good idea to have a solicitor check out the contract or find an accountant who can tell you exactly what a sale through a particular gallery’s contract will cost you. If anything feels wrong in any way, just walk away. It is very flattering to be asked to join a gallery but if it makes you feel uncomfortable then it is not right for you.
A final word about the big galleries. Again, it is very flattering to be asked to show, particularly if it is a well-known gallery, but if you are new to the gallery exhibition world you need to be aware of what it is likely to cost you to show with them.
You will be required to pay for all the shipping and packing costs associated with getting your artwork to and from the show. The catalogues produced as part of your show will also have to be paid for (by you) plus any postcards the gallery sends to their mailing list, although these days most galleries no longer use postcards and they simply email their list.
Finally, you will need to check where you stand on selling your work via other galleries or exhibition events. Many galleries write into their contract that all your artwork must be sold exclusively through them and if you do make sales privately, they will expect to be paid their commission fee regardless.
If you are more interested in making work and letting someone handle everything else then finding a gallery to represent you with all these restrictions could be the perfect fit for you. There is no right or wrong here; it has to be what suits you. I am simply trying to help you be better informed.
So, what are the benefits of not getting involved with galleries and simply going it alone? Well, the obvious one is that you are in complete control of where (and when) your art is being shown and what your charges for those works are.
I know a number of artists who are often told that they are undercharging for their work. One lady I have in mind sells the most beautiful works for silly prices. Ask her why, and she will tell you that she would rather sell lots of work to lots of people and that by keeping her prices so low she gets to do just that and therefore shares her work with many more people. Every year when she opens her studio for customers, I visit and buy a whole bunch of stuff: birthday cards; paintings for my children (who love her work); and birthday/Christmas gifts for friends. I probably spend more money on her work because of the affordability than I would if it were priced higher.
Next, you don’t need to do what most artists have to do and work out what price you want for the work and then add the commission charges on top before sending it off to the gallery. If you ever wondered why art is so highly priced it is because the galleries are charging the money. In reality, the artists often get very little.
You get to decide which shows you are going to take part in without upsetting your gallery. So, if you want, for example, to support a local amateur art group by taking part in their annual exhibitions, you can without having to pay the commission over to your gallery.
Having set your prices, you can also reduce them, too. The gallery I referred to above will regularly offer customers a discount for buying more than one artwork. From their perspective, they are simply shifting stock. The artists rarely get asked if they are agreeable to this practice and so the money they end up receiving is definitely not what they thought they had agreed to. However, if you are at an exhibition and someone is interested in buying a couple (or more) of your pieces, it is easy for you to decide if you want to give them a discount and, if so, how much that should be. My advice would be to never give more than a 10% discount as it will just cheapen your work.
So, why don’t I get involved with galleries? Well for many of the reasons above. I don’t want to have someone dictate to me where and when I sell my work. I like being able to offer work at a realistic price and not have to inflate prices to cover gallery charges. Plus, I like meeting the people who buy my work.
When you have work in a gallery, they will never tell you who bought it. You never get to meet the buyer; find out why they liked the work and what they are going to do with it, keep it for themselves or give it to a friend or relative etc. You might be happy with that, you may not feel comfortable talking to people and you may prefer that all the business side of being an artist is run for you by a gallery.
You must decide for yourself which way you would prefer to work. There is no right or wrong way. For me, making art and producing commissions is about the interaction I have with clients and being tied to a gallery would mean I couldn’t do that.