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Working With Galleries: Should They Limit Your Sales Venues?

by Lori Woodward on 4/6/2011 8:47:04 AM

Today's Post  is by Lori Woodward, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She also writes "The Artist's Life" blog on American Artists' Forum. Lori is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group that paints under the direction of Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  Find out how you can be a guest author. 


Several years ago, an artist friend entered a business relationship with a new gallery. He had been working with a few other galleries at the time, but this location was closer to the artist's home, so he was eager to begin showing there. However, the owner required that their artists not show with any other venues within a 50 miles radius of the new gallery. Although that may have worked fine for their others artists, it did not for this particular one since he had a long-standing relationship with a gallery that presided just within that 50 mile radius. 


At the time, it seemed like a good idea for him to leave this other gallery (even though he had been selling fairly well there) in order to show his work closer to home, but unfortunately, the newer gallery sold very few of his pieces and went out of business in less than 2 years.


Last year, I reviewed an artist/gallery agreement for a client and was taken back by the fact that the gallery (which is a well-known one) required that their artists not show work in several other nationally known galleries. Now... these "competing" galleries were in other parts of the country. Secondly, this particular gallery required that their artists never sell on their own but only through galleries.  Needless to say, I advised this artist to revise the contract because I felt that she should be able to sell her workshop demos and work at plein air events.


Several artists whom I spoke with recently while out west this winter, said that plein air events were their best source of income this year - these artists also show at major galleries. A few other artists who sell primarily through galleries are seeking non-art second jobs or re-thinking their career/sales strategy. I like the saying, "Cast your bread on many waters and it will come back to  you." In the current economy, artists who are diversifying their sales venues seem to doing better than those who are not.


Here's my question: Is it a fair business practice for a gallery to limit the ways and places an artist can sell his or her work?


While I certainly understand why a gallery in Camden, Maine would not want an artist to show in Ogunquit, Maine, I can't see why a gallery in the southeast would require that their artists stay away from a certain gallery in Arizona. 


Well, now that I think about it, who says that the same people who visit a gallery in Ogunquit are also going to look at art in Camden? Furthermore, wouldn't it be to the artists' advantage to show in both locations? That artist will display different original paintings in each of those galleries and these towns are more than 70 miles apart. With the internet, many collectors are not traveling to the show location anyway, and are doing their browsing and buying online - especially if they're already familiar with an artist's work.


 Back to the subject at hand. Is it ethical for a gallery to insist that an artist not sell on their own under any circumstances? Do you think it's ethical for one gallery to make rules about which other galleries around the country their artists can or cannot show in? Is it ethical for an artist to sell work at galleries and directly to collectors if the retail price is the same?


I bet you know which side of the fence I fall on with this one.  As I've previously mentioned  in blogs, I see myself at the CEO of my art business - sometimes I sell my work through an agent, where they get an agreed-upon sales commission; other times I sell on my own (at the same retrail price) where I get the sales commission. Don't subsidize the collector by leaving out the sales commission. In that case, they're buying wholesale. Someone always gets the sale commission - either your gallerist, agent, or you.


Right now, it seems like the only way the majority of artists can make a living is to sell in several venues - galleries, invitational events, and yes - even from their website.  Some artists, avoid competing with their own galleries, by selling more finished/framed works at the gallery, and smaller unframed "studies" from their website. The smaller paintings appeal to those who love the artist's work but can't afford their larger works. 


It seems that artists who are selling well during this recession are those who "think out of the box"... Those who aren't depending solely on their galleries. HOWEVER, if you're currently working with a galleries and they're selling well for you, then perhaps you don't need to do anything different. As my tennis teacher used to say, "If you're winning, don't change a thing; if you're losing, keep trying something different until you turn the game around."


Above all, carefully consider how your gallery's requests or requirements may limit your ability to make a living by your art sales. After all, they hedge their bets by selling works by many artists and you only have one person's paintings to sell - your own. Shouldn't you have many ways to get your work to market?


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Related Posts:

Working With Galleries: Limit The Consignment Period

Selling Without Galleries

Gallery Representation

12 Steps to Get Your Artwork Noticed by Galleries

Working With Galleries: Equitable Agreements

Topics: art gallery tips | FineArtViews | sell art 

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jack white
It's ethical. The gallery has the right to set their rules. We on the other hand have to right to set our rules. We do show in Taos and Santa Fe, but otherwise we keep the distance spread. They are 70miles apart. Not because the gallery demands we do, but we think it's wise business. If a gallery were to try to tell us where we can show, we would never show with them. We think we know what works better than any art gallery. We make it our business to know what sells and where we do best. Our main goal is be in galleries in tourist destinations. Local galleries don't work for us. Not enough new traffic.

Galleries will push, but when you push back they will wilt. Especially if they know your work sells. The bottom line is they need art that sells more than protected territories.

By the way this is a valuable topic. One all artists who show in galleries deal with on a regular basis. jack

While there are scaling issues with the concepts outlined in this article, artists have a preconceived notion that "more is better" - the more venues you have your work displayed at in a given geographic area, the more likely you are able to sell the work. That MAY be true in geographic areas where you have clientele who are "visiting" or vacationing, as you have a limited "time exposure" for that geographic location. I bring up scaling as an issue with this, as larger urban areas may have a smaller geographic region to which this may apply, but get outside of the bounds of a city and the geographic area may need to expand exponentially. Point being, if you have your work represented by more than one venue in a given zipcode, for example (and there are exceptions to this rule, I recognize, for instance - places that attract tourism) then your work ceases to become "special". That hurts both the sales venue and the artist as the client does not feel a sense of urgency to consider purchase of an artist's work when they feel they see it here, there, and everywhere. I would venture to suggest there are different rules that apply to those exhibiting in larger urban areas than to those exhibiting in other areas of the country - which is most of the country! If a client sees your work as special and unique, they may be more apt to move and purchase.

Maria Brophy
I would never sign an exclusive agreement with one gallery, unless they have locations in every major city in the country, and agree, in writing, to represent the work in every one.

Often when a gallery tries to require exclusivity, they either:

1.) Aren't aware that they hurt themselves because they limit exposure of the artist which comes around to affect their own sales of the artists work in the long run; and

2.) They have an out-dated mentality of scarcity and competition.

I would, however, agree to make a gallery exclusive with the following limitations:

A.) Exclusivity only applies in their immediate general area (i.e. Laguna Beach, CA)
B.) Exclusivity is null and void if sales is less than a certain dollar amount for three consecutive quarters. (This frees an artist up if the sales are not strong in that gallery.)

Artists must take control of their sales and make good business decisions. Limiting their income and sales does not fall under "good decisions."

I'm glad you wrote this article, because I see a lot of bad contracts out there and artists need to know what they are agreeing to.

Lori Woodward
Thanks Jack for your contributions!

Jan, the topic of this post that I'm most concerned about is - galleries who say their artists can not work with other galleries in other parts of the country because supposedly these are their competing galleries.

I probably should not have used the two galleries in Maine issue. I totally agree with you that one should not show work in two venues that are close in proximity and definitely not in the same zip code.

Many of the galleries in VT require their artists only show in one gallery there because the state is so small; on the other hand, it's OK for artists to show in Scottsdale and Tucson galleries - those towns are 130 miles apart.

My question here is (and I think Jack gave his answer) does your gallery have the right to say you can't show in "such and such" a gallery on the other side of the country?

And secondly, does your gallery have the right to require that you never sell on your own at plein air events, outdoors shows, or any other venue - including your website?

Of course, if you undercut the gallery by selling at a discount from your studio or website, the gallery should have a problem with that since you're undercutting them, and they'll drop you like a lead balloon, but what if you are ethically selling from your studio and other venues at the same retail price as your galleries?

I know artists who have willingly signed such contracts that state they cannot sell on their own or through a number of other "famous" galleries throughout the U.S.

Is that fair?

Lorraine Vail
I think Maria makes a very valid point in 2.b. of her comment. If a Gallery wants an exclusive they should offer a minimum guarantee of sales. I work with licensing contracts and that is a standard quid pro quo in that venue.

jack white
Lori, the Plein Air painter do run into gallery conflicts. If I owned a gallery and one of my painters was in my area doing plein air and selling their work I would expect my 50 percent commission. They are taking potential gallery sales. Gallery overhead is very high. A friend's gallery in Vail is $32,000 a month, not counting overhead. Our Carmel gallery was $18,000 a month. In the Forum, Las Vegas a gallery space is $85,000 a month. Our Santa Fe Gallery pays about $10,000 a month.

The advent of plein air painters has opened a new can of worms. The wise ones make sure and take care of their brick and mortar galleries.

The truth of the matter is artists will put up with a lot of misuse just to get in a gallery. Galleries use their power to control. You have to stand up or the galleries will make everything their RIGHT. jack

I am encouraged to hear that there is an understanding, at least with the respondents so far - as to what will and will not "work" with representaion at multiple venues. HOWEVER - for every ONE of you "professional" folks, there are hundreds and hundreds and possibly thousands of artists who don't exhibit their work outside of a given geographic area for multiple reasons. While the internet has changed a lot of that, in terms of exposure, many artists have this misconcption of "more is better'. I would encourage artists to do a bit of reasearch on a particular area where a gallery or venue might be located, visit the Chamber of Commerce website for the area perhaps, and find out if there is a demographic for a given location - for instance, my gallery is in a town that is bordered on the north and south by two other towns. The client who comes into my gallery also frequents venues in the other two towns. Many area artists that I deal with don't seem to grasp the idea of remaining unique. I bring this up as again, while there are many artist who exhibit professionally on a national or regional basis, there are thousands more who do not, and I do know that a lot of THOSE folks take the word of what the professionals do as gospel to apply to their own marketing efforts, and that may or may not be wise to do, as there are different sorts of criteria for both scenarios.

George De Chiara
I can understand a gallery not wanting you to show within a certain mile range, but telling you that you can't show in a gallery across the county is crazy.

Lori Woodward
Good point Jack! The lowest rent on Main Street in Scottsdale is about $20,000/month and that is for a small space. So, I totally understand what you're saying about artists doing shows and plein air events in the same vicinity as their galleries... not a good idea.

Maria, I just got caught up reading the comments here, and I so appreciate your concise list. I need to print the comments of this blog out! It's the icing on the cake when others with experience with art sales in a variety of venues contribute to the comments - that's what makes this blog so helpful to artists who take time to read the comments. It's like taking an art marketing course - for free!

The example that I've mentioned - is an artist who does a couple of plein air events in Colorado each year but shows in galleries in Arizona and Wyoming. If she were to sign up with a gallery who says the artist can never sell on her own, then she'd either need to drop the plein air event or the gallery to stay honest.

Listen to what Jack says here because he knows his stuff. If your work is good and the gallery knows they can sell it, they'll be willing to back down on unreasonable requests. Don't sign up with them just so you can feel good about "seeing your name in lights"... make sure the gallery doesn't overpower you. If you sincerely feel like they are controlling you for their benefit alone, talk it over.

Gallery owners are not terrible people and like to have long working relationships with their artists. Sometimes it takes a little negotiation to get a fair agreement.

But like one of the artists in my blog's example, think carefully before you cut out one of your current venues that's working, before you give it up to work with another gallery. Hang onto what's been working for you.

Jeffrey Stoner
I think reasonable geographic limits make sense for both the artist and gallery. For those galleries that don't have a geographic limit I self-impose one.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, I would not agree with a gallery`s contract that stated I can not sell at a certain gallery across the country. That is too constricting in my book. Is it an intimidation they feel by another successful art gallery? I think it would be a good thing for them to say, they are also represented in 'such and such' art gallery if it is a reputable one. It lift the success meter up in the eyes of the potential buyer.
Also, I have been asked not to sell below the galleries prices on my own unless I sell workstudies. If a gallery is not making enough money for me to pay my bills, I think it is ludicrous for them to want exclusivity from me.
Now that you state these examples, I will ask for contracts and read them carefully beforehand. Thanks for the heads up.
No wonder I am very happy dealing with buyers directly. So much easier when I do all the business transactions, commission requests and social communication. I think I am getting spoiled on making all my art sales and keeping the commission.

Lori Woodward
Something else just came to mind that happened recently to an artist... although the gallery is one of the best I've come across, I don't agree with this:

The gallery didn't like to state any prices on their website -- thinking it was better to have a client call the gallery to get more information. It's their choice to list prices or not on the gallery website.

However, here is the problem, they asked at least one of their artists to not list prices on his personal website. This artist was new to working with galleries, so he "obeyed", but I think the gallery stepped out of bounds. I, personally, like to list my prices whether the gallery chooses to or not. In this case, I would have negotiated.

Jeffery, I agree that imposing geographical limits is a good idea. When I worked with galleries full time, they were over 100 miles distance of one another, and while most were in New England - I also worked with one in Tucson Arizona... no problem there.

Carolyn Henderson
Excellent article, Lori.

We have no problem with a gallery setting a geographical radius -- that's only good business for them to not have to compete with their immediate area competitors.

We have never had a gallery restrict us on our own sales, either in other galleries or from our studio -- the arrogance of that is appalling, unless, of course, it is tempered by such successfully aggressive marketing and phenomenal attention given to the artist's work -- resulting in sales.

Sharon Weaver
I think the gallery figures if I don't ask I don't get so I will ask for everything. This means that the artist must be able to recognize unreasonable demands and negotiate a better deal. Regarding the plein air events. I paint at many and some organizations take as much as 50 percent so if the gallery takes 50 percent that leaves the artist with a big 00 percent. I travel to all my events but most have local stars that participate and are a big draw to the event. I am not sure of the arrangement these artists have with their galleries but I don't see why the artist shouldn't enter local plein air events. Many of the buyers come specifically for the event and would not be in the town otherwise. They are art lovers and come to buy art so a gallery can and should profit from all those buyers being in town. They can sell other works by all the artists they represent. How is this a bad thing?

Lori Woodward
Esther, I so admire you for how you're doing art sales on your own.

I must admit that I myself feel drawn to the idea of showing in an important gallery. It just feels soooo good to say I'm showing at "such and such famous gallery".

But when reality hits me, it's a lot easier for me to sell my art on my own. One, because I don't paint enough to supply a gallery (I'm on the computer writing too much). Two, my clients/collectors are able to easily afford my work since my highest prices are still below $2000, and most are under $1000.

If I started working with galleries, then I'd need to raise my prices significantly in order to cover my framing and shipping costs and absorb the 50 percent commission. That would put my work out of the range of my current collector base.

Another reason why I would rather sell on my own: I enjoy meeting the folks who collect my work, and as a plus - I know who they are and have their contact information. When I finish a new painting, I can post it to my email newsletter. I've heard that your previous buyers are 6 times more likely to purchase again from you than a new-to-you collector.

I'm not against galleries though, my student (who can now paint circles around me) Kyle Stuckey enjoys working with galleries. He would rather not meet with clients, and he can get much higher prices for his work than I do for mine.

I have sold some of his work - as his marketing mentor - and he has paid me a finders fee, since I didn't actually show his work in any space other than my website. Therefore, I qualify as an agent. If he worked with the gallery who requires that he not sell on his own (which he doesn't), that would mean he is not selling from his studio.

This is my last blog on working with galleries for a while - although I may write a short ebook on this topic. Shortly, I'll move on to "out of the box" art marketing for those artists who want to begin selling on their own without gallery representation.

but for now, we'll continue to talk about working with galleries. Please don't hesitate to ask me a question. I may not have the answer, but perhaps someone else here does.

Casey Craig
Great topic Lori!

A few years ago I submitted my work to a gallery in Dallas and they sent me a consignment contract. They wanted exclusivity in the whole STATE - and this is TEXAS!! I crossed that out and offered them exclusivity in Dallas only, and they agreed.

Another gallery that I used to show with had a 50 mile radius stipulation. When I mentioned that I was already represented in my home town which was about 25 miles away, they waived that stipulation.

The moral here....ask and negotiate, and be willing to walk away if the terms aren't in your best interest.

I completely understand galleries not wanting you to sell right under their nose for a show when they are promoting you 24/7 and am happy to grant reasonable exclusivity.

I always post my prices - it keeps everyone honest.

I also will sell out of my studio - all prices the same of course. If the gallery has the work then they make the sale. If someone contacts me about a work and they saw my work in the gallery, I'll pay a commission to the gallery.

I only make money if I sell MY work. The gallery makes money if they sell any of their works. I can't afford to hope that the gallery is working harder to sell my work than their other artists and put all my eggs in that basket.

Ideally this is a partnership based on trust which is mutually beneficial to both parties.

Nicole Hyde

Good topic! None of the galleries I've been in over the years have formally stipulated an exclusive geographic range, but as a courtesy, I maintain one for the immediate area or city (and in some cases, a state). I would NOT ever commit to an exclusive arrangement that prohibited specific galleries in other territories, or other territories in general.

Like you, I believe I am the CEO of my own art business and retain the right to sell my own work. However, I believe in ethics and a healthy relationship between artist and gallery and when those unsolicited sales come to me, I refer them onto my galleries. And if it happened, I would make the sale and send a check to cover the commission (some buyers like to deal with the artist, I get that).

I have no desire to "screw" anyone out of anything -- including myself.

Galleries have been very good to me and I value their place in my art life and it's important to me to maintain trust and respect. I give that to them and I expect it in return.

Lori Woodward
Casey - thanks for contributing!
And Thanks for Carolyn too - always good to hear what you have to say.

I think you summed it up Casey: "The moral here....ask and negotiate, and be willing to walk away if the terms aren't in your best interest"

Here's a problem that's cropped up recently for artists who sell at a gallery and from their website or studio: If the artist pays the gallery a 50 percent commission on a sale that's out of the studio because the client first saw their work at the gallery -- what happens if:

1. The client can't remember where they first saw the artist's work?

2. They saw the work at a couple of galleries or shows, then who gets the 50 percent?

3. They've been watching the artist's work for awhile and happened to see some of his or her work in a gallery, but have never purchased the work and want to buy a painting they adore directly from the artist?

With the Internet, multiple galleries, and art magazines, collectors sometimes can't remember where they've seen the work.

Here's what I've been thinking about this problem:
The gallery gets the commission on the work that I show with them. If I sell on my own at the same retail prices, I get the commission -- I'm just another gallery. This works, in my way of thinking.

Let's say that I'm a collector and I collect paintings by Matt Smith. The first painting of his I bought at a gallery in Tucson. Then a few months later, I buy one of Matt's from a gallery in Scottsdale... does the Scottsdale gallery owe the Tucson gallery a commission because I first saw his paintings there? I think not.

So, if I decide that my website/studio is just another gallery, then I get to keep the sales commission solely of the paintings I sell. Hopefully, I don't live in the same town where my gallery is - that would be a conflict of interest.

Recently, I advised an artist whose gallery sales have all but stopped since the summer - to go ahead and sell something a bit different from her website. Perhaps sell smaller, unframed studies from the website - just so she can continue to pay her utilities, and save the larger, framed paintings for event and gallery shows.

Casey Craig
Lori, I think your thinking about this works. The artist should attempt to find out where the collector first saw the work, but you are right it may be in many different venues or they may not remember.

It can also work to the galleries advantage. What if you have established a collector on your own that wants to buy a painting that you just delivered to a gallery? Of course you would just send them to the gallery. When there are multiple galleries or agents involved it has to come down to where is the actual piece in question.

I know artists who refer all sales/commission work to the gallery nearest to the collector's geographic location. This seems a bit messy to me and you risk a sale falling through if the work of interest is not at the closest gallery.

I think if we are honest and upfront with our collectors and our galleries hopefully problems can be avoided.

Lori Woodward
Casey, thanks for adding to the discussion...your reply made me think of another instance where things got confusing.

An artist sent work to a gallery for a special event show; this artist works with the gallery full time, so the gallerist assumed that that unsold works would stay at the gallery after the show ended. I agree - this is how it's supposed to work.

But the artist's other gallery found a potential buyer for one of the paintings placed in the show and told the client that this painting would be shipped back from the gallery after the show ended so the 2nd gallery could sell it to his client.

Things can get awfully confusing, but here's the way I see it should work: In the same way that a home owner lists their house with a real estate agency for a period of time, artists "list" their paintings with a certain Brick and Mortar Gallery when they ship it to the gallery (especially when that artist is one of the galleries regular artists).

While the painting is in the possession of the gallery that received the painting - should another gallerist find a buyer, the 2nd gallery sends the collector to the place where the painting resides - the collector buys the work from that gallery and the two gallerists split the portion of the sales commission.

In the same way... once you, the artist consigns a painting with your gallery, you cannot ask the gallery to ship it back to you so you can sell it to a collector at your studio. If the client wants THAT painting, they will have to buy it from the gallery.

Now, do you get to split the sales commission with the gallery because you found the buyer? While it may seem so, it just has never worked that way. In a truly fair situation, the gallery might split the commission or give you a "finders fee", but at this point in time, you're probably better off just letting your gallery take the full sales commission for the sale even if you found the buyer.

Why? Because you don't want to appear to be in competition with your galleries. In this case, you are not really a "dealer" and don't get half. It's just the way it is for now.

Thanks everyone for commenting. I hope this has been informational... I must go for a while and will check back later.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, thank-you so much for your support. I think my career as an artist has bloomed thanks to all of you with FASO. If I didn`t read and act on the advice in these articles for the past three years, I would still be complaining and starving. Many thanks to all who contribute on Fine Art Views.
Before I get back to my studio, I want to add that I have a ten year plan to be represented by several reputable art galleries. It is a dream of mine also and eventually will be a reality. I believe it. I, like you Lori, need to raise my prices in line with the others represented first. My present customers are my lifeline right now, so I am not going to hurry and raise prices. Gradually each year is the formula. Just like you said. We are in the same boat, very understood. Enjoy painting everyone! I am about to dive into my oil palette and take a swim in color!

Katarzyna Lappin
Test comment made by tech support. Please disregard.

Joanne Benson
Another great post! Lots of great information and tips about what to expect from gallery negotiations, etc. Thanks for the valuable information.

Donald Fox
I was with a gallery once where we actually had a good working relationship. An opportunity came up for me to have a show at a local college, but the college did not want any commercial gallery overlap. My gallery agreed to let me do the show on my own. It was quite successful and beyond the token percentage given to the college for the use of the space, I kept everything (I had done all the work including the invitation). In the show was a large painting that everyone admired including the commercial gallery owner - he wanted it in his gallery. We agreed that if it didn't sell, it would go directly to the gallery afterwards, which it did. I suspected he had a specific client in mind. A week after the painting went to that gallery, it sold. I was happy for the flexibility shown by the gallery owner that allowed me to do the college show unhindered. He was happy to have gotten the work for his client (out of state, by the way, so he wouldn't have come to the college show anyway). In that case we both won.

Lori Woodward
Katarzyna, I have seen all your comments in my email. Don't know why they aren't showing up here. Thanks for retyping them!


Roslyn Hancock
Hi Lori

I believe your articles on this topic over the past months have helped arm artists with a well thought out approach that serves them [the artist] fairly in negotiating with galleries, who have held the commanding hand till recently. Artists are asking for a fair shake at making money from their art.


Roslyn Hancock
Hi Lori

I believe your articles on this topic over the past months have helped arm artists with a well thought out approach that serves them [the artist] fairly in negotiating with galleries, who have held the commanding hand till recently. Artists are asking for a fair shake at making money from their art.


Barb Stachow
It is OK to limit the venue, and then it's up to you to make your decision. It may be worthwhile to have your galleries close to home, but if they have rules like you really want to have your work there?

Phil Kendall aka Meltemi
With attitudes like this, and with those questionable restrictive practices outlined here. Is it any wonder that bricks and mortar art galleries are in sharp decline? Most of them also failed to adopt the 24/7 global market that is offered by the internet. Artist be brave the world is yours.

JT Harding
Good post Lori,
I'd definitely have an interest in an ebook on this subject. As an emerging artist, I find it difficult to transition from self-representation to gallery representation, mostly due to the large increase in price that is need to justify the decision. I'd be interested in how others have navigated these waters.

This was a very interesting article and I love all the comments


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