05/05/2015 09:38 am ET Updated May 05, 2016

Should Art Dealers Charge Lower Commissions for Sculptors Than for Painters?

Few enough artists think that dealers are fully justified in charging a 50 percent commission on gallery sales, but most accept it as just the way things are done. Still, the commission may strike some artists as less fair than others. Sculptors, for instance, especially those who work with foundries to produce bronzes, have far higher production costs than most painters. A $2,000 painting may have cost only $10 in actual materials to create, while a $2,000 bronze may have set back the sculptor $600 or more. The 50 percent sales commission for the painter results in the artist netting $990, while the sculptor's earnings after expenses would be only $400. To break even with the painter, the sculptor could raise the price to $3,220, but that might put off buyers. "Sometimes, you just have to eat it," said sculptor Ann Morris, who lives in Lummi Island, Washington.

But not always. Morris, who works with several west coast galleries, often is successful in negotiating the commission down to 33 percent, especially when the gallery owner is told that the alternatives are raising the price or not having works by her on consignment. "I have less leverage when I'm the only bronze artist being show, everyone else is a painter," she said. "The dealers tell me, 'Well, I can't make an exception just for one artist.'" When there is more of a mix of media, she added, gallery owners are apt to show more flexibility.

For most of their careers, painters set prices based exclusively on demand, which is why less well-known artists' work is less expensive than that of more established painters. When they are starting out, for instance, artists tend to price their work in the same range as those of similar pieces by artists at a comparable point in their careers, and prices increase with the growth of their collecting audience. On the other hand, the work of bronze sculptors often is priced based on a mathematical formula -- three times the foundry cost -- for a substantial portion of their careers. "Of course, at very high prices, when you're charging $100,000 or more, it doesn't matter what the casting costs are," said Roy Tamboli, a sculptor in Memphis, Tennessee whose average work is priced at $15,000 for which the average casting cost was $5,000 ("and that includes shipping costs"). He noted that he insists on gallery owners reducing their commissions to 40 percent ("they go along with it most of the time").

These types of agreements are negotiated individually between artists and gallery owners. The Copley Society of Boston, Massachusetts actually has a written policy favorable to artists in this realm for its members gallery ("The gallery commission rate is 60 percent artist and 40" Copley Society for regular gallery sales. For sales of bronze/precious metal sculpture, the artist receives the cost of casting plus 2/3 of the remaining amount"), but gallery manager Carolyn Vokey said she was unaware of anything similar at other galleries.

Lack of uniformity on the part of gallery owners may lead to artists being less consistent. For bronzes from the same edition, Morris has found herself managing a crazy-quilt of pricing and income: The same pieces may have identical prices at galleries charging a 33 and a 50 percent commission, while yet another gallery that takes half might show the sculpture at a 25 percent higher price. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run, if collectors discover that works from the same edition may cost less somewhere else, but balancing the need for widespread exposure and keeping one's income stable creates dilemmas for artists.

"It's too confusing to have different arrangements with different galleries," said sculptor Larry Young, who does most of his own casting in his studio in Columbia, Missouri. "I just try to be consistent" in the pricing of his work, which ranges from the table-top (six inches) to the monumental (30 feet) in size and is priced from $1,000 to "several hundred thousand."