Are You Pricing Your Art Wrong?
Knowing how to price your art can be really intimidating. Trust me I know. It’s one of the things that artists ask me about the most.
Do you price your art in the same way that a lot of other artists do?
Are you so traumatized by the very question of pricing that you decide to wait for posthumous fame? Let them discover you after you’re dead? That way you can hide your work – so no one will ever ask how much it costs.
Are you attaching your self-worth when you price art?
This means either choosing the biggest number you can think of, thus inflating your prices to match your huge ego.
Do you find yourself wishing desperately that you could give all your work away for free so that you don’t have to set a price for art? Better yet, maybe you even tell your customers to pay whatever they think it’s worth, and you’ll take anything just so long as you don’t have to price your art!
(This trick never works, by the way. You must stop giving yourself away.)
Instead, why don’t you try this? Educate yourself about the market so that you can price art with confidence and feel comfortable standing by your art prices.
Whether you intend to make a living from your art or not, pricing art correctly is important.
Confidence in Pricing Art Is Born from Knowledge
When it comes to pricing art, you’re in good hands. I know my stuff.
I’ve priced contemporary art for years, for thousands of artists. I’ve even been certified by American Society of Appraisers as an expert in Fine Art. Appraisers are professionals who determine the value of artwork for auction houses, insurance companies, tax purposes, and also for collectors.
And this is my best advice for how to price art:
You want to grow your market like a garden. That means you want to prepare the soil and sow the seeds with low prices and patiently tend your career so that your prices can grow organically.
Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t price art with your pride or emotions.
But why am I telling you to start with low prices?
The reason is this: You don’t want to be in a position where you have to lower your art prices, avoid that at all costs. Okay, I’m not saying that you can’t ever, ever lower your art prices, but I really wouldn’t do it lightly.
If you start pricing your art low and raise your art prices gradually, you can make sure that the market will always support you.
But if you lower your prices, you’re telling your collectors that they made a bad investment. Think about it.
Sure, people buy art because they have an aesthetic, emotional, or conceptual connection to your work. But at the end of the day, art is an investment . And they’re investing in you, in your career. They’re hoping the value of your works will go up.
So for their sake, have a steady hand when navigating your career. Raise your art prices slowly so that you don’t find yourself having to lower them. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary.
When things like recessions and economic downturns happen, you can be sure that they will affect your sales. I’ve found that the art world is always the first to be hit and the last to recover economically. But that doesn’t mean you stop working.
I once asked art superstar Kiki Smith how economic downturns affected her art practice when she was starting out. She remembered those times when she had no sales whatsoever; and couldn’t even afford supplies. When that happened, she went out on the street and got cardboard.
She said that a recession might affect you economically. It might affect the decision-making of what materials you use. But it doesn’t affect your work.
“Artists get stopped where they want to be stopped.” She said. So rather than letting economics stop her, she just adjusted to what was happening.
I think that’s such strong advice. If the bottom falls out of the market, just figure out a way to keep working, keep making art. It will change again. That’s the nature of the market. And that’s why it’s so important to educate yourself thoroughly about how this business works, so you can weather storms and come out sailing.
How to Start Pricing Your Art
You start with research.
Begin by considering your audience. Do you show your work in a prestigious gallery? Or are you selling out of your studio? Is your work on the wall of a gift shop or a Michelin-starred restaurant? Is it online?
Basically, what I’m asking is what is your audience willing to pay? What are their expectations?
Here’s a question, have you ever shown at an art event and found that you’re the highest priced artist there? It’s mortifying, isn’t it?
Or even worse, that you’re the lowest priced!
My friend artist Andy Smith told me a story of being at an art fair and watching everyone else sell around him. But no one was interested in his stuff.
An artist from the next booth finally took pity and came over to see what the problem was. He took a pen and added a zero to each of Andy’s prices. And it worked!
This is an example of matching your art prices to your audience’s expectations.
Now when you’re pricing art it’s also super important to take a look at your contemporaries. What prices are they selling at? Once you find someone who’s selling in your geographical region and your artistic genre, get a firm sense of what their art prices look like.
Then you can start to make adjustments for your work and your career experiences.
For example, let’s say that you’ve found an artist who shows work similar to yours in the same geographical area and who shows in the same sort of venues. Note how he prices his art.
Now you start making adjustments.
Adjust for your resume. If he’s had more one person shows than you, or has been included in a museum exhibition, he’ll have a higher price tag than what you ask.
If you have more professional accomplishments, your art prices might be higher than his.
Next, adjust for the size of the work. Bigger pieces equal bigger money.
What about the medium? By and large, paintings and sculpture cost more than photographs, prints and other works on paper.
So I want you to research at least 5 artists in your geographical region, doing the same kind of work as you, and learn about their prices, their professional experience and their market.
I know this isn’t a science. It probably sounds hazy and imprecise. But it’s really not. The key is to dive in and really study the art prices of your contemporaries until you see the patterns and precedents emerge.
And that’s how you begin to get a real understanding of how pricing works in your market. From there, you’ll be able to find your place and your price.
I know, I know. It’s a lot of work.
Everyone seems to think that there’s a magic formula that they somehow don’t know. And though I am sorry to say that there isn’t, this really is how to best price art. You just can’t get around it.
And I warn you to be very careful of anyone who advises otherwise. There are a lot of so-called art coaches out there in Googleland who pretend to know what they’re talking about. Who want to sell you the easy option. But check their experience, because if art is your biz, you don’t want to be taking professional advice from just anyone.
Why Is It So Difficult to Know How to Price Art?
I believe that what makes pricing so very difficult for most artists is that our egos get in the way. Whether it’s over-inflated or under-inflated, it’s not helpful to price art with your ego.
This is math, it’s not a value judgment about you nor about your talent.
I once worked with an artist whose name is in every art history book. He’s a rock star in the art world and has had a huge career.
When the art project we were working on was finished, it was time to put an opening price on it. The price he wanted was twice what I suggested. Twice!
I had done my research. I knew that his name was big but for various reasons, his market had shrunk. The best way to interest collectors in his stuff again was to start the ball rolling by getting it into some good collections. With a lower price, I’d have been able to do that.
But he insisted on the higher opening price for his art because he was thinking with his ego. I get that. He’s worked really hard to become who he is, his work is consistently strong, and he deserves the high price tag.
But in the end, everyone lost because the market disagreed and we weren’t able to sell the work.
Other Things to Consider When You’re Pricing Your Art
If your work is really intricate or involves special elements that drive up the cost, by all means account for this.
No matter how low your prices go, you should never, ever lose money on supplies. Make sure that those costs are always covered. And don’t forget to itemize them for your taxes.
I think it’s important to keep track of your hours. Figure out what your hourly rate is per piece. Why? Because you can’t improve what you don’t measure.
How much money does an artist earn? The US Department of Labor says that the average hourly wage for a fine artist in America is as $24.58. So there’s a number to keep in mind and start measuring against.
If you find you’re earning less, then make it a goal to build your art career until you hit it.
If you’re already making more, then you can feel good about yourself but keep aiming higher. You’ll raise the bar for all of us.
A lot of my students ask me about something called The Square Inch Method. The Square Inch Method is basically where you set an art price on one size, do the math to figure out what that comes out to per square inch, and then apply that price to your other sizes.
It works for a lot of artists. As a trained appraiser, I would never use the price per square inch method. However, I don’t really see a problem with it. It certainly encourages consistency.
But you still have to do your research and go through all the steps I mentioned to set that baseline art price.
Also don’t get too carried away with this formula. Don’t start pricing things with bizarre numbers like $902.56. You can round it up or down. Stay flexible and keep it all in perspective.
More Thoughts About How to Price Art
I always tell the artists I work with that it’s important that you know your art prices and have them set before you ever show your work to anyone. Don’t ever let yourself be in the position where you’re guessing.
I once visited the studio of an up and coming young artist. I loved his large scale paintings on metal and wanted to buy one for myself. I even considered offering him representation in the gallery I was running.
But when I asked the price of one of his pieces, he hesitated. And then I could see him sizing me up, trying to figure out what number would work for me. What I could afford to pay. And that right there, ended the conversation. I lost all faith in his integrity and professionalism.
You never set an art price based on what you perceive a client can pay.
But setting your art prices beforehand, and having confidence that your numbers represent fair market value, that will go a long way toward building your reputation as a professional with an understanding of how this business works.
Here’s another example:
This is about a Working Artist student actually, an artist with a lot of talent.
When I finished teaching the section of the workshop on how to price art I said, “Never show your work to someone without being prepared to discuss price. You could easily lose a sale.”
Two weeks later, I saw her Facebook post of a nearly-finished painting. Everyone gushed in the comments, and one person wrote, “How much is it?”
She replied, “I don’t know.”
I nearly fell off my chair.
I picked up the telephone and called her. That’s right, I called her. And I said, “That! That comment that was posted, that was an art sale. And now the potential buyer has nowhere to go. You’ve cut him off. Life moves fast and chances are he’s probably moved on by now and forgotten all about it.”
“But you can fix this.” I told her. “Do what you should have done initially. Private message him the image, the dimensions and a few words about it including the title. End by telling him when it will be done, how much it will cost, and ask if he’d like to see it when it’s ready.” That’s how you save this sale.
And she did. And she made the sale.
I’ve said it once and now I’ll say it again: Never show your work to someone without being prepared to discuss the price of the art.
One Price for Art
And it’s important that each piece only has one price. One price everywhere, whether it’s online, in a gallery or in your studio. Consistency is integrity. And because of the world wide webs, this is a global market, and transparency is everything.
What if you’ve got a piece that’s just fantastic? The best thing you’ve ever done. Remember, it’s not about the work, it’s about the market.
Your art price does not equal the size of your talent. Nor is it a reflection of your self-doubts.
The price of your art is driven by the market. It’s math, not psychology. It can’t hurt you and it won’t bite, so don’t be afraid of pricing your art.
And don’t think that the right price doesn’t matter. Because do you know who really cares about your prices? Buyers.
Buyers are suspicious of low prices, they don’t trust their taste and if your prices are too low, they’ll take that as a sign of a weak career. People never buy art just because it’s cheap.
But at the same time, they’re very skittish of high prices. An over-priced work will scare them right off.
So if you’re having trouble selling your work, your art prices may very well be to blame. Ask yourself: are your prices too high? Are your prices too low?
And don’t be one of those artists who gets all huffy when we talk about money and art in the same breath.
Selling Art Is Not Selling Out
Imagine for a moment, what would your life look like if you were able to show and sell more art? Close your eyes and really picture it.
Maybe you’re already working as a professional artist. Or maybe that’s your goal.
Either way, increasing your art sales and getting the shows you want doesn’t just happen. This is a business so you have to make it happen. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you because you could spend your whole life waiting. And that would be such a waste.
The good news is, it is possible – if you’re willing to do the work.
That’s why I call my online masterclass The Working Artist.
Because building a career that sustains you takes commitment and effort. And if you’re already showing and selling art, you know this.
But if you’re not showing and selling as much as you should, if things have stalled, or worse, never started, then it’s time to pay attention to how you’re running your business.
Guest Author: Crista Cloutier
Crista Cloutier has been actively involved in the contemporary art world throughout her career. Having worked as an international art dealer, curator, and gallerist, Crista is now the founder of The Working Artist, an online business school for visual artists.
Honored as an “Influencer in the Contemporary Art World” by LinkedIn, Crista’s work has helped artists in over 80 different countries to exhibit and sell more art.
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