This post by artist Heather Miller originally appeared on her blog at Whiterose’s Blog and is reprinted by permission. Please visit her blog for the updated version of this post.
This is a bit outside the scope of AOM, but I spoke to a lot of artists since my first article and thought this might be helpful to some.
Determining what to price your work at is not a simple topic to address. There have been countless books & articles published on the subject. I certainly can’t address every method in a single article. This is some of the general insight I’ve gained over the years but you’ll need to do your own homework too. How you choose to price your work can have a significant impact on your career. If you are a gallery artist, making a wrong choice can stall out your career altogether. I hope this article can help you avoid a few pitfalls.
The last section of this article is called “What I Do,” for those who are curious. It explains just that but also tells you why you should not do what I do.
I’m going to start with two sources of information for you to consider.
First is a 5 minute portion of one of NPR’s Planet Money podcasts. It deals specifically with pricing artwork through an interview with Ed Winkleman, owner of the Winkleman Gallery which specializes in emerging artists, and an economics professor who has studied the art world. It’s a nice general overview into the gallery world of pricing, but has wider applicability.
Second is Professional Artist magazine. I cannot recommend it enough as it covers all manner of topics relating to art for all types of artists. A good amount of what I know has come from that magazine. I do not get any kind of referral perks for this. http://www.professionalartistmag.com/
PRICING ARTWORK FOR GALLERY ARTISTS
For the artist who wishes to follow the path of a gallery artist, finding your initial pricing level is difficult as you well know. The rule of thumb for gallery artists is: you can raise your prices but you can never lower them. Why? Because pricing fluctuations make it very difficult to determine the overall value of your work. If you sell one 16” x 20” painting for $1000 and another similar painting of the same size for $300, that variance is a big problem. When an art representative (sometimes called an Art Dealer among other names) looks at your portfolio, that person will have a difficult time justifying a $700 difference between two similar paintings. An art rep’s job is to help determine a value for your overall body of work, then justify that value to galleries and collectors alike. Reps aren’t likely to take on an artist, regardless of how good they are, if their prices are all over the place.
So how to know where to start? One method is to ask the gallery owner or manager who is showing your work what they recommend. They will know their clientele and the marketplace better than you. This method has a large drawback.
The problem with this method is inflation. I spoke to an artist whose first shows were in NYC, he lives in the DC area. He had the gallery owner price his photographs. In NYC, he was told an emerging photographer’s work sells for around $800 – $1,200. He sold several pieces. He got tired of driving to NYC and decided to try to exhibit locally. That’s where he ran into problems. He learned that in DC, those same photographs were only worth about $300 – $400. People in DC just aren’t willing to pay much more than that for a relatively unknown artist’s work. The rules of the gallery world, as I mentioned, state that you can never lower your prices. He was stuck. I remember him saying he went years without exhibiting and I believe he said he now exhibits under a different name. If he were to move to Cleveland, Ohio (where I’m from), he’d be in the same boat all over again because prices are even lower there.
What you should do is research, research, research! Find artists whose work is similar to yours, who are also an emerging artists, and take note of their pricing. Go to the galleries that you are planning on submitting your work to and take note of the price range(s). Think about where you live, where you plan to exhibit, and where you might be living or exhibiting in the next 5 years. Always price your work lower than you think you should because you can never lower your prices after your price is set. Getting feedback from gallery owners is very good, but it should be a consideration, not the rule of law.
If you listen to the podcast, you hear Mr. Winkleman discuss the system he uses to determine price: size / scale, intensity (level of detail), and medium. The host of the show goes on to say that, early an artist’s career, art is priced similar to a commodity. This means, as you start your career, you also use the same method(s) I outline for self-produced artists. Combine what I suggest next with the research I suggested earlier and you’ll be much more confident in your pricing your work.
PRICING ARTWORK FOR THE SELF PRODUCED ARTIST
Self-produced artists have it a lot easier. Unlike a gallery artist, you have 100% control over your pricing. You can raise and lower as needed. The first thing you need to do is to determine your Base Cost. There are a few ways to do this.
Cost Calculation #1 – Production Cost: To find your starting point you first need to determine how much you spent making your piece of art. This is where you take your artist hat off and put your business hat on. You need to save ALL of your receipts when you buy anything related to your art. You can get fancy software to do this with or you can use Excel or Numbers (any spreadsheet program). Originally I started with a spreadsheet which I kind of regret. I’ve been trying to migrate to the Point of Sale software I used when I owned my brick & mortar gift shop. It’s a hell of a lot of work given the huge amount of materials I have on hand. I’m kind of an exception though. If, for example, you’re a painter, you only have to worry about brushes, paints, canvases, gesso, etc. so starting with a spreadsheet and upgrading later, if necessary, will be far easier.
Determining costs on paint, adhesives and other consumables: determining how much paint you’ve used on a piece may seem impossible. I’ve heard some painters purchase jeweler’s scales (gram scales). They weigh their paints before and after finishing a piece to determine just how much paint they’ve used. Basic math helps them determine how much that paint costs. This method can be used for adhesives, finish coats, and other consumables as well. Some painters & artists just guesstimate how much they’ve used.
Cost Calculation #2 – Hourly Wage: This method was suggested when I attended a local lecture on pricing artwork in 2009, and in subsequent reading on the subject. You keep track of the number of hours that you work on a piece. Then decide on an hourly wage you think you should earn. Multiply the number of hours worked by the hourly wage and that gives you your price. Some artists set their base cost solely on the hourly wage calculation, others use that in addition to Cost Calculation #1.
ONCE YOU HAVE YOUR BASE COST, THEN WHAT?
This is largely up to you, which I realize isn’t very helpful. In the world of retail sales (not art, but other stuff), there is, at the very, very minimum, a markup of 100%. That means if I buy a candle for $2.50, I sell it for $5.00. That may seem steep, but in a large store, that same candle would cost $9.99 or more. Why? You have to take into account the cost of shipping that candle to you, the cost of the bag or other packaging once you sell it, the rent you pay on the storefront, the computer equipment, displays, your insurance, your taxes, employee salaries, and your utilities…to start with.
Art also has costs. You have entry fees for shows, installation costs (for shows like AOM), tools like brushes and easels, business license fees, and the rent on your studio – and that’s just off the top of my head. When you price your work, you need to consider all of that in addition to how you chose to calculate your base cost per piece. If a piece of artwork cost you $30 to make, charging $60 may not be enough in the long run, but, it may be where you have to start based on other factors. Those factors include where you are in your career (beginner or more established), the type of artist you are (gallery or self-produced), the area you live, etc.
In the section for gallery artists, I suggest researching other artists whose work and career level are similar to yours. This holds true for self-produced artists too. Go to artists’ websites and see what kind of shows they’ve done and where (galleries, art fairs). Where else do these artists sell (Etsy? Zazzle? Artfire?). Talk to other artists, get their feedback. Listen to feedback from non-artsy people looking at your work. Consider all of that but most importantly, don’t get lost in random details.
During this article I did not suggest taking personal feelings into account when pricing artwork. It is not, in my view, a valid pricing criteria for any kind of artist. I mention this because, a few years ago, I was at an event at a small gallery that asked artists to bring a piece. Everyone in attendance would give feedback, a casual critique session of sorts. One of the painters showed of a small piece. Someone asked how much it cost. After rambling a bit he declared that the price would have to be higher on that painting because it had “sentimental value.” If a piece means that much to you, don’t sell it. I don’t know if he considered himself a gallery artist or a self-produced artist, but either way, adding arbitrary fees to your work is not good for your career.
WHAT I DO
I use Cost Calculation #1. I guesstimate my adhesive & paint costs since I don’t use expensive paints. I add to that any and all applicable fees. I consider my base cost to be the production cost plus fees.
Even though I’ve attempted to use software, I mainly still use my old spreadsheet. I have a large workbook that contains everything from production costs for every piece I’ve ever created, to final prices, exhibition locations, and sales.
On the worksheet that is devoted to costs, each piece is listed by name, under which is a list of everything that went into creating it and how much each line item cost. I add up those numbers and that gives me my production cost. For example, if I use one whole package of Sculpy in a piece which cost $3, a canvas costing $5, mounting hardware costing $0.75, and adhesive I guesstimate at $.25 them my production cost is $9.00. My selling price, depending on the complexity of the piece, would probably be around $20. I mentioned earlier why this may not be enough. This is usually what I do but you should read note #1 & 2 below as you should probably not do this.
On a separate sheet in my workbook I have numerous columns that help me figure out what I should charge. I have one column where I type in what I think the Selling Price should be. The next column I enter the production cost. In the next column I enter the gallery’s commission rate (if there is one). The next column I enter in any other fees (Etsy seller’s fee for example). The final column automatically takes my Price and subtracts the production cost and any and all fees I’ve entered giving me my Profit Margin. I can then adjust the Selling Price to as I see fit. It’s not all that complicated although I probably made it sound that way.
I do not include entry fees under the expense for an individual piece of art. Such fees are General Business expenses, like the purchase of new paint brushes. The reason for this, is that a piece might be submitted to multiple shows before it’s sold. Your selling price would have to be very high to compensate for all those fees. Putting show fees, and related expenses, in a general category makes more sense in the long run.
Having price control doesn’t mean you should constantly be raising and lowering your prices on a show-by-show basis. That’s bad for business because clients start to wonder if they should wait to buy because it might get cheaper. That said, my spreadsheet also lists every show each piece has ever been in. If it’s been shown 3 times and hasn’t sold, I generally drop the price. Otherwise, I try not to play around with my pricing too much.
Note #1: I spent a good amount of my life being poor, including being homeless for 4.5 years. This means even to this day, I don’t like spending lots of money on anything. It also means I have a hard time charging lots of money for anything.
Note #2: Shortly after I started studying the business side of the art world, I realized many things. 1. The art world tends to look down on “normal people” which I do not agree with. 2. The goal of a gallery artist is to cater to the 2%, which I have no intention of doing. 3. I want to create art for people who may not have lots of money but want to put something other than a mass-produced piece of crap from China on their wall. That means I need to be in the same price range as mass-produced pieces of crap, and framed posters. That is not a price range where you can make a living off your art. I’m, gratefully, in a position where I don’t need to worry about making a living from my art.