It never fails. I can tell someone the price of a painting, and, with a look of shock, they will walk away, whispering to a friend words like “outrageous.” Minutes later another person will say things like “reasonable” and “affordable.” Ever since I was little, my momma encouraged me to consider my vantage point and context when declaring something’s value — a Chihuahua is tiny next to elephant but compared to an ant? He’s a bonafide giant.
I don’t know if there is anything more confusing to both artists and collectors than price. It gets messy. New artists don’t know how to price their work; new collectors don’t know what they should spend. Here’s the thing we both forget– you just can’t put a price tag on the joy you get from art.
That’s crazy! The world is full of art with price tags. Art is a product. It is sold in a marketplace. It has a monetary value. There are millions of different types of art in various, different marketplaces. Original art that sells consistently in a particular marketplace often reflects in its price the demand for it– the higher the demand, the higher the price, since the supply on original work is necessarily limited. I know I’m not blowing anyone away here with my economic astuteness, but it’s worth repeating since we often spiritualize art and shudder to think of it as a commodity. Which it is. A commodity. One that can bring us great joy, make us think, stir up longing and sadness or just delight. Still a commodity.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my very brief time thinking of art as a product in a marketplace.
The price of art isn’t based on it’s aesthetic merits alone
We artists get this wrong so often. We think we can charge a fortune because our work is so darn good. We get mad when other people get more for work we think is inferior to our own. I recently read an interesting article that recounts a long story I’ll try to summarize simply: an art dealer offers a prestigious gallery works of famous artists the likes of Jackson Pollock at bargain deals. The dealer claims to have received them from anonymous collector and family friend who had inherited them. For over a decade the gallery then sells the paintings to its collectors for millions. When it is discovered the paintings aren’t by Polluck, Rothko, or de Kooning but rather by a seventy-three year old forger in his Queens garage, the paintings became instantly worthless. Let’s be clear. These are the exact same paintings that once sold for millions of dollars. The article concludes that when it comes to art, brand is king. We aren’t just buying mastery of form, color, or design. We’re buying reputation, status, longevity.
I’m not qualified to talk big brands on the level that the article does. What I do know applies to even the newly-turned pro artist is this: the bigger the engaged, interested audience, the more the artist will be able to charge for her work. It’s really hard to sustain profitability if only the same hundred people see the work.
What this means for artists
Price isn’t some spiritual reality we have to pilgrimage to find. Your painting is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. When you have more people willing to pay than time to produce, it’s time to raise your prices. If you never sell anything? Perhaps going down a bit will change that. Growing an enthusiastic audience can increases the value of your work. When your prices make sense (based on a formula according to size or scope rather than what you happen to feel that morning), your art comes across as a legitimate product in a very real marketplace.
What to look for
- Professional artists who are selling regularly whose work is comparable to your own. Don’t just look at what they charge. Look at how many people follow them on social media, how many galleries or public spaces they are in. In other words, how far is their reach? This will help you see where you might fit in on the price scale.
- Ways for more people to see your work whether online or IRL.
- A system and a plan for pricing. I use a mathematical formula that has undergone countless adjustments based on very basic market research as well as trial and error. Ten years ago when I just looked at a painting and deemed it’s price based on how I felt about it, I sold about one painting a year.
What this means for collectors
You can get GREAT art without emptying your savings account. There are a handful of artists at the top of their careers pulling six figures for a single work. There are thousands of artists at the beginning or middle of their careers who are consistently and slowly gaining traction and earning more for their work the more people see it.
What to look for
- Artists who are serious about being an artist. An artist who is consistently creating, growing, and fostering relationships is one whose prices will continue to go up. In other words, do they come across like someone who just decided “what they heck I’ll give this whole art thing a go” or do they read as professional, committed, and engaged? The later is someone from whom you can one day say, “I got a so-and-so-original in 2018. His work is three times that much now!”
- Art that you love. The kind you think about for a while after you’ve seen it. Art is a luxury item. We don’t typically buy such an item on a whim. We think about it. We sleep on it and see if morning’s fresh eyes still look on it with wonder or joy or thoughtfulness.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I sell art for a living, but also because l’m looking to expand my horizons. I don’t just want to be an art maker but an art buyer. For someone who loves art, I have bought embarrassingly little over the years, and I’m ready to change that. I also hoped to offer some insight into the mystery that so often surrounds the pricing of what I’d call “regular” art– the kind that isn’t just in museums or New York galleries.
I would love to hear about your experiences buying or pricing art in the comments– do you struggle to figure it all out? Do you have a fool-proof system? I know I’ve just grazed the surface of a complex issue so I’d love to continue the conversation!