Over the last while, another raft of emails has come in from artists wondering about pricing. Some new trends in pricing also require that I update. I’m dividing my comments between artists who sell through galleries and the ever-increasing Internet-empowered artists known as “self-sellers.” Two different price lists are required.
In the artist-gallery situation you need to build in your dealer’s commission. This can range between 25% and 50%. No matter what the commission charged by the dealer, your final selling price should be the same in all locations. The well-galleried artist needs controlled pricing and, in most cases, annual increases. We need to also give our dealers a small amount of wiggle room. I generally allow 10% off when a gallery sells more than one to a single collector.
While many opinions abound, paintings should be priced by size. If you paint a range of sizes, your smallest need to be underpriced according to their size, and your largest need to be overpriced according to their size. Your larger masterpieces test the upper limits of your prices. As in the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” situation, the middle sizes should be priced “just right.” Trouble is, “just right” is a sticky wicket–often a combination of rarity/availability, perceived quality and market conditions. Multiple dealer advice is most valuable. Average it out. Dealer goodwill and friendship are keys to thrival.
For artists who choose the direct-to-collector route, prices can be lower, but the same size-related price advancement ought to apply. The dealerless or online pseudo-dealer systems are actually a paradigm shift that’s causing a few headaches among traditional dealers. With more artists than ever lunging toward a limited crowd of art buyers, brick-and-mortar dealers have more than ever to be the gatekeepers of quality and protectors of investment. When galleries lose sight of these ideals, they lose customers to the ubiquitous Internet. The same thing is happening in the stock-brokerage business. In the new dispensation, many “self-sellers” are selling their art with integrity and panache. You’ll also be glad to know that in the current melee, dead artists continue to do well.
PS: “I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices. I saw myself condemned to a future of nothing but masterpieces.” (Henri Matisse)
Esoterica: The nice thing about working with dealers is that the artist can be full-time in the miracle of creativity. By being one degree separated from the marketplace, this artist is freer to ask the life-sustaining question, “What shall I do today?” On the other hand, the nice thing about self-selling is that you get to keep more of the winnings. Trouble is, self-promoted winnings tend to stay rather less than if you have someone regularly going to bat for you. To really thrive in our game, you need good art and someone who thinks it’s good art, besides you.
A word of caution: Self-sellers, if and when they tire of the rigmarole, often have trouble getting into the better galleries. Some dealers have an intrinsic distaste for other entrepreneurs.
The other way around?
by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery), Vancouver, BC, Canada
A note regarding the premise that, “your smallest (paintings) need to be underpriced according to their size, and your largest need to be overpriced according to their size.” Perhaps it is the other way around. For commercial purposes, I find it better to raise the price per square inch on the smaller work and lower the price per inch on the larger work. Otherwise one tends to sell the small work way too inexpensively and price the larger work out of reach. Painting one’s large “masterpieces” is a pricing conundrum unto itself and to a degree unrelated.
(RG note) Thanks, Ted. Most of the criticism coming my way on this issue was based on the “per square inch” concept. I don’t believe in it. It’s been my experience that large expensive paintings help to legitimize an artist’s commitment and help with the sales of smaller works for people with lesser budgets who nevertheless want a piece. The concept of “price points” — fairly evenly-spaced prices based on size — generally takes precedence over the accountant mentality per-square-inch idea.
There is 1 comment for The other way around? by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery)
by Carol Marine, Austin, TX, USA
Being one of the “self-sellers” you mentioned, but having shown in galleries, too, I wanted to share my experience. I was lucky enough to get into several good galleries years ago, but even then I found I spent a lot of time (and money) framing my work, shipping it off, visiting the galleries to make sure my work was on the walls, only to make perhaps $10,000 a year and have half my paintings eventually returned to me. Now I sell small paintings online, daily, and make easily four times what I made in the galleries. Each painting sells in auction, so the market sets the price. Some (6×6 inch paintings) go for the minimum of $100, and some are bid up to (so far) $600, depending on how much people like the painting. As great as it was to attend my own gallery shows and have the prestige that went along with it, I simply wasn’t able to support myself that way.
(RG note) Thanks, Carol. You are describing a major trend. Brick and mortar dealers are concerned about the trend because customers are able to satisfy themselves online for a hundred bucks, drawing potential customers out of the local galleries. The online competition of all the other painters auctioning work for low prices keeps everyone’s prices low and not even truly excellent artists do particularly well. Self-respecting artists like to get respectable prices for their art. One hundred bucks is not it.
There are 4 comments for Successful self-selling by Carol Marine
One pricing structure for both
by Kimberly Santini, Lake Orion, MI, USA
I have to respectfully disagree with your recommendation that artists who self-sell should set their prices lower. Artists who are selling directly to collectors are investing significant chunks of their time in marketing and communication efforts, time that they deserve to be reimbursed for. In the traditional gallery-artist model, artists paid galleries to do this work via the gallery’s commission, and thusly had more time for creation. When self-selling artists price themselves lower because a gallery isn’t involved, they are essentially doing all that work that the gallery would have done for free — and often doing this work for free at the expense of time spent at the easel, which is a double-whammy in the wallet.
Furthermore, having multiple pricing strategies (self-selling vs. gallery representation) creates a challenge when self-selling artists are approached by galleries wanting to represent them. Doesn’t it make prudent sense to have one pricing structure that works for both scenarios, allowing self-selling artists to partner with galleries and vice-versa?
(RG note) Thanks, Kimberly. Fact is, most self-selling artists do price their work lower, because the online competition does the same.
There are 3 comments for One pricing structure for both by Kimberly Santini
The problem with frames
by Tish Lowe, Florence, Italy
Is it better to sell and/or show artwork framed or unframed (if not dictated by one’s gallery)? If framed, how should cost of frame affect pricing, i.e. should one build in more than the cost of the framing to cover time spent in selection, etc.?
I know that many galleries prefer to sell unframed work, then sell the frame themselves. However, for important shows not sponsored by galleries (e.g., in an art museum or art center, or juried competitions), framed work looks much classier and completes the painting. If the buyer doesn’t want the frame, however, the artist will have to reduce the price of the work accordingly and may get stuck with a custom frame that is not easily used on another painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Tish. With commercial brick and mortar galleries, the best system by far is for the gallery to do the framing. Galleries are in a better position to select popular frame styles, the frames themselves sustain less damage because they are not moved around so much, and by offering selection, the dealer is able to offer a more satisfactory environment for the collector. Museums, competitions, etc, are another kettle of herring. For these shows, except in very rare circumstances, the artist has to frame the work and take the bumps. I have a spare room filled to the ceiling with slightly damaged frames. On the matter of adding the cost of frames, if a non-framing dealer wants a painting of mine, I have it framed, triple the cost and ask the dealer to add that amount to the standard, published, unframed price. This makes the non-framing dealer just a little bit more expensive than a dealer who frames.
There are 2 comments for The problem with frames by Tish Lowe
Building value over the long term
by Bill Mayberry (Mayberry Fine Art), Winnipeg, MB, Canada
I found today’s letter interesting, in particular the part about “self-sellers” versus “gallery/dealer.” The fascinating thing in the world of art production (versus other consumer products) is art never goes away. It outlives us all, even the artist. If you go to the landfill right now you’ll not find a single painting (good or bad).
At the end of life’s journey, everyone has the task of sorting out their stuff, accumulated over the years. Some will likely have artwork from those impulse buys spent while on holiday, or from those irresistible “great buys.” online or at the local mall art show. Some buy their art at fundraising dinners — often the unsold, unwanted stuff that gets donated for a tax receipt.
With no promoted market base, self-sold art has little chance in finding a secondary market and is most often the art which becomes the storage problem for the kids. Networks of galleries, Art Consultants, museum exhibitions and endless talking about the artist by dealers slowly build that possible “life ever after” market which at least has a chance of sustaining value — and if it has value, the kids will be more likely to want it.
Self-sold art in the secondary market most often ends at the studio door. After forty years in the art business, I have seen the examples of this, over and over again. I am often approached by the estates of deceased “self-sold” artists who are left with hundreds of paintings still in the artist’s basement, and faced with the task of figuring out what to do with it all… after all, now that the artist is passed, isn’t the value of their work supposed to go up? Descendants quickly realize it is too late to start building a market that only existed when the artist was in fact the market.
It’s a fact that not all art is created equal and the natural process where talent and quality rise to the top will continue to happen over time. Art which has gone through the editing process and through a wide base of galleries, dealers and collectors generally has a better chance of sustaining value over the long term.
There is 1 comment for Building value over the long term by Bill Mayberry (Mayberry Fine Art)
Price not based on size
by Margie Ogilvy, Knysna, Western Cape, South Africa
I have to take exception to your pricing philosophy of small paintings are cheaper than large ones! Try painting a 5cm x 6cm miniature in oil with a brush containing one or two bristles on it! It takes hours to perfect. Painting large canvasses is a doodle compared to doing something so small and I can assure you the price is definitely not comparative to size.
There is 1 comment for Price not based on size by Margie Ogilvy
Displaying prices online?
by John Berry, Wellsville, UT, USA
While on the topic of pricing, I have a quick question for you. What are your thoughts on displaying or not displaying prices on the artist’s own website? I have several galleries, and also sell paintings to my own list of collectors, and have been told by a current gallery owner to not display my prices on my site. If you have a moment, your thoughts, please?
(RG note) Thanks, John. Some dealers feel they need prices to be opaque so they can have more wiggle room. On the other hand, your dealer’s request may be because your self-selling prices are lower than what your dealer asks. If this is the case, you need to make your self-sale prices exactly the same as your dealer prices. See gallery owner Sharon Wolff’s letter below. When I said in my letter that self-selling prices can be lower than gallery sale prices, I meant where self-selling artists have no gallery representation. And that is indeed what is happening.
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Only one price list
by Sharon Wolff, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I am one of your fans and find your comments interesting if not right on 90% of the time. I do take issue with this article and that you urge artists to create two different price lists. Termination from my gallery is automatic when an artist is selling below gallery retail price, regardless if it is on their website or at any other location.
I also take issue with your comment, “The well-galleried artist needs controlled pricing and in most cases annual increases.” Many of my gallery artists will read this to mean they need to automatically plan annual increases and up their prices every year. Most are not qualified for annual increases and as a gallery owner, I believe I am qualified to recommend when an artist needs to increase their product based on current market trends. In today’s market in Colorado, an increase is a “death sentence.” I do agree, however, when an artist increases prices at one location, all locations must be the same, including their own website.
(RG note) Thanks, Sharon. Sorry, a misunderstanding. For artists who are both represented and self-selling, prices, as mentioned above, must be identical. What I’m saying is that the work of the independent self-seller is often, for various reasons, priced lower. The reason price increases are a death sentence in some markets is that the low prices of self-sellers are now understood by a lot of the general public as the competition.
There are 2 comments for Only one price list by Sharon Wolff
Building your name
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
Art today needs to be promoted widely, whether you do it or your gallery does. Without a name, even the auction houses will only put a value of $80 on it. You need to build a name by a combination of promotion, self-advocacy, and maybe lots of money, good printed material, website, and networking to start with. One rule of thumb is go into some galleries that carry your type of work, look around at the prices, pick something in their middle range based on size and quality, cross your fingers and eyes that it will work for you. If you are too high you may be overlooked, if you are too low you may be thought to be insignificant.
So many local galleries have closed or down-sized. Lots of artists no longer have gallery representation. The individual websites are not visited greatly unless promoted. Group artist websites may be helpful. There is no easy answer.
There is 1 comment for Building your name by Valerie Kent
Enjoy the past comments below for Current art-pricing trends…
Water Rock and Ice
acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Santiago Perez of Boca Raton, FL, USA, who asked, “Can you describe best practices for finding reputable art dealers?”
(RG note) Thanks, Santiago. The short answer is to connect with the dealers who really need you, but I’ll work on a longer answer for a twice-weekly letter.
And also Mary Erickson of Marshville, NC, USA, who wrote, “The commission paid to a gallery or dealer is a ‘cost of business’ to the artist, the same as a booth fee, travel expenses, paint and canvas, electricity for the studio, insurance, etc. If an artist is willing to pay someone to take the time and expense to sell her work, why would she not pay herself for that job?”
And also Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “Another problem with self-sellers crossing over to galleries is that they have established a price range for their work that is based on not having a dealer and therefore very often lower. They may not be able to justify a bump in price and end up with less in their pocket. On the other hand volume will make up the difference, he said, tongue in cheek.”
And also Mary Champion of Leesburg, MD, USA, who wrote, “Your work should be the same retail price for every occasion, whether at a gallery show or from your own website.”
And also includes a note from Rick Rotante of Tujunga, CA, USA, commenting, “I have found there are several other venues where you can work with pricing. One is the coop galleries, tent shows and the other is the “show” galleries. In the coop galleries pricing is completely up to you. Increasing price by size is an excellent idea and should be utilized by artists no matter in what price bracket you are. The “show” galleries are galleries where they have four shows a year with different themes. I’ve been in one for the last three years and pricing is totally up to me. (I include entry fees and dealer commissions in my price.) The last venue, the tent shows — here, I have the most latitude with price. Since I am doing the selling directly, I can work with the price to make the sale. I don’t worry about commissions and in some cases taxes. I generally make back my entry fee on the first sale.
I’ve tried increasing prices yearly with little effect. With the economy being what it is, this hasn’t worked for me. Since I have a sales history going back some time. I charge more for the newer works as they are exhibited, again keeping in mind the size differential.”