Like politics and religion, it’s perhaps an indelicate subject, but somebody has to talk about it. How to price your work? How and when to raise your prices? What are the mysterious and peculiar principles behind the pricing of art? And how do you build a sensible pricing policy that you can live with — one that will serve you well in all of your seasons? Fact is that art, particularly rare and hand-made art, doesn’t price out in the same way as donuts. It needs to be somewhat inflationary, have the slight patina of investment, and yet have perceived value for the type of art and the life-station of the artist. In an ideal world your prices should also include a buffer to make it worthwhile for someone to represent you. Artists, in my opinion, need to distance themselves from daily commerce — this is why you need to be able to reward dealers who can share your magic with the greater world. Intelligent, long-term pricing accommodates friendly partnerships, maintains your integrity, and makes your progress viable in an ongoing manner. Intelligent, long-term pricing buys your freedom.
While some artists may find these thoughts sinful, commercial galleries are here to stay. They represent more than 99% of what happens in the art world. They beat all government systems, prestigious welfare in the form of grants or sinecures, even inheritance as a means of keeping on. Also, it’s been my experience that while dealers are not always saints, they are at least sweethearts.
Artists young and old — particularly those who have the intention of staying in the game — ought to strategize for the big picture and honour their strategy with Biblical tenacity. Here are the Ten Commandments of art pricing:
Thou shalt start out cheap.
Thou shalt publish thy prices.
Thou shalt raise thy prices regularly and a little.
Thou shalt not lower thy prices.
Thou shalt not have one price for Sam and another for Joe.
Thou shalt not price by talent or time taken, but by size.
Thou shalt not easily discount thy prices.
Thou shalt lay control on thy agents and dealers.
Thou shalt deal with those who will honour thee.
Thou shalt end up expensive.
PS: “While artists may believe that the marketplace was invented by the devil and remains in his henchman’s hands, they have no choice but to carry long spoons and sup there.” (Eric Maisel) “He profits most who serves best.” (Arthur F. Sheldon) “To everything there is a season.” (Ecclesiastes)
Esoterica: My prices change on a set date once a year. (For some inane reason it’s April Fools Day) Prices on all available paintings, in galleries and out, advance on that day. I “leak” the new prices a month or two early. These days the leak occurs online. Savvy dealers are quietly spurred to make sales before prices go up. If you happen to be interested in this concept, the price-change page on my own site can be seen at www.robertgenn.com/dealers
by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA
I disagree with two of your Ten Commandments for Pricing: #6. Price according to size? Ridiculous! In my opinion pricing should be according to sales made on your last comparable art, your resume (prestigious Museum Collections, known respected Collectors, critical acclaim), QUALITY, and how long you have been in this game to test its effectiveness and how it fits your personality. #8. Lay control on thy agents and dealers? No! Take control yourself. So you can be happy, responsible, and follow your gut feeling!
‘Same size’ pricing
by Roberta Shapiro, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
In your Ten Commandments of art pricing, you recommend pricing by size. At this early stage of my art career, I primarily paint 11.5″ x 15″ watercolours. Please explain how I should price my paintings by size.
(RG note) This is the ideal opportunity to price by size. Your 11.5″ x 15″s should all be priced the same — regardless of how long they took or how special a particular one is to you.
Temptation to lower price
How do you deal with a piece that has been sitting around for a long time? Some of my best work has yet to find a home. It’s a real temptation to lower the price. Also, buying goes in cycles. If you’re self-employed, it’s an even bigger temptation to lower prices during the months when the public isn’t buying much.
(RG note) I know it’s tempting, particularly for those who are eating cold rice. The idea is to build a fairly firm platform that can be seen as reliable and consistent. The trouble with discounting is that word gets around. I think I hold the record for the longest wait. One of mine had been in 13 galleries over a period of twenty years before it found a home. Every year the price went up, not down.
Prices starting out
by Randy Fenton, Effort, PA, USA
I’m a 50-year-old with some prior art training and a fair to middling technique, who has just started “getting serious” about painting and eventually selling my artwork. I just read your letter on pricing, and wonder if you could help me. I’ve never sold, never “shown,” and as a “Mister Mom” live and paint in a social “vacuum” bereft of any kind of artistic community. My question is this: You mention starting out cheaply, which I heartily agree with. Can you give me a rough estimation of where I might start pricing my own work? Here is some of my info: Having been to Art School back in the ’70s (Pictorial Illustration) and worked in the Graphic Department of AT&T for 14 years until the layoff of ’94, I now work in Casein, Oils, Acrylic, and Watercolor on canvas panels, gessoed Luan, stretched canvas, Illustration board and paper. Sizes range from 9 x 12 to 24 x 36 inches with most on 12 x 16 gessoed Luan panels. My work ranges from realistic to abstract with most in Impressionist-realism. Landscapes predominate, with some figurative, animals-birds, fantasy and visionary. Any info on where to start pricing would be greatly appreciated. For example, your pricing for a 6 x 9 is listed at $650. Off the top of my head, if I had to come up with a price for my own 6 x 9 painting I would guess around $25. Is that too cheap? (My wife says I’m thinking of pricing my work too cheaply) I would rather paint and sell paintings than work at a gas station.
(RG note) $25 is not too cheap to start. Sit down and write out a sliding scale based on size and what you can live with. Stick to it for a relatively short but finite period of time and make your wife happy later.
by Jill Charuk
Like Joni Mitchell, I look for signs and they appear all the time; usually when I need one. I was washing the dishes, thinking about my first show in two weeks and the pricing. I decided I would write to you today for advice. I booted up my computer and there was your letter on pricing! I agree with all your commandments but… what is cheap? I have a price for the painted canvas and then because I frame most of my oils (gold, white liner) I add the cost of frame (marked up 20%). Here’s the question — is it better to sell them all at a slightly lower price? Do you end up with seller’s remorse? i.e. now my starting price is too low, it will take me years at 10% a year to get to gallery prices.
(RG note) If you start with say $100 and compound by 10% or 15% per annum, it will be quite a reasonable figure in ten or twenty years. This is what I mean by long-term strategy.
Wholesale — retail pricing
by Irene Brady Thomas, San Francisco, CA, USA
As a general rule, except for my small works, I price my work at $1 per square inch, starting at 16 x 20. That is my wholesale price, what I want per piece. So if a buyer goes to my website or to my Open Studio weekends, the buyer is receiving my “wholesale” price on a piece. I do not have a gallery but I show at local art centers who receive anywhere from 10 to 40% of sales, so I adjust my prices so that I’m getting my $1 per square inch. So the same piece may have a different price at various locations in the Bay Area. Any thoughts on that dilemma?
(RG note) As a general rule you should charge the same price when you sell your work on the Net, open studio or the local art centers. (see letter below)
by Veronica Takacs-Fragman, Montreal, QC, Canada
The first line in your 10 commandments for pricing says: “Start cheap.” What does “cheap” mean? $100? $200? $500? For example, I presently have one painting in a gallery that takes 35% off the artist’s price. Let’s say that at the end of a transaction, for a painting of 25″ x 30″ I would like to have $500 net. I would have to start my pricing at approximately $900, subtract the 35% plus the $120 for the frame (not even counting the materials used) and that would give me around $550 net. For a relatively unknown artist, I think $900 is way too much. However, if I start at $500, a price that I’ve already sold at, I would be left with only $200, hardly worth the trouble. What is an artist to do?
(RG note) Home studio and gallery prices ought ideally to be the same. If you insist on $550 as your fair price, then you must suffer the lower return. Keep in mind that eventually a higher price will be more worthwhile because it gives the dealer a better incentive to work for you, and besides, you’re worth it.
Other ways to price art
by Roger Cummiskey, Dublin, Eire
Not everyone will agree with the idea of pricing quite as strictly as you suggest by size alone. In most instances the purchaser is buying for pleasure and not investment. The pleasure may be derived from knowing the Artist, fancying or following the style of the Artist, matching the curtains, buying at an affordable price as a present, because they feel that they are getting a bargain, a discount, good value, helping out a starving Artist, or any of a plethora of different reasons.
Patrons certainly expect to pay less when they buy directly from the Artist rather than from a Gallery with all of its attendant extra costs. This of course tends to upset the Gallery owners whom, in my opinion are very often transient, need to make a profitable living and will use Artists and their Artist’s wares to achieve their goal. If the flavour of the month is not Mike Bloggs then he will find that his works are taking a back seat or even floorspace behind many other Artists. It may not be Mike Bloggs today, it could be me tucked neatly away at the back of all those paintings!
The commonest complaint today seems to be that divorce is rampant and sweethearts fall out in 60% or more instances. I know that this does not mean that we should not get into bed with another Gallery in the hope that next time around it may be better than the last and, of course, we will try harder next time. The world is built on good intentions.
One query to finish — What do you feel is an acceptable level of percentage discount from your printed prices to charge your Galleries?
(RG note) My galleries range from one third to fifty percent commission. The galleries that do the best are generally given the higher percentage.
Photo crossover problems
by Leslie Pierce, Austin, TX, USA
Three years ago I had my own small studio gallery and showed my work there as well as another Gallery which both are gone. Recently, I have approached local galleries here in Austin, Texas and have been turned away by both galleries specializing in painting and those segregated to photography. Although a gallery owner was greatly impressed with my work, I was declined because the series was photographic. I had a lot of local success prompted in part by TV interviews and magazine articles written about the same series and now the best I can do is show my work at a Barnes and Nobles — which I am extremely grateful for. I even committed the sin of lowering my prices but alas, no sales but a lot of nice comments. My work looks like paintings so the photo galleries will not show it alongside the photojournalistic stuff or the close-ups of flowers. There is still a great prejudice against photography being exhibited alongside paintings here which is beyond frustrating when seeing the work. Any suggestion for a crossover artist to jumpstart a career?
(RG note) Both photography and abstract art suffer from the “easy-do” puzzle. The public, unless otherwise educated, doesn’t treasure them as highly, as, for example, more hands-on traditional art forms with a higher perception of a skilled hand at work. Explaining what you are up to — such as your TV interview concept — can draw people to your particular magic. At the same time you must attempt to find “believers” who are gallery people. When these folks are motivated and carrying the ball for you — you can be more freed up to concentrate on what you do best.
Does it all himself
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I am not only a painter who represents himself, but I am responsible for curating, hanging, delivering, marketing and promoting for my career. It has been an uphill battle at times and at other times exhilarating and exciting. My career has taken me to national television, national press, a reception with the Governor General of Canada and painting in Hong Kong and Paris. I paint every day and I have three collections each year. The best thing is I am not only steering the ship, I am putting wind in the sail and at times, bailing the boat. But this is my reason to be.
When I graduated from art school in 1988, I thought as soon as I get signed by a gallery, I will be rich and famous. I was turned down by every gallery I could get an appointment with. I knew I had to have shows and I knew I had to get my work out there. I logged 75 exhibitions in every hair salon, restaurant and coffee shop that would take me. I was a media whore and all I heard was “John Ferrie, I see you everywhere!” I watched other artists, friends of mine, go through battle zones with galleries. It became apparent to me that the artist did more for the gallery than the gallery did for the artist. I was referred to as “…the gallery owners nightmare…” But artists are prepared to sell their souls just to be locked into representation. A lot of artists do not realize that galleries are a business and simply put, just a stepping stone between the artist and the buyer.
I agonized over the prices of my work for years. I actually felt guilty when something did sell and I was taking peoples hard earned money for something I made. I went through dozens of galleries with my tape measure and broke down the square inch price of paintings. I basically started with what the fair market value of someone I went to art school with who was selling in a gallery. I then cut that price in half, removing the gallery’s take. I then calculated the price per square inch for each painting I was doing in a collection. Then I donated a few paintings to charities and averaged out the price I was getting for my work, throwing out the lowest and highest price (like they do when they are judging skating). I realized that the work I had calculated so carefully was the same price I was getting for my work in auctions. So, at least I could document the price of my work to a perspective client. Then I increased my prices 10% each year. This is what has worked well for me. I also have a hard and fast rule about selling my own work and that is “no deals.” “…This is the price and it is set at that…” I always say. Selling art is all about reputation.
It has become apparent to me that clients are becoming more savvy with what they are buying. Simply put, they are buying what they love. Representing yourself in this day and age is not impossible. It is a lot of work as art is a luxury item and literally the last thing people will buy. I have learned by every mistake I have made and I have made plenty of mistakes. But this is what I have found is the formula that works for me.
The artist should decide
by Russ Grant, Calgary, AB, Canada
I can’t imagine you feeling that a comparatively-sized landscape would have the same value (to you, or others) as something as personal, or different, or emotionally invested, as a painting involving a significant departure from what we might consider your “norm” in terms of painting production… Whether it’s a new technique, or a painting with some personal connection, perhaps this should be viewed (priced) with a different measuring stick? I think effort does count and I think emotion should count in terms of pricing.
As artists, the risk we take is that the personal effort or emotion put into a painting may not always count with the public. Our own perspective may sometimes be biased and skewed by this effort and emotion, but that is one of the vagaries of marketing art. We can and will learn from that if we are wrong. But (and it’s a big “but”), if we, as artists, don’t try to recognize something of our own as special, or unique or different, who will? For that and other reasons, I don’t think size is a rational measure of the value of a painting. Convenient for galleries, maybe. But not a measure of art. Let the artist, and the market, decide.
Give yourself a raise
by Pamela Simpson, Woodstock, CT, USA
I very much agree with your pricing rules. John Stobart gave David and I good advice a few years ago when we were visiting his New England home, “If you don’t give yourself a raise every year nobody else will.” When the prices are working it’s hard to think about raising them but it is necessary. Everything goes up in price every year so it is important to cover inflation but also I feel I paint a little better every year. I work hard and I deserve a little raise. I also noticed on your price list that the prices did not include frames. That is such a good idea! I go crazy trying to make the pricing sensible when we use a variety of frames. Some frames are like jewelry and cost as much, others are just protection for the painting and give the presentation a clean look. I know we should just use the same frames, but different frames are needed for different galleries.
(RG note) Framing, when possible, should be left to the dealers. Variations in local taste, difficulty in shipping and damage control are factors. I like to think that the only variable in my prices is due to the framing. It’s a fact of life that some galleries go with economy frames, others give it everything they’ve got.
by Susan Taylor, South Pender Island, BC, Canada
The owners of a business bought one of my paintings for their own collection and have just contacted me about using this image, and perhaps others in the same series on their products. This is a first for me. Can you provide advice on the standard that is used when negotiating with a business in such a situation?
(RG note) Keep in mind that while they may now own the painting, they do not own the reproduction rights. You do. Depending on how much goodwill the reproduction might generate both for themselves and for you, your fee should be somewhere between free — and the normal price of the painting. This fee is based on what is generally called a “one time only use.” If you wish to find other similar references to your situation, and the experiences of other artists, you can go to the top of any Painter’s Keys response page and type in “reproduction rights” in the box provided. At the current time this will take you to 32 previous entries on our site.
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