Last night Joan Gaetz wrote, “I recently had my third art show, my first in a legitimate gallery. The first two were private efforts and each sold 8 or 10 pieces. The new gallery at 50% commission assured me there would be no problem so I doubled my prices. Wonderful venue, good turnout — sold only three. This disconcerted me. Potential commissions fizzled because I wouldn’t cut the price or go behind the gallery’s back. Most of the work is now in storage at the gallery. A diptych was displayed with only the top half. I’ve complained about their lack of understanding. I’m not certain it’s worth all the hassle and will likely take back my work when the contract is up in August. Is this the kind of thing artists generally encounter? What should I do?”
I’ll admit I have an attitude problem when it comes to this one. To me, doing your own art dealing is a bit like doing your own dental work — it’s possible but awkward, and the long-term results can be less than satisfactory. However, there are many artists who do it, enjoy it, and get on just fine. Many truly excellent artists have no choice.
If you are serious about making a life in art — and your volume and quality are high enough — I recommend you make an effort to go the gallery route. Fewer sales at gallery prices are short-term pain for long-term gain. You need to keep an eye open for a talented dealer who can believe in you and go to work to build your success. She doesn’t need to have a high profile gallery. You may be surprised how an inauspicious gallery often tries harder. Do everything you can to help your dealer succeed with you. Don’t sign a contract. Don’t think that one-person shows are a gravy train – steady, tail-wagging everyday dealers are. It’s vital to take charge – keep your work coming and going and do what you say you’re going to do.
Look the other way when they forget the “dip” in “tych.” Maybe somebody thought one was the better half. Be nice, be fair, be fun, be philosophical, and don’t trip on your own ego. Confidence will build. Cash registers will ring. Rumors of your success will spread and you will be phoned by dealers from other villages. You will be able to advance prices realistically. One day you will step into the sunshine, open your mailbox and realize that cash flow is sufficient for you to stick to the extraordinary joy of just simply being an artist.
PS: “Art isn’t art until it’s sold. Until then it’s an obsession and a storage problem.” (Anonymous)
Esoterica: Art, like wine, has a different pricing dynamic than plum pudding. To build prices — to build to outrageous prices — requires teaming with others to create scarcity and endorse value. “That which costs little is less valued.” (Miguel De Cervantes)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Doing your own dealing
by Michael Schlicting, Oregon, USA
I have been making a living selling my artwork for 25 years now and for almost all of that time I have been doing my own marketing. I have a summer studio/gallery on the Oregon coast that’s worked out nicely for the past 24 years. I do also have some wonderful gallery representation and would not suggest that one shouldn’t work with galleries and dealers. Galleries and dealers will come and go though, and ultimately over the long run, only you (and hopefully your close family members!) will have your best interests at heart. I have seen too many artists get chewed up and spit out by the gallery system. This usually comes from a naive belief that by relinquishing all control over their career to a gallery, they will be freed up to be creative. It seems to me that even artists who are successful within the gallery system are intimately involved with most aspects of their careers. Artists however, have the responsibility to maintain their prices, both in their studios and on the gallery walls. It isn’t fair to galleries or collectors to have a two-tiered pricing structure.
To sell or not to sell
by Sue McNally
I would like your opinion on selling/not selling artwork. I have been painting about 15 years. I promised myself I would never sell my work. I give to family and friends, keep some and donate some to charity — raffles, auctions, etc. I have seen a number of people sell their work to the point that a person becomes possessed and it ruins what could be a fantastic hobby. Some, assembly line style, have painted a piece of art over a dozen times in order to sell. Many of my friends seem to think I don’t get the “picture.” They look at me and shake their heads. If I had to paint to survive, to eat — then I would sell. But not until then. Aren’t there artists that simply enjoy what they do? Who don’t want to turn it into a business? To me it wouldn’t be fun anymore — no matter what I was paid.
(RG note) Contrary to popular belief this is not a unique idea. Winston Churchill in Painting as a Pastime recommends it for health reasons. Particularly mental health reasons. He says people need three hobbies, preferably contrasting ones. He cites reading, bricklaying and painting. The idea is to use up different cells of the brain and thus build the cells that are temporarily given a rest. For people with demanding vocations such as Prime Ministering During Times of National Crisis, or Motherhood, the paint-box therapy is ideal. And what do you do with those things you leave laying around? Give them away, of course. Believe me, I know what he’s talking about — works of art that I make for the sole reason of giving myself personal joy — and to give away — turn out the best of all. It’s karma.
What’s wrong with this picture?
by David Nunneley
Galleries are a dilemma. I am a sculptor and as you probably know the cost of producing a bronze is considerable. I just completed a set of bronze bookends of pheasants. My foundry cost was $400 and my mold cost was $800. The walnut base cost $30. Ignoring my time and cost to create and model the original in clay, I had $1,130 invested in the first set of an edition of 20. If I amortize the mold cost over the entire edition I will have an average cost of $470 each. If a gallery took my work on consignment for a 50% commission and doubled my cost, I would make nothing! If I tripled my cost (sales price of $1,410), the gallery would make $705, the foundry would receive $470 and I would receive $235 and be paid last! The gallery would have nothing invested, the foundry would get paid C.O.D. and the artist would pay the freight and carry the cost of inventory for a paltry 16.6%! What’s wrong with this picture?
(RG note) The idea, the game, is for you to get paid more than they’re worth. Your prices are too low. Improving your dealer representation can help you build prices by creating mystique, value, scarcity.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida
I have always believed that gallery prices and studio prices should be the same. The gallery does take a big chunk, but they have expenses of their own. And people who make money from your work will work hard on your behalf. I am also very cautious about raising prices. My rule-of-thumb is, if I sell over half of the paintings in a show, I raise my prices slightly (five or ten percent at the most.) Over the years, I have accumulated many patrons. They know what to expect as far as my prices go, whether they see my work in my studio or at a gallery. They are glad to see my prices gradually rise, because that reassures them that the art they have already bought from me was a good investment. But suddenly doubling my prices would be a big mistake. I think my work is worth more than my current price, but art sales are my only source of income. I don’t set my prices according to the actual value of my work; I set my prices according to what I know, for a fact, people will spend. This system has worked out very well.
by Jo Scott-B
Painting is an art, selling is a business. Therefore, it makes economic sense that artists and galleries need each other. Galleries provide artists with more than just sales; they build reputations and develop client bases. The promotion expenses galleries pay out are like investments in their artists. So, whilst an artist may need a reliable and reputable gallery, the gallery requires the same characteristics of its artists. Like many artists, I prefer to paint, not sell. I value the galleries with whom I deal, recognizing that their contacts far exceed mine. I never begrudge a gallery one penny from their commission — nor do I undercut their prices, which I set when the work is delivered to the gallery. It is important for artists to understand that once sold, a painting’s price is established and, for the artist all subsequent work takes its value from that precedent. This value should be the result of a pricing format, based on size, time, material, etc. To this you add commission. Now you have a price. Prices should hold up everywhere, whether a gallery, an agent, or the artist sells the painting. Prices should never drop. Clients have invested in the work, galleries have endorsed it, not to mention that it is very poor business and very unprofessional to sell similar work at different prices in varying circumstances. It is unethical for artists to send clients to look at work hanging in a gallery with every intention of selling it for less. It is sneaky to have backyard sales without consulting the galleries that represent your work. Remember that pricing is a multi-faceted issue, which affects both your work and your reputation. As painters, we have an obligation to produce good work, using quality materials, and to market that work in an ethical manner. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this. A quick cash sale is not necessarily a good thing.
by Kelly Borsheim
One of the books I am reading now is titled Stop Telling, Start Selling by Linda Richardson. Its basic premise is that the most successful salespeople are those who allow themselves their humanity and curiosity. When a potential client responds vaguely, a good salesperson will ask “Why do you say that?” or “What do you mean?” They listen, observe, ask questions, and try to get a real dialogue going. Ironically, many of these same skills help artists do what they do, and yet so many of us think we could not possibly be salespeople. It is amazing what can be accomplished — the trick is in the application of the learned skills.
Accept and cherish
I have found one must accept and cherish the difference in being born to create, to do what you love, and love what you do is in the words of that great master of letters, Willy, to thy own self be true. I have also found that the fear is not self-generated, yet imposed, from others as to what will become of you, that bunk of being a starving artist is most often put there, in the mind, by society and most often by parental influence to conform into something acceptable, like accounting, or window washing. Yet to create is the expression of living life fully unto itself. For all acts of creation do spill into all aspects of your life, I am a better lover, chef, and window washer for I create with my mind while doing other things and so therefore it in turn fuels my lust for living.
by Albert Christoph Reck, Swaziland
I use to call myself a poor “Muschkote” already from my student times (a Yiddish expression with the meaning similar to the english “beach comber”). The first time I told my wife, that my aim is to become a “Muschkote”, she stopped talking to me for four weeks: Looking from one aspect, she has been right. But I find out, declaring myself a “Muschkote”, I am already on the way to the special and may be to the exceptional. So I may ask Miss Sarah Sibley of Rattlesden, Suffolk, (See Special people Dec. 14, 2001) to try also to look out of this opposite window. On the other end, to declare myself special, I am only able to put a plus or a minus before my being special. But imagine, to become a “Muschkote”, what marvelous freedom starts, as an artist you are really at a very beginning. Somewhere and somehow the “red thread” of my creative life is showing up at that starting point. In spring, the Gypsies appeared again in our little south eastern town. Sometimes they put a tiny circus up near the river. And mostly they brought a tame bear with them. The creature had to dance after rhythmic music. This bear is exactly a “Muschkote,” and if you look closely at his “one-folded,” simple dance, you may imagine, how his dance would look like, if it becomes many folded. But then, our lives are always influenced by three: insight, willpower and reason. If I chose to choose myself, then the third influential power is missing. If I chose to choose myself, the wind — we call the spirit — comes and blows me in another corner, where I did not intend to go. As a philosopher, who likes to put up rules for life, I suggest it is quite a strong foundation for a beginner artist to dance also with the steps of that brown Gypsy bear, the “Muschkote.”
Painter’s Keys Gallery V
(RG note) Thanks so much for all the wonderful images. My assistant Therese Lewis, my daughter Sara Genn and I chose these ones as “exemplary.” They are in no particular order. Thank you for the variety, the quality and the sharing. Please feel free to send more at any time. We are looking at and archiving every single one.
(RG note) This painting by David Ladmore is one that I have chosen to add to my personal collection. Thanks so much to everybody who has sent work in. We continue to build an inventory of works presented to us.(RG note) This painting by David Ladmore is one that I have chosen to add to my personal collection. Thanks so much to everybody who has sent work in. We continue to build an inventory of works presented to us.
I would like to thank everyone who sent electronic (and other) Holiday wishes. We picked this one to pass along to everyone who arrives here. The internet makes us thoughtful of our shrinking globe. But more than anything that there are people like us who struggle daily with similar concerns, similar joys. We are truly part of a great brotherhood and sisterhood. Thanks to all for just being there. And for those of us who have it, thanks for Peace.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2001, including Keith Robson from Lansdale Pa. who says, “The art is in the making! The experience, the discovery, and the joy!”