Price floors and ceilings


Dear Artist,

You don’t need an economics degree to understand the pricing strategies of art galleries. One of my former dealers — no longer in the business — noticed that a very high percentage of gallery visitors just came in and went out. Painting sales were so infrequent he had to do something about it. Thinking price was the problem, he introduced a lot of cheaper items into the gallery — ceramics, souvenirs, knick knacks. The number of sales rose but total dollar values declined. The few “anxious wallets” who did come in simply satisfied their need with less expensive items. This situation is called “Collapsing Floor Syndrome.”

The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas, 337 x 768.5 cm by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper,
337 x 768.5 cm
by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

On the other hand there are galleries that test the high end. This generally involves “name” and “dead” artists as well as “investment” art. Dealers may even compete with one another to see who can get the highest prices. Supply and demand play a part in this environment, but it has to be said it’s good for living artists to be associated with the high-end artists. Simply stated, this implies that someday your work will also be worth more. The downside for artists who work with high-end galleries is that a gallery may lose interest in the promotion of less expensive work. This situation is called the “Sky-High Ceiling Syndrome.”

Blue Nude II, 1952 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9 cm by Henri Matisse

Blue Nude II (Nu Bleu II) 1952
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper, 116.2 x 88.9 cm
by Henri Matisse

There’s lots of gallery talk these days about “price points.” This generally implies a range of prices in a given gallery to suit all wallets. Many clients come into galleries with an idea of how much they want to spend, and it’s the gallery’s job to show them something in their chosen range. The variation in gallery capability in this matter is astonishing. Just as some artists have no business selling their stuff, some galleries show little or no natural talent as to how art placement works. This situation is called the “Haven’t Got a Clue Syndrome.”

From an artist’s point of view, it’s probably best when an artist’s work is in the middle range of a gallery’s prices — neither falling through the floor nor pushing at the ceiling. Beginning artists are better off at the lower end, while mature ones can be nearer the top. It’s all to do with provenance and confidence. Ignorance of this understanding can be detrimental to galleries as well as artists. Perception of quality aside, proper pricing in a gallery and consistency across your stable of galleries is vital to your continuing to thrive.

Best regards,


PS: “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” (Henry David Thoreau)

The Snail (L’Escargot), 1953 Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on paper, mounted on canvas, 286.4 x 287 cm by Henri Matisse

The Snail (L’Escargot), 1953
Gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, 286.4 x 287 cm
by Henri Matisse

Esoterica: What has this got to do with the joy of making art? For those of us who also choose to make our living out of our joy — everything. Without a significant cash flow, an artist simply cannot travel, grow, learn and maintain the day-to-day peace of mind to continue. It’s a good idea for those of us at the creative end to re-examine gallery relationships from time to time and favour those who meet our current needs. Loyalty works both ways in all seasons, of course, but an understanding of basic economics and the wisdom to make small commercial decisions have a lot to do with keeping us happy.

This letter was originally published as “Price floors and ceilings” on October 26, 2007.

Henri Matisse making paper cut-outs in bed at his home in Vence, France, in the late 1940sHave you considered joining our Premium Artist Listings? Share your work with thousands of readers. 100% of your listing fee contributes to the production of The Painter’s Keys. Thanks for your friendship. 

“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)



  1. I have followed your site for a couple of years. Only today did I learn you help market an artist.

    Is that bizarre? Excuse me, but your marketing is almost to subtle for a reader to know this.

    I would be interested if I knew more?

  2. Once you enter money into the equation of ART, it ceases to be Art and becomes a commodity. It would be best that if you want to sell something that you should center your efforts on ice cream. The numbers and purpose will be with you. As you become a successful “Sammy Man”, you can then feel free to paint without the detriment that the idea of selling your ART will have on your efforts. Your work will then improve towards the real purpose of ART. Best wishes and I will take Butter Pecan please.

    • I agree. Art is born of spiritual necessity; one can’t create on cue and as a business. The business product might be pleasing (it caters to buyers after all) but it will be just about guaranteed to be far from ART. The problem with day jobs is that they take up a lot of time, often the best time of the day. If an artist is at the sky-high ceiling end he/she might solve the problem by hiring an agent. If near the collapsing floor, she/he could work on stern mental discipline to separate the making and selling phases of the work.

      • Sometimes you need a lot of money to create art. Christo has to cough up millions to create his works and that means getting sponsors, courting corporations, and so on. And what about the film industry? If there ever was a marriage of art and money, that’s it.

        Sure, I know what you’re talking about when you’re in the process of painting. You should be thinking value, form, and all that stuff and not dollar signs. But, from what I see, pros seem to crank them out on queue and as a business pretty regularly. I’m guessing developing a proficient vocabulary and a solid skill set works better than inspiration.

        • Linden Morris Delrio on

          Couldn’t agree more about developing proficient vocabulary and solid skill sets in ones area of endeavour. I also agree that ART is most definitely a journey of the spirit. Though a practice of the spirit most often involves forethought and regularity of practice to bear abundant fruit.

          There’s room enough for all, although I dare say if I “worked” when inspired to do so I’d be happy but mostly mired in my minds ideas; gazing out the window at the distant mountains barely lifting brush to canvas save those moments when I might be moved to do so.

          A couple of books about “going pro” have been very helpful for me. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

  3. Harry. Weisburd on

    Jeff Koons enlarged toys. – giant. Wall of blank. Sets of. Rusted steel. -sent. To the. Scrap. Metal. Junk yard. In Brooklyn New York. After. New York City employees. Complained the. “Sculpture “ was blocking. Their. Entrance to city. Hall. Bye. Bye. Richard Serra Spiral. Getty. Washed. Away. By water of. Great. Salt lake. -smithson

  4. In an ideal world, making art would be more of a personal endeavor than a business deal, but everyone has to make a living, and those artists fortunate enough to have a “stable of galleries” stand a better chance than most. Maybe a follow-up letter or comment can answer the question, “How do you get your work into a gallery?”

  5. Don’t paint because you need the money.

    Don’t paint because your parents, teacher, mentor told you “you are good at this.”

    Do it only if you can’t imagine a life not doing it.

    No one will ever “need” what you do.

    Only you will.

    • Thank you for your comments. I feel the atmosphere of our society in the USA feels such a great need to equate money with anything creative that it is suffocating. The comments that automatically come out of people’s mouths concerning anything they see that was “made” or “created” by someone is……”You could sell that” or “You should sell that” or “Why don’t you sell that?” Why does it have to be sold for money to have worth? And then on top of that, there is always the person to tell you, “Anybody could make that.” I love your words about need and that is where the validation comes from when I do create a painting, sew an item or knit an item….I need to use my hands to create and use my imagination and desire to challenge myself with these artistic expressions of who I am and feel. Yes, it would be helpful to be compensated for my paintings, but I’m not able to suffer the journey of commercial success. I recognize that my personality isn’t strong enough to deal with it. But I love to follow the stories and art of those who do as well as those who don’t. I love reading these letters, they are valid for all and I always get some encouragement and joy as I view other artist’s work.

  6. Along the way I discovered that it is us artists who are standing in our own way- and the responses to this letter prove it 100%. And until we change our perspective- attitudes- and behaviors- nothing will change in the world out there. If we do not believe in ourselves as creatives AND decide that our creative work both can and will support us- then we will never advance the collective perception into a future where following our art/creative path is a viable PROFESSION. I read this letter and the first few comments- and then decided to wait a bit before responding. And I wasn’t disappointed. So y’all- don’t take what I’m about to say personally even though you won’t like it.

    Apparently- the only way to make it as an artist is to have a day job that allows you time to use your creativity without burning you out; or to have a spouse that supports you totally even if your hobby costs you money; or to have a trust fund. Now it is possible to work for a while and amass some kind of funding and then begin your art creation experience- and for many of us- part-time/freelance work solves some problems without leaving us too tired to produce- so whatever. But whatever you do- if you’re a female and your husband is supporting you- the very last thing you want to say to a working artist like me is “I’m a kept women.” And yes- 2 different artist friends said that to my face. Of courser- we’re no longer friends.

    First- here’s my definition of working artist: Someone who is so totally committed to making it as an artist that they’ve literally given up EVERYTHING in order to remain focused and not be distracted by everyday life. Most people? Most people are first pursuing relationship- and relationship often comes with responsibilities- and responsibilities (like children) cost money. So making money is more important than making art and art gets sacrificed on the altar of relationship. I tried relationship and then said no- art making was far more important. Do I know how far outside the norm that set me? Absolutely. And I’m good with that.

    So Sharon Rusch Shaver- my more than 40+ years of art sales suggest that in fact somebody other than me NEEDS my art too. Do I NEED to make it? Yes. But where in hell would I be storing it all if in fact people hadn’t been buying it all along the way? The problem is not enough people NEED to own your/my art. That is the dysfunctional paradigm we are hopefully leaving behind.

    Ronald Ruble- I have art to sell- not ice cream. That- you can get at any store- whether you made your money on art- or not. But we live in a money-based culture/society- and money expresses/explains/defines a kind-of value. So what the hell is wrong with art being a gift from the gods AND a commodity? Because I simply can’t find a problem with art being everything it is AND also being a commodity. That problem is in YOUR mind. And it’s not real.

    Barbara Belyea- “Art is born of spiritual necessity; one can’t create on cue and as a business.” YOU can’t create on cue as a business. Please do not put that bullshit out on anyone else. It is YOUR limitation. I don’t have that limitation. And neither does any graphic designer- clothing designer- product designer- because those things all happen on deadlines. Now when you’re producing labor-intensive work- as am I- sometimes that can slow things down a bit. So you just make sure everybody’s on the same page up front.

    And seriously- Ronald Ruble- “you can then feel free to paint without the detriment that the idea of selling your ART will have on your efforts. ” Really??? I’m free. Selling my art isn’t a detriment to producing my art. Selling my art is the end-result gift I get for and from making/producing my art. That’s YOUR limitation- not mine. And my art has been improving for decades because I keep producing- although I did win a Best-In-Show award on one of my first pieces- in 1977- but that’s just me. Since then- BECAUSE I’ve kept producing- I’ve won a second Best-In-Show award as well as several others.

    “The business product might be pleasing (it caters to buyers after all) but it will be just about guaranteed to be far from ART. ” Barbara Belyea- this statement of yours is utter bullshit. Total and complete bullshit. You need your head examined.

    And yes- my art creation/production flows 100% out of my spiritual connection/reality. Sorry. I just don’t have a problem with my spiritual creation reality and my desire to get paid for my creative work to both be simultaneously possible. And the more I work- probable. And since I’ve been doing it my whole life- I manifested THAT as my reality. And the easiest way to get inspired is to just go to work and never stop working.

    “Why does it have to be sold for money to have worth?” Joan M. Miron- it doesn’t. In fact art work must have an intrinsic value apart from money. But guess what? In a money-based culture selling something FOR MONEY is a validation of art’s intrinsic value. Why on earth would anyone have a problem with that? Money doesn’t taint the spiritual value of art unless YOU have decided it does.

    Anyway- whatever. I’m so thoroughly disgusted with ARTISTS and their ridiculous beliefs I could throw up. Have a great Sunday.

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