As a visual artist who wants to make a living out of selling your art, it’s important for you to successfully manage the business aspects of your art career. Pricing your artworks is one of those areas you’ll want stay on top of. Every career stage will bring its own pricing challenges but here are three principles to keep in mind when you’re fresh out of art school: be consistent, start low and keep emotion out of it.
Why Is Consistency So Important For Pricing?
Pricing your art is, or should be, a tightly controlled process. You have to be strategic about your pricing throughout your career, particularly once you are represented by more than one gallery. You don’t want two of your galleries to show up at the same art fair (fairly common these days) with different price points for similar artworks.
Consistency is the key to success in many areas of your professional life. It’s also paramount for a successful pricing strategy. You want your prices to steadily increase over the course of your career, so that collectors see, at every step of the way, that buying your art is a smart investment. Consistency is fairly easy to achieve in your primary market. However, these days it’s not unheard of that your work gets offered for sale at auction at the start of your career.
Early entry into the secondary market is a double-edged sword. It can be good to have steady auction records supporting your primary market pricing but if a painting doesn’t sell, you’ll have a bought-in work on your auction record, and this data is public. Additionally, speculators in the auction market can drive up prices to outrageous numbers which can be difficult or impossible to support in your primary market sales, causing volatility and destabilizing your slow and steady upward pricing slope. Ask your gallery about this as they can help you to create and maintain a stable market for your work.
Be Realistic: Start Low
When you finish your BFA or MFA most of you won’t have career achievements yet. No fellowships, exhibitions or sales to speak of. That’s entirely normal. None of us start out at the top, no matter what career we’re in. This is reflected in your pricing. At this point in your career most of you simply don’t have the career achievements to support astronomical pricing. Additionally, starting low is a strategic decision, allowing your art to go up in value over time. Here are some practical tips to start off with.
If you have not sold much, a good starting point is the cost of your materials and a reasonably hourly rate. A way to check these calculations and to make sure you don’t charge too much or too little, is to compare your pricing to that of your peers. For example, if your classmate with a similar resume charges between $2,000 - $3,000 for a similar work in the same medium you use, it’s a safe bet to stay close to their pricing range, instead of charging, say, $500 (too low) or $25,000 (too high) for a work.
Pricing art is not an exact science and if you haven’t sold much, a bit of trial and error to see what the market will support is fine. Ask your classmates for their opinion and if you are working with a gallery, get their two cents, particularly if you are selling wholesale out of your studio in addition to selling through the gallery.
Keep Emotion Out Of It
Determining the price of an object that is an extension of yourself can be daunting. The key is to take some of that emotional connection out of the equation when you make business decisions. Your body of work is your retirement fund so try to think of your paintings or sculptures as financial assets. Put a monetary value on them. For example, if you are getting insurance for your studio, you’ll be required to estimate the value of each of your artworks (or get it appraised). This could be a good starting point.
Thinking about your work in financial terms will help you in two ways. Firstly, it will make it easier to set financial goals for yourself and sell your art. For example, selling one work at $2,000 means that you can pay your studio rent for 2 months, or perhaps it means that you can finally invest in a better website. Selling 20 works a year means you can afford to hire a part-time studio assistant to take over your admin and social media, thereby allowing you to spend even more time on creating and selling your work.
Secondly, thinking about your work in financial terms will remove any tendencies to price irrationally. For example, I see emerging artists who put a high value on one work out of a series of 10, because they have a strong emotional connection to that one work (i.e. they painted it when their first child was born, or when they got married or whatever). Big mistake.
Collectors don’t have the same emotional connection to your work so they won’t understand your pricing model. They won’t buy your work or if they did buy it, they will be very unhappy when they find out that another collector got a work from the same series for a fraction of the price.
It's when you’ve made a name for yourself, later on in your art career, that the participants in the secondary market will decide if they want to pay more for that work with that personal connection.