Have you ever wondered how visual artists go about pricing their work?
After an art exhibition a number of years ago, I had a man approach me and tell me that although he liked my work he thought it was too expensive. He then made a comment about how nice it must be to be a rich artist. (Enter blank stares and the sound of crickets). I honestly didn’t know how to respond. What it did reinforce was the serious gap in understanding of artistry as a profession, and the apparent mystery of pricing structures for artwork.
When you purchase artwork (just like when you purchase an item from any store) it’s not simply the physical item you are paying for. An artwork purchase covers materials, time, skill, education and professional development, rent, heating, insurance, etc. It’s much more comprehensive than the finished product. This is referred to as the Daily Cost Of Doing Business (DCODB). (If you’re an artist who is curious, there’s calculators online that will help you figure out exactly what you need to financially support your artistry!) Artists need to do more than just cover the material costs of creating the work, they must be able to pay themselves a salary to live on that enables them to continue to create new works and support themselves through life (just like with any other work path). Artists must be able to create a fair and sustainable salary for themselves in their pricing framework.
Pricing is a great source of stress for many artists. Our society is so accustomed to sales and low prices offered at box store chains that we easily wince at price tags. We're quick to compromise quality if we can get something cheap. We sure do love a good sale. (And there’s a lot of psychology that goes along with it, by the way.) A visual artist who is selling their own work can not and should not compete with box store pricing and bargain hunting tendencies. Mass produced artwork is a completely different commodity with factors that individual artists cannot compete with. There are other aspects to consider as well - the artist does not get recognition for their work and we have no way of knowing if the work has been appropriately licensed.
So, I have a challenge for us. Next time we see a work of art, let’s take a moment to consider everything that went into creating it. Think about the basic cost of materials, the labour time - all that the artist would need to make it happen. It adds up quickly. Does the price represent those basic costs in addition to their DCODB? As we start to do a quick little calculation, we will likely see how many artists actually undercharge! And remember, artists only get paid if they sell the work. There's a tremendous amount of overhead, investment and risk involved. There's also a great deal of work involved apart from artwork creation that takes up an artists time and energy. All aspects of this profession should be accounted for.
If the man, who thought I was overcharging to live the high rolling life, had taken that moment to consider the cost of an entire gallery of artwork - the result of my full-time work for a year and a half - perhaps his comment would have been, “How can you make a living as an artist?” As I look back I realize I actually significantly undercharged because of the fear of someone commenting on the price. I didn't want to have to justify my value. But I have sold pieces that didn’t even cover my time and materials because of that fear. Thankfully I have had mentors and clients that did see my value - even before I saw it myself - and that has helped me to continually examine my pricing structures to better reflect the comprehensive, true cost of artistry.