At Art Basel Miami a few years ago, I walked into a booth that had placed two framed Helen Frankenthaler watercolors side by side. I don’t remember them exactly, but they were similar abstractions--lyrical and quite beautiful. Both were no more than 22 x 30 inches, and framed similarly with ornate frames. One was priced $250,000; the other, $450,000.
I asked about the price difference. The dealer looked at me as if I had just rolled off a turnip truck. And only because I stood there for an answer did he deign to respond. “The dates,” he said condescendingly. OK, so the more expensive one was older and presumably rarer, therefore—oh, is that a turnip in my pocket?—it cost $200,000 more. For most of us this is not personally useful information, but it does underscore the fact that pricing can be based on all kinds of criteria..
I have talked around this topic but not discussed it directly because the variables are so great. But since every artist thinks about pricing, here goes. This post will raise more questions than it answers. If you’re thinking about how to price your work, these are the questions you have to ask:
What is the status of the artist?
An established artist can sell her work for higher prices than an emerging artist can. While there are exceptions (the fresh-out-of-art-school art star), typically an artist and her gallery manage prices upward over time because of a good reputation, which is built on years of solid work, good critical response, many exhibitions, and regular sales. I’ve had students see a small work in a high-end commercial gallery with a price of, say, $5000 and then want to put that price on their own student/emerging work. Nice try, but see what emerging artists are asking at the non-profits and at emerging galleries. That’s a better gauge. Indeed, checking out prices in this way is quite helpful for artists at all career levels.
What is the status of the gallery?
An artist showing in a certain big white box with frosted glass windows on
What is the price range a gallery’s clientele is willing to pay?
Art prices--like couture, celebrity, and high-end cars--are all about what the market will bear. Status sells. The bigger your name, the bigger the gallery’s name, the higher the price range.
Every venue has its particular commission structure. A commercial gallery will take 50% of the sale price, which means, typically, that the price is doubled (and then some) from what you and the dealer need to earn. Non-profits, in keeping with their mission, may take less. When you make a private sale, you make your own price and keep it all. But if you are represented by a gallery, it’s not kosher to sell out of your studio without sharing in the commission.
(Everybody asks this question: What about if you have a gallery in one city but live and work in another? That depends on the arrangement you have made with your gallery. Generally speaking, if your gallery is in
What’s the discount situation at the venue where you’ll be selling?
It’s not unusual for a dealer to allow a 10% “courtesy” to a regular client. Some aggressive clients, taking advantage of the current financial climate, request discounts of 30 or 40 percent. (I have undying love for the dealer who reminded a particularly wealthy but sharp-penciled client, “You know, my artists depend on these sales to pay their mortgage or health insurance, to pay for their dental work, even to buy food. I can’t give you a 30% discount.”)
Let them suggest pricing. They are in the business of selling, and their goal is to sell your work. They might ask you to price low for the first show. As they establish a client base for you, they’ll raise the prices. If you’re uncomfortable with the numbers they’re suggesting, talk about it with them. Perhaps you can compromise. Or perhaps you can create a small group of paintings at that lower price. I’m not suggesting you sell out; find a way to work with a gallery that wants to work with you. You can, of course, say no.
Are your prices uniform throughout the country?
Some additional pricing thoughts:
. Art made with expensive materials needs to be priced higher
. Work that takes a long time to make, or that requires many assistants, needs to be priced higher
. Smaller work tends to sell for less than larger work, but there are always exceptions: especially at the blue-chip level