Marketing Mondays: Let’s Talk Prices

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 24th Street in West Chelsea will see his work sell for way more than an artist who is showing at, say, the Garry Legosian Gallery in East Podunk. Artists and dealers find their own level. Emerging galleries show emerging artists; mid-level galleries show mid-level artists; and the blue chips show the artists with the big-ass careers. It may not be fair, but that’s the fact.


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.

Is the work going to be shown at a commercial gallery? A co-op gallery? A non-profit space? An open studio? A private sale out of the studio?

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 Portland, Oregon, but you live and work in Portland, Maine--an extreme example--I think you can probably keep the sale, especially if it's an Open Studio and you have done all the work and PR for your event. But nothing is black and white. If you're enjoying the visibility of an national ad that the gallery has bought and paid for, or have been recently reviewed nationally for a show you had at that gallery, then quite possibly sales may occur as a result of that visibility. Talk to your dealer. And never undercut the gallery’s retail price.)

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.”)

Are you working with a gallery for the first time?

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?

A New York City gallery wanted to raise the price of my small paintings to a point that would have been prohibitive for galleries in other parts of the country that show and sell my work. I said No. The New York gallery declined to show the work. I don’t regret my decision. My paintings continued to sell well at the original price. In fact, counter intuitively during this bad economy, I raised the prices 20% at the beginning of the year and they’re still selling. But I had to do it in a way that felt right to me.


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

. Better to build up your prices gradually over time. You’ll establish your client base
. You can go up in price but you can’t go down. What are you, Loehmans?
. Don’t put a gigantic price tag on it just because you really don’t want it to sell. That’s a classic art-school ploy. Mark it NFS (Not for Sale). In most commercial galleries, though, NFS won’t fly because the work there is most definitely for sale
. Work on paper tends to have lower prices than paintings. I don’t make the rules, just sharing conventional wisdom. Once you get to be Louise Bourgeois or Picasso, you can change those rules for yourself
. If you feel like your guts are being ripped out because you’re letting your work go for too little, don’t sell it for that price. Or if it's a particular piece you don't want to let go, don't let it go
. In a down economy you may be better off with smaller work, or work on paper, or multiples, all of which tend to sell for lower prices
. Multiples open a whole other avenue of discussion, one that should be discussed by someone who knows the photography and print markets. From my limited perspective, I see that with multiples—and that would be photography and prints--there are not only many copies of the same image but different sizes; different materials and processes; different situations under which the prints are made; limited and open editions; giclees and inkjet prints, intaglios and mass-market lithos. If I were looking to gain some insight into pricing, price work, I would make a point of visiting a print or photo fair.
One last thought: If your work consistently has the lowest price in the room, or the highest, you might want to assess your price structure—or the venue in which you’re showing.
What are YOU thinking about prices?


jane longman said...

Great post Joanne!
I just had this discussion with a fellow artist today. We are preparing for a group show in Toronto this week, emerging & established artists.
As an emerging artist many of my prices appear low in comparison to the other participants of the exhibit, however I didn’t want to raise them just for the sake of being more in line with some of the established artists, that just doesn’t feel right to me. In the end I raised them an average of 15%. This way if pieces are left from this show & I want to hang them in the local collective gallery where I’m a member, they aren’t too far off from what I was charging in the past.

annell4 said...

All good and helpful ideas. Thank you.

Casey Klahn said...

This post is a keeper. Very thorough and informative, Joanne.

I would stress (just as you have) the role of consistency. You led with the HF story, which illustrates the point well. I use square inches at a certain dollar amount per, which lends consistent pricing to a body of work that is created in many non-standard sizes. But, the whole thing is anchored to the demand.

Which leads me to the market. You gave it a short paragraph, but I would say an artist needs to find out out what his art does sell for, and what it does not sell for. That is a tough job for the beginner. The next best place to look (you said this) is to compare others.

Gee, if you have turnips in your pocket, what must I have? Fertilizer? And, proud of it.

deborah from collagewhirl said...

I really appreciate your de-mystifying so many aspects of marketing one's work. Thanks for making the art world a (hopefully) less scary place, Joanne! said...

I am happy with my prices too, for the moment. And the way I can tell is that my paintings sell regularly enough (small works and large) to afford me my salary and which keeps me painting at a sustainable rate with out any significant " inventory" build up.

I don't seek gallery representation but I never turn down an offer to show if I have the work. So my prices are more geared to selling direct but I can handle the few gallery commissions that are required.

I've held my prices steady for the last two years and I'd
love to raise prices a bit but I am reluctant to loose the turn over that keeps my work looking fresh and people
interested in coming back.

Rob said...

I've been struggling with this issue myself recently because I've developed a new series of work that is very laborious; has no price history; isn't really comparable to anything else I've seen or done; and I'm not sure what kind of reaction I'll get for it. Finding an entry price level is a difficult balance of keeping it as low as I can without it being too painful and not pricing it so low that viewers don't think it has value while also not pricing it so high that I'm just creating piles of inventory. It is important to get the work out and having people look at it, but you also want people to think that you value what you do and that you are a professional. Thanks for helping me to think through the process.

Lani said...

Joanne, thanks for your consistently invaluable insights into the art world and its often mysterious market. I read your blog regularly, but this is my first comment.

Regarding the increasingly prevalent request for large discounts, the single response which I (as a dealer) have found to catch the attention of buyers is pointing out that since appraisals of artwork are done on the selling, not the list, price, their discounted purchases diminish the overall value of the artist’s work in the marketplace – and their investment in turn.

Of course, the retort is usually “But I’m not asking you to discount to everyone, just to ME”.


Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, everyone, for your great coments,

Lani, your response to discount seekers is brilliant. (And the craziness of the situation is that I've had to increase my prices in this economy just to be able to absorb the discount!)

Claudia said...

Thanks, Joanne, for all the helpful information.