The question of how to price art is one of those inescapable tasks that often are unsettling to tackle. It’s easy to understand why. Prices for art are all over the board from multimillion-dollar spot paintings by Damien Hirst down to dirt cheap prints run off a desktop printer.
Since you’re reading this, it’s easy to surmise you are somewhere in the middle of those extremes. With minimal help or guidance, you are tasked with pricing your work. What makes your job even harder are these things, and more:
Art buyers are influenced by the visual image, as well as the marketing and mastery of technique. Understanding there is not one answer why someone makes an art purchase is as important as understanding why someone buys your art, specifically.
Already we can see this is a complicated issue with no easy answers. The good news is this is not a subject that needs in-depth research and thought as an everyday task. That’s because once you arrive at a pricing scheme that both feels right and is logical to you, you can create a pricing structure or scale to use on a repeat basis.
With that understanding, it makes perfect sense to put in the time to develop a system you can use to price your art. You can engage other artists in lively debates over the merits of pricing art schemes. Some swear by the price per square inch. Others believe a markup on time, labor and cost of materials work better.
Personally, I’ve seen top-selling artists use both those methods with success. Because of that, I believe it’s more important to get comfortable with a system you can use for the foreseeable future. Although you are not required to explain in detail to prospective buyers how you arrived at your price, it can be helpful in closing sales to have a standard patter to use when such situations arise.
The late, great, Robert Genn used a price per square inch formula. He also set an annual date and raised his prices up 10% each year on that date. This method simplified his decisions about pricing. It also created a selling opportunity in the weeks before the annual price increase. I think this is good if your work is already getting top dollar, or close to it, within your comps.
Genn advised younger artists to start off cheap. I understand why, but I think the advice ought to be tempered with other factors, such as the quality of the work, the reputation, such as it is, and anything else that bears on the situation. You can never outrun that pricing is subjective. Your job is to maximize what you are getting at every stage of your career.
Artists young and old — particularly those who have the intention of staying in the game — ought to strategize for the big picture and honour their strategy with Biblical tenacity. Here are the Ten Commandments of art pricing:
Thou shalt start out cheap.
Thou shalt publish thy prices.
Thou shalt raise thy prices regularly and a little.
Thou shalt not lower thy prices.
Thou shalt not have one price for Sam and another for Joe.
Thou shalt not price by talent or time taken, but by size.
Thou shalt not easily discount thy prices.
Thou shalt lay control on thy agents and dealers.
Thou shalt deal with those who will honour thee.
Thou shalt end up expensive.
~ Robert Genn
If you are not yet close to top dollar, you need to find ways to ramp up your prices before you settle on a published annual 10% increase. That is because it takes to long to compound your prices up to the point where they should be at only 10% annually.
I realize there is a dichotomy between being in the sweet spot as mentioned above and getting top dollar as discussed here. For the sake of this post, let’s consider “top dollar” to mean you are hitting at the high end of the “sweet spot.” Hitting the high end of the sweet spot usually happens when you are an established artist with a track record of consistent sales. Something you will want to strive for if you are not there yet.
I have often suggested using the Masterpiece theory as a way to take your prices higher in a short amount of time. What you do is make something bigger, better and more elaborate than what is your norm. Then you put price it much higher because it is your “Masterpiece.” This activity changes your price range, which makes you norm prices more of a bargain, and gives you the chance to hit it big when someone has to have your masterpiece.
This theory works. I’ve had numerous artists report back to me their positive, shocking to a degree, experiences after they incorporated the method and found it worked beyond their imagination. Read this How to Price Your Art to Make More Money post for a beautiful example of how the masterpiece theory in action works.
Art is not sold in a vacuum. It is sold in a competitive marketplace. There is nearly always a comparable work to what you are making. Yours might be unique in its way, but still, have enough similarity from a consumer perspective to allow them to make an informed decision. If your potential buyers are going to judge your prices based on what they know about other art and artists, you also need to have a working knowledge of what is your competition.
Aim to be in the sweet spot where your art is neither the highest nor the lowest priced in the comparable prices you are checking. Doing this helps to make your pricing competitive. Knowing your pricing is competitive will give you confidence in your presentation, and sell more work.
There is more to learning how to price art than deciding between the methods mentioned above. At the end of the line where money is spent, you need awareness of your competition and the markets you serve. If you are not in sync with those factors, you risk losing sales if you are too high, or losing profits if you are too low.
As recently as twenty years ago, when the Internet was in its infancy stage, artists were still able to price works based on local factors. They might have sold for lower prices in some rural areas, or around where they lived, and then charge much higher prices for galleries in significant art districts. Those days are over, done, finished.
The Internet is the great equalizer. Nowadays, with smartphones and tablets in abundance, consumers can check prices, provenance and a whole lot more, instantly. My good friend and Xanadu Gallery owner, Jason Horejs, will tell you a common occurrence is for buyers in his gallery to start researching his art prices and artist’s reputation while still in the gallery.
What this means is you need to have a consistent pricing strategy and structure. Your integrity and reputation are at stake when you undercut yourself and your distributors. I have heard too many artists argue that it’s okay to cut their prices when selling to buyers directly.
They think since they have cut the gallery 50% commission out of the deal that they should lower the price to encourage the sale. Discounting direct sales is a bad idea for many reasons. First, and foremost, you are giving yourself an intentional pay cut. Why would you want to take money from your pocket?
Secondly, cutting rates is bad for your reputation, for the integrity of your pricing, especially to those who paid top dollar. Think how you would feel to know someone else is buying your work at some steep discount to your full price. You put your best-paying customers into a position of feeling betrayed, or like a fool, or both. No matter what, it leads to ill feelings and distrust.
Never be so desperate you feel you have no choice but to cut rates. Usually, this happens when an artist feels outmatched in negotiating a fair price, or lacks essential selling and presentation skills to help him, or she validates the price.
Don’t feel bad if that describes you. Many artists are in the same boat. The good news is you recognize a weakness, and there are many ways to shore it up. If you are willing to learn, there are numerous resources to help.
The aforementioned, Jason Horejs, has written an excellent and recommended How to Sell Art book. Grab a copy of Getting to Yes, one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of negotiation. If you put to use just a fraction of the advice in both these books, you can pull yourself out of feeling anxious in selling situations. In fact, with some studying and practice, you will find newfound growing confidence that will help you in every aspect of your life.