Pricing art is not an easy task. Everyone has a story to tell, an issue to contend with, or even an encounter with an unscrupulous individual to remember.
Emerging artists feel that is impossible to set a reasonable price. They are happy when they sell, but they also think it is unfair what they get for their art (more often than not, managing to barely cover the costs of materials but not their artistic work). When they go to fairs or those who are lucky enough to be contacted by galleries, they have to pay just to be there and if they sell, they can see that anywhere between 10% and 50% of the price will end-up elsewhere.
It is better for established artists. Even though costs remain high, and commissions more so. Yet the construction of a solid price for an artist´s work is, generally speaking, a complex and time consuming task even for someone with a history of good strong sales.
Serious galleries, curators, and a variety of experts, make appraisals. But appraisals can also be wrong. Particularly when an artist´s work is just beginning to see the light. The word appraisal in itself has a diffuse meaning. As it is based on past performance (if it exists), on objective and subjective values, and on projections of current and future value. Very difficult in itself, and even more so if the artist is not that well known.
I want to tell you a little bit about my own story, and what I have learned so far. Maybe my experience will be of use. I can happily say that prices for my art have grown exponentially in the last few years, and this has to do with a series of steps I have taken, added to a complex equation that I have worked out over time.
But before I get to that, it may be good to start by delving a little into the past, so we can set the scene.
As many of you may already be familiar with, I have been working for a long time on what I call “Visual Jazz”. This is a combination of my brain´s response to music (I am synesthetic, just like Kandinsky, another artist who also interlaced his art and his “gift”) and I work particularly with jazz. Thus the name.
I remember when I first started exhibiting my new work more openly, I came across a great deal of resistance, mostly because the infusion of color and movement that I constantly explore through my series was not the “in thing” at the time.
Not only was I not getting the prices I hoped, I was also getting the cold shoulder from many curators and critics as they found my art, and my way of expressing it, either unattractive or in some cases, not conceptual enough.
It was almost impossible to get a review, while art competitions would just shun me out, and people would look at it with an expression of “I just don’t understand it”.
Until one day a journalist decided fortuitously (the luck factor) that my work should be used as the “differential” in an article she wrote on the new artistic trends that were coming from South America. This was as part of a review she did on a group exhibition (I was just one of the artists) that was being held at a Gallery, in Chelsea, NY. A Gallery which happened to be, or at least that is how I felt, the only one prepared to open its walls to my art.
I never met the journalist. I still don’t know how she placed my “Visual Jazz” in the midst of a “trend” as I was mostly (truly) lonely and on my own, just trying to get my work noticed. But in any case, she noticed. And that is the important point.
I remember even feeling a little lost at the South American branding. I was born in Argentina and mostly reside there these days, but I grew up in Australia and lived in many countries before settling back, so I always felt a bit out of place. I even feel that my art is a little more universal than the general local art, which has a tendency to be more self-referential.
But in any case, I was obviously not going to argue with it. Quite the contrary, I embraced it.
This first validating article gave me a little push. Soon major newspapers started briefly mentioning my “Visual Jazz” as something different to see. As my work began to grow and the pieces started multiplying. The sheer volume and, hopefully, the quality of work began to change minds. One thing is to see 1 or 2 pieces, something else is to see 50.
When you have good volumen of work, the public and the critics hopefully begin to notice where you are going with your art. As with most abstractions, they may also find their brains slowly accommodating to the different paradigms which are being proposed. And suddenly, the fact that they did not understand it before, becomes less important than the fact that they unexpectedly seem to be enjoying the aesthetics of it. And out of the blue (or red, or yellow, or green), one day they do understand. One day they finally “see it”.
And so, as approval began to grow, prices also began to rise.
Even now I am at the threshold and not even close to my ceiling. Hopefully I will never know what my work’s value ceiling is, or at least that is what I hope.
Yet, as I look back and try to extract reasonable advice that can apply to everybody’s work, I see certain common threads related to all the work done to generate value. And I feel, and hope, that these simple points (and I mean simple, not easy) will take you far:
1. There is no replacing quality, ingenuity, emotion, and hard work.
2. Furthermore, there is no replacing YOU in your work. YOU are the original. It is just a matter of letting YOU into your art.
3. Luck is a factor in your success. But luck doesn’t walk around looking for your door. You have to be “out there” (whatever your “out there” may be) so luck can find you.
4. You may start with a price that reasonably represents the amount of work & artistic effort that went into your piece. But Price is value, and value is a construction. Put a brick at a time. Like my father used to say (he is an engineer), “You cannot start a beautiful building from the top floor. First you have to get your hands dirty and dig”.
5. Don´t expect a set value. Don´t expect your prices to be maintained if you don´t respect them. Be flexible & sensible, but defend the value you have created so far.
6. Price/Value is something that you build with your buyers. Make them part of your project. Get them to defend their investment as much as you defend your price. Then you may have something.
7. Be responsive to your public and let your art go. In other words, sell when the opportunity arises!
8. Your work is your best ad, but the ad must be published somewhere in order to work, so make sure that your art is hanging somewhere far away from you, & where it can keep getting YOU to new audiences.
9. Learn to be intellectually alert about your art. Study, become your art´s own encyclopedia, learn to explain your motivations in ways that engages those who listen to you. Explain the complexities of your work in terms that people can understand, but also admire. Read and explore the history of art. Look at those who came before you. Learn, learn, and learn. And above all, be sincere about your motivations. This simple exercise creates value.
10. Do not confuse being intellectually alert with conceptualizing your work. “Concept” in art has become very important because it is of great help to curators, critics, and agents. Amongst other things, because it helps them write and talk about your art. But it is not your art. At most, let the concept “explain” (for others) and “guide” (for you), but never “dictate”.
And now to my magic equation, which is:
(My end work) x (My effort) x (my time) x (My creativity) x (My costs) = $0 (zero)
Yes. It is that sad. But don´t lose hope. It is a stepping stone and I will explain why.
For a start. There is no better place to base your pricing strategy than in reality.
Getting the right price is understanding that your work is worth a lot to you. It may be beautiful, extraordinary, and it may even represent a brand new branch of the arts, but all that value is only felt by you and those who love you.
When you look at the market value (a different kettle of fish altogether), your work (my work for that matter) is worth zero, zilch, nada….until someone is prepared to pay something for it.
It is worth more when 2 or more are willing to do that, and the sky is the limit once people move in numbers to pay for your work. At that point you may increase what you ask for your work, and the market will probably respond (in my experience) positively because everybody loves a winner, and everybody wants to make a great deal (in art, the great deal is that your work is cheaper now than later). The best news is that the incrementals may be limitless.
When you pretend that your prices mimic your love for what you do, you will fall flat on your face. More so if you don’t do the “work” (I refer you back to my 10 points). Because the market is many things, but mostly, it is absolutely heartless.
But if you can engage your market both emotionally and intellectually, it may ultimately respond, and at that point, you may have a winner.
That is why it is so important to work towards increasing the value of your work by giving it meaning, by promotion, by your own intellectual attractiveness in describing what you do, how you do it, and why you do it. Basically letting your uniqueness come through your art.
The rest is up to your talent (and yes, a little bit of luck).