I wanted an iceberg image to illustrate this journal entry about art pricing, but I didn’t want to use stock graphics or to draw one. Everytime I considered something else, I balked. It had to be an iceberg. So, being fresh out of tickets for a North Atlantic cruise, I improvised. Turns out the head-of-iceberg-lettuce-as-stand-in-for-iceberg-metaphor works even better, as we shall see.
While I have addressed pricing and other money matters here before, it’s been awhile and the confounding mystery of it continues. Honestly, I still have an agonizing time determining retail prices for anything I make, but I do have a helpful way in. So when I was asked to present some pricing ideas and practices at a workshop for the current crop of local Open Studios artists, I decided to describe the considerations looming below the surface of the topic in addition to the how-to methods we generally seek above.
- Work hard to separate your pride (or your unvoiced shame) about your work from your pricing.
- It’s not a “once and done” effort.
- No single axiom/approach works every time or over time.
- Confidence in pricing requires research, soul-search, preparation, experimentation and experience.
Looming Just Below the Surface
- What motivates you? Personal expression? Recognition? Money? If Money is the strongest motivator, you’ll be fine. If not, keep reading.
- What’s your level of satisfaction in your career and current style? Tentative? Changing? Loud and proud? Giddy?
- Are you able to see your work objectively? If not, how can you create some professional distance?
- What is it? Where is it in the fine art/craft market spectrum? (I’ve seen one of my top-priced ceramic beer cans placed next to a same-sized smallish watercolor of the same label which was asking – and getting! – three times the price.)
- Ask whatever you like, but what does it sell for?
- How does your work compare to similar works? (This is market research in comparables for information, not necessarily for replication.)
- Do you price the pieces you personally like higher? Should you?
YOUR PERFECT PEOPLE
- Describe your ideal collector in detail. You might already know them. How is this person like you?
- Whatever story and meaning you carry for your pieces, others won’t see them like that and will apply their own rationales and interpretations.
- Folks, even sophisticated well-heeled art lovers, buy art impulsively: they recognize it and fall in love. Price is just one part of this buying experience.
- Where are they located? Do they have any particular cachet or limitations? Are they focused primarily on selling art or on eating and entertainment?
- How is your work displayed, labelled, interpreted and lighted?
- How do you or your representatives engage with visitors?
- Do you keep your retail prices exactly the same everywhere? (Please do.)
THE ECONOMY MATTERS
- Local or Global, it affects expectations and behaviors.
- Discretionary Money = Less available and more accounted-for funds.
- Impulsive Money = More available and less watched.
The Visible: Some Pricing Methods
TIME AND MATERIALS
- Great if you like to parse hours and receipts.
- Maybe it’s useful if your materials are costlier or your methods time-consuming.
- As you become more efficient and/or find cheaper materials sources, what does it do to your prices?
- Try it for yourself; it’ll be eye-opening.
A MULTIPLIER FOR SIZES
- In 2D you can size by square inches or by perimeter measurement and use a base cost multiplier.
- Does this method work for 3D media using cubic volume or weight? Should it?
- These methods can have scaling inconsistencies and other irrelevancies.
- You still have to determine your multiplier.
- Try it for yourself, some folks swear by this.
- Price new work on the low end.
- If it sells easily, be quick to raise your price a bit. Raise again if it keeps selling and so on.
- Find the price point at which the sales slow up noticeably and hold or back down slightly, your choice.
- This is “green feedback.” Stay curious because your actual marketplace is speaking.
- Try it yourself over and over.
PRODUCT ECOSYSTEM FAMILY ARCS
- Use your entire body of work and assign a range of prices to ALL of it. Does it make sense?
- Do your price-points match the market for similar work? Why or why not?
- There is wiggle room for anomalies and one-offs, but price them after you understand the range you determine.
- Try it for yourself but beware, as it ventures well into perceived aesthetics, comparables and subjectivity.
- Sometimes you just “know” the prices that work for you and your perfect people, your venue and economy.
- And it’s probably based on personally internalizing your whole iceberg.
- You don’t “try” this, you just do it when you’re ready. Maybe now?
- There are always exceptions!
- Sales/Seconds/Discounts/Close-outs/Cash Buyers/Students/Trading Parity/Donations/Auctions/Freebies/Commissions/Layaways/What else?
- It’s probably a good thing to develop a stance regarding all of them. What’s your practice/policy?
So, there you have it. Pricing is dependent on a whole convoluted sphere of influences. Setting a price on something that is so deeply personal and doesn’t have a set market value is squidgy business. And for your machinations and calculations, all you get is money. That’s what you wanted, right? (See: YOU:What motivates you?)
Detached confidence and practice helps. That’s why the head of iceberg lettuce is even more suited to the notion of pricing being a more-than-meets-the-eye thing: it’s organic, integrated leaf by enfolding leaf, revealing itself slowly. Pricing art is a nearly untranslatable alchemy anyhow because it requires an artist to range from suchness to materiality, aesthetics to a number. Good luck with forging your pathways, whether adapted here or yet to be discovered.
–Liz Crain, who enjoys this observation of Oscar Wilde’s: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.” She’s been both a banker and an artist and says it’s true.