Just like a Ferrari and Honda don’t use the same pricing model for their products, we artists have to differentiate between two distinct ways to approach our prices. Depending on whether we aim to have a go at the gallery system or sell our art directly, we need to adjust our behaviour to fit either one of the markets demands.
Today I want to talk about the gallery model and the way I believe any one of us should think about our prices, if indeed we are going all in and focusing on becoming part of the fine art market.
Unlike commodity art — more or less anything sold on Etsy and other, similar platforms — fine art has a higher status in our society. But looks and other physical differences aside, the most commonly understood way of differentiating between the two is price.
Fine art is expensive, because it has to be. If a Ferrari cost about the same as a Honda Civic, a lot of the status that owning such a car brings would be lost and with it most of its intangible value. And it works the other way around too; if a Fiat Multipla would cost 1.000.000€, it might still be the same ugly car, but owning one would tell an entirely different story.
With its current price, anyone owning a Multipla can be considered as having absolutely no taste and at best being an extremely utilitarian individual. But with a premium pricing structure, the owner of a mint condition one would probably be understood as a connoisseur of aesthetically displeasing objects!
Because we live in a society that equates value with price (and only a few percent functionally differentiate between the two), setting our prices low and expecting to someday become a blue-chip player in the art world is ludicrous, and sadly doesn’t work.
If you don’t believe me, try imagining the same example, but instead of art, use the Multipla instead; had it cost 10.000€ at the beginning, but then — after 5 or 8 years — Fiat decided to increase its price to 1.000.000€ or even beyond, the world would laugh them out of business.
But we all still have this problematic conception of how prices work deeply ingrained in our minds — and don’t get me wrong, I have been guilty of this for a long time, too! I started out completely uneducated and just spewed random numbers, probably making any interested buyer feel like it was bingo night every time we were discussing a sale.
If we want to really get into the gallery system, we need to start out with a high-ticket, large margin price and practice extreme control over our production, in order not to make too much art (or too little), so that we don’t unnecessarily add too much volatility to our prices, even before anything actually sells.
For example: If I make 12 works the first year and put each on sale for about 10.000€, I can’t make 40 works the next year and expect to sell them for the same amount.
Whenever I reach a certain point, when I am no longer able to create enough work (be it because of demand — but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s probably more because of having no room or funds to create more), I need to either increase my prices to get back to a point, where I feel comfortable with the amount I am creating or to just stop creating so much work. Especially if they don’t sell, and absolutely if I haven’t had an exhibition in a long time.
If I have too much art on my hands, that’s a good sign to start focusing more on marketing, networking and search for any open call that I can apply to, so that I am able to sell a bit of my work to then produce more.
But here’s the catch: With prices as high as 10.000€, the likelihood of me selling the first couple of years is almost zero. But that doesn’t mean I need to drop my prices. It actually means I need to get a side job that can provide me with enough capital to get through the month without having to eat my brushes and paint tubes.
This is really the hardest part of going the gallery route; you can get there, sure, but it takes a bloody long time and if we decide to really have a go at it, it’s imperative to be prepared to eat the crap that such a decision brings along:
No sales (not for a long time), not a lot of “free” time, because of networking and attending anything art related in your area, that could get you 5 minutes with somebody who could push you to the next level, and a lot of discipline and humility at the beginning to go and work in retail and listen to people complain about their new toaster not having an equally-enough distributed heating plate to adequately toast their excuse of a healthy breakfast.
But then again, that’s why there’s free wine at art events.
And please do not think I wish to discourage anyone who is getting started! I wish to provide an objective opinion that is based on 10+ years of exhibitions and tonnes of fails along the way. I might have gotten a few big shows and quite a few sales, but the point of getting into a successful gallery is something I understand will probably only happen in my mid 30s.
Sure, there are artists that get there in their 20s, but when looking at such examples, a lot of the time we have to take into consideration where they started out — and I bet most of us didn’t go to CalArts, MIT, Sorbonne (though, not what it was 10 years ago) or the Royal College of Art in London. And those are the places where networking really happens and thus give enormous head-starts to anyone one, that has the financial ability (and skill) to attend.