Pricing art is a nebulous business. With my Urban Scrawl solo show now just two months away it is time to start to design the wall labels for the finished works and that involves picking a price. Picking being the operative term. There is no right or wrong answer, although there may well be answers in both the ‘Did she miss a nought off this?” and ” The OMG who does she think she is?’ brackets. In seeking to avoid both excessive self-effacement and hubris, I find myself using some of the principles from my training as a family lawyer.
When I was a barrister I spent a lot of my time advising people on how a court might divide their money after a divorce. The first principle was: there is no right answer only a ‘range of reasonable decision’.’ Splitting up and pricing art are not amenable to a mathematical formulae. Its a judgement call that involves finding an answer that is fair – to both spouses or to buyer and seller.
its gut instinct based on prior example
Does it feel right? I am told I have a ‘money case/art pricing’ face. I sort of purse my lips and scrunch my nose a bit and waggle my head from side to side whilst thinking. I cant imagine it’s attractive, but its a physical manifestation of me weighing things up inside. I learned to trust that instinct as a lawyer because it was based on years of experience of seeing outcomes and knowing what negotiation tactics worked and what didn’t. With pricing art of course, I have no prior experience. Save that I’ve been looking around. Gauging your local market and placing your art in it is something you can start to do by simply seeing what else is for sale and at what cost. I spent a whole day at an art fair in Liverpool openly explaining to established artists that I was new to art myself and that I was looking for pricing guidance. Every stallholder I approached was extremely generous with their advice.
Apply logic and parameters
With money cases, a settlement is not just plucked from the air. It’s based on a list of criteria to be taken into account from the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 s25 and a whole host of case law interpreting that. And then there is wiggle room based on factors like emotions, personal priorities, cost of litigation, strength of negotiating positions and so on.
So with my art I have a some clear principles, a beguilingly simple formula and then I wiggle about a bit. Let me show you:
In terms of principles, this is what I have decide are my values:
- I am not dependant on selling my art but I still want to price it as if I were running a full time working studio.
- I will make decisions considering the general market in which I aim to place my art but I will not make decisions based on comparing myself to other individual artists.
- I will price taking into account that there is value to me in not just financial reward but also seeing people able to enjoy owning art and me not having a studio full of unsold art.
- I will not work for less than a fair wage unless I am making a conscious choice to gift art or time. even then I will price that art in my own head according to my pricing principles so I know the value of my gift.
Then I have a formula:
(Cost + hourly wage) x gallery commission = starting point.
I can pretty accurately work out what each piece cost to make because I keep records of my shopping for paint, material, canvases, frames etc. I work out of two studios in my home and so overheads are low although there is still an element of heating and equipment /software buying to factor in. I take a yearly estimate of such costs, and apportion them roughly between the number of pieces of art I anticipate pricing this year. If I were more experienced and more dependant on this income I’d be more accurate wth that, but its something that can only be done accurately with a track record of how much art you are making and a regular studio running cost. As it is my general costs are so low adding a small sum to each piece is near enough for me.
Each gallery’s commission may be slightly different but one lesson I did learn early on is that the commission should always be added even if you are selling direct because then you are the gallery and you deserve the marketing budget. Plus undercutting a gallery with lower prices direct from the artist is a big no-no.
The other two ties are pretty much fixed, so this is the one that will give you trouble! How do you set an hourly rate? Well, it boiled down for me to the old lawyerly gut instinct text. I asked myself questions like: whats the average wage in the UK and where do I feel I am on the spectrum in terms of experience and training now? Am I a trainee, average or experienced? How do I value being an artist compared to other professions and what is the likely wage for my standard in those professions? If I saw a part time job as an artist at £x per year would I be tempted to apply? That got me to a yearly salary I was prepared to work for doing art. That was my starting point but as you will see later, it got reality checked later on.
Then, working on the basis of employing myself for a full time art job, I worked out how many holidays I was going to give myself and how many hours per week my contract was for. Then I estimated how many of those hours was studio admin that was in effect non income producing but necessary. Tasks such as marketing, planning, ordering paint, photographing and cataloguing art, tiding up all the mess I make etc. I took those hours off the total yearly hours to be worked. That gave me the number of hours per year I would be charging for making art. I divided my gross salary by those hours to give a gross hourly rate. ( In effect doing it that way appropriations some of the studio tasks to each art work via the hourly rate).
Then, I time record what I am doing. I use Punchtime for Trello and so I can tell pretty accurately what each art work took in terms of time. ( I also record the admin tasks to make sure I am getting my estimates for such time right too). in effect I am working pro rata for that salary.
The wiggle room.
So, lets say I apply that formula to six pieces the same size in a series. It will probably be that they all come out a little differently because as I work out what I am doing I get faster, but when I am tired I slow down. Not by huge margins, but there will be a difference of some minutes. So I adjust to get a common price for all similar pieces.
I then also compare that price with the price I have come up with for other art in the show, to see if there is a fair logic across the board. Does it make sense that a 12 inch piece in series A is £100 but series B £150? It might well do if it is obviously a different amount or type of work in it. Or if it is framed rather than stretched over canvas. Or it could be that there is very little obvious logic and its better to price both at £125 and average the work out. What I will not do is reduce the £150 down to £100 because that would undermine the principle I set not to work for less than the wage I defined for myself.
I should say here that some US artist are keen on pricing by the square inch or the linear inch. Not a single UK artist I have spoken to does this and indeed, shock at the suggestion was the common reaction during my art fair research. So there is clearly a cultural thing going on here. To me its seems that if, once you have set an hourly rate, you want to take a broad brush approach across your work by charging per square inch that’s not a million miles from the averaging out process I just described. I don’t understand how you can set a square inch price that works for you though unless you work out that square inch price by first using an hourly rate to ensure you are making the living your determine is appropriate. and it depends on your work being very similar across series and sizes. That said, its a ‘range of reasonable decisions’ and if that system works for you, as it does for many US artists – go for it!
The cross check
In money cases lawyers also talk about ‘the cross check of equality”. In other words having applied all the principles and factors in your clients case to get what you think should be her settlement go back and do it again to see if the same logic produces a fair outcome for the other side also.
With divorce clients it is common to have them come with a wish list approach. they want to divide the assets so that their lifestyle remains intact, so they have an equivalent house to their current one and so they don’t have to pay any costs. If your spouse unexpectedly upped and left you for a younger model that’s a very understandable wish list. But it doesn’t work like that. The existing pot now has to do two people and expectations have to be reduced.
In the art world, it doesn’t work to say, these are my lifestyle needs/ wishes, I want a salary of $x to achieve that and so these are my prices, if the market does not support that price. Sure, you can price all your art for what you like but if you want actually sell if you have to get the price right for the market. So, if there is a mismatch, you have choices. You can move to a different market where your desired hourly rare is achievable, you can create a new market with the same effect, you can adjust your hourly rate down, you can work more hours, you can adjust the way you work to be cheaper or faster or you can supplement your art with another source of income to allow you to sell art at a lower rate but still maintain your lifestyle. Or a combination of any of those.
With art pricing, I have my price but its as well to cross check how that sits with the market in which I am seeking to place it. I once went to see a gallery based in a cafe in a garden centre with a view to considering if I wanted to ask then to sell my work. When I saw their prices I knew that even covering costs with no hourly rate at all I would be far higher than the customers there clearly expected. I just walked away. The market was wrong for me.
What if my prices come out far lower than the usual prices for comparable work in my current gallery? Then I have a choice. I can either say: no, its OK, I am getting a fair deal and I am glad that people are able to have affordable art. Or I can up my hourly rate because the market allows it. I think doing the latter you need to have a weather eye on whether that market is going to remain available to you because you want consistent pricing all year round. I would also consult the gallery because I would want to maintain a relationship with them.
As it happened for me when I applied the hourly rate I felt fair, the prices came out right in line with what art in my current gallery is selling for and advised me the market would take which makes me feel I probably have that rate about right for me at the moment. But who knows. This is my first show. I am assuming that people like my art as much as they other art that is selling. Which they may not. Gulp. I’ll let you know in two or three months whether I still think I have it right !!