The Art of Pricing Art
©1992, 1999 Pic’ Ax ‘n Whisk Broom

richard chilton


Perhaps the most uncertain task a professional visual artist must grapple with is that of pricing their art. Among the many variables at hand:  the Gallery's own success with a certain collector's or corporate portfolio; the dealer's grasp and understanding of the local, regional, domestic, and international markets; the ebb and flow of fashion and taste that is by definition, speculative and temporary; the role of corporations, institutional investors, and entrepreneur collectors in the commodity exchange of art; the consistency of the work in context with historic reference to artistic quality and aesthetic excellence; and the artist's own perception of his or her work to all of the above.

The problem is further complicated in that very few fine arts departments or schools in the United States dwell at length in their course curriculum with the business of art. There is little if any discussion at all on such essential topics as: computing the annual cost ratio for the artist in the form of his or her time; studio materials and project supplies; profit potential within a given period or lifetime career; agency and gallery relations; marketing techniques (including the expanding role and options of technology, such as the digital camera, CD-Roms, and the InterNet), amid a host of other concerns.

 Having neither an historic or contemporary basis to realistically gage their role in the art world while competing in a profession where the status quo is reinforced by academia, galleries, corporate and institutional investors, old line family collectors, museums, public granting agencies and private foundations, residency programs, and the media, the professional American visual artist -- particularly those from the interior Continent, away from the "three Coasts" -- consistently undervalue their art.  For artists who live some distance from recognized art markets such as New York City or the Southwest, the presumption is held that there must be an operative equivalent for lower prices than “elsewhere” because local buyers have less money to spend due to conservative fiscal policies or traditions common to a particular region. 

Yet even urbane artists are often intimidated by the expectation of dealers, gallery owners, and other stakeholders in the art world (including non-profit venues) for the artist to assume virtually all of the expense including proprietary work in another separate and totally different medium (photography); point-of-origin shipping and return; travel; and in most instances, even promotion and reception costs.  Most emerging artists are completely unaware of nor prepared for such long-standing, “traditional” “free market” obstacles, and thus do not calibrate these additional factors into the “retail” price of their work.  Insofar as these “exposure opportunities” in and of themselves take a minimum of 15-20% (for not profits) up to 70%(!) commission, the actual price that would otherwise be set by even the seasoned artist in order to realize his or her own modest return (or “real value”) on their work after all these factors are weighed, would be substantially higher, as it is.

Given this “reality,” nearly two-thirds of all the art work sold in this country occurs through the artists themselves; region or locale is important only in terms of access to the marketplace, and has little bearing on the actual sales activity occurring proportional to one area or another.  Indeed, the entire infrastructure of the professional art world - the galleries, art dealers, academia and so forth - proves influential only in terms of the more highly visible, speculative market, where art is defined as an instrument of commodity value; aesthetic and other criteria (prevalence) play a relatively minor role in these transactions.

 One measure of “artistic quality" can mean then, that the work is sufficiently executed by the artist to reflect both an understanding of the chosen medium (an objective criteria) and second, that the artist has been willing to take risk, either through that medium or subject matter to elicit a response from the viewer, which is obviously emotional (or subjective) by definition. Technical mastery is not necessary of course, but comprehension of technique is.  If the artist is to be successful, he or she must provoke a reaction within themselves to adequately hold an interest in their approach with the work to complete the task of its execution in the first place; this process can be either deliberate or spontaneous, but the value placed by the artist on this process is ultimately his or her to define prima faciea, i.e., through the completed work itself.

Further value can be initially determined by objective criteria imposed through certain "professional standards," but even here, these "standards" are relative to the context of what the intent of the artist might be, i.e., the artist's extemporaneous or calculated use of temporary or permanent materials, for instance. Such accepted norms have their place, but these remain of different criterion than artistic quality; "professional" means for example, that all paintings to be hung are secured with screw eyes and picture wire (rather than nails and string), or that non-oils are enclosed in some sort of protective frame, covered by glass, Plexiglas or other material (and must be matted), unless the artist chooses purposely to present his or her work in an unconventional manner as an artistic statement.

The real issue here is who determines what art is, and thus, its inferred value - the artist, the viewer, or the "professional" art historian, critic, dealer, or consultant. The problem occurs when art is then quantified for purposes of determining value, which is an artificial imposition of criteria relative to this process of determining value, and not to the authenticity of the artistic experience invoked by the work itself, whether among the artist who created it, or the viewer who encounters it.

The quality of the art, often an indication of the ego-investment by the artist as much as in the actual materials used when calculating the final purchase price of a particular series of work, has relatively little merit for many dealers and curators when reaching such decisions. Some of the most expensive works imaginable are of poor artistic or material quality.  As with specialization of mediums, if the artist targets a particular market and series of venues, by studying both one can gage whether or not certain choice of materials and style(s) fits the perceived interest of either clients or patrons.

Understanding there is no hard or fast rule for the fluidity of the art market, like any other commodity trade, art has its innumerable variables. All things being equal - that is, the artists's confidence in their work being consistent with those of his or her contemporaries for a targeted venue, many serious private collectors and corporate curators will pay attention to an artist who shows not only promise with their craft, but has studied the intended market through a knowledge of pricing.  If consistency in a body of work is the first criteria through which curators and dealers decide on a particular artist over another, pricing is clearly the second.



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