Sunday, June 17, 2012


Ever been sitting in a bar or restaurant and seen some picture or painting on the wall and thought: I like that.

Then gone for a squizz at the pricetag on it and seen $1200, and just about choked on your ox-tongue taco?

I think this might be common to everyone who has reached the stage of being able to contemplate buying things with their own money, and being in a restaurant where somebody other than their parents are paying. Its a suspicion I have.

Have you ever walked into a store called 'Villain' and leafed through the poster folder to see prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrints (!) of artwork by street-artists for sale for like $100 or more? I suspect this is a less common experience but let me tell you, I have.Yes, a print, a reproducable image being sold for $100 (those were the cheap ones).

I guess with artwork that ultimately it is worth as much as what someone is willing to pay for it. But figuring out what somebody would be willing to pay for something is harder than you would think.

By far the most stressful thing I had to do for my last exhibition was figure out how much to charge for my artwork. The fact that going through the process of exhibiting gave me an insight into how a piece of art on a cafe wall can be $1200 made it no less stressful.

So let's say I buy a stack of post-it-notes and take a blue highlighter and draw a dash on 5 post it notes, virtually identical and then sign each post it note with my name. Bang! artwork done. Thus far I could sell my works for $1 and be coming out way ahead of what my materials cost me, (keeping in mind I can still use the rest of the post it stack and the rest of the ink in the highlighter).

So my current price is $1. Now I just need a place to exhibit. Consider, a gallary needs to be little more than 4 walls and 1 door (to provide entry and exit), can't be too expensive right? You are essentially just hiring a shopfront for a week. What does this cost? A gallary that meets the basic sensible requirements can cost around $1200 for a week or fortnight. Sometimes this includes catering and staff for your launch. Let's say we find a cheap one, one a 30 minute tram ride away from the city. Now it costs the bargain price of $500.

So now my 5 post it notes have to cover $500 just to cover my rent, plus the gallary takes a 10% commission on all sales. So I need to sell my works for $550 just to make no money from the exercise.
Even with my crappy next-best-thing-to-free artwork, I'm going to have to charge $110 each just to cover the costs of the exercise of exhibiting, regardless of the quality of my artwork.

So one could say that the risk of exhibiting and not selling is taken on by the artist and the fact that you pay rent up front coverse the gallary owner from the risks you take. It simultaneously encourages people not to take risks on crappy artwork, but to put their prices up to cover the costs of exhibiting.

So say now, that I have painted 5 actual decent canvas paintings, good artwork, hours of study, refinement and preparation going into each. They will have to all sell for $110 each to break even still, the only thing that has changed is the likelyhood that somebody would buy the pieces at that price. But what about your time? What do you charge for your time?

Here it is difficult, the temptation for people like me is to just not factor it in, and say things like 'I do it for love, I'd pay somebody to let me draw/paint/play/whatever' and it's a strong temptation. But at somepoint you have to cross that line and start asking people 'would you pay for my talents as an artist?'

This is the equivalent of asking 'what is my hourly wage?' and if you do one exhibit a year, you are asking 'what is my annual salary?'.

And you are asking. Whatever price you put on your piece is just the opening round of negotiation - you are saying 'here is what I think I'm worth.' and unless somebody buys it, what you think may be far above the reality. But in this regard you do yourself a disservice by under pricing your art, disregarding the time spent on your exhibition... any sale tells you nothing about what somebody is willing to pay for your skills as an artist.

Most artists I'm sure, lose an average $3000 a year once they get really serious. I was fortunate to see my high school friends' brother's exhibition launch in the infant stages of organising my own. He had sold most of his pieces before the show even opened at a special preview for collectors. He made somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. And this may not sound like much to my pinko-privately-high-schooled-higher-educated readers, but having spent the last two years in a call center asking people about household income you would be shocked at how many families of five live on less than $50,000 a year in a two income household. Furthermore, he got to make that chunk of change through art. That's the fucken dream. There are not many lifestyles for me that can compete with the thought of replacing work with art.

I would probably take a $70,000 salary for an office job at the moment, but that's because I am nowhere near being able to earn $30,000 on art. I wouldn't take that office job if somebody paid me $30,000 to paint.

But once again I've fucken digressed. For me, I wanted to keep my artworks around $50. But as I went through markers and pens three times as fast I realised it was becoming impossible. The fact is that I could have sold the pieces for $30 and covered all my costs. But then I wouldn't know anything about whether I could make it as an artist. I had to tack on something for my pains and my time.

Furthermore, the thing about selling original artworks is that you only get to sell them once. After that they are in the secondary market. There are now contracts in place to ensure indigenous artists get a percentage of the revenue from any sales of their artwork. Eg. The artist gets 5% of $1,000 when the gallary sells it to a collector, then 5% of $10,000 when the collector sells it at auction, and then 5% of $100,000 when it is sold again to a Wall Street firm, then 5% of the $1,000 it is sold for when that firm has all its assets liquidated to pay off creditors. But for most the case is you get the revenue from the initial sale, and then when it sells in 10 years time for $10,000,000 you get to read your name in the newspaper and nothing else.

Furthermore the gallary will take its cut.

At some point my prices will have to stop being based on my dayjob's hourly rate, and start being in essence a job-interview with the public. Can I be a minimum wage earning artist next year? Can I pocket $16,000 or whatever from sales. Can I be taking home $30,000 as an artist in three years time? Will they ever pay me the big bucks and my prices reflect the $75,000 per year plus that I want to take home?

At the moment the question is a more pressing - will I sell a thing at my second exhibition? I subscribe, study and idolise some comic book artists that regularly sell their warm up sketch for $100 each day, plus shipping. That's the first 15 minutes warm up, before they actually get down to the business side of their job and they are already pocketing what it takes me 5 hours to earn in a call center. Then they do their Eisner Award winning comic book covers, or their creator own comic that sold a movie option.

When I can pay my rent on warm up sketches, I'll know I've made it. But that takes a following and followings take both achievement and time. There's a lot of 'love' sketches behind those $100 warm up sketches. But on the flipside of those 'love' sketches, there's a lot of 'love' sales in the early days.

Somebody suggested to me to not have prices on my last exhibit. Meritocratic payment so to speak. The suggestion was well intentioned, and is interesting because it points a way to avoiding the whole stress of having to try and guess what your artwork is worth. But I rejected it.

I think for one, it is kind of unethical. I read this article that I can't find on pricing, but from what I can remember it was something like:

'thou shall start off cheap. thou shalt publish thy prices. thou shalt raise thy prices regularly and by a little. thou shalt not lower prices. thou shalt not have one price for Sam and another for Joe. though shalt not price by talent or time taken, but by size. thou shalt not easily discount thy prices. thou shalt lay control on thy dealers and agents. thou shalt deal with those who will honor thee. thou shalt end up expensive.'

I wish I'd paid more attention to that talent and time taken. But I guess, even if you painted a Mona Lisa, the biggest determinant on what somebody is willing to pay for it will be whether its a postcard on their wall or a billboard. That's how I choose to interpret that. But I think having known and displayed prices that are adhered to is just good practice. I mean it's ultimately your rep that takes you from losing $3000 to making $70,000, there is nothing worse than a collector purchasing a work for $700 to find out you sold an equivalent piece to your friends for $70. It's just making a fraud out of yourself.

That's why over half the pieces of my last exhibition are sitting in a case in a cupboard somewhere. Maybe they would of all sold if I'd just made them cheap enough. Maybe I could have even made more money. Maybe if I'd discounted the leftovers I could have sold more. But the thing is, that that would have told me nothing. Nothing. That I can sell art for little more than the value of the materials it is made from. That I give away my time. Worse, that I don't know whether my friends want me to be an artist or not. And then, are my friends hanging their pieces on the wall next to where they work, and every now and then thinking about Musashi? or is it wedged between two textbooks to be carelessly destroyed and binned.

You got to just figure out what your art is worth, then risk it not selling. That's the exercise of pricing.

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