This morning, I opened my email to discover a letter from someone with whom I had been corresponding about their interest in one of my paintings. I was hoping that the potential client was ready to make a decision. What the letter revealed however, was that the potential client really likes the work but just can’t get over his conviction that artwork shouldn’t cost more than “a couple of hundred bucks.” Oh I was steaming — and truthfully not very nice in my response. But the fact is, many people don’t know why art is priced the way it is so I thought it might be useful to explain it. Before I begin, let me stress that I am talking about fairly priced art — not art that is arbitrarily priced by galleries, auction houses or artist egos.
Let’s take the premise that my potential client is correct. According to his calculation, the average price for a painting or a steel sculpture should not exceed $200. That means that in order t0 gross $70,000 a year (gross means before you deduct the business related expenses of art) that I would have to sell about $140,000 to make the $70,000 gross I am talking about. That is because the cost of selling the art — either independently or through galleries — costs approximately 50% of the price of the work. So, that means that I would have to make and sell 700 artworks/year. Given that professional artists can usually complete 1 work of art every 3 to 4 days, I would have to work 376 hours a week to just make enough work (assuming that every piece I make will sell in a year). Then, I have to work an additional 10 hours a week to box and ship all the works, and about 30 hours a week to market the work so that it has a chance of selling. Ok, I’m superwoman. I can work 416 hours a week. Let’s see what that gets me.
After commissions (or the cost of marketing if you are an independent) lets look at the cost of making the art itself. 1st, I need a studio. As a Santa Fe sculptor, the cost for a studio big enough to do the kind of work I do is, on the low end, about $800/month. The utilities run another $150/month. My insurance, health insurance and other fixed costs run around $420/month. That adds up to $16,440. Now lets look at the cost of my materials. On average, I spend about $800/month in steel, welding gas, welding wire and patina chemicals. I spend another $350/month on painting supplies. At my current production level of about 70 pieces/year, that adds up to $13,800. Ok, now multiply that by 10 to get to the 700 pieces I have to make and sell each year and it works out to $138,000. So, to sell $140,000 worth of art to gross $70,000, I have to spend $154,440. Wow!! That means, I lose $84,000/year. I have zero money to feed my family, put gas in my car, or pay my mortgage. Instead, I’m bankrupt.
Or, I can get a full time job, make a few pieces a year and try to sell them with whatever disposable income I have and be happy that someone is willing to pay a portion of my investment in my art.
Art is expensive because it has to be. My average piece sells for about $2600. I sell around 50 pieces each year (some years are better, others are worse). I make about 70 pieces/year and destroy many of them because they didn’t come out right no matter how hard I tried. I make a living. Not a great living, but a living and I get to do the work that feeds not only my soul, but the souls of my collectors.
What do you think? How should art be priced? What is your time worth? I would love to hear your thoughts.