-By Eric Fortune
Prior to having my work on the walls I discussed pricing with the gallery owner. It was suggested that the work be under priced. That hurt. Now, as some may know it’s fairly standard for the gallery to take 50% of any sold work. Double whammy. ‘Starving artist’ took on a whole new meaning. I had to keep in mind my long term goals; produce art that I like, and make a living by doing so. Now there is actually a good reason for what was suggested. Under pricing is a strategy used to move work. In the gallery scene there’s nothing quite like a “SOLD OUT” show to peak interest and build momentum. It creates a vacuum or demand for the work as it becomes scarce.
Under pricing makes it easier for a collector to invest in a new person on the scene. Someone who has not yet shown they can consistently produce quality and engaging work. I knew that many of the artists I was looking at in the Low Brow/Pop Surreal scene were also former illustrators. I assumed that collectors were probably familiar with illustrators because of this. I also assumed that because I had been accepted into The Society of Illustrators and Spectrum and had started to make a name for myself there would be some cross over. This may be true for some artists. However, it seemed I really was the new kid on the block and the bottom rung is where I was starting.
Because prices were lowered it did help the work to sell. And thank goodness I’ve sold most of my work as I don’t have time for much illustration on the side these days. Because it’s my only source of income every time I have a show it’s the most stressful, nerve wracking experience. A few works may sell prior to the opening but things rarely fly off the wall. As good as it looks to have a “sold out” sign it’s obviously not a good thing to have unsold work or even worse to have priced work too high and have to back peddle the prices on your next show. My goal, other than to make good art, is to consistently sell work, and to slowly raise prices appropriate to the demand of my work. No one wants to be a flash in the pan. Yet, it happens. There are many pitfalls one must be aware of. Pricing too high too fast can be one of them. It helps me to think in the long term about the sacrifices I make today that will hopefully pay off tomorrow. This is the route I’m taking and it may evolve.
There are obviously different dynamics and other factors that may come into play. For example if you already make a really good living on the side, selling art at the gallery may not have the same urgency. And pricing the work closer to what you think it’s worth vs. what someone is willing to pay for it may not be a major concern. Some would rather hold on to their work rather than sell it for lower than what they would consider it’s worth. However, if you’re in the business of selling original art for a living hording your own stuff and being your own biggest collector won’t get you where you want to be. The truth is galleries like artists who are in demand and who can sell. Like anything else it’s a business. I should also mention that not all galleries are worth your time and money and you should always research as much as possible prior to working with a gallery. The relationship between gallery and artist should be a mutually beneficial one.
For anyone interested, I’m currently reading a book that offers some more insight into the gallery scene. Check out “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art” by Don Thompson. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but the less debt one has the easier it is to take a risky decision concerning your career. Things to consider.
I have a show coming up and was struggling on how much I should price my pieces. Reading this puts it all into perspective, really helpful advice and tips.
Glad to be of service Andres. Good luck with your show. Remember quality over quantity. Sometimes pressure can be put on the artist to fill out a show with more work. Besides being very stressful it can compromise the integrity of the work and hurt your reputation as well as your sales. It's better to have fewer pieces that are top notch and scarce than flooding the scene with a bunch of mediocre, unsold paintings. Always do your best work.
Thanks for this “business-insight” I always wonder what it is for fantasy illustrators to approach that market. I think if you´re hip and at the edge of Low brow art like Chet Zar, you have not to worry about sales. For myself I find it too stressful and consider doing only one show a year but rather participate in group shows or fairs, since doing commissions feels better to me, may be that this will change over the years.
Excellent advice and info, thanks. As someone who hopes to move into gallery showing soon but with no current contacts in the industry, information like this is invaluable. Going to amazon to buy that book now!
Hey Eric! Good post. You are doing something I might want to delve into in the future. I ordered the 12 million stuffed shark and will read it. Thanks for the advice. Without knowing anything about this market I guess it is like every market: to be successful in it, you need the right combination of buisness knowledge and a good dose of luck. I wish you and your beautiful art all the best. Sascha
Thanks Eric! I've followed the same ideas for the last couple years and am just beginning to raise my prices very slowly, and thankfully, things are still selling. I began my gallery career while still working on my undergrad, so that there was less pressure in making money and more focus on gaining experience showing my work in galleries. I really underpriced things then, but I reminded myself not to be greedy and just enjoy the fact that people are spending their hard-earned money on my art, and during a recession, too.
I also have to consider where the art is being sold… I'm based in Atlanta, but when I show my work in LA, the prices are quite a bit higher than what my work sells for in Atlanta. I had assumed I could get away with that based on the fact that they are entirely different markets. So far, so good.
Always learning as I go! Thank you for this post. 🙂
That really sucks to hear Eric. If your work is good, it's good. It really bites that you have to cut rates make sales. Especially when the gallery is taking such a cut. I hope they're doing the leg work for you in return! I'm so 'of two minds' about giving commission to galleries. Yes, they have ready collectors at hand in their community – but on the flip side – it just doesn't seem like a good deal for the artist. I'm personally wondering if it's better to not sell ordinals at all – vs under pricing. It's some kind of stubborn streak in me. I'd rather sit surrounded by my paintings starving and sleep deprived from doing two jobs to live, than see my work undersold. BUT! You're actually doing it, and I'm just blowing hot air right now, (and sponging off my family!) so you have the upper hand in this matter:) Good luck, and I hope you get the buzz you deserve, and this unfair situation doesn't last any longer than it needs to.
Thanks guys. I didn't mean to make it a sob story just realistic so people can adjust their expectations. Letting go of my work was hard in the beginning. Now I can't wait to get rid of it. The more work I have that's unsold the worse off I am.
Concerning selling work in different cities. Nowadays, buyers can be from anywhere in the world due to the marketing and internet. Some collectors may feel slighted if they paid more for a similar piece just because of the location where it was sold. It helps to be consistent.
As for commissions. If you're spending the extra time and energy to do something specifically for someone it makes sense that you should charge a little more than for your average. A percentage on top of your current price as the “commission fee”.
“The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” is very interesting. But it's more about high end contemporary fine art. It's more about shedding light on the extravagant happenings there and less about business strategy. Watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop” reminded me of some things in the book. As mentioned the aboves post on pricing was learned through my personal experience and talking with others in the art scene.
This was an excellent insight to such a fundamental question. As a student especially I'm finding it hard to let go of things I put blood, sweat and tears in for so little. But in the end its worth more to me to generate interest in my work and make a little money than end up with it all on my walls.
That's a very interesting post, Eric, and one part has kept nagging at me so I'm back to re-read it and ask: How do you sell pieces before the opening?
I believe I have read somewhere that it's important to send exhibit catalogs in advance, but my Google-fu has not been useful in finding more information about catalogs and selling the artwork prior to the opening (and even “How to survive and prosper as an artist” hasn't been useful on that front.)
Thank you very much.