What Price for your Soul?


Cleveland Artists talk about how they put a price on their work

Installation by Jen Omaitz

State Representative Sandra Williams was taking a tour of Zygote Press, when–having looked at the machines and talked about outreach programs–she was comfortable enough to ask a very basic, honest question.

“Why,” she wanted to know, “is art so expensive?”

She was not standing in the presence of expensive art. In fact, nothing on the gallery walls or in the display portfolios was priced higher than $500. But for someone whose world doesn’t generally include gallery openings or studio visits–in other words, for the vast majority of people in the world–it was an excellent question.

What price to put on art is a question that challenges artists themselves. How do they value and stand up for the value of their creativity?

Since the person asking is an elected official, I’ll note that the answers she got came from both liberal and conservative points of view. On the one hand, her tour guides asked her to consider the cost of materials, and how many hours of labor were invested, and to multiply by an hourly wage set according to the artist’s experience and training. On the other hand came the market-based perspective–the idea that a piece of art is worth exactly what a buyer will pay for it. William Busta observes that the real value of art is established the second time it is sold, at which point all factors beyond the market itself (such as friendship and a desire to support the artist) are pared away. But for artists pricing their own work, it can be much more complicated than that.

Matt Dibble, Electric Brawler, enamel, oil and charcoal on canvas, 75 x 85 inches, 2013


“My initial response is that most artists don’t charge enough,” says painter Matt Dibble. At his day job, as owner of a roofing company, Dibble estimates by the “square,” which is a 10-foot square, or 100 square feet of roof. It’s a simple calculation involving the cost of shingles and the time it takes to install them. An element of the same thinking, nuanced by experience and the market, applies to pricing art. His work is represented by Tregoning and Company. “With Bill, I have a number I use as a multiplier. I take the long measurement and multiply it.” He arrived at the factor by considering the prices at which his art has been sold, and figuring that his experience and the number of shows he’s been in add value. “Everything is negotiable if someone is serious about buying a piece of art, especially if the person has been collecting your work before. You don’t get the same professional courtesy from your doctor or from [a store like] Target.”

Imagine saying, ‘I’d like this blender, but I only want to give you so much for it.’

“It’s a tricky situation, because an artist always needs money.”

A lot of painters use some variation on the cost-of-materials plus the surface area, multiplied by an hourly rate.

Painter Debra Sue Solecki used to do architectural renderings: she was hired by firms to create the pictures that would help clients imagine what their plans for houses or buildings would look like. For those she charged by the square inch. She usually keeps a log, tracking the hours that go into a given piece, which makes it easy to track time plus the cost of supplies. The amount she pays herself per hour has gone up over time. She also charges more for certain works: if a piece won an award in a juried show, it develops a resume of sorts, and the price can go up. Likewise if prints were made from the original.

Wax encaustic painter Dawn Tekler begins with the cost of her materials, multiplies by three, and doubles that number for her time, to get a rough price. From there, she makes adjustments based on what peers are charging. She adds that her public interaction once a month at 78th Street Studios “has proven to be an invaluable research and educational tool.” She says many of her potential patrons are new to the art world and don’t know that galleries need to make money, too, and do so by commission: the artist herself usually gets 50 to 60 percent of the sale price. So, to get the wage they want, artists have to consider that, too.

Not all painters calculate like that. Rob Hartshorn–who has become known among universities and other institutions for his richly detailed portraiture–says he arrives at prices in an emotional way: “There’s a crossover point, where it feels like it’s OK to let a painting go.”

Jeweler and fine metal smith Kim Baxter, of Flux Metal Arts studio, takes the cost-and-labor calculation seriously, using an Excel spread sheet that takes into account studio costs, utilities, insurance, rent, plus materials, packaging, and time invested.

“I see too many artists undercut their own prices because they are trying to compete with a discount culture of Asian imports,” Baxter says. “It is up to us to educate our customers. Art is subjective, and the emotional value to the customer is what prompts them to buy a painting that makes them happy, a piece of jewelry that makes them feel beautiful, or a hand thrown mug that is a pleasure to hold and drink from.”

More conceptual art raises more complex pricing challenges: it’s not simply about the value of time, materials, and skill, but the market value of ideas.

The question took Loren Naji quickly to the story of JSG Boggs, who draws one-sided likenesses of US currency, and “spends” them in restaurants and shops. He represents them as art–not as money–but values them based on the standard US currency denomination represented on the note. For him, the question is not about the value of art, but about what gives money its value.

Josh Usmani–whose “Funny Money” consists of bank notes from around the world, brightly colored with ink–says he prices by comparison and intuition. “I look for work by artists I respect, work I would feel comfortable fairly trading for my own.”

Pricing his own art, Loren Naji says, is “intuitive.” “If I absolutely love something and don’t want to sell it, I price it higher.” He understands that an artist’s name can affect value in the marketplace, but personally doesn’t think it should. For him, it’s all about aesthetic value and personal attachment, for both the buyer and seller. In his mind, the pale orb that has hung like a moon for years in his gallery, marked with abstract ink lines, doesn’t gain value from the fact that multitudes of his visitors have seen it and would recognize it anywhere. What gives it value is the simple fact that he likes it.

Clearly, pricing by intuition is complicated.

For her conceptual installations, Jennifer Omaitz deals with even further complication. She considers the cost of materials, her time, and her own resume. But to sell one of her installations, after it is constructed, she has to carefully disassemble, documenting every part of the process with stills and video, pack it up, and then reconstruct on location. Collectors have to cover the cost of shipping, and even accommodations for the time it takes to do that–including for not only the artist, but sometimes an assistant. “I base my price on all of this so that the work will be reconstructed in a condition that is almost the same as if it were in a gallery/museum setting,” she says. Because there are so few buyers who have space to install the kind of work she does, she usually offers prices only on request.

No matter how artists price their work, Deb Lawrence urges both buyers and sellers to resist looking at art as a commodity. “Most important is the fact that art is not…or should not be … about production. We’re not factories where ideas are generated in the blink of an eye, supplies are purchased, and then we churn out piece after piece, assembly line style. Each new work takes a tremendous amount of thought, soul searching, and research, trying things out, moving things around until its personality begins to emerge … The irony of it all is that the beauty of so many works lies in their apparent effortlessness and simplicity … [the feeling that] your own kid could do it. Don’t be fooled.”

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