How Do I Price My Work?

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Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign wallpaper, c. 1982.
Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign wallpaper, c. 1982.

How should I price my artwork? I have a BFA, but not an MFA. I’m selling some things in a group show: four paintings on panel and one clay sculpture. Thanks.
Dollar Sighs
Dear Dollar Sighs,
There’s a lot that goes into finding the right price point for your work. Since I don’t know about you and what your resume and work looks like, I will try to give some general guidelines that hopefully you and other readers can consider when trying to put a moneytag on your stuff.
I’m assuming that you are not represented by a gallery, thus aren’t paying commission to anyone. Most artists with gallery representation are paying 30-50 percent of their sales price to the gallery. So the price points you see in commercial spaces aren’t necessarily a good metric for you. However, if there happens to be an artist in a gallery who you feel is similar to you in terms of career accomplishments and working method, perhaps you can take their price, cut it in half-ish, and use that as a starting point for your own work.
The price of an artwork takes into account the entire career of an artist. Buyers are paying not only for the time and materials it took to make the piece, but the academic training, exhibitions, and accomplishments that led up to it. Time is important: how long you’ve been making art, how long you went to school, and how long it took you to complete the piece. So yes, generally speaking (and I mean generally, there are zillions of exceptions), work by an artist with an MFA would be expected to be at a higher price point than one with a BFA.
Another consideration is size. Some galleries have a fixed rate per inch for each artist; this is sometimes referred to as a “magic number.” Kind of like real estate. Newer artists have lower magic numbers than established artists. The formulas vary, but here’s an example: say Sally Hoho’s magic number is 30 and she’s selling painting that is 16 by 24 inches. The dealer adds 16+24 and gets 40; they multiply that by her magic number and the total is $1,200. A 40-by-60-inch painting would be $3,000, and so on. Over the course of Sally’s career, her magic number may increase if, say, she’s included in a major exhibition at a museum or is inducted into an esteemed collection. These things affect her price. Perhaps this system can work for you: figure out what your magic number is, and use a formula to determine price based on size.
In addition to size, perhaps some works are significantly more complicated than others in regard to material, technique, or subject matter. That could also factor into your price point.

More importantly, you have to consider what you can actually get for your work. Remember that scene in Basquiat when he tries to sell his “stupid, crummy art” postcards to Andy Warhol for $10? Andy’s like “Gee, you didn’t work very much on these,” and Andy’s rich-guy friend says “It’s not how much you work on them, it’s how much you get for them.” There’s some truth in that. If you can get a certain price—great; but if you can’t, then reconsider the number.
If you don’t have a significant sales history, you have to be realistic and flexible. Start low and build a track record, gradually increasing your prices. Even though you may really want to sell each painting for $5,00—you probably aren’t there yet. I know you’ve got bills to pay and burritos to buy, but you’ve almost always got to start low and build up.
I suggest, for your sake, working with buyers initially—especially if they really love your work, but can’t afford what you’re asking. The more people have your work, the more your name gets spread out into the world. You want people to buy and collect your work; you want to get it off your hands. Don’t price a painting at $3,000 and keep it for 15 years because no one ever bought it, though there was plenty of genuine interest. The more work you keep in your possession, the less you’re likely to make. Get it out of your studio. Price it to sell so your production can grow and continue to evolve.
For one day in the fall of 2013, Banksy set up a stall selling signed original canvases to passers by in New York’s Central Park for $60.

Many art legends were known for parting easily with their works. It’s a good habit to get into. Make the work and give it to the world. Don’t hoard it, and don’t base your sense of artistic worth on your monetary compensation. Picasso traded art for handy work, and look how he turned out!
If you get bogged down in the mud of art and money, just grab some popcorn, prop your feet up and watch the 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, which is now streaming in its entirety on Vimeo. It’s an excellent exposé by art critic Robert Hughes about the history of the art market and its current out-of-control state of absurdity. Hopefully it will put a little less pressure on you when it comes to assigning a number to your life’s passion. Just make the best art you can, be true to yourself, and try to relax about what happens to it when it leaves your hands.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to renowned paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared. Her writing and art criticism has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow. 

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