By Barry Eigen
Often when I find myself among a group of artists the conversation turns to how we artists should set prices for our art.
An economics professor of mine described the strategy for setting prices this way: Imagine you are selling bean bags, he said. Let’s assume you’ve got a warehouse full of bean bags and every morning you go to the window, look outside to see how many people are waiting in line to buy your beanbags. If the line goes all the way to the horizon, he said, you should raise your prices. If on the other hand no one is standing in line, it's time to lower your prices. It’s obvious.
An experienced Austinite told me if a person picked up a stone and threw it in any direction, he would hit a musician or an artist. That’s how many artists and musicians there are in Austin. In other words, a lot of artists means there is a great deal of competition for art buyers resulting in a smaller number of art buyers standing in any one line. Too few buyers, he would say, is a buyer’s market and a buyer’s market exerts downward pressure on prices. That’s been my experience here in Austin. I moved to Texas just four years ago from Wisconsin and I am convinced a painting priced at X dollars here will sell for two or three times that in New York, Chicago, Santa Fe and even Milwaukee.
There are those who argue sculpture should be priced based on size while two dimensional art should be priced by the square inch. One told me the going rule for pricing a painting is $1.00 per square inch. Another said $1.25. On a video, an established artist suggested $1.75. Maybe I’m wrong but I have a good deal of trouble understanding this approach.
In my thinking, neither size nor even the amount of time it takes to create a piece should be the dominant way to determine price. Certainly every piece of art we create is not like every other. In our various opinions, some of our art may be more successful than others. I argue we ought to be able to price the work we really like different from the work we like less. I’m fully aware some folks don’t agree.
The notion that the time it takes to create a piece should determine its price was for me dismissed forever by an incident I experienced years ago. I attended an art fair with a close friend, a potter known for his large copper mat raku wheel-thrown amphoras with bottoms that came to a graceful point. Some of his pieces were five feet tall and for display were balanced delicately on a plexiglas cylinder. To say his work was stunning is an understatement and his prices, ranging from five hundred to seventy-five hundred dollars, underscored it.
At the show a collector came along, carefully studied one magnificent piece and asked how someone could throw a piece whose bottom came to a point. “I throw it upside down,” the potter answered. Then, considering the piece’s very substantial price, the collector asked the question we all sometimes get: “How long did it take you to make that piece?” My friend smiled and gave an answer that said it all. “Thirty years!” he said. I use that answer often. You can use it too.
Setting prices is always subjective. The battle between pricing your work so it will sell and setting prices so your work will be appreciated is not easy. I only offer the words of a seventeenth century French playwright.
“Things only have the value that we give them.” - Moliere