The Supposed “High” Cost of Artwork

Meat Market by Megan Koth © 2008

Last semester I had a particularly illuminating conversation with my then-roommate about pricing. She had mentioned how surprised she was with the pricing of the artwork she had seen while attending an artwalk. She mentioned a particular painting about 18×20″ in size that was about $200. I was surprised too, but not because I perceived the price to be too high (like she did) but because I knew it was too low (at least for someone hoping to make a living selling their artwork.)

This conversation only reminded me that too many people just don’t understand what artwork should cost, and why it costs what it costs. My roommate thought that  this person, charging $200 for a painting, must be some sort of bourgeois yuppie overcharging for work and going home to a cushy home or apartment. In reality, either this person made most of  their money elsewhere, or they lived out of their car. More people need to understand that an artist deserves fair compensation for their work.

There is a misconception that the pricing of artwork should just work like any other old job, or by “how many hours” was put into the work itself. This fails to take into account a variety of factors, one being that an artist, unlike someone working an hourly job elsewhere, has to pay a considerable amount for their own raw materials. Any artist will tell you how incredibly expensive art supplies can be, especially when we’re talking about materials of a high enough quality to produce sale-able work (crappy paints are cheap, but nobody wants to buy a painting that will fade/deteriorate over time.) This all has to be paid for by the artist, and all for a resultant work that only MIGHT be sold in the end. Another thing to keep in mind is that when you buy a piece of art, you’re not just paying for the number of hours this artist dedicated to that specific work, but also for the years and years of training and practice that they had to go through (and pay for) to get to the level of experience necessary to produce said work. Artists are skilled laborers, and you should appreciate that. No to mention, in order to produce their work, artists obviously need to pay the rent, eat, and buy toilet paper and whatnot. That stuff doesn’t magically materialize, and if someone works only as an artist, that’s going to have to be paid for through their work.

Another factor that people tend to forget about is that, once a painting is produced, it doesn’t just magically get seen by the right people, or into the right venues, and is sold. The artist then has to go on a daunting and often difficult quest to market, present, and hopefully sell said painting. Lets say an artist wants to sell their work in an art show or fair. First of all, they have to pay for a license/fee to participate in the fair, which can range anywhere from $10 to the hundreds. This is without any guarantee that they’ll even sell one piece. Oftentimes, artists have to pay for their own booth equipment, which can be very expensive. Then, they have to spend the entirety of the fair managing their booth. This is work. If this kind of thing was not factored in as work in the pricing, the artist would likely have no time to sit around a booth for an entire weekend when they could be working somewhere else earning an hourly wage. If an artist wants to instead sell through a gallery? Chances are, the artist is only seeing 50% or less of the asking price listed.

German Vegetables by Megan Koth © 2009

And finally, the overall notion is this: people need to understand that a piece of artwork is a one of a kind object created by someone with great skill and expertise. It is not a mass produced product that can be produced to the highest level of efficiency in materials, labor (or even underpaid labor), and time to ensure the cheapest price possible. It’s produced (oftentimes) by a single, imperfect human being, who’s making something new. Imagine buying a painting as similar to buying a song, like on iTunes, from a musical artist. Only, you’re the only one that can ever buy that track, and then the artist can never make any money from that song ever again. They can’t re-sell it, and you can’t make any copies of it.  That song download is it. Whatever you paid for that song is all they’re ever getting paid for all the work they put into it. Whereas producing endless copies of music data is virtually free (once it’s been produced), the same can’t be done with a painting or drawing (at least not without completely changing the format of the work.) I understand that this means comparatively higher (much higher) prices on original artworks, that, lets face it, a lot of people can’t afford. However, artists, if they want to make a living doing what they do, have to charge these prices in order to sustain themselves. It’s that simple. When things aren’t mass produced, you have to pay for that discrepancy.

So, please, fellow artists, charge fairly for your work, in a way that you can support yourself and, most importantly, the creation of future work. Seriously, when you price your work for so little, it warps buyers expectations of what artists should “deserve” for their work. And to buyers, understand all that goes into a piece of art, and understand just what a bargain you’re getting.

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3 thoughts on “The Supposed “High” Cost of Artwork

    1. Agreed! That’s what surprised me about what my roommate said- she was a sustainability major! I think we’re so used to an abundance of cheap, disposable versions of everything that we start to feel entitled to cheap products. I get this even from people who decry the horrible conditions and exploitation that goes into making the stuff, and yet they still want the price to stay cheap. Doesn’t work that way! If you want to pay an artist a living wage, you gotta pay the price!

  1. Fully agree. Luckily there are a lot of people out there who understand the value of art, and can also afford it! On another note, I think sometimes people assume that since art could be “a hobby” or “fun” (or at least there is sometimes this perception,) that artists should do it “for free” or at least not as a legitimate business. Do professional accountants work for free because they enjoy it? Not usually.

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