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Is Your Art Priceless?

Put on the business suit you ditched when becoming an artist. Selling your art is, in fact, a business and your artwork is a commodity—whether at Sotheby's or on the sidewalk. Eventually, every artist has to talk price.

Let's run some numbers by considering a single piece.

Remember that everything in your studio was paid for (or found), and materials can be expensive. Art sales must eventually pay for these things.

For our example, let’s say that for one piece you tally $20 spent on raw materials. So, if you sell your work of art for $100, you net only $80.

Now take into consideration hourly labor. (If that seems too blue collar, call it labour.) Spending two days on a piece is equivalent to 16 hours at a 9-to-5 job. Divide your remaining $80 by 16 hours to see what your hourly pay rate would be. In this case, $5 per hour.

Ouch, you say? It gets worse. If you sell the piece through a gallery, they may take up to 50% commission; at which point your hourly wage drops to $2.50.

Right now you’re probably thinking, jack that price! Certainly, given your investments. Even so, you may fear that if you go too high, you'll never sell anything. Or, if you go too low, you'll regret it later. You must learn how to balance the investment you’ve made with the relative value that buyers will place on your work.

Do not inflate a price based on your feelings toward your work. Be professional and develop an emotional detachment in this regard. If you cannot part with a piece at a reasonable price, keep it. Period.

The bottom line is, if you are just starting out, cover your costs and keep your dignity, but stay relatively low in price. Why? It gets your art out there, in peoples’ homes, generating interest, building an audience. This is how artistic value is established, which is arguably of greater worth than a single piece's sale price in the long run. You have to create value in your work now in order to justify the price you want to deserve in the future.

Enter juried shows at galleries, participate in benefit auctions, and create your own exhibitions. Expose yourself in creative ways to build a history. The more you exhibit and interact, the more familiar you will become with price structures and be able to situate your work accordingly. You will also see the caliber of art you would like to show beside. The key is getting involved.

The most important ingredient in establishing value in your art is hard work. There is no escaping studio time, creativity, and matter how well you can market yourself.