The Iceberg Concept of Pricing Your Art

 

An utterly silly photo about a very apropos analogy 

 

 I wanted an iceberg image to illustrate this journal entry about art pricing, but I didn’t want to use stock graphics or to draw one.  Everytime I considered something else, I balked.  It had to be an iceberg.  So, being fresh out of tickets for a North Atlantic cruise, I improvised.  Turns out the head-of-iceberg-lettuce-as-stand-in-for-iceberg-metaphor works even better, as we shall see.

While I have addressed pricing and other money matters here before, it’s been awhile and the confounding mystery of it continues. Honestly, I still have an agonizing time determining retail prices for anything I make, but I do have a helpful way in. So when I was asked to present some pricing ideas and practices at a workshop for the current crop of local Open Studios artists, I decided to describe the considerations looming below the surface of the topic in addition to the how-to methods we generally seek above.

 

Basic Premises

  • Work hard to separate your pride (or your unvoiced shame) about your work from your pricing.
  • It’s not a “once and done” effort.
  • No single axiom/approach works every time or over time.
  • Confidence in pricing requires research, soul-search, preparation, experimentation and experience.

 

Looming Just Below the Surface

YOU:

  • What motivates you? Personal expression? Recognition? Money? If Money is the strongest motivator, you’ll be fine. If not, keep reading.
  • What’s your level of satisfaction in your career and current style? Tentative? Changing? Loud and proud? Giddy?
  • Are you able to see your work objectively? If not, how can you create some professional distance?

YOUR MEDIUM:

  • What is it? Where is it in the fine art/craft market spectrum? (I’ve seen one of my top-priced ceramic beer cans placed next to a same-sized smallish watercolor of the same label which was asking – and getting! – three times the price.)
  • Ask whatever you like, but what does it sell for?
  • How does your work compare to similar works? (This is market research in comparables for information, not necessarily for replication.)
  • Do you price the pieces you personally like higher? Should you?

YOUR PERFECT PEOPLE

  • Describe your ideal collector in detail. You might already know them. How is this person like you?
  • Whatever story and meaning you carry for your pieces, others won’t see them like that and will apply their own rationales and interpretations.
  • Folks, even sophisticated well-heeled art lovers, buy art impulsively: they recognize it and fall in love. Price is just one part of this buying experience.

YOUR VENUES

  • Where are they located? Do they have any particular cachet or limitations? Are they focused primarily on selling art or on eating and entertainment?
  • How is your work displayed, labelled, interpreted and lighted?
  • How do you or your representatives engage with visitors?
  • Do you keep your retail prices exactly the same everywhere? (Please do.)

THE ECONOMY MATTERS

  • Local or Global, it affects expectations and behaviors.
  • Discretionary Money = Less available and more accounted-for funds.
  • Impulsive Money = More available and less watched.

 

The Visible: Some Pricing Methods

TIME AND MATERIALS

  • Great if you like to parse hours and receipts.
  • Maybe it’s useful if your materials are costlier or your methods time-consuming.
  • As you become more efficient and/or find cheaper materials sources, what does it do to your prices?
  • Try it for yourself; it’ll be eye-opening.

A MULTIPLIER FOR SIZES

  • In 2D you can size by square inches or by perimeter measurement and use a base cost multiplier.
  • Does this method work for 3D media using cubic volume or weight? Should it?
  • These methods can have scaling inconsistencies and other irrelevancies.
  • You still have to determine your multiplier.
  • Try it for yourself, some folks swear by this.

PROTOTYPE ITERATIONS

  • Price new work on the low end.
  • If it sells easily, be quick to raise your price a bit. Raise again if it keeps selling and so on.
  • Find the price point at which the sales slow up noticeably and hold or back down slightly, your choice.
  • This is “green feedback.” Stay curious because your actual marketplace is speaking.
  • Try it yourself over and over.

PRODUCT ECOSYSTEM FAMILY ARCS

  • Use your entire body of work and assign a range of prices to ALL of it. Does it make sense?
  • Do your price-points match the market for similar work? Why or why not?
  • There is wiggle room for anomalies and one-offs, but price them after you understand the range you determine.
  • Try it for yourself but beware, as it ventures well into perceived aesthetics, comparables and subjectivity.

JAZZ IMPROV

  • Sometimes you just “know” the prices that work for you and your perfect people, your venue and economy.
  • And it’s probably based on personally internalizing  your whole iceberg.
  • You don’t “try” this, you just do it when you’re ready. Maybe now?

EXCEPTIONS

  • There are always exceptions!
  • Sales/Seconds/Discounts/Close-outs/Cash Buyers/Students/Trading Parity/Donations/Auctions/Freebies/Commissions/Layaways/What else?
  • It’s probably a good thing to develop a stance regarding all of them. What’s your practice/policy?

 

So, there you have it.  Pricing is dependent on a whole convoluted sphere of influences.  Setting a price on something that is so deeply personal and doesn’t have a set market value is squidgy business.  And for your machinations and calculations, all you get is money.  That’s what you wanted, right?  (See: YOU:What motivates you?)

Detached confidence and practice helps.  That’s why the head of iceberg lettuce is even more suited to the notion of pricing being a more-than-meets-the-eye thing: it’s organic, integrated leaf by enfolding leaf, revealing itself slowly. Pricing art is a nearly untranslatable alchemy anyhow because it requires an artist to range from suchness to materiality, aesthetics to a number. Good luck with forging your pathways, whether adapted here or yet to be discovered.

–Liz Crain, who enjoys this observation of Oscar Wilde’s: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.” She’s been both a banker and an artist and says it’s true.

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8 thoughts on “The Iceberg Concept of Pricing Your Art

  1. Early on I was told to price my work expecting to be asked for a discount. And this does occur. Also I recently noticed at an Art Festival an artist posting a “gallery price” and below that a greatly discounted “festival price”. At the same event, an artist was offering an “artist’s” discount. Any thoughts on discounting?

    Liz, lots of great bullet points.

    1. Hi Michael. I discount with discretion, but not on everything. I try to have legit reasons to mark down or otherwise take a percent off the sale, ie., not “loss leaders” but bonafide friends and family, multi-piece purchases, or general event or end-of-run individual reasons. It works, in that SO many people take that final step towards YES to buying something simply because it’s lower priced. I have heard artists complain about booth neighbors who sell too cheaply and “undercut” not only them but “all the other artists here,” but I just can’t get myself to believe it’s a zero-sum game, with the winner being the one who literally “sells out.” While I don’t object to any artist finding their own way, and the reality of “gallery prices” is getting more widely known, I sure wonder what that artist would say about how that tack worked for them! (You make some great points here and thanks for the questions.)

  2. Wow! I do believe you’ve written the Ten Commandments of pricing art. I need to print this out and re-read it every time I get ready to put a piece in a show, store, or gallery… thank you!

    1. Thank you Su. So much!!! This pricing thing has bothered me for all the same reasons it bothers everyone else. It’s one very obvious but ultimately very tangential part, but again, very pivotal, and again, very easy to mention, but again, NOT what our art is about. Bah! I also just did not trust the simple formulas because they didn’t work for me or anyone else I knew. Somewhere in there I realized the wholeness and layered aspects and I am so glad it resonates with you too.

  3. Thanks, Liz, it’s still a puzzle, especially when you move to a new area and most of what you see is priced way less than anything in CA

    1. Yep! It’s that local thing! And even tho you moved to where ceramics might be even more treasured, reality keeps it real…(Always glad to connect with you Sandy!)

  4. So true, so true, so true

    1. Well, thank you!!!!

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