Striking the right chord when pricing artwork is tricky to maneuver, especially because overpricing your work versus undervaluing yourself as an artist seems like it’s a very fine line. What’s more, there’s not a dearth of useful information on the topic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: there’s too much alternative information out there. As if completing a project isn’t difficult enough, many artists find themselves seriously stuck when they begin establishing their initial market or when looking to increase their art’s value over time.
To get a better understanding of how an artist could think about pricing artwork, I spoke with Jason Borbet aka Borbay, an artist and the creator of the Contemporary Art Pricing chart. In 2012, when Borbay first established the guide, he had been working full-time as an artist for three years. During those years, he studied his pricing in order to figure out the percentages he could stand to increase his work year after year without losing collectors or alienating new ones. He realized his increase percentages could shift depending on whether work was on spec or commission, but he also noticed a clear framework was missing. To fill the gap, Borbay created the Contemporary Art Pricing chart to help establish a consistent conversation around art value.
Establishing Your Market for Pricing Artwork
A quick Google search of “how to price my art” will yield you all sorts of crazy results. From a real estate model wherein you multiply the canvas’ square footage by a dollar rate, to multiplying your hourly rate by the amount of hours the work took, suggestions for pricing artwork run the gamut. The calculations greatly vary, and while they may seem arbitrary, the need for creatives to find quick solutions to sell their art is very real.
Borbay’s first sale came to him quite unexpectedly. He was street painting the Guggenheim when a man approached him and asked how much he was asking for the piece. Borbay hadn’t ever sold a piece before, so he wasn’t sure what to do. He phoned a friend at a gallery and asked what a piece in a similar size and medium might be worth. His friend suggested he sell it for $2,400. When the prospective buyer came to his studio a few days later to talk through the sale, he bought it, and another, for the list prices Borbay suggested. This sounds like a fairy tale, I know, but there are insightful nuggets buried in here too.
Instead of settling for a random pricing calculation you find online, Borbay suggests reaching out to those in the industry. Research galleries who have work similar to yours. Call and ask for their price lists. Inquire about prices for pieces similar to yours. Consider the gallery has up to a 50% markup on their prices, so when evaluating how they can inform your prices, keep that in mind. This outreach does two things: First, it allows you to get information already out there and secondly, it helps you to expand your network. If and when you decide to inquire for representation, you’ll have a pre-established way to enter a conversation.
Create Clarity When Pricing Artwork
It’s natural that pricing artwork is a tricky subject for artists. After all, artists are busy being artists, not business people. But in order to sustain life as an artist, a basic level of business understanding is prudent. Confusion around pricing artwork — initial rates and increases – can be contributed to a lack of confidence in understanding what’s fair. How do you know where you are on the grander scale? How do you know when it’s time to increase your prices? And how much should you bump them up to?
Borbay stresses the fact that he didn’t become a full-time artist until he was 28 years old and had already worked a handful of full-time jobs in business development, advertising and licensing. He attributes the Contemporary Art Pricing chart’s creation and his ability to steadily increase his rates to the real-world knowledge he attained while working toward his dream of being a full-time artist. He reiterates how important it is to think about running your art business like a brand – it’s crucial to growing your income and being able to set higher list prices. The more you understand your work’s financial value and its place within the industry, the more clear and candid language you’ll have at your disposal, and the easier your conversations with potential collectors will go.
The Contemporary Art Pricing chart has ten levels. The entry-level Apple starts at $50 and ends at $500. The middle-level Cobalt starts at $3,000 and ends at $7,000. And the top level Amber is $50,000+. Each level offers enough nuance and range to hold variant price points. The system is free to anyone to use and implement. For Borbay, the ability to use the Contemporary Art Pricing chart in the beginning stages of pricing conversations, allows artists to be frank and flexible and gives collectors space to understand what options are available.
Pricing Artwork to Increase Its Value
Pricing artwork is only the half the battle. Then comes increasing its value. An artist’s ability to move up the scale is just as important to the artist’s income as it is to the collector’s art value. Depending on what camp you’re in, someone is either buying art for the love or the business of it. Like it or not, the business of art is what the industry’s all about, so if you’re not making work that increases in value over time, your buyers may not end up being regular collectors. And collectors, Borbay explains, are your lifeblood.
So how do you effectively increase your pricing without alienating anyone? Borbay suggests having a regular increase cycle. For him, January is the perfect time to reset the scale for a new year. And by resetting the scale, we’re not talking jumping from $500 to $5,000 because you’re feeling confident. A gradual and steady increase is the way to go. The pain you’ll feel if one collector runs into another in an elevator and learns she paid $4,500 more than someone who bought a similar piece months ago will be unpleasant at best. To that end, Borbay recommends picturing that very scene play in your mind as you adjust pricing.
Aside from moderate increases year after year, Borbay reiterates the importance of treating your existing collectors like gold. Use a newsletter to communicate your upcoming increases to them and allow them an advance opportunity to acquire existing pieces at the current, lower rate. For example, if Borbay has a show coming up in June, he’ll mention its results in a post-show email newsletter in July. There, he’ll also give notice that prices will increase during Winter and that there are still a few pieces left at current prices.
Since Borbay came up with the Contemporary Art Pricing chart in 2012, he hasn’t stopped thinking about ways to help artists sustain their careers. To him, seeing artists hop into art for six months and then out because of financial burdens is painful. That’s why he’s currently working on a new system, a system based upon a recruiting structure wherein high dollar patrons can support artists ongoing. The goal? To help artists sustain themselves and avoid having the classic feast or famine routine that kills a good portion of potential creative thinkers.
The project still has a long way to go, but Borbay is convinced it’s the method of the future. And perhaps it is. Between running an art business like a brand and constantly thinking about marketing and developing meaningful relationships with collectors, it’s easy for artists to underthink competitive pricing and long-term scalability. For now, The Contemporary Art Pricing chart is a start. It clears a good amount of fog and stands to make pricing discussions more pleasant and user-friendly. But if a longevity oriented system that would strengthen our creative communities and its patrons is on the way, we’re not at all mad about it.
Rachel Wells is a writer based in Nashville, TN. In addition to her writing, she has a professional background in content development, digital distribution and public relations. Her projects and clients have been featured in the The New York Times, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine and Pitchfork.