Issue #7: Tips for how to price fine art photography

By Cindy A Stephens

Last month in this column, I reported on my conversation with photographer Scott Indermaur on how to price commercial photography.  This month I turned to D’lynne Plummer, from the Arts & Business Council, on how to set a price for fine art work.  In a time when many artists sell work in multiple channels (e.g., Etsy.com and direct to collectors from a studio), D’lynne advises them to “have different product lines”.

Create product lines for your work

D’lynne shared an example from her experience with the Artist’s Professional Toolbox program.  A recent graduate has very detailed, large and relatively expensive oil paintings.  These pieces are represented by a traditional gallery.  In addition, he sells prints on Etsy.com from different paintings, for a few hundred dollars.

D’lynne says “he would never have these less expensive prints available for purchase in his studio.  Similarly people on Etsy would not be likely to purchase one of his more expensive oil paintings, they would generally make that type of commitment in person.”

The concept of “product lines” and “channels” is a marketing one that may be new to some artists.  The easiest way to think of it is as having two different types of art, at two different prices, and selling them in different ways.  For instance in the example above the artist had:

1)     Online Etsy.com shop (channel); Prints or mass-produced items (product); Lower-price

2)     Gallery representation (channel); Originals or limited edition pieces (product); Higher-price

Alternatively, consider this example D’lynne shared of a book binder who also sells earrings at craft fairs once or twice a year.  The artist supplements her income from her book binding craft in this way, selling at a lower margin and having less of a direct relationship with the buyer online than in her book binding work.

A word of warning: you need to be careful not to have the same work available at different prices in different channels.  “If one piece is produced in an archival way and in museum glass in one channel and that same image is produced on a greeting card or mug in another that is a bad strategy,” says D’lynne.

Also, “artists need to be careful.  If they are represented by a traditional gallery, before they do anything they need to speak with their gallery,” says D’lynne.  She cautions that you can’t bring the work that you are selling for $50 into a gallery space and have a conversation with them about selling that same work for $2,000.  However, she also understands that artists try to go where the buyers are.

“It is incredibly smart to go where people are.  For instance there are restaurants in Boston that have great shows with artists.  Most gallery directors will appreciate that you are a business person and are trying to meet buyers where they are,” says D’lynne.

Determining the right price for your work

Pricing is not “static”.  For instance it can change as your career matures as an artist or as the market you are in evolves.  So, the BIG question is what to charge for your work (realizing that you may have different products that will be at different price points)?  How do you figure it out?

D’lynne suggests artists look at prices from two angles:

  1. 1.     Make sure you are fully compensated for your materials and time of doing business: Understand and keep track of your costs, including computer software, your studio space, and the specific cost of producing an individual piece.  This includes your time.  How long did it take you to create it and what is your hourly rate?  She advises that by the time you come up with a number for your costs you should feel right about it.  Obviously you’ll want to more than cover your costs when you set a price (see tip 1 below).
  2. Look at “comparables”. If you’ve bought or sold a home before you know that appraisers and real estate experts look at homes in your neighborhood that are comparable to yours in square footage and upgrades to determine the fair market value for your home.  Do the same with art.  D’lynne advises that you go to galleries and fairs to see what the work is, what people will pay, and set the “low” and “high” ends of the spectrum for what comparable work is priced at.  You’ll also want to consider whether the artist is at a similar stage in his/her career as yours.

Gallerists also take into pricing consideration an artist’s education (e.g., MFA); how many people have seen the work before; and the quantity of pieces produced.  “Historically the more pieces were printed the lower the quality was,” says D’lynne.  “This isn’t necessarily true anymore now that printing processes have changed with digital technology.  However, setting a small limited edition of 100 pieces tells a buyer that the artist has created something special.  It drives value higher.”

Tip 1: Multiply your cost-of-goods by 2 to get started  

A traditional rule of thumb is to figure out what it really costs you to produce a piece and multiple that number by two to arrive at a price.  “This is the only way you can guarantee that the other things you didn’t control for are covered and gives you room to negotiate.”  D’lynne feels that for artists, they may give away a piece to cultivate a relationship or may have glass break and need to create some padding to account for these events.  Make sure that this price isn’t below the low-point that buyers are willing to pay, however. “You don’t want to have bargain basement prices for work that shouldn’t be priced that way.”

Tip 2: Negotiating

“Think of your clients as investors.  It’s a great thing to say that other patrons have purchased the same work at $2,000 and it would be unfair to sell their investment for less and devalue it.”  D’lynne adds that customers don’t want to see the same piece available for a lower price anywhere else.  She also advises artists to be prepared to address matting and framing.  Buyers will frame and matt a piece and may ask you to do this work for them.  “Decide in advance why you will, or won’t, negotiate.”

Tip 3: Tracking costs

I track my costs of doing business in an Excel spreadsheet, which allows me to update it when a cost changes, calculate my profit for a specific piece, and understand how my profit is changing as my costs change.  If you want something more robust for your recordkeeping, look at QuickBooks.

Tip 4: Resources

Check out the Arts & Business Council webinar library for tips for dealing with legal issues, business basics, estate planning, and finances and fundraising.

As artists we need to decide what is important to us. Some enjoy creating personal relationships with buyers, others will consider selling art online as one way to get their work out, and still others will secure gallery representation.  Choose the right path for you and then do your homework to set the right prices for all your art.

 

D’lynne Plummer is the Director of Professional Development for the Arts & Business Council, where she oversees educational programming and the Essential Training for the Arts program. Previous to joining the A&BC, D’lynne was a freelance arts journalist and essayist for various regional and national publications, including Art New England, and later worked as a marketing consultant and copywriter for clients large and small.  D’lynne has taught writing and marketing courses since 2007, presenting her workshops at the National Arts Marketing Conference and for arts agencies throughout New England.

Cindy A Stephens is a Vice President of Marketing and a fine art photographer. She specializes in developing high-impact marketing strategies using digital and content marketing to build brands and expand market share. As a photographer Cynthia specializes in photography of main streets and back roads using unusual framing and multiple planes of perspective.

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