It's a Numbers Game
Sometimes the dollars just don't make sense.
A few days ago, I read a quote by the great art critic and author Jerry Saltz that goes, “Do not ask what a work of art means. Ask what a work of art does to you. Art is not a thing, or a noun. Art is a verb. Art is something that does something to you.” I’ve been thinking about the quote ever since and how it really came to me at the perfect time. First of all, I’d already come around to thinking about art as a verb, which I mentioned in a previous Iteration. But the other reason that the quote really resonated is that I’m getting ready to finally put my paintings out in the world and I’m thinking about value and worth—specifically financial value and worth.
Actually, before we get too far into the weeds with this, let me ask you a question. Do you value the work that an artist makes differently based on the amount of “work” they put into it? What do I mean by that? Let’s say that there are two paintings available on my website or in a gallery that you really like, but you can only afford to get one. Both paintings are the same physical size, made from similar materials, and they’re the same price. As I said, you like them equally and would be happy to have either one on your wall. As you read the descriptions of each piece, you learn that one took me three weeks to complete, while the other was done in a matter of hours. Does knowing that one took significantly longer to make affect how you see the work or how you perceive the value of each piece? Or does it all come down to aesthetics or, as Jerry put it, what that painting or photograph or whatever it is does to you?
There’s a terrific scene in the Ed Harris biopic about Jackson Pollock that shows the Pollock painting a piece for Peggy Guggenheim called Mural. The version of the story presented in the film is that Pollock painted the entire piece—which measures about 20 feet by 8 feet—in a single inspiration-fueled session after staring at the blank canvas for weeks in his apartment. Unfortunately, the story is not true. In 2012, a team of conservators at the Getty and the National Gallery did an in-depth analysis of the piece and they discovered that the painting was made up of multiple layers of dried oil paint. In fact, Tom Learner, who is the Head of Science at the Getty Conservation Institute said that while the initial composition could have been done in a single session, the majority of the layers in Mural were added later after the initial four colors had dried, which could have taken days or even weeks, debunking the myth that the whole thing was painted in a single session. But my question is does that matter? Should it matter? What if the actual work—the doing—only took a single all-night session, but that session was only possible on the back of weeks of thinking about it before Pollock ever picked up a brush? Does and should thinking about making art count as part of the making?
I don’t have a definitive answer. What I do know is that pricing work is hard. For me it’s much harder than actually making the work in the first place. And there are a bunch of different pricing models that I’ve heard artists use. One of the more popular models for painters is the per square inch model. You simply decide on a dollar amount that you’re going to charge per square inch and then the pricing of a given piece is just about doing the math. One problem with that approach is that it can take exponentially longer to make larger work, and a flat per square inch model ends up penalizing you for it. For example, if I charge $2 per square inch, a 12x12-inch painting will cost $288 and a 48x48 will be $4,608. Let’s say the 12x12 takes me 3 hours to paint. That’s a rate of $96 an hour. Now let’s say that the 48x48 is much more complex and takes a total of 72 hours. That’s only $67 an hour for the same level of care, purpose, and skill—and these numbers only represent the actual doing, not the thinking about the doing. They also don’t take into account the cost of materials, which can vary wildly from piece to piece.
The way I see it, there seems to be three basic factors that contribute the financial worth or value of a piece of art: how much it’s worth to the maker, how much it’s worth to an individual buyer, and how much it’s worth to the market. And I really only have the slightest bit of control over how much it’s worth to me as the maker—but even that is arbitrary at best. I have always tended to price everything I do well below what it should be and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve decided to reach out to galleries to promote and sell my work, at least the bigger work. First of all, galleries don’t have an emotional attachment to the work in the same way that way I do, which gives them a more objective view as to whether or not the work will sell. Also, they are in the business of selling art, so they have metrics around not only what the market will bear and what their clients and customers are willing to pay, but also how best to promote and market the work to those clients and customers, which I simply don’t have. I’ve heard people balk at the fact that galleries take upwards of 40% which I think is totally fine. Take it. Take half. At the end of the day it’s a partnership. I do my part, which is to make the work and they do their part, which is to promote it and sell it. They also act as shipper, customer service, organizers of shows and receptions, and a ton of other things that I have neither the time, nor the energy—not to mention the expertise—to do myself.
As I said before, pricing is hard and it’s one of the things that has consistently kept me from making my work available to purchase, but I’m finally willing to put that part of the process into the hands of experts. In the end, I just want my work to be out in the world, and I think having a partner on the business and marketing side gives me a better chance to help make that happen.
If you’d like to deep dive the analysis the Getty did on Mural, a detailed presentation of their findings is available on their YouTube channel.
UPDATE 3/13/23: Here’s another terrific video about Pollock. It’s a panel with Ed Harris, who plays Pollock and directed the film, the film’s composer Jeff Beal, and associate professor of art history at NYU, Pepe Karmel—and it’s moderated by Tom Learner.
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"Art is a verb." Yes, absolutely.
The amount of time taken to create something is irrelevant. The customer doesn't care. They care about the emotional attachment to the piece; only then do they decide whether they can afford it.
Agree about galleries: they provide valuable services, as well as an avenue to getting your work in front of qualified potential customers/collectors. They deserve compensation.
You'll note I've said nothing about pricing. As a photographer, I struggle with this, just like every other photographer. Good luck.
What does the piece mean to the creator (you not him) how valued it to you? How much do you need to let it go? Now double it!