The mysteries of pricing art for distant shows: a plea

Writer and photography / Elizabeth Graves

Elizabeth Graves on the mysteries of pricing art for distant shows, what research to do and guidance needed.

There’s nothing like the thrill of learning that your alternative process prints have been chosen for a juried art show! However, this thrill is often followed by a complex challenge: setting the sales price for your work at a gallery far from home, whose customers you know little about. It can be struggle, but both show organizers and artists can help make art pricing successful.

Wait, why are you showing work at unfamiliar places?

One great way to show your art to the world is to respond to “calls for entry.” These are invitations to submit art for consideration for inclusion in a specific art event, like a gallery exhibit, a display in a public facility, or even a “one night only” show at a festival. If your work is chosen, the organizers of these events often require the art to be made available for sale at the show, often with a commission (a percentage of the sale) going to the organizer, and the rest going to the artist. For many of the shows I have participated in, the organizer asked me to set the sales price for my work, and to include their commission in my price.

Information possessed by artists

On the surface, it makes complete sense that YOU should set the price for your work: you know your work better than anyone. You know the financial cost of creating your work, the time you invested in making it, the cost of framing, and the expense of shipping it to the show. You know the depth of your art career, how many awards or other accomplishments increased the value of your prints, and any past sales prices.

I’m writing to say that this may not be quite enough information.

I’ve had the excellent luck of showing prints in several venues, and I noticed a pattern: if the organizer of the show helped me set a price for my work, I had sales. If not, I did not. Once it was lower, others times higher than the prices I would have set. Somehow, they hit a magic number that worked for potential art buyers.

Why was their guidance so good?

Information possessed by show organizers

Successful art show organizers know their customers. They know what type of art lover will attend. They know the habits of their regular buyers, what professional buyers (who buy art for other people, including collectors and professional decorators) are looking for, and what kind of audience they advertised the event to.

Successful art show organizers know their regional art market. They are aware of trends in their area. There may be popular topics or themes that are especially successful in that location. They may know of festivals that attract art-collecting tourists who want to be reminded of the area, subjects which do well with families moving into new housing nearby, special interests of local collectors, and what local businesses hang in their lobbies.

The organizers know what sold last time. Organizers know what kind of work sells at their events, and what price that work sells for.

They know what will be in the show. They know the sizes and range of the work that will be included. They know the layout of the show. They know whether your tiny ruby ambrotype’s sales potential will be helped or harmed by the presence of an enormous platinum print on a huge matt that takes up a square meter, or other small prints made in other processes.

They know what prices other participants in the event have set (which is usually a component of the application).

They understand art buyer psychology. They know that pricing an artwork too low can repel buyers just as an overpricing a piece would.

They know all of these things, plus special nuances of the art business that they keep as closely guarded secrets. Relative to this, the information you have is quite limited!

Guidelines needed and research you can do

If you are an art show organizer reading this: please provide some general guidelines to your participating artists! Please at least offer to provide general suggestions upon request.  You need not give away all of your competitive business secrets. We just need some hints about the range appropriate for the specific show: you know what will be in the show, so you have some idea of the prices you expect to see paid. If you don’t want to give hints in advance, pledge to advise participants if they are at the extreme top or bottom in price.

If you are an artist, and you haven’t received any pricing guidance from an industry professional in the past:

  • ask the organizer for some tips specific to their anticipated audience.
  • see if you can learn the price of other work for sale at the venue, or in other galleries in the same neighborhood
  • attend art fairs in your own area, the kind run by galleries and professional dealers, and observe the prices for work you think is comparable to yours. (Keep in mind that artists represented by galleries charge more, since their work must cover the gallery’s expenses as well as the artist’s. Also, if they are working with a gallery, the artist may be more advanced in their career. Look up artists on the web to review their list of accomplishments and get some idea of why their prices are as they are.)

I’ve attended shows with no discernible pattern to pricing, and got the sense that visitors were confused by the inexplicable and vast price range of the work. I believe it makes a show look more professional if all of the art is priced in a way that makes sense on some level – not just that giant work may be priced higher than tiny work of comparable process and quality, but that there are no extremes of high or low prices to call the other work into question. If two lovely vandykes sit beside each other, and one is five times the price of the other, we don’t want a buyer to think the higher priced one is a rip-off, nor that there is something wrong with the lower priced one to make it such a bargain!  If the prices are so different because one of the artists has work in the Getty collection and the other is a newbie, this should ideally be disclosed.

Between receiving some good guidance and doing some research, we can worry less about the appropriateness of the prices we set for our work in distant locales.

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