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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Alexander

Purchasing contemporary art: Why is it so expensive?

When you compare the price of art in a gallery--or even purchased directly from an artist--to the sort of wall decorations you can buy from a poster gallery or a design store, the cost of art can seem enormous. What looks like it might cost you less than $100 (or $20) at a store can have a price tag of hundreds or thousands of dollars. And there are "original paintings" you can get for much less money, including some large enough to fill the wall over your sofa. These paintings are mass-produced by production line artists who paint the same elements of a painting over and over, and are sold in large decorating stores, pop-up galleries, and even (in non-pandemic times) door-to-door. The manufacturers, who use artists as factory workers, have become good at showing your eye something beautiful in just a few strokes, often mountains, lakes, trees, and rivers; a valid skill. But if you ask these same artists to create something different, they will not be able to do so, at least not in the same way (fast and cheap). Their product is not derived from creative expression, and while it may be visually striking, it won't speak to the human experience or heart.

When you look at art in a museum, a gallery, or an artist's booth or shop, you are seeing something much different from the "art" described above. A genuine piece of art is an expression of the artist's perceptions. It is a bit of the artist's being, put into a form that is tangible and can pull you in. It is a shared experience between you and the artist. This gives artwork value. This shared experience is wonderful and does elevate the price of some artists' work. However, it does not explain the price of most art. Why should a painting, a relatively small object, cost as much as a month's groceries, a new set of living room furniture, or a car?

An early Alexander piece. Unbelievably valuable.

The cost of a painting or other work of art is determined by multiple factors. In the end, though, the artist or their gallery manager has to set a price using some sort of formula that prices the item for saleability and fairness to the artist. Often, artists take a hit on the fairness side in order to increase saleability, so that they can buy ramen even if they aren't getting a fair price for their work.

Like all products, art has a value determined by production criteria: materials, skill, and time. Art also has an additional, harder-to-set value that is determined by more nebulous factors, including personal meaning (to the artist and to the collector), historical or sociocultural importance, and context in the larger world of art, all of which only rarely contribute much to the price paid for the work.

Materials costs include all of supplies, equipment, tools, and space needed to produce a work of art. A painter who has carved out a studio space in a small corner of their bedroom probably has fairly low materials overhead. An artist who requires it may have a full-scale studio in a rented or purchased commercial space and much more expensive tools and equipment, with a much higher overhead. Such expenditures in production should only be made by artists who are confident that they can produce high-quality, saleable art reliably and in quantities that will give them the income to pay for it, in addition to their own costs of living or salary. Materials costs must be paid by the artist, therefore they must be factored into the price of their work.

Alexander perseveres, if nothing else.

Skills costs include the education and experience of the artist; essentially, the reasons they are able to create art that is saleable. My paradigm is that virtually anyone can become an outstanding artist if their interest level is high enough so that they commit to a) learning the skills of an artist, b) a willingness to gaining experience in a progressive manner, and c) persevere with time at the easel in order to synthesize knowledge and experience into reliability. By reliability, I mean the ability to consistently produce professional-quality art, or not stabbing around in the dark to make it work. No one is born with some inherent talent for creating masterful art. What others perceive as talent is the product of effort. And that effort has a value. Most people who are successful at making a living gained the skills and experience necessary to do whatever it is they do, and when they do their work, they expect to be compensated for it, without ongoing negotiation or arguments or suggestions that they do it for free---something artists hear with regularity.

One way that painters commonly price their work is by the square inch, often adding additional costs such as framing, gallery commissions, and shipping costs. A 9-inch x 12-inch painting from an artist who charges $3 per square inch would be 9 inches x 12 inches x 3 dollars/square inch = $324, which might become $395 or $425 with other costs added. If the artist is David Hockney it might work out more like 9 inches x 12 inches x 100,000 dollars/square inch = $10,800,000 (in which case he probably doesn't care about the cost of the canvas and paint). For which I am sure there is a good, valid reason that I simply lack the cultural appreciation to understand. Artists using the square-inch method to price their work are rolling their skills (education and experience), materials, and time into the per-inch cost of their work.

I sometimes make my own panels to ensure quality. Even then they can be costly.

Another common way to price paintings, and the way that I use, is by the time it takes to paint them. Based on the time, money, and effort spent to gain the skills and experience it takes to produce the art I make, I assign a value to the hours that I spend making each painting. A 9-inch x 12-inch still life painting may take anywhere from 12 to 60 or more hours to produce. There is also time spent in composition, preparation, finishing, and framing a painting, and sometimes packing and shipping, all of which I do not typically include in the price tag (I should). If I were to value my time at $20 an hour, which is ridiculously cheap, a painting that I spent 25 hours painting would be $500. I would probably increase the price to accommodate other costs that I incur in preparing a painting: materials, tools, equipment, studio space, gallery space, etc. so that the final price was, say, $595, which is still absurdly low-priced for 25 hours of painting, plus prep and finishing time. While the act of painting is not generally physically demanding, it can be--for me, anyway--emotionally draining and mentally exhausting, both in ways that I love (another topic for another time).

Whatever way is used to price paintings, whether it is one of these methods or another, the final step in pricing is to stand back and look at the painting, and assess its value and saleability, as well as how quickly you would like to sell it. This takes some skill. There are two times when the artist can step into being really unfair to themselves, and this is one of them. When there are bills looming or the larder is bare--not uncommon circumstances for artists--the attraction of $300 can be strong, even if the painting should be $800. Just like anyone else, artists need to eat and often have trouble getting paid fairly for the work that they do. Just like anyone else, artists can be people who undervalue their own time and work product. People who pay artists for their work have manipulated artists with their circumstances since the first time art was sold.

Incidentally, I have some associates who believe that all art should be free and that artists do not have the right to take money for their work. I am fine with them not giving me any money for my work as long as they are fine with me not giving them any paintings. We don't live in a fantasy universe and mama's gotta pay the bills.

The other time when unfairness can reign is for the artist or agent to agree to negotiate when a prospective purchaser requests a lower price. It is hard to say no. But an artist should say no to any attempts to reduce the price of an artwork once it has been set. One strong reason is that doing so can devalue the artist's previously sold work. But also, art is rarely considered excessively valuable when it is produced (it isn't priced out for profit like most other goods), and even artists who appear to be somewhat successful are likely to be struggling for every dollar. I know that I do. Chances are that the price on the sticker is already less than fair for the artist. Asking for a lower price is saying that you do not respect the artist. You are telling them that you believe they don't have the right to be paid for their time. There may be circumstances under which an artist can fairly discuss doing work for a cause, or to support their community, or for some other reason. But in those cases, both the artist and the client should remember that this is exactly like an accountant or a nurse or a lawyer or a mechanic going to work for a few days and having no expectation of being paid. The artist's working time will be occupied, and they will never be paid for that time. My point is that this should be a rare occurrence, not a routine one.

Two final factors to consider in the pricing of art is its durability and its ability to appreciate value. Art is usually not considered a consumable in the sense that you bring it home, eat it, and it is gone. It usually doesn't wear out. In fact, a well-created painting should last for more than one lifetime, if not hundreds of years or longer. When we talk about oil colors, we think about permanency, or the ability of the color to remain stable and unchanged over time. Good-quality paint is so durable, in fact, that the main worry in durability of oil paintings is the ground or substrate (canvas, panel, whatever). A canvas will disintegrate long before the colors do, and that gives rise to art conservation, another field of work and study. An artist also expects that their work will appreciate, meaning that over time, it gathers value, rather than losing it. A collector who pays $25,000 for a painting expects that their heirs will be able to sell it for $35,000 or $50,000 or more. There aren't many things in the world that do that. Is there another example of a human product that appreciates value, other than art? I can't think of any at the moment.

Of course, the wish of every artist is for their work to be valued by others. Van Gogh traded paintings for drinks and never made a living from his paintings, any of which is now among the most valued paintings in history. Cheers!

An Alexander original now worth almost money.

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