Real life stories on pricing your work

  • The Jewellery Haberdashery (detail) by Tanvi Kant (GSM&J, 2013)

How do emerging artists arrive at the right prices for their work? Tom Harrad (Critical Writing, 2013) talked to RCA graduates about how they deal with pricing

The day before their degree show private view, art students must endure the VIP breakfast, or some such starchy variation, where a group of wealthy collectors and art lovers get to snoop around the show before anyone else. I remember standing by my work, exchanging nervous looks with classmates as the Very Important People drifted by: smart trousers and leather satchels; Americans in pink shirs, tanned, gleaming yellow crocs croaking on the newly painted floor.

A tall woman approached a friend of mine (to save her some embarrassment, let’s rename her Jen), whose prints hung on the wall perpendicular to my own paintings. They chatted away, and in time she asked how much the prints were selling for. Jen’s screen prints were great – large, colourful, complicated, a sort of Paolozzi-inspired Armageddon – and the rest of us all knew they’d attract attention from people looking to buy things. Unfortunately the thought of selling had only briefly crossed Jen’s mind, and just that morning she’d hastily formulated a price system she felt was both worthy and fair: “Well they’re £150 each, or all three for £550.” The woman looked puzzled. “Are you sure? That doesn’t seem to make much sense…”

Jen sort of froze. She suddenly realised that her prices didn’t add up, and she started panicking, too much to work out quite what was wrong with them. The potential buyer had to explain the arithmetic: individually, her prints added up to more than the price for all of them combined – not exactly the deal of the century. Jen’s thin veil of professionalism fluttered to the ground, and revealed her as what she was: someone who had never sold anything before, never dealt with the mechanics of selling, and was completely unprepared for it. In the end the woman took a business card, and as Jen informs me now, she in fact did end up buying one of the prints, for £120. Not bad. The others eventually sold too apparently.

Though Jen now studies for an MA in fashion, she still makes prints, and occasionally still sells them too. “It’s not the same though,” she says. “Degree shows are such high pressure situations compared to other exhibitions, and totally different to selling online, which is what I sometimes do now. You’ve got hundreds of people dragging technicians around, fighting for drills and ladders, just trying to get the show up on time. Most of them never having done anything like it before. When someone says that they want to buy something, well, it can sort of take you by surprise.”

Perhaps just a little more preparation might have prevented Jen’s eyes from spinning like a pair of rainbow beach balls on a MacBook, but even with hindsight, she feels pricing at degree shows and maintaining your nerve when negotiating are still pretty tricky things to get right. “You’re positioning yourself without any context. It’s a nasty feeling; I think that’s why I sort of avoided it, because it’s an admission that you are on the lowest rung of the ladder. This is your debut if you like, and the prices have to reflect that.” Indeed, and so the relatively low prices in degree shows often tend to invite bulk buying. There are always stories of students selling their entire collection of work to some lofty benefactor before the show has even opened. For most though, the chances of Mr Saatchi gliding into the room beaming with a blank cheque remain pretty slim. It’s not that the people buying the work can’t afford higher prices, it’s that artwork carries with it precious baggage, a piece of the artist themselves, and the majority of graduating students are still fresh and baggage-less. “I suppose it’s good in some ways,” says Jen, “because it means that if someone buys your work, it’s because it genuinely appeals to them, and has nothing to do with who you are and your career position.”

Of course this is an issue that extends far deeper than degree shows. Once an artist gains representation, then the pricing headache is shared with the gallerist or agent, and (if all goes to plan) the work slips into the ouroboros of the art market. Whatever your experience, pricing your own work appears to be something of a balancing act. Because an artwork is a particularly strange and unique commodity, it can feel odd to take parts and labour into account when setting prices. But if you’ve spent the last four months making platinum-plated paintings then your time and materials need to be taken into to consideration. This leaves the thorny issue of how much your actual artistic concept is worth, and arriving at a price for this, without coming across as self important or selling yourself short, can be harder than a diamond encrusted skull.

Artist and filmmaker Samuel Craven deals with some of these issues in his work. Much of his art is about how and why artwork is priced and sold, particularly in art schools. He remembers his first proper sale, and how the piece came alive during the selling negotiations. “The work, Thirty Thousand Pounds, was a large piece of home-made paper made from thirty grand’s worth of pulped bank notes that I got ready-shredded from the Bank of England. It was partly about the thirty thousand pound debt I was (and still am) in after graduating from college, and the asking price of £800 was the same amount as my grim student overdraft. The man that bought it asked me first if thirty thousand pounds was the title or the price, I said ‘title’ and explained why. At the time I was telling people it was made with my own dough so he must have thought I was mental.”

Sam, like Jen, was surprised that there was interest from buyers. “I couldn’t believe it when he bought it. I cried a little and phoned my mum. Then I started to wonder whether his question about the title or price was genuine, and if he would have paid £30,000 for the thing.”

He found out weeks later that the buyer was Robert Devereux, multi-millionaire art collector, philanthropist, not to mention Richard Branson’s former business partner and brother in law. “Perhaps he might have paid thirty grand… who knows what thirty grand means to him? Part of me regrets not pricing the piece that high, and trying to win back my student loan in one go. I mean, you never know who’s going to walk through the door, do you?”

I suppose really the best course of action is to arrive at a price that you are happy with – a price that leaves you feeling like you sold yourself short is no good, and neither is one so high that it puts off potential buyers. Although some artists make a living solely on selling their work, others combine this with other sources of income, and some support their work through grants and residencies (especially artists working in less ‘collectable’ media, such as film or performance). All are valid ways to support a creative practice. Still, aside from the welcome cash, selling your work can feel like proof that this peculiar thing you do alone in your studio is worth something – which, of course, it is.

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