Why Does Art Cost so Much?

A gallery I work with called recently and recounted about a potential client, loved your work, blah, blah, blah…but… They would like a discount on the price, 10%. Is that possible?

Anything is possible and this got me thinking how little is known about the outrageous prices we artists have the gall to to charge. I offer a hypothetical to explain away some of the confusion.

You visit the city and decide to take in a few art galleries before dinner. You walk around the first gallery, admire the work and see a small framed painting that catches your eye. A quick perusal of the price list and…what! $850 for an oil painting 12×12 inches and barely 14×14 with the frame? You walk out shaking your head wondering how you could charge so much for something so small.

That next day, your car decides that the trip to the city and all the requisite potholes were too much. Clunk and you’re stuck on the side of the road. As the tow truck lifts your car you are pretty sure the sound of the clinking chains bears an eerie resemblance to the sound of money leaving your pocket. “Transmission’s hurtin” says your mechanic. “$415 in parts and 5 hours labor @ $87 per hour comes to… $850.”

You pay, because what else can you do?

OK, buying art and getting your car fixed aren’t really the same things but a few parallels are apt to explore.

Car parts certainly cost more than art parts. That 12×12 painting probably breaks down roughly and thusly;

Canvas – $20

Paint  - $10

Frame – $60  (no assembly, just the frame)

Your total cost of materials so far is about $90 without a single brushmark painted or hanging wire attached.

Now we go to the labor costs and if we follow our mechanic analogy and assume an artist’s time is worth at least that of a mechanics (I am in no way disparaging mechanics whose jobs are very difficult but I also believe something as rigorous and specialized as making art deserves at least equal consideration.) The slippery part comes in figuring how much time a painting takes to make (that is the industry standard first question you are asked by fellow artists and public alike – “how long did it take?”) and the answer is…it depends.

What kind of painting is it? Is it a highly precise image (slower) or something more loose (faster.) As a younger artist I often made many more poor choices that needed a lot of rectifying and time spent. As an older artist my process is a little more efficient and faster. You also rarely work on a single piece from start to finish with a stopwatch in hand so we are faced with a best educated guess. Roughly 8 hours, start to finish seems reasonable for a 12×12 painting.

Back to our analogy and we find our labor costs at $87 per hour x 8 hours = $696

Plus, we need an hour or so for touch up and assembly of the frame with the painting (bring an unframed painting to a frame shop and just try to walk out without spending at least $100) so we can add, say $50 of framing labor to our cost.

Our total cost of the painting now sits at $836 which is an odd price to display so we rounded up to $850 for good measure.

Now comes the tricky part. The gallery will take 50% of the price that it sells for (pretty typical industry standard.) so your return just went down to a meager $425. In addition, we are in a bad economy and as a mid career artist, the cache of your name and art isn’t high enough to allow you to raise your price well beyond that $850 mark so you and the gallery figure $850 to be a reasonable price. (In defense of galleries and their commission; they market your work, rent a spot in high trafficked areas and serve as free museums for the public with nearly 12 new shows a year. The job they do is just as tough with much more overhead than your typical artist so they generally earn the commssion.)

If and when your piece sells you will be cut a check for $425 minus an immediate $90 for those fixed supply costs and you are left with $335. For good measure let’s round to $300 in thinking of studio rent, utilities, marketing, etc and because those hidden costs don’t hide on the first of the month.

So, for a conservative 9 hours of work you made $300. Not quite the $87 an hour your mechanic makes as it actually breaks down to only $33 per hour. Still, $300 a day would come out to about $70,000 a year! Fantastic! If…you… make… a painting… a day… that can sell for $850 each… and you sell every single piece you make… then and only then will you make such a nice living.

At the end of the day, making art becomes a labor of love plain and simple. Those 8 hours you’ve “allotted” for your piece might easily turn to 16 or 20 or more as the dictates of a creative process demand. You rarely think financially when you are making the work and you do your best when it is finished to find a reasonable price that covers both time and materials with some equity. What is interesting is when you compare the relative cost of art to other professions and think of the benefit versus cost… Let’s just say, the art will last a lifetime and the rebuilt transmission… until the next pothole!

Comments 12

  1. Beth wrote:

    This is very thoughtful. Thank you. Beth

    Posted 01 Jan 2010 at 4:56 pm
  2. Linda wrote:

    this is so true…thanks so much for sharing

    Posted 10 Jan 2010 at 6:47 pm
  3. deb wrote:

    I’m not sure how funny you will find this but as I was reading your essay tonight the ads in the sidebar were for garages and mechanical services, some little computer bot thinks I will want one after reading your article, ha!
    When you break it down this way, that painting suddenly seems ridiculously cheap! Oh for a little extra cash to shop with, I’d buy such an article this minute!

    Posted 12 Jan 2010 at 8:49 pm
  4. Philip Koch wrote:

    Don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who was comfortable with the price level for their art. It can be especially painful when one hears of work by the hot artist of the moment getting stratospheric sums for their pieces.

    One thing that is a comfort though is to realize almost all the artists from the past that one admires faced same frustrations and anxieties about pricing their art. The challenge for all us artists is to find some way to survive and prosper so we can go on making the best darned art we can. This can take many different forms depending on one’s situation. Edward Hopper worked nearly full time as an illustrator for 20 years before sales of his paintings finally took off.
    He wasn’t happy about this but he plugged away at it and made time to keep up his fine art work. I’m glad he did.

    Posted 17 Jan 2010 at 12:35 pm
  5. Cate Kashem wrote:

    I’m reading a book right now called “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art”. It’s funny at best and depressing at worst, but it certainly offers a view into the incredibly arbitrary world where contemporary art commands stratospheric sums.

    It also puts an $850 painting into perspective! A bargain! Especially since the artist is putting in an authentic creative effort as you so eloquently explain.

    Posted 03 Mar 2010 at 11:48 am
  6. R wrote:

    totally inappropriate comparison. the car part is something you will practicality put to use, whereas art is bought purely out of interest there is no comparison at all. if both are to be treated the same how about comparing art to movies, why dont we pay the guys that make movies or songs based on how much it cost to make it.

    Posted 02 Apr 2010 at 9:25 pm
  7. Hank wrote:

    When you buy a gallon of milk you don’t ask how long it took the cow to make it.

    I don’t mind when another artist asks me how long something took, but I’m bothered when a non-artist asks. You can see the wheels in their head turning getting ready to compute your hourly rate. To those people I don’t give an honest answer of labor hours. To them I say: “That one took me 38 years.” I can’t expect them to understand the countless hours of drawings or the multitude of failed paintings over years of work or even just the hours of my day spent just looking. How do you put an hourly rate on looking?

    Posted 13 Jul 2010 at 11:44 am
  8. Heather wrote:

    Don’t forget, we must also pay taxes like everyone else, so, after the gallery cut we could estimate about $300 return. And overhead should not be overlooked. If you estimate studio space, utilities, etc cost about $1000 a month (realistically much more in a city where they can actually successfully sell your work for $850!), then that’s about $30 a day you also gave to lob off. Realistically, a moderately well known artist (in his or her immediate community) might sell two or three works a month in this economy. So yeah. Realistically, you have an another job.

    Posted 18 Jun 2011 at 7:39 am
  9. Castor Thane wrote:

    Actually, organized crime helped the contemporary galleries. There was a lot of money laundering in the 1980s Miami and NYC involving art sales. That is when we first started to see artworks sold for millions. I’m sure some of that still goes on.

    Posted 17 May 2013 at 10:30 am
  10. Josh wrote:

    I wasn’t expecting to read and essay on this but I made it through your story. People who are not artist do not understand how much paint and supplies cost first off. Then if I calculate the amount of hours I put into my work, it rounds down to about $6.00 an hour. I make 4 time more money doing my day job. Quality prints are very expensive too. I only make about $20 a print, but that’s before all eBay, etsy costs. It’s very expensive to advertise alone. This is why I’m retiring from trying to make a buck and ill paint for myself. All the time and effort it takes is simply not worth it. Some people don’t appreciate hard work.

    Posted 20 May 2013 at 12:34 pm
  11. Ct Cummins wrote:

    Hank, when asked how long that took I tell them all my life so far. As we are painting based on our experiences with life. I have always thought that if artists really banned together and not feared one another then it would be a different story for us all. We have no control on this product called art and since we do not the public is confused as to the whys and the how much and at the end of the day its the artist that has had the most promotions and kudos that get the big bucks. So the moral of this story is don’t do it for the money or you will just walk around being very angry.

    Posted 22 May 2013 at 9:21 am
  12. sam radja wrote:

    Art is spiritual need..ones you “love” it “become” automaticly “priceless”…

    Posted 21 Nov 2013 at 11:13 pm

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