finding a market for art

by     /    June 08, 2007   

Seth Godin and I seem to be on the same wavelength: his post today on pricing models is eerily similar to notes I scribbled down yesterday on potential markets for artwork. I’ve been struggling lately with questions of how to price my artwork, and what markets I should go after. After spending the morning doing research on line, I was getting up with sitting at my desk, so I grabbed my notebook and sat out on the deck to think.

the art market continuum

I sketched out this little diagram of prices. On the left is cheap art: $20 and less. This is land of posters, microstock, greeting cards, and licensing. You put your art down here, and you are going after the volume. Problem is, you are also banishing your work to the Land of Cheap Art, a placed filled with puppies with huge eyes and babies sitting in cabbage leaves — a place few ever escape.

Just to the right of it are online communities like Etsy — craft-oriented artwork that sells between $20 and $100. Etsy is a fascinating place, filled with great artists making beautiful handmade stuff. But the prices are low. Etsy seems to be going after the traditional art fair market: a place where you can wander around looking at beautiful art, and come away with a nice souvenir for $50 or so. I think they may be hitting a sweetspot for online art sales: with prices that are low enough to enourage people to take a chance at buying art they’ve only seen as a JPEG, but high enough that the art still has the feel of quality. Only question is, does this generate enough sales to make it worthwhile for the artist. Can you make a living in this market?

Then on the far right is the expensive stuff. This is art selling from the high hundreds to thousands of dollars, in small exclusive editions to small exclusive groups of people. Because of the price, this is art that needs to be sold, usually in person. It requires the artist to either do some kick-ass relationship building, or to hire a professional networker to do it for him (also known as a gallery).

I’ve been struggling with where to place myself on this continuum. I’d like to be somewhere in the middle: selling my work for enough money to make a living, but cheap enough for normal people to afford. However I don’t know if this market exists. My gut tells me that it does, or at least, it should. But I fear I may be like Mulder, wanting to believe in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. Maybe the way to go it to pick the high end or the low end, and dedicate all your energy to making it work. I’d love to experiment for a while, trying different products for different markets. But art markets are very insular, and once you place your art in one of them, it is really hard to leave. If you sell your stuff for $50 on Etsy, it’s tough to convince a collector that it’s worth $500. Likewise, if you try to sell though galleries, they would not look kindly on you undercut your own prices.

I don’t have any answers yet, just a lot of questions. All of these questions is what drove me outside yesterday, to sit on the deck with some iced tea and my notebook, stare at the trees, and think. I think I need to do a lot more of it.

Addendum 7/2/07:

Holly Becker of Decor8 has graciously offered to post my questions about these different art markets on her blog. Check out some of the great comments from a range of artists.

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Comments on 'finding a market for art'

cynthia  (June 9th, 2007):

Very interesting and timely post for me! I was just reading a similar post on pricing that sort of relates to yours . http://oneblackbird.blogspot.com/2007/05/how-much.html

Thanks so much for linking to me, I appreciate it!

Mark  (June 9th, 2007):

This continues to be an interesting topic for me, and you threw some new aspects out there to think about. The concept about getting yourself ‘anchored’ in one particular market is particularly interesting.

I think about the podcasts and writings that Brooks Jensen has had on this subject in relation to this. He admits to pricing his work low for a reason, that it allows greater ‘ownership’ of his work. But I don’t think anyone would consider him a cheap artist, which is a unique situation. And perhaps that is the exception here, because Brooks already has a strong reputation.

And I have seen the other end of the spectrum also, relative unknowns asking a pretty penny for their work. I wonder if this is because some place a lot of emotional value on their own work. The ol – ‘do you know I had to starve and climb that mountain to make this?’ Perhaps that might work in jacking up the price for someone already well-known, but for others, I think it is overestimating the empathy of the market.

Daniel Sroka  (June 9th, 2007):

I like that concept of “ownership”. I think I know exactly what he is talking about. For example, my gut wants to sell my work in open editions — the egalitarian in me likes the idea of selling work that is more readily available, instead of putting artificial limits on it to jack up its “collectability.” But most galleries, physical and online, require limited editions. In fact, some bias your work based on edition size — I know what gallerist who won’t even look at work in editions greater than 20. So this puts you in a bind — either set up limited editions, and limit your ability to sell yourself, or use open editions and say goodbye to galleries.

Elizabeth  (June 16th, 2007):

Hi Daniel. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot lately so it was interesting to read your thoughts.
On your diagram I’m wanting to be in the collectors/galleries market. To do this I need to return to employment outside my art so that the power of not needing to sell returns to me. I have spent a couple of intense years building my brand & this is what it will take for me to move to the next level. So…I see more intense years ahead but in a slightly different direction.
It is a strange but interesting business to be in. Are there any rules written down anywhere?!

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Tricia McKellar  (December 31st, 2008):

Wow, Daniel, I just found this post (and your blog). It’s timely since I was thinking of plans for my art business for the new year and making myself a “pricing” roadmap… Where do I what to be eventually and how will I get there? On my mind a lot lately: Do you think it’s possible for photographers to have “decor” work and more higher-end work without substantially changing the process? For example, if I had 1. pigment (inkjet) prints and 2. photograuve on handmade paper– the difference in the two “lines” of work would be easy to explain…and easy to price very differently…. Thanks for the post! :)

Daniel Sroka  (January 4th, 2009):

Tricia, I think it is possible to have two markets (high-end and low-end) for your work. But it is tricky. Unlike a medium like painting, there isn’t a natural way to do this (originals vs prints). So you have to figure out how to make one collection be worth many-times the other one, in a way that feels legitimate to your collectors.

Some do this with limited editions (sell open edition at a cheap price, and limited edition higher), but to me this feels fake. Others do it by collection: they’ll sell certain work at low prices, but reserve a special project for the high-end market.

Me, I am doing it in a limited way by size. I offer a couple very small sizes (5×7 and 8×10) at “reasonable” prices, and charge a bit more for the larger prints. This gives people a way to “test out” my art, before committing to larger purchases.

BTW, you mention reserving pigment prints for the low-end market, but most work that sells on the high-end is pigment prints. The print method alone may not be enough of a distinction: you tie up too much of your perceived value in the production method, instead of where it should be: your vision/art.

Tricia McKellar  (January 4th, 2009):

These are excellent points Daniel. I see a long future with pigment prints– best not to paint myself in a corner….

I do agree with offering some images as small images and other images only as larger prints. I think the folks that are offering all prints at all sizes (eg: any image as a 5″x7″ print) are missing the opportunity to encourage desire for the larger prints.

Thanks for your thoughts. :)

Daniel Sroka  (January 4th, 2009):

I actually do offer all my prints at all sizes (within reason – some photographs do not look good large). My biggest sales have been to people who liked a photograph, but asked “can you make it bigger?” I wouldn’t want to cut out those potential sales!

But there is a significant price jump for prints larger than 8×10, and not just because they take more ink/paper. It takes a great deal more work and skill to make a photograph work at the larger sizes. Each large photograph I print represents many more hours work than the small prints, refining the details and tones that are lost at the smaller sizes.

Lisa Bayne  (January 6th, 2009):

Daniel – do you mind if I jump in here. Don’t worry, I am not stalking you or anything, just caught your tweet and one thing led to another!
I am curious to hear from you and other artists about Artful Home filling the gap between the low end etsy world and the high end, few and far between gallery world. We are trying to create a compelling place for professional artists to sell their work, through rigorous jurying and continuous dedicated catalog and online marketing. We attract a range of customers seeking strong work, some more decorative, some more intellectual, all high quality by professional working artists. Interestingly, we have a major push for 2009 to add 2-D works – photography, paintings, and prints. OUr current Studio Sale is seeing a very strong response to 2-D. Are there some ways we could better serve your purposes?

Tricia McKellar  (January 6th, 2009):

Lisa, the scoop I hear from artist friends is that Artful Home is a very desirable venue to list art. Keep up the good work. I hope to apply one day.

Daniel Sroka  (January 7th, 2009):

Lisa: yep, you guys do a great job. You’ve really carved yourself out a solid market, which is why I’ve been trying to get accepted for several years now! (So happy to finally be part of the family.)

What can you do to better help us? Just continue doing what you do: actively seek out buyers for our art. So many online art stores (I’m looking at you, Etsy) are just selling platforms: they might give you a place to sell, but they do little to market your art to new audience. You are different, actively championing our art, and we appreciate it!

Mark  (January 7th, 2009):

This continues to be a great discussion. I had a previous experience with a art consultant / frame shop on a job for a hospital. They purchased some work from me, although admitted that it was much more expensive than the requests they normally get for “cheap” artwork for the decor of hospital rooms, offices, etc.

I wonder how much the market fluctuates in the area of corporate art decor – I am sure there are similar ranges in what they are willing to spend. But I often wonder what the distribution looks like ie. if most try to go the cheap route because of ever tightening budgets.

Daniel Sroka  (January 8th, 2009):

Buyers can always find cheap art if they want to! My guess is that there are some who focus on serving this market. But since I’ve decided that I’m in the “quality not quantity” biz, I avoid those.

Mark, I have no idea if the economy is effecting corporate art. Maybe. But I think that most who are concerned about budgets will just avoid doing any art (most offices I’ve seen have none). I feel that the companies who value art will still purchase it, and at good prices –they just might be more selective. We’ll see, I guess.