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Have you asked this question?

Why does art cost so much? If you have not asked this question of an artist, perhaps you have wondered it silently.

I began my artist life as an art teacher in a public high school. Teens are not inhibited in the questions they ask, so believe me, I heard this question, or some variation of it many times each year. My favorite question would be asked when I would bring my art into the classroom as an example of the lesson I may have been teaching that day. Since my work is routinely labeled on the back with title, medium and price, invariably a student would look at the back and I would be asked, “If you can get $500 for a painting, why are you still teaching?”. If you are an artist, I will pause here, while you stop laughing and catch your breath… (I will use $500 for illustrative purposes throughout this explanation to keep the math easy to understand)

Art inventory
Art waiting for a buyer is an unreimbursed expense

First, I would point out that an artist can ‘ask’ whatever they want, but it must sell before the artist earns anything. I venture to say that most artists I know have an inventory of works waiting to sell. Those pieces represent expenses that have yet to be reimbursed. But to more clearly respond to the students’ question, I would present this as a math problem to them on the board. The retail price of a painting is $500. Selling through many venues, including galleries, the host will take a commission. This commission can vary, anywhere from 30% to 50%. In a major city, 50% is common. So that $500 painting results in $250 going to the artist.

I point out here that it is considered unprofessional to vary one’s prices from one venue to the next. If Gallery A, who takes a 50% commission learns that you lowered the price of your work when exhibiting at Gallery B because they take a lower commission, you are likely to lose your representation at Gallery A. Why would customers shop at Gallery A for your work, when they know they can acquire it for a lower price at Gallery B? This is an art industry no-no. So, once I began showing my work in a 50% gallery, my pricing needed to reflect that across the board.

Custom frame in clamps while drying
Quality framing is a necessary expense for a pastel artist

So, as the artist you will receive $250 from the gallery. As a pastel artist, my work must be framed under glass. Framing ain’t cheap folks! I subscribe to the theory that quality art demands a quality frame, so I will spend the extra money, within reason, to have my work professionally framed. That means acid free materials and UV glass to protect the art. Even if I purchase the frame moulding myself and assemble it, there are the tools necessary to do the job well. There is also glass, backing, wire, fasteners, tape, etc. required to put the entire package together. However I do it, framing is a significant expense.

Artist materials get used up and must be replenished

Selecting one of my paintings that retails in the $500 range, I looked at my framing cost. Anywhere from $100 to $150 (And since I give my framer consistent business, my cost is discounted below what the general public would pay for the same frame if they were to have it framed). So that $250 that I received from the gallery is now closer to $100. This does not account for the cost of my materials to create the painting. Pastels & pastel board are probably my biggest expense after framing. It is difficult to determine a specific cost for a specific painting, but for illustrative purposes, let’s say $50. I could be low, I could be high. It depends on each individual piece. So, my ‘take home’ is now about $50.

Finally, for the explanation to my students, I would estimate the number of hours that I worked on that piece. Again, this varies widely. Some pieces can come to a successful conclusion in several hours of working time, where others may take 40+ hours. For my pieces in the $500 range, I would estimate 8 to 20 hours from initial sketches to final completion. Even if I use the smaller number, $50 divided by 8 hours, comes to just $6.25 an hour. When the kid in the back of the room would exclaim, “I make more than that at McDonald’s”, I would point to the class and say, “that is why I am still teaching!”.

Yes, I have simplified this for illustrative purposes, but I think the point is clear. This example would demonstrate to my students that they were not going to graduate from college, sit back and paint all day and rake in the money to live a lavish lifestyle. It was meant to give them a grasp of reality. What I have not included in this example are the many other expenses that an artist will incur in the day to day life of an artist. These might include memberships in art organizations, education, entry fees to submit to an art show, (national shows typically run $40/$50 to just submit several images). If the work is accepted, one must either drive to the venue to deliver, or if it is distant, ship the work. There are fees to the shipping company and for national shows, you are paying a shipping agent at the receiving end to receive the work, unpack it, deliver it to the venue on the appropriate day, pick it up at the end of the show, repack it and have it picked up for return. And if you want a color image of your work in the catalog of a big national show, that is another $50.

To be clear, I am not complaining! I love what I do, and I will continue to paint and share my artistic view of the world. I know it will not make me rich, but I do it anyway. When a piece sells it is extremely rewarding that another individual is responding to something I created and wants to live with it in their home every day. I have contemplated writing about this topic for some time now, to educate those who ask the question. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I suppose.

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