Collecting Collectors

beethoven memorial, photograph

“You can either buy clothes or buy pictures.”

– Gertrude Stein

All artists love art collectors – it’s just so darn hard to find them!

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Brooks Jensen (editor of Lenswork Quarterly) called Single Exposures: Random Observations on Photography, Art & Creativity in which he presents some interesting views about pricing your artwork and getting it out in the market. He suggests offering your art in some form that the average person can actually collect, ie afford. Everyone is a collector of something (books, CDs, paint supplies, etc.) but most of these items are far less expensive than the $500, $1000 or more pieces of art most of us put out there in the hopes of landing the big kahuna collector. Maybe we’re thinking of collectors in the wrong way.

This is an interesting concept that I’m going to explore more in my own work. I’ve always avoided making cards out of my work, for example, because it seemed to trivialize the artistic integrity of the pieces and it also seemed that without a major distribution channel I’d never sell enough to make any money anyway. It’s hard to think of a card as a work of art.

But is there an alternative that is clearly still a real piece of art but is affordable enough that the average person might be interested? Something that people might actually become repeat buyers, real collectors? Do you do anything in your art practice to make your work financially accessible to the average person, or is this not even a priority for you?

Do artists have any social responsibility to make their work affordable? Is it actually in our own self interest to do so? Are we preserving some insane and artificial valuation scheme that has been forced upon us by galleries, museums, etc.?


8 responses to “Collecting Collectors

  1. hmmmm, interesting to think about— pricing work to sell– in today’s economy– how low should one go to sell work?
    I know an artist who prices his work really high– I get the impression he wants to convey to people that his work is really really good and worth the price… but based on his reputation and skill I think he is too high priced. I know another artist who prices her work really low— she supports herself. I recently showed 8 paintings in a weekend show– even though I sold one large painting– I got the impression that if I had priced everything below $400 I would have sold most of them— there seems to be a price point that people will buy and over that they will keep walking.

    • Donna

      It can be disturbing to contemplate reducing the pricing of your work – raises all sorts of internal doubts about it’s worth, which it is so easy to equate with dollar amounts.

      I wonder whether I’d feel better about what I do as an artist if many more people owned my work even if I ended up with somewhat less money.

      In addition to reconsidering my overall pricing I’m also working on developing new art that is smaller and more affordable. See below…

  2. This is a tricky and very interesting problem, I know two artists who are producing small works (6 x 6ins & 8 x 8ins) specially to be affordable and collectable and both are having some success.

    Of course, it is necessary to have a market for this sort of thing and this will vary from person to person.

    I am quite interested in the ‘Folio’ concept that Brooks Jensen has developed, not all art has to be hung on a wall and there is something quite appealing about being able to handle the work.

    • Ian

      Well put! It does come down to finding the right market and means of distribution for smaller artworks.

      I am also very interested in the Jensen Folio idea – in fact have just ordered his new video training DVD on how to make them! You’re right, the hands-on quality of the prints and their wonderful presentation in the custom folios seems very appealing.

  3. You bring up a relevant and challenging issue and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments, too. I recently participated in our city’s open studio tour and spent a lot of time pondering this issue of pricing. Several people helped sort out what would be an appropriate price for work. One person asked me, “How much would you spend on a piece you really like?” Another person brought up the problem of over-pricing because of the notion of preciousness. Then another person said not to discount the works just because they aren’t in galleries.

    Here’s what I did: I priced the small works as reasonably as possible, thinking about what I would stretch to pay for a piece I really, really liked. The larger works, which I figured wouldn’t sell as quickly, were higher priced and were next to pieces I had no concern about selling as they were very large and from my own NFS collection. I also looked at well known artists’ prices for the equivalent size (in galleries) and considered the quality of the work as well. In my open studio tour, there was one painting that had been mislabeled and was a whole lot more than I had intended (a clerical mistake that I didn’t notice until after the show). Many people looked, commented and appeared to want to buy it. If I’d had my glasses on, I might have caught the mistake and negotiated. Yikes. Lesson learned. However…

    I sold nine paintings in two days.

    • Melinda

      You relate so well the complex and fluid pricing process artists face each time they show their work. You raise the interesting litmus test – how much would you (or do you) spend on art yourself?

      I’m also interested in figuring out ways to actually create specific art products that fit a particular price category. Often we make the art without that in mind. I’m eager to find a high quality art piece that I can price so attractively that the average person could afford it – in my area that probably means something near $100. Often products like this can be used to “seed” markets so that your name and work becomes better known perhaps leading to other opportunities.

      Sometimes I feel the whole art community keeps prices so high that they are out of reach of most people. You mention you sold 9 paintings (congratulations!) – not sure how many people came to the show. My own experience is that I can have a “good” show selling 8-10 pieces when 300 people came. That’s a pretty low percentage of buyers – of course, there are reasons other than price that prevent people from buying, but it’s certainly one of the big ones.

  4. You are right on target, Bob! This was the first time I had participated in the open studio tour. So, I had no idea how many people would stop by. I don’t think we had any where near 300 people, but we were pretty busy each day from 11 AM to 5 PM. The tour is a long time tradition in my town. The advertising that the community did, made all the difference in getting people by.

    I did price works in the $100-$150 range.

    There were other factors, though, that I think helped. I presented accessible works in an environment that closely resembled the ambiance of a gallery (but, I never paint
    f o r the audience), served food and had good music. One visitor told me that if he visited a gallery that didn’t have a chair, he would just leave. That was very interesting to ponder. How many little cues do we give in the presentation of our work that help or hinder a sale? So, we had chairs and anything else that would be welcoming. My paintings didn’t need framing and I think that helped. I would be resistant to framing because that would add to the cost, perhaps inhibiting sales. As artists, we care 99.999% of the time about the work and nothing but the work. However, if we seek to sell, the unpleasant task of marketing must be faced…

    You have fantastic work. I look with admiration at your posts of such spectacular photographs. I don’t see anyone working with such insight and skill as you have. I agree with you that the art community is struggling with these issues and over-pricing is common. On the other hand, isn’t it tragic that our culture is so undereducated that there isn’t more appreciation for what it takes to make art? Photography, in particular, has been disrespected a great deal.

    Thank you for such a good post and thoughtful responses. I visit often and look forward to more of your work. Best wishes as you go forward!

    P. S. I’ve heard from marketers that getting a 1% response is excellent. So, having 8-10 buyers out of 300 is three times the average!

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