Monday, August 15, 2011

Rant alert

Well I’m going to open up a great big can of worms here.  Don’t try to stop me, it’s what I do best.
As you know, I have been serving as the Gallery Director at CrazyLake Art Gallery for nearly a year.  And I have spent a lot of time thinking about the attitudes about art and artists espoused by visitors and often, unfortunately, reflected by artists.
In fact, it’s something I have been pondering in the context of my own art business for several years.
So here is my interpretation of the comments I’m hearing regularly:
Artists don’t deserve to make a fair wage for the work they do, whether in producing art or teaching it.
Every time I hear it from a gallery visitor, I patiently try to educate them on the value of what they are looking at, and remind them that there is a real human being behind each piece of art in the gallery.  Someone who spends a great deal of time and care on each piece, and deserves to be paid a fair price for that.  Someone who is quite possibly using this as their main means of support for themselves. 
The next comment is usually something along the lines of “well he could get a ‘real’ job and just do this on the weekends.”
And when it comes to classes, they want a full roster of classes available so they can be sure to find one that is convenient for them, and they want them offered at a price that is nearly minimum wage for the instructor.  And this is the very community that supported me as a private piano teacher 20 years ago at $20 an hour without a single complaint that my services were too dear.
There was a time when it was recognized that art was a good thing, generally.  That creativity was something that everyone should nurture in themselves because it helped them broaden their horizons and cultivated their problem-solving skills.  That people who dedicated their lives to being creative and coaching others in creativity were worthy of admiration.  Art served many functions – it taught appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, recorded and interpreted history, demonstrated moral lessons, provided glimpses into emotional states that we all share at some time in our lives.  It connected us.  It gave us a reference for trying to understand the lives and decisions of people with whom we have little in common.  These are the attitudes that support a healthy art community, and a healthy society in general.
Now everybody wants something for free. 
I realize this isn’t a problem confined to the arts.  In times like these, many people are forced to tighten their belts, and they begin looking for bargains in every area of their lives.  I would like to remind everyone that 99% of all artists are among that crowd. 
And there are a fair number of people who haven’t in fact been forced to tighten anything, but they will certainly use the economy as an excuse to extract a discount everywhere they go.
But the thing that really roasts my peppers is when I hear an artist (especially a teaching artist) making excuses for the very people who devalue the work they do!  Just because the price of a gallon of gas went up, how do you then conclude that your services as a teacher are now worth less?  In fact, it now costs you more to get to work – and you are willing to lower your fees?  Where is the logic in this?  If you were a doctor, do you suppose you would lower your fees to accommodate people’s pinched budgets?  Or is it just that you don’t believe what you do is important?  If you don’t, no one else will either.
My belief is that it isn’t an action rooted in logic, but in fear.  These are artists in fear that others will no longer pay for their art or their teaching skills if they don’t set their prices terribly low.  But this is a losing battle – once you tell the public that YOU don’t believe you are worthy of your asking price, they won’t either. 
So I will end this with a call to action to all you artists out there:  stand up and demand the respect you deserve.  Don’t let your insecurities allow you to be bullied into working below poverty level.  Don’t let your insecurities contribute to the perception in the public mind that art isn’t a real job.  I believe our society depends on it.
*I am not in the habit of justifying my prices, because I believe that if I have to explain them to someone, they don’t want what I’m offering much anyway.  But in this case I want to illustrate a point.IndianSummer2
The only piece I have produced in which I kept record of both the materials I purchased and the hours spent was Indian Summer.  I purchased over $200 worth of materials, although a fair bit was left over to use in other projects.  Let’s say I used $75 worth.  I spent 60 hours on the construction of it, although I didn’t think to keep track of hours until the concept and design work and surface prep was already done.  Let’s add a conservative 3 hours for that.
Now let’s work backward.  It is retail priced at $900.  Subtract 30% right off the top for gallery commission (that is a decent commission – one of my galleries takes 50%) bringing our total to $630.  Subtract the materials = $555.  Now at this point I could also subtract the entry fee and shipping costs for the exhibition I sent it to hoping to get more exposure, but we’ll even leave that out.  That means that when it sells, I will have earned myself an hourly wage of $8.81.  However, if I were to go work at McDonalds and happened to work my sorry self up to an assistant manager position, I’d be making $10.36 per hour (click HERE for reference). 
I know artists whose numbers don’t work out as favorably even as that, and yet the perception from the public is that we want too much.  So my point is that I believe art is being valued at a level that puts us on a par with fast food workers at best.  And if you don’t also think that’s a problem, then I really think there is no hope for us as a civilized society.

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15 comments:

  1. A good rant, you made great points and I hope that the people that needed to hear it will actually take the time to read your blog.
    If we don't value ourselves no one else will.

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  2. Do people actually verbalize this, or is it just an attitude being reflected?

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  3. What I'm hearing verbalized is this:
    "Wow, I really love that, but I sure don't love that price" or "Gee, that's a lot of money" and similar comments. Usually said with a look that implies that the asking price is unreasonable. And for some I'm sure the price is out of their budget, but some of the comments come from people of means. (Small town, I know pretty much who is who). Because of the nature of my work, it doesn't surprise me that I need to educate people about what is involved and what it costs ME. But when I hear that about a beautiful oil painting in the gallery priced at $150, it irritates me. Most of these people would easily drop that amount for an evening on the town.

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  4. I don't know how you educate them. As you know, I've gotten comments about the cost of the Drama Camp. At first this bothered me. $100 for three weeks? $75 for two weeks? For this you get a snack, a craft, a 1:3 camper counselor ratio of VOLUNTEER staff, and a free t-shirt (not to mention the drama part....). Other Indy-area camps are $175-$200. Are you kidding me? I'm GIVING it away. Is it because I'm having FUN doing it that it should cost less?

    Yeah. It's discouraging.

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  5. It's a supply and demand marketplace like most enterprises. If the kind of people visiting your gallery these days don't want to part with more than $80 at a time, maybe it's time to partner with the artists and sell limited edition prints of the actual works (which they can see in your gallery free of charge).

    I would take $40 profit x 100 over a single $2000 sale any day.

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  6. I understand your point, Eric. But what I'm trying to say is that I think this is deeper than people tightening their belts and wanting to spend $80 or less at a time. We have a very large number of prints in the gallery, some for as little as $20 - those aren't selling well either. I think it may reflect an unconscious decision by the public that art is superfluous in the modern age.

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  7. And this is in a town where people pay $300.00 for tickets to a football game, without batting an eye.

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  8. When I find something I love,, I will find a way to own it - save up, buy the print, whatever, as long as I can eventually sit and enjoy it. Some art I've seen has struck me as "oh, that's kind of pretty" but not something I would be willing to spend XX on because it hasn't GRABBED me.

    I think some artists are copping out - they'll drop the price, whatever, because it takes much more work to educate the public as to the worth of art, to promote their own work, to make friends and contacts.

    And some art (paintings, sculpture, jewelry) simply strikes me as butt-ugly and I don't know why ANYONE would pay for it. (Not hating on the artist - there are also books I won't buy and music, as well, because they are not to my tastes.)

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  9. You're absolutely right, Beverly. One of the things that (most) artists recognize is that people buy art not because it's beautiful, or well made, or in the case of the 'butt uglies', for it's shock value. They buy because it resonates with them.

    So the question then remains - have we all suddenly lost our power to produce that resonance? Or is there something operating here that we can't quite get a handle on, a seismic shift of public opinion?

    One of our area high schools had their art teacher retire last year. They opted not to replace him. That speaks volumes to me.

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  10. I don't know why this happens to artist as much as it does. That being said, I don't know why artists slash their prices as if they are selling mattresses to college kids. What I find to be a shame is when an artist who clearly has tremendous talent does not have enough money for a canvas. The world would be a better place with these artist creating their beauty instead of waiting until people understand their worth.

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  11. I hate to be fickle as an artist; but my prices have swung back and forth based on time x effort x materials, to dollars per square inch, to whatever will sell. I even discussed this very topic recently with another local artist.

    In full dislosure, I have a couple of photographs in LeAnn's gallery now that are bargain priced. I have priced similar pieces at two and three times as much in the past. My current pricing is a way to test the waters with very affordable prices for my work.

    Will anything sell this month?? Who knows, but I still use the basic principles LeeAnn has highlighted into account each time I price my work. I won't know if this will work out like Eric's calculation (the long tail model of retailing) versus the Big Sale. Either way, I am keeping my fingers crossed.

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  12. Keep saying it, because everyone needs to hear it! Thank you for a thoughtful and very important rant.

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  13. Thanks for ranting, LeeAnn. I've done my fair share of "consumer education" in the past, and when you get to the point where you have to explain it to them, you've already lost the sale. It's like once they've embarrassed themselves asking stupid questions like, "can you tell me why your work is more expensive than the artist that the tile store recommended?" without any background on just who this person is, their credentials, abilities, attractiveness of the work... ack! They will never give in and let you win the sale. Now you've gotten me all riled up again. I have had multi-millionaires ask me to do work and made comments in the ask, "but don't make it too expensive," and I have an acquaintance who asks me every year to donate a work for her fundraiser. Then she scoops it up during the auction at a rock bottom price. She has plenty of money and could easily buy my work. Since she never comes forward to actually support my art career, the forever answer to her auction question is now "No." I'm learning. It's slow and painful.

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  14. Hi Julie! It is such a difficult position, isn't it? And I have gotten to the point where when people want to know why what I do it more expensive than 'the artist the tile store recommended' I just shrug and tell them "you get what you pay for". Because they are more interested in the dollars than the artistic side of it. So be it.

    I had a similar situation with a donation for auction in which the person who asked for the donation is the one who got the piece, but at least it ended up selling for the retail price I had set for it. Someone else apparently wanted it!

    Thanks for your comment - I know it helps me to hear others chime in on such issues. We're all in this together. We just keep plugging along and explaining until we're blue in the face - until we find a better solution!

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