Why Do People Buy Art and What Determines the Price?

Posted by Sandra C. Dovberg on August 1, 2016

An artist should consider the price of raw materials, overhead and labor just like a car manufacturer does. But there is a psychological component too, that goes way beyond these bacic principles. Is the artist well known? Is he at the beginning of his career where he is untested or is she well versed in her field with years of experience?

People should buy art because they truly love it, but this is not always the case. Can they afford it? Does it fit with their color scheme? Do they have the right space for it? Why are they interested in the work of a particular artist? To an artist color, shape, form, texture, line and concept are paramount, but to a buyer there are more parameters.

In the higher-end buyer's market, prices are quite often astronomical. There is a competitive edge in wealthy circles to "be a member of the club" and to buying who's "Hot". Sometimes, buying is based on keeping up with the Jones's even if the work is ugly. Of course, ugly or beautiful is in the eyes of the beholder, but those outside the club including many who have a better sense of what makes art good, view this conspicuous consumption as a sign of poor taste. This is more about flaunting wealth than being a judge of good art but it skews pricing in the art world.

At the other end of the spectrum is work that is priced so cheaply that people buy it because it is a bargain. There is also very good art priced cheaply because these artists (hobbyists) don't know how to value their time, talent, labor and raw materials. In the first case maybe one should consider whether it is worthy of being sold or tossed in a drawer for later revision, and in the second case the artist does not see their value and is just giving art away. Strangers being given good art at bargain prices is not fair to working artists because it drives down fair market pricing and makes the public think that art is not worthy of pricing structures. They become conditioned to thinking that art is cheap and something merely to decorate their walls, when in reality it should be valued.

Another reason people buy art is not because they like it, but because they view it as an investment that will gain in financial value over time. A joke goes: an artist gets a call from his gallery manager that a gentleman just bought all his paintings. It seemed that the buyer was impressed when the manager told him that the paintings would become priceless after the death of the artist. “Wow,” says the artist, “who was that guy?” Replies the manager, “your doctor.”

So, all this being said, how do I decide how to price my work? Well, in the case of the unknowns like me, it is usually based on the size of the paintings. I’m tempted to charge more for the ones I think are better, but that’s just my taste, so I try not to impose it on the potential buyer. Of course, I have the problem of most artists in never being sure that what I do is “good enough.” My own struggle with trying to become the best I can be is complicated by the issue of sales. I have to please myself and hope that some people will like what I do. Otherwise, I could wind up doing a lot of cheap “schlock” art that would sell but not be something I enjoy doing or could take pride in. Making less in quantity but working harder at being original causes rarity of product and raises the price. This only works if the artist's work is in demand. In the meantime, I try to keep my prices consistent and fair while not shortchanging myself or undercutting other artists by making their fair prices seem expensive. One must also consider the gallery owner who pushes art and provides visibility to artists that they otherwise would not receive. The gallery owner has many expenses also and they unerstandably take a % of the sale (30-50% usually).

Finally, many people don’t realize that making and selling art is a demanding, full time job. They imagine that artists are just having fun doing a nice hobby, like a child with a coloring book, so why should they charge “so much” for a piece of paper or canvas with a little paint on it? Most people have no idea how expensive good quality art supplies are, nor do they realize all the costs that go into producing, showing and promoting the work. As with most things, the artist, unless he or she is famous and getting high prices, makes very little profit, if any, on the work, and it is the rare person who can actually make a living as an artist. While it may seem that the ideal situation for an artist is to be financially independent and not to rely on sales, this is unrealistic. if no one buys your work, you can’t help but wonder whether it is worth doing and how are you going to feed yourself? If Michelangelo and countless others did not have their patrons- the Medici's for example, where would our world be? Today there are not so many patrons and lots of talent exists.

One more episode in my life of learning how to be an artist and how to price is that many years ago a relative of mine asked me, “Sandy, what do you do?” “I’m an artist,” I replied. “Yes,” said he, “but what do you REALLY do?”

Take it from here everyone. I would love your comments on pricing.