An Artist’s Conundrum

Pricing my salable work is absolutely the most difficult aspect of my “job” as an artist. And from the craft fairs I’ve frequented, I don’t stand alone.

spaghetti-plate In contrast, in architecture cost estimates are simplified with tools approximating the cost of different structures, finishes, etc. Clients may be surprised (pleasantly or not) by the figures I provide, but there are pages of known data to back up my construction budget.

In art, there is nothing to compare my work against, no standard (Etsy aside, where prices range from priced-to-sell to WHAT! FOR THAT!?). If someone were to question my pricing structure, especially for the pieces submitted to gallery shows, I would have to reveal emotional attachment -induced markups. Whoops, now you know!

Take for instance my 2013 ceramic plate of “spaghetti and meatballs” above. It’s no secret that my ceramics are more “museum” than functional, and this piece is no different. I would never sell it because I love it too much, but if I did, that emotional value would be inherent in the pricetag. When a recent call-for-artists demanded that each entry be for sale, I struggled to name prices, especially for the mixed-media sculpture “Don’t Cut Gras [sic]” below. I finally identified a number in the $200-range. If you’re an art buyer, its low. If you’re an avid gallery-goer looking to begin an art collection, start with me. I’m happy to share my talent, and considering the time and initial cost of fabricating this work, $200 is a fair price, makes me a profit ($$$ for ceramics classes!). Conversely, if I were to make a simple usable mug (who am I kidding?), I’d conservatively base the price on cost of materials, studio time, and my own time resources. Add a small markup for profit, and there you have it, a reasonably priced handmade mug.

Over the years of struggling with pricing, handling, and shipping costs I’ve learned a few lessons: (1) people love discounts. Jack up the price and then offer 15% off. Hey, everybody’s doing it. Even JC Penny. (2) you can’t pretend to pay yourself a decent salary (or even minimum wage) for every hour spent in front of your TV making jewelry. People may be willing to pay premium for materials and skill, but don’t expect a six figure salary (3) you must consider your initial costs (material, supplies) and factor in facilities (I spend a lot of time at a University using their equipment for free, but sometimes I use my own cutter, tools, and electricity). (4) you have to know your audience. This is key. This realization drove me away from Etsy and back to my blog and email contacts, where the majority of my online sales begin.

674x501_662277_731744_1390430242With experience, I’ve learned to price so that my business is profitable – perhaps not immediately, but when the audience is right, life’s good. I’ve learned that just because a product doesn’t fly off the shelf initially doesn’t mean its not competitive. And, happily, with more maker-based events popping up, there is a mentality shift occurring in buyers of crafts and art and new value is being placed on hand-knit scarves over ones from Target.

These warm-fuzzy feelings towards craft could be turned on its head (yet again) with the insurgence of digital fabrication tools. My own work has experienced a transformation. I am able to sell more, lower priced Leather Feather earrings once a laser cutter was made available to my craft. (I am able to mass-produce a computer generated design, but I still need to hand assemble the earring posts and leather. )  This blended craft (1/2 machine, 1/2 hand) is the future of the craft business.

And then there is Shapeways, a newish website, where ANYBODY can become a product designer by uploading a design, selecting material, and having the object “printed” by someone else with infinitely cool technology. You can have your piece produced once and shipped back to you, or it can be mass-produced and made for sale. Take a look at the shop section. The prices reflect a level of ego, not just material cost.

This ceramic mug, above, designed with 3-d software and 3-d printed and hand glazed, is for sale via a Shapeways user named Voroni. Each mug costs $66.60 (!!!!). For a price so exact, he must have his pricing matrix down to a science. Or not (see ego comment, above). The possibilities here are awesome and Voroni’s piece is stunning, but for me it’s too removed from the process of making. It’s not 1/2 and 1/2 (even though someone – not Voroni – must hand dip the ceramic in glaze, and arrange the pieces by hand in a kiln).

If I select the colors of a new pair of sneakers and request a monogram, outsource the labor, and wait for “my shoes” to come in the mail am I a designer? No.  If I pull of few control points on a pre-made model on the computer, specify the material, outsource the labor, and wait for “my piece” to come in the mail am I a designer? Yes, maybe, no? For me, the process of making is so important, that I can’t imagine being so far removed from the process of doing. Physically working with materials is so awesome, but not everyone has the time or resources, which is why handmade art is always so appealing.

The lines are blurring, between artist and product developer. It’s an exciting time to be flexing my aesthetic muscle, and also a confusing one. Pricing is going to become more complex as the processes of making evolve, and as audiences become more educated about the technologies and techniques in play. And keeping up with the technology can be exhausting, especially when it involved waking up early on weekend mornings to trudge through snow to be the first in line on the equipment 🙂

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