Friday, October 9, 2009

making a living

JC asked in her comment to yesterday’s post:

... do you have another income other than art ? 

The reason I ask ... there is a huge art show each year that I try to go to. Lots of artists and this last year .. no one buying ... 

I do wonder how many pieces sell. And, why are the prices still so high when no one is buying ? 

Just ?'s from someone who thought everything was too highly priced and did not buy anything ...

Yes, art is my only income, our only income since my husband does this with me.  And yes this has been a really hard year for all the artists I know.  Some of them do have a spouse with a job.  Some artists are commission artists (like we are with the etched glass) and some are gallery or art show artists who make their work and then try to sell it (like we do with the pate de verre).  

Pricing the finished piece is one of the hardest things an artist does.  You have to consider your materials and equipment (and for us and other glass artists, glass is an expensive material to work with as is the equipment), your time involvement, your overhead (utilities and perhaps rent for your studio space), your skill level, the overall appeal of the piece, then there is the elusive ‘perceived value’, and if you do shows, there are all the fees connected to that (photography for juries, price of the show, travel expenses) and the equipment (tents, tables, lights, etc).  Artists who sell in galleries only get 50% of the retail price, a trade for not having to do the selling.

Art is not easy.  Depending on your medium, there can be quite a bit of physical labor involved not to mention working with hazardous materials.  I encountered many people when we did shows who thought we just whipped this stuff up in our basement and should be giving it away because we were having fun, that somehow the pencil pushing they did was worth more than what we did, that artists were basically lazy people who didn’t really want to get a real job.  One guy offered us a ridiculous price for a very nice piece at the end of a show.  When I asked him if his boss came by one day, told him what a great job he did, but that he (the boss) only wanted to pay him 50% of his salary for that same great work, how he would feel about that, the guy got insulted and walked off.

Once you have set a price for your work and the work sells at that price you can't really just start lowering your prices because people aren't buying.  If you do that then you devalue the work that other people have already bought and then they feel cheated.  In hard times, most the artists I know will create a different body of work that sells for less, but it also takes time to create the inventory.  

It's unfair to think an artist's work is unduly high priced, too expensive for what it is (not that perhaps some isn’t overpriced).  If you see something you like and wonder at the price, engage the artist in conversation.  Find out about the work, how it is done, how much time it takes, etc.  I know our cast work, most people don’t have a clue as to how it is done but when we explain to them how much time it takes, how difficult the process is, how many steps are involved they begin to have a greater appreciation for the work and the price tag.  

This country, for the most part does not really value the arts.  The National Endowment for the Arts has been gutted over and over, art and music classes in public schools are a rarity, public art programs like Percent for the Arts are constantly under fire by people who think it is a waste of money to beautify their cities.

There are of course the headline makers who get tens of thousands for what I will be the first to say is crap (that’s the whole ‘perceived value’) but for most artists, it’s not an easy lifestyle.

PBS is doing a wonderful series called Craft In America.  The second installment was on TV just this past week.  You can find out more about it here.


  1. Thank you Ellen for putting this down so well. So many people have no idea what our work takes and how we get there. I make my living totally from my art and boarding other folks horses and believe me it is not a lazy life. I do get to do what I want and be outdoors in nature,
    Thanks again.

  2. Ellen, you stated it so well. I encounter the same thing here in the campground. I actually had a man say to me, "Oh, you are in it for the money." I think Americans expect something for nothing. Everybody wants a discount and will actually tell me that the money they give me is total profit. In the 5 years we have owned this park we have yet to turn a profit....meaning that everything, minus our living expenses, has gone to improvements in the park. I work at least 12 hours a day during the "season". I draw no salary. I doubt anyone would be enticed to stay here if the bathrooms were not cleaned and the grass and gardens not maintained.... not to mention the other costs involved with running a small business. There is that electric bill that was running just under $4000 a month this summer, the liability and property insurance that would make you gasp if I listed that figure. A whole bunch of other incidental expenses like business liscense, water testing,etc.

    Sorry, but this hit a nerve. I also sew and market my wares, along with the stained glass items that my husband makes. People will tsk, tsk at the prices and smile at me like I am amusing them. I feel what you feel, believe me!

  3. Thank you for educating us on the pricing of art. I know that many really don't understand what goes into a work of art. Including myself. Whenever we have to pay out for something our motto is - "everyone has to make a living." If you keep that in mind, then you don't expect to lowball people, and get something for nothing. Your reply to the gentlemen trying to do just that was perfect.

    I hope things improve for all of the artists struggling. It is usually the first thing we have to cut from our budgets, unfortunately. I have several pieces I have my eye on right now, but things will have to improve before I can purchase them. But art is the only thing I never feel guilty about buying. Other stuff is just stuff, but art is energy, and it brings such pleasure.

  4. Thanks for answering my question.

  5. I wonder if it might be a touch of sour grapes - "you get to do something you obviously love while I get to sit in an office all day." Hmmm.

    My cousin & her husband are potters (Hog Hill Pottery in NC). They both supplement their income by teaching at a local community college. My cousin is VERY uncomfortable teaching! She'd love to just live on their art. But she also struggles because what she feels "called" to create isn't always what sells best. So she has to compromise in a lot of areas of her life. Pretty sure I couldn't handle that kind of stress - but that's because I'm not consumed by art...

  6. Last year, I read about an experiment that was done. A noted concert violinist took his instrument to the subway and played several extremely difficult pieces. A ticket to see this would normally be steep, but there he was, playing for free.

    Well, almost everyone ignored him. The only people who consistently wanted to stop and hear him were children...most of whom were tugged away by impatient parents.

    Sadly, people don't even want beauty when it is right there in front of them for the taking. It isn't "important." Oscar Wilde said that Americans are poeple who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Sometimes I think he was (is) right.

  7. Well put Ellen. We saw two of the Craft in America episodes and loved them. My hubby & I both value creative art highly. One thing that stayed with me from watching the different artists' approach was their reverence for what they love to do, their trust in that inner creative force. Did you see the man who was a weaver? He was so interesting - and I loved that he stressed the time it takes to do what he does and he loves that. The slowness of it. I'm in awe of your work Ellen!

  8. Thanks for explaining why art is expensive. When you buy a piece of art, you're getting a lot more than just some canvas or vessel or sculpture, oh yeah!

    I've seen your work on your website. It is truly spectacular, beautiful, soulful, probably underpriced.

    I salute you!

  9. Interesting insight into a side of life I know little about. I always think about buying 'art' and rarely do, due mostly to inertia. I shall now feel spurred on to do so.

  10. A wonderful post, Ellen. It's so true. People rarely understand what goes into a artist's work. There's a lack of appreciation for the time and skill involved. And everybody wants something for next to nothing. You're wise to suggest that folks engage the artist about their craft. There is much to be learned. Thank you for that.

  11. A sculptor I met at an art show told me he had once priced a piece relatively low in hopes of selling it quickly to pay the cost of his meals and travel for a weekend show. The piece didn't sell right away, so he raised the price. It still didn't sell, so he raised the price again...and again, til it seemed unreasonable, even to him. It then sold. The point: if you undervalue your work, so will others.
    As always, I deeply appreciate your generosity in sharing your knowledge and the encouragement you have given me.

  12. Wonderfully written and informative -- it should be published somewhere to educate the masses!

    Your work is stunning, btw, though I think I've already said that!


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