Help Desk

Help Desk: Money, Honey

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

This week’s column is illustrated with collages by Irina and Silviu Szekely.

Your financial counselor, hard at work.

My question is: how does an artist decide how much a certain piece is worth, monetarily?

One of the most difficult things to do is put a dollar value on your work. In the absence of a gallerist’s guiding hand and prior knowledge, you have to ask yourself all kinds of ancillary questions: where am I at in my career, is this object well-made, is it unique, what have I sold in the past? etc. Pricing your work means it’s time to be brutally honest about where you stand in your career vis à vis what the market will bear. It can be a tough call. Who—at least of the unrepresented among us—hasn’t sold a piece and then wished they had asked for more? Or wondered if unsold work might have had a buyer if it was offered for less?

This is just one more situation in which artists need to do their research. Start with the local galleries and art fairs and look at the prices of work that is similar to yours to get a range of values. This will help you create a basic list of prices, but don’t stop there because numbers aren’t the only part of the equation. Take a look at the resumes of the artists, too, as accomplishments make a difference in setting a price. If the paintings of an established mid-career artist with work in private and public collections sell for $30,000, and you’re fresh out of a BFA program, then your work is not going to sell for the same amount even if the size, medium, and style are comparable.

Irina and Silviu Szekely, ( framing, deframing and reframing of semi-accidental linkages ), 18 x 22. Image courtesy of the artists.

You’ll also need to consider what it takes to make your work and what kind of work you’re making. For example, take the economics of production into account. What do you spend on your materials? Likewise, if you’re selling framed work you need to account for the costs of matting and framing. The type of work you’re making also has a particular value. If the work is part of an edition, it’s valued less than an original. A print from an edition of three hundred is less expensive than one from an edition of five.

When you’ve accounted for as many variables as possible, give yourself a small range of prices that you think are acceptable and run them by an artist friend who understands the art market. If you have access to a sympathetic teacher or dealer, you could ask those folks, too. I find that bouncing a number off a neutral party can help me make a final decision. I also take into account the words of a former professor, who told me that his sales strategy was to price things on the lower end of the scale. “I’d rather have a slightly smaller check than store [my paintings] indefinitely,” he said, and this is yet another thing to consider when you’re trying to put a dollar value on your work.

Irina and Silviu Szekely, ( the amputated experience of Sir Coincidence Sobject ), 27 x 23 cm. Image courtesy of the artists.

I am a performance artist. I have had many invitations lately to show my work, but I am worried I won’t have enough money to pay for all of the travel and materials. Is there a way to get an ‘art loan’? What would you do? I’m right on the cusp of something. It is so much about freeness, but also, it’s crazy to be running on hot air.

The first thing I want to say is that if you’re receiving invitations to perform, you should be getting at least some financial support from the institutions and venues themselves. Have you written any emails along the lines of, “Thank you for your interest in my work. Here are the costs associated with my performance, including airfare to your city. Please let me know how you are going to fund this performance.”? Though I suspect that this is not a magical solution to your problem, I would love for your work to be supported by the venues that ask you to perform for them. That’s not going to happen if you don’t ask directly, and at least it gives you a place to start.

As always, there are some larger issues at work here. We all know of some great institutions that operate on a shoestring budget. What happens when one of those worthy venues sends you an invitation? Do you turn them down if they can’t fully fund your work, thereby maintaining your financial integrity but losing an opportunity? Or do you suck it up, go into debt, and hope that this performance leads to one that will be fully financed? In a broader sense, how much do we artists have to give away before our work has (real cash) value? Can any of us afford to turn down an opportunity on principle? It’s frustrating to feel manipulated by a system that asks the very producers of culture to give it away for free. Considered on a global scale, someone somewhere is making money on our collective work, and it’s no good if you’re contributing meaningful effort and not getting your slice.

Irina and Silviu Szekely, ( unrefined manners of repossessing devaluated objects ), 18 x 18 cm. Image courtesy of the artists.

Would I get an art loan? Only if absolutely necessary and with a clear and realistic repayment strategy in place. Debt has a way of spiraling out of control, and it might be a while before you can get out from under the lead thumb of interest rates and minimum monthly payments. After all, this isn’t just about cold hard cash; it’s about your mental and emotional health, too. If the debt from today’s performance crushes your soul, how in the world are you going to get out of bed to make tomorrow’s? You need to consider the long-term implications of debt so that you can have a satisfying career instead of money-related burnout.

After you try to get some funding directly from your venues, the next step is to look into grants and awards. Grant Space at the Foundation Center has a comprehensive list of grant-making institutions. The online guide is by subscription (about $19/mo), but you can search their site for a bricks-and-mortar location near you where you can look through the guide for free. Grants are great. Not only do you get some money toward a project, you also get a line-item on your resume; even if the grant is small it has more than a financial benefit. One of the related perks of getting a grant is that it provides you with a grant history, which makes it easier to receive grants in the future (in general, granting institutions want to give their money to artists who have a proven record of being able to manage their funding properly). Start small and work your way up—a $200 grant today might not cover many of your expenses but it boosts your chance of getting a $2000 grant next year.

Irina and Silviu Szekely, ( temps de rêver au temps de vie, s’écrire et s’en douter ), 30 x 41 cm. Image courtesy of the artists.

Local funding can be crucial. Is there an institution in your area that provides small grants and awards? Try googling the name of your city and “art grant” to see what comes up. The great thing about funding on a local level is that is gives you the chance to form relationships beyond mere dollars. One artist I know received two grants from this regional institution and then was asked to sit on a grant-judging panel a few years later. The money came at the right time, to be sure; but additionally he got a wonderful “grant education” from being a judge and helping evaluate the applications. That’s the kind of knowledge that will help him get larger grants in the future.

Some of my friends have had substantial success with Kickstarter and similar crowd-sourced funding. One friend raised enough money to go off to a two-month residency across the country, and another’s campaign was so effective that he raised almost $4000 more than he requested. However, a good Kickstarter campaign takes time and energy to put together. If you’re going to try it, I suggest you spend a lot of time researching the site’s prior funded projects to determine what elements contributed to their success.

Irina and Silviu Szekely, ( simulacrum of an aesthetic mistrust prepared on the back of a postcard after periods of ontological fissures ), 56 x 82 cm. Image courtesy of the artists.

One thing to note about all of these sources is that they don’t provide money overnight, so it’s a good idea to think as far ahead as possible. Kickstarter may be among the fastest to pay out, but for any of these options it can take weeks to put together a strong application, and the checks from granting institutions come months after the application process ends. Where will you be in a year, and what will you be making? If you can start planning well in advance of production you’ll have a better chance of finding financial help. Art is so much about freeness: to experiment, create and perform. The trick is to find financial backing so that you can continue to develop your work without the weight of pecuniary shackles.