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The value of art?

By March 6, 2009Art talk

In these times of economic turmoil and massive revaluation of asset values around the world, it has got me thinking, what is anything worth?

How do we value things, how due we place a value on an intrinsic object, natural objects, on a life?

How do you place a value on art:???  This is a big question I often ask myself and occasionally others ask of me.

At the end of the day, a painting is a bit of coloured pigment, suspended in oil or acrylic binder, pushed around on a piece of canvas. When we look at things subjectively, they seem to take on  new meanings, questions are raised and conundrums reached!

I have personally wrestled with this on many occasions. I have seen artists devalue their work by selling it for far less than the market would reward. Also by poor marketing and presentation or by past mistakes in pricing or display, have inadvertently pushed the perceived values of their works lower.

I heard a quote the other day “the more rare and beautiful an object, the greater is it’s value and desire-ability”  Does this hold true for all things, or only for some things?  Rare and beautiful objects sometimes turn up in op-shops, remaining there until someone sees their ‘true worth’ or rarity and snaps them up to make a monetary killing!  These stories abound, but bugger me, I haven’t found one yet!   Some objects of art, sculpture, fashion or the like, are truly ghastly! Yet they command huge prices and consumer demand. Is this some quirk of human perception or merely marketing genius’ at work?

I have tried to remain objective over the years in the pricing of my own artworks. Often it is a balancing act of consumer demand, the amount of work I can produce and the limits of the market. But that is only the cold hard economic side of things. Then there is also the moral and ethical side of things to consider.My approach over many years, has been to balance a fair price with the amount of demand and to price my work evenly across the board. That’s to say, the prices I charge are the same at any outlet the work is sold through, regardless of commission taken (within a few dollars). Personally, if I bought an item through gallery X, then found the same item on eBay for 30% less, I’d be cheesed off!!

I have had discussions with artists in the past regarding the commercialization of art. Some have said “but all I want to do is paint”  or “you’re just a business man, not an artist!”  I think both are true to a degree.

Consider this:    If all you want to do is paint, you need to feed yourself and buy canvas, paint and brushes.  Therefore you need to sell art to buy food and consumables.  Mmm.. need a studio to paint in, rent is expensive. Need somewhere to sell my work…How much commission?!! Gee, not making enough to feed the kids, better put the prices up, get a web site, do some advertising. Now my neck is too sore to paint 10 hours a day, better do some prints and cards to help bring in income. Bugger, need a good accountant now tax dept keeps taking too much and a marketing manger to distribute the cards and prints… and so it goes.  Heh, you’re too commercial, are you an artist or a business man!

Having said all that, artists are still the most underpaid and undervalued members of western society today. The average artist in Australia earns under $40k a year, well below the average minimum wage of approx. $1000 per week!  The costs involved in producing the work have increased exponentially. Materials have gone up, freight prices have increased, GST has to be included (more to the point absorbed into the price, not added like when selling a fridge or TV) and most of all, gallery commissions have increased incredibly. About 16 years ago, when I first started painting , the standard gallery commission was about 20-25 percent. Then it went to 30, then 33 and a 3rd. Then sales tax was abolished and the GST introduced. Even though the gallery and the artist both collect and remit GST, the commissions overnight went to 37 per cent. Within a few years, this shot to 40% which is now becoming a rarity and rapidly being replaced by 50% commissions. I believe the going rate in New York galleries is 60 per cent!   Having run a gallery myself for several years, I can understand it in parts, due to the high costs of rent etc, but really, what else has changed?  It’s little wonder, artists are turning in droves to the Internet and direct marketing to sell their work.

This is in itself a two edged sword. The artist is saving commission in dealing direct, thus increasing the gross profit of their labours, but in depriving the gallery of their artworks, they are not being marketed and dare I say ‘value added’ in the way that a good gallery can do.  A clever gallery will see talent, nurture that artist and create demand and therefore value for an artist. Thus increasing the prices and perception of  value in their work.

This is a quandry many working artists now deal with and one to which I don’t have an answer.

What has been your experience and what are your thoughts?



  • Laura Tomkiewicz says:

    hey shane… i read the article and enjoyed it very much… i am just starting out here in australia… i currently have a some printed cards of my work at a gallery and planning to go to the markets… i would like to try all means possible… markets, internet, competitions, and galleries.. i appreciate your words of wisdom and although you seem to be a bit confused on pricing of things you have put a new perspective to it and have almost made it clear if you know what i mean… i am currently on facebook with a group.. its called ‘Merzifesto Distribution Company’… if you may be interested in having a look… i am not sure where my art may be appropriate…ie: what demograghic or audience… the gallery i am in do 50 percent on items and 30 percent on paintings… is there any way of bargaining down? what have you found to be a good balance for yourself and your art to be recognized but not to ‘sell out’… thanks again for posting your opinion as it is well received.. Laura Tomkiewicz

    • outbackart says:

      Thanks Laura, good luck with your endeavors. I this day and age, you need to explore all avenues of selling your work, their is no set path anymore!
      What I was trying to say in the article, is the conundrum of valuing art work or any other goods/ commodities for that matter.
      I have pretty much sorted out the pricing of my own work and I’m comfortable with it, albeit being a bit stifled by the current economic climate!
      50 per cent on items and 30 on paintings? Wish I was still paying 30% on paintings! Having said that, everything is negotiable, especially in this ‘economic crisis’ but it may be harder to negotiate if you are relatively unknown.

  • Steve Gray says:

    Great article Shane, it’s the sort of thing Artists have to wrestle with constantly in my view, recent story of a guy after his first solo show, added up the costs etc and said, no way… from that point on his works were a min $5k top of $10k. his thoughts on the matter were, that’s what I need to be paid to make this work… end of story.

    I have seen formulas for working out the “value” on cost per Cm of the canvas and time based (labour plus materials) but in the end it’s driven by the market, what will people pay… too many then offer a discount rate to try to “move some works” but the hassle is people then feel the work is devalued…

    One gallery I go to in an upmarket area of Melb has an average price on works of $8k – $11k when people buy from there and their friends ask “where did you get it?” and they are told, they know the min price paid (the upper end, the sky is the limit.)

    It’s a great strategy from the gallery… Note the gallery director said… “People need art it shows their status to the world” and in a world of posturing and stance this is vital…

    I think it’s also about how the artist markets them selves and sees intrinsic value in their work.Is my work a strong statement about what I want to convey or some watered down oh well lets give it a go image… hopefully it’s the former!

    Good article always topical!

  • Well said, enjoyed the read.