The Cost of Art - Why Paintings in Galleries are "So Expensive"
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The Cost of Art - Why Paintings in Galleries are "So Expensive"

“Art is often valuable precisely because it isn't a sensible way to make money.”

I have a small house.  By the end of the year, my home studio (a.k.a. dining room) was overflowing with over one hundred paintings created for and at my Sociable Art events. Most of these paintings had been created in less than an hour and a half, and the subject matter was simple due to the time constraints of the classes and the limited experience of the guests. Because I had so many, had not invested much time in them, and had a pressing need to clear some space in my home, I offered them for sale at a festival for $15-$30.  A customer came into my booth and said, “Now, these are the kind of prices I can afford unlike in those galleries.”  She went on to ask me why they charged so much at the galleries.   Like many consumers who are not artists, she felt like the prices were exorbitantly high and arbitrarily assigned.  I'm not sure she understood that my paintings were only value priced because they were rapidly produced as display pieces for my events, not as finished works of art.  In way of explanation, here are some of the factors behind the seemingly high price tags you might see at a gallery.

  1. It takes more time than you think to create a work of art. Art is usually not the product of a quick flash of inspiration that is then transferred quickly to a canvas as a finished masterpiece in a matter of hours.  On the contrary, a work of art is usually the culmination of hours, weeks, and sometimes years of rumination, sketches, study, trial and error, and failed efforts.  Unlike other occupations where the cost of the work is clear, it is impossible to tally up all of those hours and put a price per hour value on the work. Then consider that hours spent creating art, unless it has been commissioned by a patron, are a complete leap of faith.  An artist has no guarantee that someone will like the art enough to actually buy it.  The hours spent might end up being a complete waste of time and money. 
  2. Art supplies are expensive. Quality paint, brushes, canvases, easels, and framing are expensive.  The canvas alone might easily cost the artist over $100.  Supply costs may eat up half the profit an artist potentially makes.  If the painting never sells, the artist takes a loss for the cost of that canvas and those supplies.  The profits from the canvases that do sell will also have to cover the cost of those that do not find a buyer. For an illuminating explanation of how one artists determines the price of a commissioned work of art, including time and supplies, check out this post from Red Bluff Gallery.
  3. Artists often must pay sizable commissions in order to sell their work. Galleries charge a 50% commission on average. Even restaurants and coffee shops usually get a commission on every piece sold, so the artist only receives $500 from that $1000 painting you purchased at the gallery. For an explanation of the reasoning behind the gallery commissions, check out Red Dot Blog..
  4. For every painting sold, there are many that don’t. An artist might spend a month or year creating paintings for a show.  They might create 20 paintings but only sell 6,  For all that time spent on each painting, they might only see a return on 30% of them.
  5. If the artist is popular and in demand, the price of the work will rise. If an artist is one of the lucky and talented few to make a name for herself, there will be a cost passed on to the art consumer for the value of that reputation.  If a buzz has been created for a particular artist, his/her paintings will be in demand and thus command a higher price.  Just as you would pay more for a haircut from a skilled hairstylist with a popular reputation and renowned clientele, you will pay more to the artist with years of experience and a history of selling paintings to famous people.   Interestingly enough, the value of a painting is often determined by the renown and wealth of the previous owners according to the documentary, What Makes Art Valuable.

Artists are compelled to create art whether they make money or not, and most cannot manage to make a living doing what they love.  However, for some there is no other choice - the inspiration that lives within them must be expressed. So, the next time a painting in a gallery or on the wall of a restaurant speaks to you, touches something inside your soul, or would simply look lovely on your wall, I hope you will have a deeper understanding of the value.  If for no other reason, buy the art to support the artist, so they can continue to bring inspiration and beauty into the world.

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