Clay Culture: Pricing Artwork

Need help figuring out how to price your work? Evaluate your level of experience, and follow the three-tiered system shared here.

As students learn, they seek ways to move out old work and make room for the new. Once everyone in the family has a pencil cup, coffee mug, and a toothbrush holder, my students at the Indianapolis Art Center inevitably start asking about selling their work. Our ceramics studio has no rules against students selling because it is an important part of becoming an artist. Learning the ways to sell art can be as challenging and rewarding as the art-making process itself.

Most pricing questions occur around our annual student show. Students who hope to get their prized piece juried into the show begin appraising their work for the first time. Many students, fearing they may never see the piece again, simply mark it not for sale (NFS). Unfortunately, NFS does not help viewers understand the value of an artwork. The following three-tiered system, developed through conversations with students, personal experiences, and conversations with seasoned sellers, helps artists at every level feel confident while pricing their work.

1 Tim Compton’s wood-fired dinner set, 10 in. (25 cm) in height (stacked), white stoneware, wood ash, fired to cone 12. Tim Compton is a stage-2 seller. He sells work in Indianapolis and online, but his primary focus is as the adult programs manager at the Indianapolis Art Center.

Stage 1: The Beginning Seller

Early in their careers, artists are hesitant to sell their work. The connection to their work is sentimental because they don’t produce work in large volumes. I hear excuses like, “What if they think it is crazy overpriced for just a beginner piece?” When exhibiting their work, budding artists should make sure the price on their work reflects the value they see in it. Mugs can be $250; sculptures can be $10,000. They may not have work in museums, but in this early stage, it all comes down to a number with which that artist is comfortable parting with their work. If they place a large price on an artwork and it sells, the person who purchased it is probably as excited to own it as the student was to create it. Sharing that excitement and connection between maker and collector is what successful selling is all about. (Care should be taken to avoid pricing work so high that it makes students look like they did not research pricing.)

As artists transition out of the beginner level, it is important to understand how broader market forces reflect on art. Name recognition does not always set price. Students often think that opening to wider markets will drive their prices down, but it is important to remember that art is considered a luxury commodity. Because people aren’t purchasing something they strictly need, but rather something they want, low prices can imply a less desirable, lower valued artwork. Numerous students have been surprised that increasing their prices actually helps them sell more work. Art buyers want value in their purchase—not just a cheap price. Communication, sharing appreciation, and lead time in notification of price increases (so loyal customers have time to buy before prices jump) are essential for bringing loyal customers along as artists transition beyond the beginning stages of their careers.

2 Sandra Maher’s raku birds, to 4 in. (10 cm) in height, raku-fired stoneware. Sandra Maher is a stage-2 seller. These birds are sold in markets beyond Indianapolis.

3 Robert Reiberg’s oil candles, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10. Robert Reiberg is a stage-3 seller; his primary profession is making and selling ceramics throughout the Midwest and online.

Stage 2: The Intermediate Seller

About the time students begin filling their own bisque kilns regularly, they transition away from the emotional connection to each individual piece. Sure, there is the rare perfect piece (I recommend they hold onto that), but they need to move work out of the studio to keep exploring new things. I encourage those students to go out and investigate their local markets. Galleries, art fairs, and even coffee shops set customer expectations for art prices in the community. Artists wanting to sell more should take an honest look at the work these places are displaying, compare it to theirs, and price accordingly. Based on my research, prices in the Indianapolis market average between $25–65 per mug. Having done additional online research, I realized that my prices needed to be a bit higher online (about 35% higher than face-to-face sales) to project a proper value in similar markets. If the work does not sell at this price, I can reevaluate. This guess-and-check method not only helps to find a price that sells, but it also helps to discover different market opportunities and how prices can fluctuate based on the atmosphere including location, region, or venue. Lastly, if artists are moving through this phase, they should consider starting or already be set up as a business, whether as a sole proprietor or LLC to present as a professional artist. Setting up a business is an important part of legitimizing the sale of artwork and signaling your level of commitment to your career.

4 Bruce Swan’s Smugs, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10. Bruce Swan is a stage-1 seller. These mugs range in price depending on the location where they are sold and his relation to the purchaser.

Many casual artists remain at this intermediate-seller level. Often their day job pays the bills and making art remains a side gig. For those artists who do transition out of the intermediate level, art making has become their livelihood. As their business begins to grow, it is necessary to explore larger markets and wholesale options. Galleries, online retailers, and local shops or art fairs do not want to compete at different prices for the same product. A method for developing consistent prices is necessary to facilitate sales equally across multiple platforms and in different regions or venues.

Stage 3: The Advanced Seller

Students taking commissions, selling regularly at art fairs, and talking to galleries are encouraged to move on from our community art center and into a studio of their own. While the start-up cost is high, advanced students need to factor the overhead of a working studio into their costs, and how much of that cost to pass on to their customers to ensure sustainability and consistency. The most common pricing equation I share and use for production-based work includes the cost of all materials and consumables; plus time (making, glazing, and firing) at an acceptable pay rate; plus utilities; plus space (whether rented or square footage in the home); plus depreciation of equipment. Through this math, a per-item cost of each artwork can be created based on its size and complexity. That price is the wholesale price for the piece, and then double that for the necessary retail price for the artwork as fair fees generally start in the hundreds of dollars and gallery cuts range from 30–50%. While this formula is technical, it is important to capture the complete cost of production to ensure the longevity of a profession.

5 Cris Rivas’ A Country of My Own, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, stoneware, slip, underglaze, fired multiple times in an electric kiln. Cris Rivas is a stage-1 seller. These pieces take considerable time and energy, resulting in a strong attachment and an appropriately high price.

This three-tiered system has helped my students build confidence with pricing art at every stage in their development. As they work through the stages, they often find pricing work to be as much of an art as making the work itself. Regardless of the stage, keep in mind selling is about sharing your connection to each piece with others.

the author Tim Compton received degrees in art education and ceramics from Ball State University. His career has since focused on academic and community education of ceramic arts, including several roles at the Indianapolis Art Center where he does administration, teaches, and produces art. Follow his adventures on Instagram @trcomptonceramics.

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