Speak Up on Behalf of Your Art Career

In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” She encourages women, whether they are in the workplace or at home, to “lean in” to their potential rather than sitting back and accepting unfavorable situations.
I’m asking you to speak up.
Here is the first of the no-excuse self-promotion principles in my book, I’d Rather Be in the Studio:

You are in charge. You have control over words, prices, artwork, and your image.

People will take as much power from you as you give them. Guard your power carefully. Accept 100% responsibility for your actions and make no excuses.

Artists often feel like everyone else has the power. You have to remember that people have only as much power over you as you give them. [tweet this]
I continue to hear about artists giving away their power. See if any of these situations sound familiar . . .
1. Art consultants who want to buy your work at wholesale prices, and then turn around and triple the price.
This is unacceptable. Art consultants who do this are taking advantage of you by hijacking your pricing structure.
Unless you can make a living through a single art consultant, run the other way.
2. Gallerists who try to negotiate lopsided deals in their favor.
Gallerists might try to lock you in to unreasonable exclusivity within a region.
They might ask you to pay for things that should be their responsibility (such as mailing or reception costs) or, worse, a pay-to-show fee.
Resist temptation.
3. Venues that hire you to teach, but won’t pay your going rate because “it’s our policy to pay just $X per class.”
Everything is negotiable. I’d rather see you run your own classes and workshops than cave to a rate beneath your standards.
4. Exhibitions or situations that promise exposure to new audiences and really just want cheap art.

Some opportunities do provide terrific exposure, but I’m still skeptical about the value of Community Supported Art (CSAs) programs. If you have had future sales at your full price from participating in a CSA, I’d love to be proven wrong.

Too many people now expect inexpensive art, and it’s hurting artists’ abilities to earn a living. They will continue to do so until more artists take a stand.
5. Art Organizations asking for art donations without any remuneration, even though U.S. artists cannot deduct the value of their art for tax purposes.
Many organizations don’t understand the ramifications of asking you for a donation. We forgive them. But art organizations, which exist on the backs of artists, should know better.
Our responsibility is to educate them as we set boundaries.
I encourage you to voice your dissatisfaction publicly with any situation that derails artists’ abilities to earn a fair wage or demeans the market value of the work.
Speak up!

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45 thoughts on “Speak Up on Behalf of Your Art Career”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I am very anti CSA for artists and thought I was the only one. The CSA I have seen only offer enough money to cover supplies. This is unacceptable.
    I would live to hear if anyone has received fair prices for their work in a CSA.
    Yes. I am grouchy about it.

    1. Thank you, Julia!
      I looked into a CSA in one of our local cities and they were giving the artists what worked out to $50 per original piece of art. It’s understandable that they can’t charge the buyers a huge sum as they’d never buy in. But for the artists It’s crazy right?
      It seems clever but really, let’s not confuse art with vegetables. 😉

  2. Thanks to you Alyson, I am finally educating myself. As we speak up for ourself as an individual we are also speaking up for other artists. So often I have been asked to donate my work. Just recently last week I was asked to donate a piece for auction. The person started off by saying “Oh your Birthday is in May like mine and by the way can you donate a piece of art?” First of all she didn’t say Happy Birthday lol, but also never offered me anything in return, a write up, publicity, nothing. When I said, “I’ll check and Happy Birthday to you”. I could see she was surprised, because I usually say yes. Most the time I’m approached by friends and acquaintances that I rarely speak to. Right now I feel no need to get back to her and if she gets back to me I will have to educate her nicely. Hopefully we all will start being more selective about where and how we donate our services and art. Perhaps then the artist will be appreciated.

  3. Caryl Hancock

    Amen to the above! I have been invited to teach at a very well known (and I thought, respected) folk art school in the South East. The renumeration I was offered did not even cover my mileage, and I was told I could make up the difference with sales of my work at the venue; they also balked at my spending an extra night before the class to set up (it was an 8 hour drive one way for me). This has been going on a long time – for me it started in about 1980, when a national quilt group invited me to teach at a regional seminar (I was one of their first certified teachers!), and I would have lost money big time – they never responded to my letter spelling out the issues. And I have dealt with the wholesaling issues, too – museum shops who want to buy my scarves for $10 (doesn’t even cover the cost), and now with a local gallery with cash flow issues and asking me to wait for my check. Sadly, these are sort of friends, and I did sign a contract with them – it is awkward.
    I support one CSA – a fireman friend who raises money for his 501(c)3 to help survivors of his colleagues. I am thinking that is was Alyson (yes?) who has blogged about this and offered helpful information about responding to this type of request.

  4. As both an artist and art consultant I have a problem with topic #1. As an art consultant buying from other artists we ask for net pricing. By that I mean we ask the artist to quote the dollar amount that they want for their work. After that, the artist has no control over what we sell it for. We sell entire projects as a package deal, and each piece in it is sold at a different profit margin due to budgets from the client. We would LOVE a project that would allow a 3X markup, but that’s unimaginable to us. Our margins range from 20 – 40%, much less than a retail gallery doubling the wholesale price.
    I would suggest that an artist quote a fair price and not worry about what it sells for after that.

    1. Shouldn’t the “fair” price be the price the artist would sell the work for whether out of the studio or a gallery? If a painting sells for $1200 in a gallery it sells for $1200 in the studio and in the art festival. And the artist is going to take home less if it is sold in a gallery because the artist has agreed to the commission – but the value of the painting is still $1200. Why shouldn’t your client also have to pay that fair price? If you sell it to your client for less than its market value, then you are lowering the value of the artist’s work. If you sell it for more than the normal asking price you are raising the artist’s structure without the permission of the artist. Your dismissal of Alyson’s recommendation to artists not to give away their power – and your advice to artists to do the opposite – to not be concerned about what their art sells for – is a perfect example of why Alyson’s post is relevant to artists.

    2. I would never advocate that anyone “give away their power” – especially artists. If the artist is quoting their price to us, they have the power. It also might be relevant to consider that the final sale price of a painting we buy from an artist and place in a project includes custom framing, and is part of an entire package of art for a commercial space, which could include 1 – 500 pieces. Also, we sell a large volume of art in a year. We work with a number of artists mostly on commission. They control their own prices, as we all should.

    3. Yes of course we do. We have a line item purchase order. But overall, we have to meet a budget that’s based on the total price of the project. Because we work with large firms, and often the project is sent out to a purchasing company for the actual buying, there’s really no one who knows what an individual painting cost in any of our commercial projects.
      In fact, I think the biggest devaluation of an artist’s work occurs at a charity auction where work is often sold at considerably below market (retail) value. Which is why I don’t donate my own work.

    4. Robin: I’ve heard of a real-life scenario where the markup was 3x by an art consultant. This isn’t acceptable because it skews the artist’s pricing structure. It’s also deeply unfair to the artist.
      I think we’re on the same page here. I’m talking about consultants that gouge artists – not about your fair pricing. And they do exist.

  5. A few months ago I had two paintings in a juried show for $300 each. The gentleman who bought one full price wanted to buy the other one for $200. I said no but I’d give him a 10% reduction in price. He didn’t purchase it at the time but said he’d think about it. A few days ago he contacted me to purchase it.
    More artists need to say no to unreasonable discount requests. When they don’t it undermines all other artists’ pricing and livelihood.

  6. Don’t you think your prices should be consistent? I don’t feel like I can offer a pecs for $500 at an artfair while a gallery would charge $1000. I could just charge 1000 myself, but that slows sales. So I don’t wholesale, which means at the moment Im doing all my own marketing via (preferably high-end) art festivals like La Quinta Arts Fest etc.

  7. Too many people now expect inexpensive art, and it’s hurting artists’ abilities to earn a living. They will continue to do so until more artists take a stand.
    This is EXACTLY the same situation writers find themselves in. After all, the reasoning goes, everybody can write. So why pay? Very frustrating. Education is such a long, slow process.

  8. If there was a boat going straight to your most passionate audience, you’d be so much better off as far as reaching your target audience. But, what about the artist’s responsibility to enlighten others with their passionate travels to places many were unable for whatever reason to journey to. And so the artist has brought back the boon and wants to share it with not only the initiated, but the uninitiated. In approx. 25 years, the drawings from my magical journey in art, have not sold. But the reward is that I have a message that is positive in the story – to persevere. Kickstarter Campaign – Drawing My Ship In.

  9. Good info. I agree our prices should be consistent whether we’re selling privately or in a gallery. If a gallery makes the sale, they earned the commission. If we make the sale, we earned it. We can make small pieces to have some affordable work, so that more people can get into collecting original work and our work. But we should never be bullied into basically giving it away. Being professional and polite, and standing your ground, go a long way toward gaining a reputation for meaning what you say, and not being an easy mark for parasites who want something for nothing. If the majority of artists stood up for themselves, I think art overall would be valued more. Too many people view it as a frivolous hobby and think we should be ‘flattered’ that anyone ever wants it, even if they won’t pay for it. It’s hard to remain polite in the face of it sometimes, but possible, and the best approach. A simple ‘no thank you’ is often all that is needed.

  10. And yet… when I first started creating art about 7 years ago, I was lucky to find out about a “charity” art project for an area hospital that involved creating 2 18″ sq. pieces that would go with many others into a house for families staying while their kids got treatment. I was offered a small stipend for each piece. Certainly nowhere near worth just the time I spent alone. But then, an art consultant saw my work there and followed up with me and has since sold around 25 of my pieces into area medical centers, a bunch of them commissioned. Yes, she takes 50%, as do most galleries in my area, but now that I’m more experienced I price accordingly. And now other art consultants commission and purchase my art. So I guess I’m saying when you’re first starting out, sometimes certain charity-type events can actually jump start your career. Wouldn’t do them now, though, unless it was something near and dear to my heart…

    1. The situation you describe here is a little different from handing art to a charity auction where your art is put up for sale to the public. I think the instance you describe shows more respect for the artist and the art than an auction does, and it would seem to me that actually creating the artwork for the house must have been a heartwarming gesture for you. It seems more fitting than an auction.
      The hospital in our town accepts donations of art – for the walls in certain centers – and I have spoken to them about donating a piece. To me that would feel much more like charitable giving than donating a piece to an auction. Now if I could only get them to return my calls! LOL!

    2. True, Jim — it did feel heartwarming to give to that cause. And last week an exec. from that hospital asked to see more of my art to possibly install in his/her office. It’s super wonderful to know people are walking around that hospital and my art’s actually making their days better enough that they notice who did it and ask for it. Even though I think I’m making it for the patients, I think art makes such a difference to employees too!

    3. Sounds like it was a good move, Julia. But now that hospital will expect those low prices from everyone. I’ll be curious if the hospital exec expects to pay full price.
      Don’t get me wrong, I believe strongly in donating to causes you support. They need to be educated, though, about the REAL value of the piece.

    4. Wrote a long reply to this which got deleted somehow, but the upshot was to say I agree with you, and I think they mostly do pay full price. First “donation” one I talked about they offered $200. Last commission I did was $450 for the same size. In addition, they’ve bought a bunch of my completed work at full asking price (which figures in the 50% consultant’s take). I also think they happily pay certain artists megabucks for large signature pieces in prominent areas (vs. the ones I did for treatment rooms, etc.).
      Which is not to say other hospitals don’t ask for free or super-cheap art all the time!

  11. This was a great post Alyson. Whenever I see these 5 power grabbing things being used against artists it makes me so upset I can hardly breathe. So sorry for the “RANT” up front.
    The CSA that you mentioned became a big controversy with me and the Arts and Science Council in Charlotte, NC. I emailed the person in charge of the event and told her that it perpetuated the “starving artist” theory. Why any artist would create 50 pieces of art for a $2,000 stipend and then have the ASC sell these baskets for $600 to what they called “people who collected art” is beyond me. It was insulting for artists to have to create 50 pieces of art in a short time at basically $40/piece of art and have others benefit from cheap art that took many hours to produce. And then you had to package each piece creatively for the recipient! I was not her favorite person that day. Now, just today, 6 months later, I got an email newsletter from them that they are doing it again. I can forward it if you like. Why do artists participate in these demeaning events? If we all stuck together and refused to participate they would go away but many artists are eager to give their power away and make it very difficult for the rest of us.
    The other thing that makes me angry is art organizations that asks for a piece of art donations and then sell the art for very little. I gave a painting as donation to an art organization that was worth $1200 and they sold it for $100. The auction event cost $100/ticket and most of the artists could not afford to go. I learned my lesson and I don’t donate to any cause like that anymore. There was one art organization that did it right. They gave the artist back 50% of the proceeds from the sale of their art and gave them 2 tickets to the event. They also let the artist choose the minimum price. That is how it should be.
    But I agree about artists giving away their power. They need to grow a spine and be proud of their talent. They make it very difficult for the ones who try to have a professional career in the art field. They don’t add anything into their art other than the little price tag. Has anyone told them what expenses they have to add into their art price before they price it? Like materials, their time, profit, photography expenses, travel time and expense, shipping and handling costs, talent (creativity is an added value here), studio costs and utilities, marketing time and costs, gallery commission costs, and yes, even the time on social media marketing your wares. It doesn’t matter if all of these fit right now into your pricing structure but if you price it without adding them in and then a gallery wants to sell your piece, you get only 50% so you better add it in from the start.
    Until artists band together and decide that they need to move as one cohesive group like the illustrators and graphic designers (I was both and was in each of those professional groups), they will never get any further than the “starving artist” theory that they perpetuate by giving their powers away to everyone else. I am a full time fine art painter now and every day I have to fight off the “powerless” vibes that other painters and artists create in the public. I totally resent it.

    1. Joyce: How about you make a Ban Art CSAs graphic and share it around Facebook? You have to put the word “art” in there because the ag people might think you were trying to ban them otherwise. Let me know when you do this.

  12. By the way, would anyone like to help me eliminate the CSA projects? Let’s band together as a group and see what we can do to get rid of the program forever. It seems to be growing all over the US. Alyson, what can we do as a group to make enough noise to eliminate this and make those responsible or perpetuating this feel guilty for again taking advantage of artists.

  13. This is a very important and helpful conversation and guideline. It is often hard to find appropriate venues for selling your art and the temptation is very great to accommodate requests for free displays and donations to worthy causes, just to get your art “out there”. Even very experienced artists will rationalize that they have lots of inventory and it might as well be on display, somewhere. I, personally, find it harder to resist “giving away” my art to friends and relatives who “like” it but resist paying cash. There seems to be an attitude of expectation that the art should be free because of the relationship. Fortunately I have a spouse who puts the clamper on when I am ready to spontaneously give away my art. The same people think nothing of buying jewelery or clothing or tech gadgets without complaining about the cost. Perhaps we have failed as a society in instilling the value of creativity and personalization so that people would treasure an original piece of art no matter the size or cost.

  14. Hi Alyson, I have a question.
    I noticed you’ve responded to Kathy’s pricing question, saying ‘Absolutely, Kathy. Consistent no matter where you show the work.’
    I have a solo show coming up, where the venue takes 30% commission.
    Does this mean, if an Artwork is $1000, I should add 30% to the price (e.g. $1300), so I still receive the $$ sum I’ve valued my Artwork at?
    Or does it mean, I should sell it at $1000, because that’s what I would sell it for in my website – and I then get $300 less that what it’s worth?
    I feel conflicted here, between speaking up on behalf of my Art career, and my prices being consistent, no matter where I show.
    Of course, I’ll always make more profit via website sales vs gallery, whereas gallery offers more exposure.
    Love your thoughts on this.
    Chrissy x

    1. Just jumping in, though I know Alyson will answer with more info/expertise. The way I’ve worked this, since I do some work with galleries and consultants who take 50%, is to ALWAYS figure in 50% added on to what I want to get. If a venue only takes 30%, that’s great for me! I recently had a sale where the venue only took 25%! That left 25% more for me than my usual expectation. If I sell directly, even better. But that 50% mark-up is something I just have to figure into my calculations right from the beginning. Hope this helps!

    2. Chrissy: You’ve received good feedback here.
      You have 1 price only for your art – regardless of where you sell it. Imagine if someone bought something for $1300 and then saw they could have had it for $1000 on your site. Bad form.
      1 price. Build in a 50% commission to all of your pricing as soon as you can.

  15. It does mean that you should sell it for $1000 even though you will only get $700 if it sells out of the gallery. if you want to have $1000 in hand and the gallery is taking 30% you would have to raise your price to just under $1500. If they gallery is taking 50% and you want $1000 in hand after a sale you have to raise the price to $2000. But that should be the price tag on your painting EVERYWHERE. Why would someone buy a painting at a gallery for $2000 when they know they can buy it from you at your studio for $1000 which is what you say is the real value of the painting.
    The way I look at it is, I decide my pricing scale – say $2.00 per sq inch – then that is the value of the painting unframed. No matter where I sell it – out of my studio, in a gallery that charges 35% or a gallery that charges 45%, the price is always the same. Think of it as hiring someone to do the work of selling your painting – you pay them for what they do.
    It took me a while to understand this, actually. I understand that if I want $1200 for a painting then I have to ask for a lot more than $1200 to get it, unless I only sell off of my website or out of my studio. But, I think $1200 is a good price – and since my sales have been scarce I feel like if someone can sell it for me and it means I pay a 45% commission, that $680 I end up with is a lot more than zero!

    1. Thanks so much Alyson, Julia and Jim, for your feedback.
      I had only just reconfigured (upped) my prices in recent months, so adding another 50% might be a challenge for me to get my head around initially!
      Great advice, though, it’s helped me to see I’m pricing ahead for purchase, rather than just my costing.
      Back to the drawing board for another tweak!

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Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

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