Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why is visual art so expensive?

During a conversation with my mom, she expressed surprise to learn that I have to pay a fee nearly every time I submit art to a jury.  I thought of how often my prices are questioned, and how people make comments to suggest that the price should be based on the amount of time it took to create each individual piece.

This mosaic, for instance, took about 3 weeks to complete, though it took many weeks of sketching, and much longer to gather and prepare materials.  I manage to salvage most of my materials (a typical mosaic artist probably spends about $100 per square foot just on tesserae), but I collect them when and where I can, spending time finding and sorting them.  My bases (in this case, an old window frame) are from salvage yards, the side of the road, contractors, or people who seek me out when they want to clear out some junk.  I spend as much time cleaning, sanding, priming, re-glazing and painting my bases as I do making art.  Other mosaic artists prefer to purchase manufactured bases, ready to use, and that gets expensive.

Tools and materials are only a small part of a professional artist's expenses.  Once I have hand-cut my odd-shaped glass shards, taking time to file the corners of each piece, carefully adhering them into a design, and the work is finished, I then have to sell it.  Much of my work is commissioned, in which case I already have a deposit, and final payment is owed on delivery.  But my commissions seem to come in spurts, and I can go 6 months with no projects.  During this time, I make individual mosaic panels to sell at art shows and galleries.  I meet with potential clients, many of whom decide to put their project on the back burner, saying they will get back to me (sometimes they do.)  I sketch and research and experiment.

There are a few organizations that post Calls to Artists, so I am constantly perusing these, submitting to the ones that apply to me.  Most public art submissions are free, but most juried exhibits and festivals require a fee.  Exhibits increase an artist's exposure and contribute to the perceived value of the art, and festivals are a good way to sell a lot of art directly to customers in a short time, but those jury fees sure add up.  For the exhibit I was discussing with my mom, it costs $25 per image, I have no idea whether the juror will find my work at all appealing, and the work won't be for sale when the show takes place.  In addition, once I have submitted a piece, I cannot sell it or submit it to another jury until I am rejected, which can take many months.  If I'm rejected, I still lose my jury fee.

In the meantime, I may take some work to one of the galleries that represents me.  Some galleries take 40%, but most take 50%.  It can be very bittersweet to get a $30 check for something that took 3 full days to make.

As local people have become more familiar with me and my work, I am constantly asked for donations.  I think I get at least 20 donation requests per year, and I donate to about half of them.  It is very difficult to say no, especially in a small community, and when so many of my friends are involved in various kinds of fundraising, all for good causes.  But the value of my donations adds up to about 50% of my gross income, which is kind of crazy.  My artist and musician friends have all felt this same pressure to give away their work, and some are becoming increasingly frustrated.  How many other professionals are asked to give so much?

It speaks to an overall perception that working as an artist is not really work; that it is done out of pure love and inspiration without real effort or sacrifice.  Although I spent my childhood and youth planning to become an "Artist", I now find myself telling strangers that I do custom mosaic tile installations.  According to the general population, "Artist" is not a respectable occupation. 

Well, that covers some of the overhead for an artist, but each of us has different markets and specific expenses.  A friend who wholesales her work has many flights to buyers' markets, huge booth fees, staff, and the cost of printing her art onto a variety of products.  Another must rent large warehouses, import wool, ship large work to museums, and pay engineers to install amazing felt draperies that suspend from vaulted ceilings. Some have to pay to use specialized studios and equipment to make their glass or clay work.  There is the annual Society of American Mosaic Artists conference that costs thousands to get to, and workshops to learn new techniques and skills.

To someone uninterested in art, it may all seem superfluous, but I'll bet they don't question the huge salaries of actors, pop musicians, or even professional athletes.  Visual artists may provide a quieter sort of entertainment, but we provoke and delight, and civilization would be very dull without us.  So there.


  1. I'm so glad you posted this. I am aware of the financial hardships of artists, but I would venture to say that most people aren't. Even my own husband calls my art a dumb hobby whenever a piece that I've worked on for days doesn't work out. One of the reasons I voted to cancel the POSSCA Auction this year is that I believe that philanthropic organizations, especially ones dedicated to supporting the arts, should not depend on donations from a segment of the workforce least able to afford to donate. Instead, we are focusing on events that benefit both entities...a real win/win.

  2. There are so many aspects that I didn't address, like your example; you work on something for days, but it isn't successful. It can take several attempts to get something right. And even if it does turn out great, it sometimes takes a year or more for it to find its new owner.

    I will also add though that I was very honored when people started asking me to donate to auctions because I can contribute art, but I can't afford to give money. Still, over the years, the requests keep multiplying, and I have to limit what I give.

  3. This is something I have been thinking about and started to blog about, but gave up on it because I started to rant! You have addressed the issue really well. It is a shame the exhibition payment was scrapped years ago.We do it all for free (or pay for it as you have mentioned)- People pay for theatre and concerts, why not pay for exhibitions and let the artists have a cut?
    I suppose that's the problem with loving your work.

  4. I agree with everything you said, most artists lead parallel lives and our experiences reflect that. I spend at least 1/3 of my time managing the business of my art. Trying to sell work and trying to get paid. Documenting, applying for shows, galleries, public projects, coming up with ideas that keep me interested in being an artist at all. Ive been doing this for over 40 years and its never gotten easier. There in lies the mystery, why do we do it at all? "We do what we do,we work in the dark, our passion is our task and our task is our art, the rest is the madness of art". Perhaps the real payoff is not the money that sustains the machine, but the person who tells you that your art somehow changed them in a meaningful way. It made a difference and what you do is important.

  5. So true. We do it because we need to, and there is no other reason, but it sure is validating to find people who love your work enough to pay for it. And, once you commit to making art full-time, and especially if you have a family to provide for, the complication of making it pay for itself becomes vital. I just felt the need to vent a little bit about the frustrations, because this end of it usually doesn't come easily to artists. Also, I think that, when people see high price tags on artwork, they assume that the artist is making a good living, not realizing how sporadic art sales are, and how much overhead is involved. I couldn't find any online articles outlining why art prices are not purely subjective (though it becomes moreso when an artist is "discovered.")