Why does art cost so much?


Van Gogh’s paintings of irises have brought millions of dollars at auctions.

Going into an art gallery and seeing the prices on art can be a shocker. Art collectors are willing to pay millions of dollars for a work by Vincent Van Gogh. But a recent art graduate? No. There is a limit for what people are willing to pay for someone who is unknown to them. I have heard people say “Well, they must not want to sell it very badly.” But of course, as an artist, you do want to sell your work. It’s how you make your living.

A young artist often has no idea, and no training, in the business of art. In college, my classes were mainly the exchange of ideas, technical know-how, practice, critique, and how to judge whether the art was “successful.” Putting a price tag on a work that you’ve put your heart and soul into is one of the hardest things to do. Ultimately, the question becomes “how much would it take for you to part with it?” When are you successful? When you’re making a living, using your skill.

As an artist, you spend a surprising amount of money on supplies: paper, canvas, wood, marble, metals, or whatever medium they work with. I’m a photographer, and the price of silver had a direct impact on the cost of my supplies. My mother and I once had a conversation about whether photography or recreational drugs would be a more expensive habit. We decided that photography was probably slightly less expensive, and perhaps slightly less toxic. Now I use digital photography, too, so add the cost for computers and programs. You consider the cost of materials as one factor in pricing art.

Another factor is time. How long does it take to create a piece? “All my life,” my mom once said. “It took me this long to gain the skill to do this.” One painting can take hours, days, weeks. One photograph, once the camera has clicked, will still need time to process, or load onto the computer, or print, and mat and frame. What is the worth of your time? Should you make more than minimum wage? An artist with an established reputation will make more than someone who is just starting out. People pay more for work by known artists. They pay more for known deceased artists, too – hence prices for Van Gogh’s works. 

So far, this is only the cost of making a work of art. We haven’t begun to think about a residence, food, utilities, transportation, health care, costs related to raising a family…. All of these costs must figure into the price of an artwork, too. How many works of art will you make in a year, and how many can you sell in a year? How large are the works? A gallery owner can explain why a large painting costs more than a small painting, but it’s harder to explain why a small painting costs more than a large one.

Then comes commissions: many galleries take a 50% commission -or more- to sell your work. So whatever cost you’ve added up, double it for the commission.

And, consider this: the price so far is only covering your costs. But a successful business needs to make a profit.

SO: how do artists price their artwork? Next time you see art and you’re interested in it, think about these aspects of the object itself, all the aspects that went into creating it. And be proud to wear your “I Buy Art” button when you do make the decision to purchase an original work of art. Your support means more to the artist than you will know. It builds a strong arts community, right here at home. You support a local business. And you invest in something beautiful.

Sherry Best

Our library has a very cool art collection, and I get to be in charge of it. I started drawing when I was 4 years old, and never stopped making art. I want to do more than show you art, I want to help you understand it, relate to it, and 'get' it. Art lets us share what it is to be human.

One thought on “Why does art cost so much?

  1. I agree with this kind of price finding for art, but its only true if you see the price as something external for art.
    Based on the freedom of art, we made the price of our art works to something internal, to something being part of the art work. The price is not the result of demand and support anymore, the price is created by the art work itself. In other words, if you buy our art work you are not purchasing it FOR a certain price, but you are purchasing A UNIQUE price too.
    As an owner of our art work, you own not only a numbered art print – or poster as some people say – then, but you own the day of its creation AND its unique price too.
    For more turn to http://www.kmentemt.com => “What is …?”
    Thank you

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