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Price, Value & Expectation: in art and life

I was at an art fair a couple years ago and noticed a group of what appeared to be family members or close friends sitting at a picnic table. In passing, I overheard one of them say to the group, "no wonder you're a starving artist, you wouldn't be if your prices weren't so high." I don't know the context of what they were talking about, and for all I know the one speaking was the artist someone said that to. But it stuck with me, considering the difference between price and value... and expectations.

Price: Fine art (art in any form, really) is a mystery and often scary for many people to talk about. You might watch programs such as "Antiques Roadshow" and someone brings in a painting that was in a corner of their basement since their great-aunt gave it to them. They kept it because they liked the frame. Then they find out the painting is worth $100,000 and the frame is trash. Why? They're not stupid. To them it looked like a framed piece of art done by a child, possibly sentimental value for their great-aunt. Then they come to find out the story behind the artist and their body of work. In the end, the price is not really about refined technique but about the story behind the image and the life story of the artist.

Here's a mystery unveiled: art pricing, before legacy value, is the same as theatre, clothing, hairdressers, therapists, restaurants, etc. Buying a piece of original or limited edition print artwork, you are paying for the artist's experience and education and investing in their future impact. "Self-taught" artists, the ones I know may be "self-taught" in a particular medium, or didn't go to art school, but they craved knowledge and looked to those they consider experts to learn from - they weren't divinely touched, but they are practiced and educated. A friend of another artist friend of mine, when he's asked "how long did it take you to make this?" He replies, "35 years and 4 hours." It took 35 years of practice to make something in 4 hours that you find you love.

Value: If you are looking for art to match your couch, you are putting value into the couch. Maybe that couch is special, an antique, saved from a chateau in France during the revolution... or maybe it's from IKEA or Pottery Barn. Understand where you place value, you might surprise yourself when you think about it.

Look above again at the "Antiques Roadshow" example. Value is individual. There is an art market that makes things confusing, telling consumers who and what has value, even when the "what" you might struggle to feel a personal value for. Have you seen in that T.V. show when they air episodes from a few years ago and on the bottom of the screen it'll say the valued price in 2012 and then what it is today and it'll typically go up or down. If it stays the same that actually means it's gone down. The world changes and different values become "fashionable" at different times. Sadly, that makes something so energetically personal like art seem like it's part of the S&P 500.

Expectation: And now broadening to restaurants. When we go out to eat, we pay for the meal AFTER we have consumed it. If you didn't care for it you send it back to the kitchen and often the price is subtracted from your final bill. In that case, the meal didn't meet your expectation for the price the restaurant was charging for it. When you go to a Michelin starred restaurant you have a certain expectation, you go to a chain restaurant and it's a different expectation.

But what about the argument of you pay the price that's listed, even if you're unsatisfied? At risk of going into the weeds and down a rabbit hole, that might result in that person leaving a bad review for the satisfaction of expressing their outrage to the public without allowing the opportunity for the restaurant, hairdresser, therapist, etc. to offer a solution. Taking a step back, one's own life might progress better with the financial refund and moving on rather than avoiding direct communication and swimming in outrage - and be out the money. I've witnessed many people over the years who claim misery as a part of their identity. And although most people wouldn't say "I choose misery over happiness," if misery is all one knows and dwells on, it's comfortable, predictable and known. For example, "No one understands me, I am alone and will figure out everything myself" when really they're saying "I hurt and I don't understand how I got here. I'd like someone to help me." The first sentence is a challenge, are you strong enough to help me, nope, you cannot meet an expectation which I don't know how to quantify. Anyone listening slowly backs out the door because they don't know what, if anything, is being asked of them. I've been there myself, on both sides.

Put all this together... and take a step back from yourself. What is your priority? Maybe it's expectation, and what does that mean? It might mean you expect everything to be given to you, or you expect nothing to ever be given to you. Either way you are placing responsibility of your enjoyment or disappointment on something outside of yourself. "I never get chosen." or "If I don't win there's a problem with the system." I would argue that expectation, in the abstract, is not a particularly productive use of one's time. If your priority is price, I would also argue that making price a priority will never lead to happiness. Lasting happiness has never been found from "shopping therapy." At the end of spending money on things to fill the moment, you are not left with anything that lasts.

Both of the priority examples of expectation and price are really about value... you place value on expectation or price... neither of which is in your control. If you make the choice of prioritizing value, value for yourself in this moment and for all your future moments, expectation and price become blurry peripheral ideas.

The artist makes their living, or part of it, by selling art. They price it with regards to their education, years spent in practice, awards, time in research, cost of materials, procurement of materials, time spent making the piece, etc. The same as any career. The price is merely a means to an end, the value is when the person sees it and says, "this is speaking to me." The artist gets to share their method, details about the materials and creation, adding value for the person wanting to bring it home. The price is fair (and often seems under-priced when value is a priority) and expectation ceases to exist. When you value your experience of the moment and the curiosity to keep looking, anything you receive by trading money for is of greater value.

Little VALUE story: My wall sculpture "If the Walls Could Talk: The Joke" was up in the SweetArt Salon at the Northrup King Building (the same building I have a shared studio space) over Valentine's Day. I got a call from the person monitoring the gallery space asking if I was still there and that someone wanted to buy my piece. I was there, and when I met the woman she was purely energized. In her words, "I walked in and it was the first piece I saw and I had to have it. It spoke to me." Admittedly I was stuttering because I didn't know what to say. She didn't blink at the price or try to negotiate, to her it was a deal and she needed to buy it before I realized I'd priced it basically giving it away.

Sneaky artist note: sometimes you see a piece that you love, and the price is more than you can afford at that moment because maybe it's a year's worth of your rent. But it also seems a lot higher than other pieces of comparable medium and size by the same artist. That often means the artist loves that piece so much they want to keep it for themselves, but as it is their business to make and sell art they price it higher as a deterrent and if someone really loves it as much as the artist they will save, maybe take a side gig, to pay for it. In essence, the art buyer works just as much for the piece as the artist did making it and in a way proves they value it just as much.


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