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Why Does Art Cost Money?

See, when you buy a vacuum, you go online and you’re given a bullet point list of features that is meant to add up to equal the monetary value of the product. This is true of vacuums, of furniture, of shoes– pretty much any consumer item. But most of the time with art, it’s just a price. That’s it.

I used to think this was because creatives are just pretentious. And don’t get me wrong, we are. I can say this because my worst creative self can be very pretentious… There’s some old adage about the thing that bothers you the most in others is the thing you are. I’ve found this to be true… and humbling.

But beyond the esoteric, elitist stereotype, I think the thing that is more true about why there’s very little explanation as to why art costs what it costs is because often times, creatives don’t know how to explain the cost. I’ve been doing this (part-time mostly, then full-time) for the past two years (so I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination). But in the early days of the past two years, I’d give a price for a project thinking I charged way too much. However, I’d get to the end of the project feeling so burnt out by the amount of work I’d put in and I’d wish I had charged more.

Now, hot take, I think this is actually really healthy. Contrary to most memes you’ll see on the internet about sticking up for yourself as a small business, I look back at those days of mis-priced projects and am thankful. I am NOT saying you should do work for free. Even if it’s day one of being a creative professional, you have still gotten to a place where you can do it professionally, so you should charge. But in my early days, and honestly, I’m still very much in my early days, I didn’t have the skill, the experience, or the achievement level to charge big bucks. I had to grow and learn and “earn my stripes.” Earning your stripes isn’t fun or sexy or very Instagram-worthy, but it’s how you get good at what you do.

So what exactly went in to those projects that I did and felt like I undercharged for? Well, I tended to assume that things took way less time than was actually the reality.

When you see a piece of art that looks super simple, often times, HOURS and HOURS of work has gone in. Sometimes on the canvas itself– even if it looks simple, you can bet there’s a zillion and five frantic layers of paint underneath that led up to that really simple point. But not always. Sometimes it really is that simple. But then there’s time that goes into thinking about the artwork– the prepping and brainstorming. There’s the time taken in between sessions of painting. There’s the time taken to get to the place where you believe a painting is actually complete. Time isn’t something you see, but that’s probably first on our vacuum-furniture-shoe product bullet point list.

Then, there’s market value. This is tricky to explain, but there is rhyme and reason to it. It’s not based on the amount of Instagram followers you have or how many galleries you’re showing in. It’s not based on what you simply believe your work should cost. Although, truth be told, those things are considered. But ultimately, it comes down to supply & demand. I know, what artist knows anything about supply & demand? (I got a C in Rita Balaban’s ECON 101 class at UNC, so I’m definitely not one to talk, but I’ll try my best.)

But an artist or creative is one person, so there truly is a limit to the supply. As more people demand the supply, the price goes up 1) to make more supply, 2) to make sure it “stays on the shelves” for the right amount of time, & 3) so the supplier can earn a living. So sure, if you follow somebody on Instagram, you’re for sure a factor in their demand, which is why Instagram artists are always so very thankful for those that follow them, but that isn’t the sum of the demand.

There’s a lot more I could add to our product bullet point list. There’s experience, education, materials cost, programs & software costs, shipping costs– but I am not an expert, so I think I’ll leave it here. In my experience, I’ve found it’s not a perfect science for why art costs what it costs. But it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Art is a joy to make and consume. My hope is that my work would bring you great joy and that you would feel like you’re getting as much bang for your buck as possible. Thanks for reading. -Maggie

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