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The Art Ladder – Where do you sit?

Many different criteria come in to play when an artist tries to sell their work direct to the public, or indeed through galleries.

Many decisions need to be made, none more vexing than at what price to offer the work.

You also need to decide how to present your work for sale, whether as originals only, framed or unframed, or as prints in small or large editions, mounted, framed or just bagged.

But first of all you need to understand, and perhaps accept, where your work fits in the market.  In my experience this can be one of the most difficult issues to crack.  We all love our own artwork and we all have our own self-image of how we and our work fit into the world of art.  Sometimes, or perhaps quite often, that view is not necessarily absolutely in tune with reality.

So what exactly do I mean?   Art comes in many different styles and to many different levels of execution.  Some artwork is effectively purely decorative, some is more emotionally evocative and some is quite deep and thoughtful.  There are of course many different degrees of each, as well as much crossover.

I tend to view the market as a ladder with purely decorative work at the bottom heading up towards the deeper, more personal and usually unique and innovative work at the top.  Where your work sits on this ladder is a significant contributor to both the price you can command and the market you are likely to sell to.  This leads on directly to the types of events and outlets that are likely to prove the most effective for selling your work.  Get this wrong and your work is likely to just sit there, being admired, but not being bought.

It’s worth pointing out here that I am not talking about quality of execution of artwork.  Whilst this does of course have an impact, I am for the moment talking solely about what might be termed the depth of the work, the evidence of a unique creative response to the subject matter and the extent to which it resonates with the viewer.

Again, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the further your work is up the ladder the intrinsically better it is.  I am saying it is necessary to understand where on the ladder you sit so that you can set your prices and target your market effectively.

Really this is about buyers more than it is about artists or artwork.  Buying behaviour is reasonably predictable if you can match your work to the right market.

At one end you have people who are looking for something decorative to put on the wall.  In many ways the buying decision here is not much different to which new duvet cover or cushion to buy, or even which bedding plants to get this year.  The artwork they buy will often be seen by them as being effectively disposable.  They won’t expect it to be a conversation piece.  They will expect it to have very immediate appeal, in a purely decorative sense.  It won’t need much depth and the chances are it won’t be much looked at once it’s on the wall.  It’ll just be there to look pretty and to fill a space.  This work is clearly at the budget end.  Artists who target this market aim for high volume and low margins.  Presentation is kept simple and cost effective.  The work needs to be in range of the cash in the buyer’s wallet, or at least an amount that is not seen as requiring much of a decision as to affordability.

These buyers are relatively unsophisticated when it comes to art.  They are unlikely to appreciate, or be concerned about, the level of technical skill involved in creating the work.

Further up the ladder you will find buyers that are looking for art rather than for interior decoration.  They will usually be looking for work that gives them an emotional response, often by way of a personal connection.  This could be geographic or other content that holds a particular meaning for them.  These people will usually invest more time, emotion and ultimately cash in their decision.  They will still be relatively unsophisticated art buyers, but they will be looking for something that means more to them, something they can look at every day and enjoy.  The sort of work they are likely to be attracted to will still need a good degree of immediate appeal, but it will also need something more, and element that stirs an emotional reaction.

At this level the work is unlikely to be particularly sophisticated from an execution perspective.  It will however usually be clear that a certain level of artistic skill and creativity has gone in to the work.

Buyers at this level are not art-aficionados and probably have little education in or understanding of the techniques and skill levels of the various mediums.  They will however be willing to pay a little more to get something that evokes their emotions.   Budget will be an issue at this level.  Often people will be buying out of income rather than from savings.  It may well be that they aspire to what they perceive to be higher-level art, but at the current point in their lives they either cannot afford or cannot justify the expense.

Further again up the ladder you will find buyers who are definitely looking for what they perceive as ‘proper’ art.  They are looking for a combination of emotional response and clear artistic & creative input.  They will usually have a good appreciation of the skills required to execute art well in different mediums.  Either that or they will be willing, and interested enough, to talk to the artist and learn.  These buyers will often want to spend time talking to the artist (or gallery staff) about the work.  They will be looking for a long term investment, not necessarily in terms of a literal cash investment, but as an emotional investment in something that will be an important part of their lives, on show in their homes in a prominent position for many years.

This work will still need immediate appeal.  The difference will be in the ability for it to hold attention beyond the initial glance and to evoke memories & emotions.  It will need to retain that interest and emotional response over the long term.  It will also need a very high (and clear) level of skill in the execution.  It is unlikely that at this level the work will have a very high level of individuality.  Whilst the work may well be instantly recognisable to those who are familiar with the artist’s work, it is not likely to be particularly innovative.  Its appeal is more likely to be in the very high skill level of execution combined with its ability to provoke a personal emotional response.

Finally (for this paper at least!), you have work that takes all of the above and adds an extra level of individual and innovative creativity.  This type of work will appeal to buyers who are looking for a statement, something unique and individual.  This work is less price-sensitive, which is to say that the sorts of people who are likely to buy are less concerned about the cost so the price becomes less of an issue.  It is more about the content, the individual emotional response and the reputation of the artist.  Work at this level does not necessarily need to be quite so immediately obvious in its appeal.  The interest and attraction is in the detail and in the understanding of the thought processes that went in to the creation of the work.  Such work will often have more depth in terms of symbolism and subtlety of meaning and message.  As such it may not be as accessible in terms of being easy to understand.  Buyers will often spend more time talking with the artist, gaining insight and through this, understanding of the work.


So where do you think you sit?  When I first went through this thought process in relation to my own work I must admit I didn’t like my conclusions.  But then I came to realise that it didn’t matter.  This process and hopefully the understanding that comes from it, is not about trying to classify the quality of your work, or trying to rate it against your peers.  It’s about trying to understand your market and through that help you to price appropriately and find appropriate routes-to-market.

For example, there’s no point in trying to place work at the lower level in a high end gallery, or in trying to sell work at the higher end at village craft fairs.  Extreme examples for sure, but the point is that you need to match your work with the right kind of outlet in order to get it in front of the right kinds of people.  Only in this way can you optimise your sales.

This process can also help you to understand what you need to do if you aspire to a different level.  That could be higher or lower.  If you want to sell greater volumes then lowering your prices and concentrating on immediacy of appeal would the way to go.  If you want to increase your prices then there are also clear pointers as to what you may need to do.  You may of course also decide to have different ranges for different markets.  Thinking in terms of the ladder can help you focus and achieve that in an effective way.


I’ll talk more about the various routes-to-market in another article.


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