The cost conundrums, pricing pickles, and value variables of selling your art

My friend and fellow blogger Carole Epp just vented a good rant on the difficulties of pricing pots. She kicks some butt and takes few prisoners. She has a beef or two for very good reasons: Its not always easy and its not always fair. I like what she has to say. You can read her post here:

This morning I wrote her an email response intended to be confidential between us, but somewhere along the way it turned into another bloated blog post. I sent it to her anyway, but will reprint it here (with minor additions). There are a few references to specific things she said in her rant, but you can probably get the gist if you just read what I’ve got to say. I still encourage folks to click the above link if you haven’t already seen the essay and read what she has to say.

Spark the canons! Raise the flags! Let loose the dogs of war!
Blare the trumpets! Down the heads! And charge towards the gore!

(This is me plowing into the topic this morning):

I think there are several lessons here. One, of course, is that some (most ?) galleries are bastards when looking out for their own bottom line. Without much respect for the artist most galleries would rather go with what they know, some business plan, than work with individual artists to figure out how to make it work. Allowing you to raise the price on your mugs so you can get paid what you need should at least be negotiable. That particular gallery’s refusal to accommodate you is a bad sign…..

The other lesson I would point to is that commerce is not simple. The objects we sell are not simple. The different ways that these objects can be perceived and appreciated are not simple. Our own feelings towards what we make are not simple…..

I totally get the desire to break the selling price down into the costs and labor that went into the pots, but then I have almost never been in a position where this doesn’t end up depressing me. When I was wood firing my pots I think I was actually making only $4 an hour. And you couldn’t charge more than I was getting. How could I not be depressed by that? But the bigger problem is that if we only look at it this way we have a plausible reason to quit making pots. “I get paid how much? Take this job and shove it!”

“Here’s something dark I didn’t learn until very late: for many of us, the first step to success as a potter is to marry well.” – Don Pilcher (courtesy of Scoot Cooper)

We may need to earn a living wage, we deserve to earn a living wage, but the world is often horribly unfair. The problem with galleries is that for all the good they actually do they are still an institution where the individual artist is a second class citizen. We have more freedom to get what we deserve when we are not being treated with such blatant contempt. If the outside market doesn’t support it, then at least we tried. Its better to ask the question “Will you value my pots enough to pay this amount?” than to be denied the opportunity to even raise it….

Sometimes I have pots that have languished unsold for more than a few years. How do you even factor that into what your wage actually is? If some pots take years to sell, then all that work we are doing hasn’t really been paid for yet. Every unsold pot just eats into the actual income you supposedly are earning. You are oversupplied. Overstocked. You spent money to make the pots but have nothing in return. Its a net deficit. How can we reconcile ourselves to unsold pots?

They deserve good homes, but for whatever reason people just can’t see them. What do I do? Well, after a time I get so depressed looking at them year after year, sale after sale, just sitting on my display shelves. Sometimes I take it out on the pots. I feel guilty about them taking up space. I don’t like them anymore, so I just need to get rid of them. Sometimes I give them away and sometimes I mark them down to half price in a clearance section. I just don’t want to have to look at them anymore. They are an emotional burden. They are a reminder of failure staring me in the face every sale. I am embarrassed by them, actually, so its more in my interest to just get them off the shelves. The public has voted them off the island and I’m just making a fool of myself pretending they still have a place on my display…… Ugh.

After I was making the transition from woodfired to electric kilns my wood pots stopped selling. I still had a number on display for years until I finally decided they were detracting from the overall display. But I had so much invested in them and I really really still did love many of them. I wasn’t embarrassed about the pots as much as I was furious that no one else saw the value in them. I took it personally. Customers looking past them every sale was an affront to my dignity. So eventually I claimed them all for myself and brought each one inside my home. And there they will stay, probably until I die and my relatives have to decide what to do with all the pottery in my collection…. Can anyone say “estate sale”? How can I calculate stuff like that into my wages for work done?

Another difficulty in pricing can be where public expectations are set. Doesn’t it always seem to hang on what the public understands you to be doing? For instance, in the local Athens area we used to have Ron Meyers and Michael Simon selling mugs for $14-16. Even though that was now close to 20 years ago, the folks paying for pots still have expectations that this is what mugs cost. Some do, at least. The current local potters are in the position where no one is really close to the fame and recognition of these luminous potters and only a few of us can come close to the quality and craftsmanship they put into their work. How can we justify charging more than that? Maybe a tiny increase for inflation, but the customers don’t always see it like that…..

So how do we reconcile the difference? Its like saying that the price of Picasso, Rembrandt, and van Gogh paintings is irrelevant to how we might charge for our own work if we were also painters. They are objectively masterful. Those are fixed points in the marketplace. The only way to charge more is to just ignore the question. Sometimes we are not interested in the truth (we are not objectively better than RM or MS), but so what? We have to live with ourselves, not ourselves in comparison to others.

By which I am also not saying that you are wrong to point your middle finger at the long-time potter who couldn’t understand you charging more than he did. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working, you are still making crap. Often the same old crap you made 30 years ago. If you are not evolving, then the time you’ve spent making pots doesn’t really matter: You are essentially stuck in 1984. But if you are constantly working on new ideas, ‘improving’, then its different. Maybe you deserve a better price?

I can’t remember who said this, but when asked how long it took this person to make this one pot they replied something in the order of decades. It simply took them that long to figure it out. It took the entire stream of failures, near hits, and also-rans to make this one pot. Shouldn’t the person buying that pot also be responsible for the weight of experience it took to make it? The hard won mastery is something above and beyond the pots themselves. That only comes at a cost. It seems like something to think about at least. Sometimes you are not just paying for the pot but for the potter who made it…..

All of which suggests there are no simple answers or answers that make sense in more than limited circumstances. We get to ask these questions but we shouldn’t necessarily look for solutions that will satisfy every possible situation we find ourselves in. We take a stab at things, and often the best we can hope for is that we make enough money to pay the bills, earn a living, or feel happy about it. Sometimes as long as those things are taken care of the rest doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the galleries are bastards. We can overlook that, temporarily swallow or pride and dignity. We can get back up on our feet with relief that it wasn’t worse, and gladly wipe the dirt from our hands and knees if we feel they are actually in some other way furthering our cause. Sometimes we just make the best of a bad situation.

And it doesn’t matter that other potters are charging more or less than we are. That isn’t necessarily relevant to me paying my bills. Sometimes, at least. It may not even matter that some pots go unsold if you are overjoyed that enough customers seem to buy enough pottery to give you confidence in what you are doing. We make peace in various ways.

And sometimes none of these outside references matter: As long as you are enjoying what you are doing, find it fulfilling, then the intrinsic value of making art can sometimes be the most important things for you. Not necessarily the money. Maybe its just nice that we occasionally get paid for making art. But that’s not always why we make it. We’d be making it regardless, like a latter day van Gogh, because this is what we need to be doing. Too often if art is just a job we have, then we are really messing it up. Most artists are just scraping by. The failures of acceptable society. The also-rans. And despite that, the world is filled everyday with more sublime and glorious beauty by these ‘failures’. They must be doing something right.…..

Each potter’s pots are a universe unto themselves. Even drawing the connections between galaxies can be difficult. How much harder is it to relate what one potter is doing to what another is doing? Yeah, we both make cups, but not all cups are created equal. Sometimes they are not even cups in the same sense. Sometimes they are thought of as straightforward commodities and other times they are the intimate expressions of our authentic spiritual self. Sometimes its easy to put a price on and other times its not…..

Maybe its just the case that the world simply doesn’t make much sense when you look at it a certain way. Not a lot remains consistent. For artists, at least. Maybe we should learn from that, and make peace the best way we can. The idea that there is some one objective way of treating all these variables equally is simply laughable. Life, just like art, so often contradicts itself. Making peace with the contradictions is sometimes the best we can do….

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The cost conundrums, pricing pickles, and value variables of selling your art

  1. Ashley says:

    When I read Carol’s post yesterday, I almost choked on my coffee when it was suggested to her that she shouldn’t sell her mugs for more than someone who had been a potter longer than her, as it was disrespectful and presumptuous. What a load of BS. If the market will bear a higher price, why wouldn’t you at least attempt to try to get it? The old timer should have raised his prices if he thought the younger whipper snappers were charging more than him, but then again, maybe he did not make good pots.
    I have struggled with the pricing conundrum ever since I started to push pots on the unsuspecting public. My teacher, an old school production potter, was adamant that your pots should fall within a mathematical formula. But what about the gut feel? if a pot is actually better than what you had hoped for, doesn’t it deserve a price that reflects it’s “specialness”? He once related a story to me about one of his students. He asked the class how much they would pay for a mug. One student chimed in with “the perfect mug that fits your hand and is a pleasure to drink from is priceless” (I’m paraphrasing). The teacher again asked for a number, as “priceless” is pretty vague. The student then said, ”well, I wouldn’t pay more than $8″. So in her mind, $8 = priceless. My teacher used that as one reason that we can’t demand higher prices. The public just wont buy it.
    On a brighter note, I was delivering pots to a gallery a month or so ago and was told that they will often mark pots up to what they really should be. They have never said that I have to price work lower and can not raise my prices. It was their belief that most of their potters habitually under price their work, so the gallery will, on occasion, adjust accordingly. I have been making intricately carved mugs and usually I will charge $35, but now that I know that the gallery can sell them for $45 with no problem, I will be rethinking my prices for private sales. I have paid that and more for pots from other potters, but I have inside information. I understand the time it took to make it, the endless trials and failures that lead up to that pot, so what I would pay is usually not a gauge I can always trust when pricing my own pots for public consumption. I do believe though that if we undervalue our own work, so will everyone else.

    • Your teacher forgot the example of potters with huge reputations being able to sell them for hundreds of dollars. πŸ™‚ Neither of these sample sizes (big-time artists and oblivious students) give more than a slanted perspective on what it is possible to do. It would be like saying that because it rained today its gonna rain for the rest of my natural life. Why on earth would he jump to such extravagant conclusions on the evidence of one student;s ignorance? Even if the student was ‘Joe average’, potters don’t typically sell to the average people. Those folks get their pots from Walmart, or buy plastic. The pot buying public is anything but ordinary. Just like the inside information you refer to in your own purchases being a starting point to buy pots in the first place. Pottery is part of a subculture rather than the mainstream…..

      Glad that the gallery was able to work with you in getting your prices more in line with what their perceived market was! That’s good news πŸ™‚

      The undervalue issue is tricky too. Some folks come to my sales specifically for the bargains. The seconds and clearance section has always been a hit, and I actually price small pots really low for a ‘kids’ section’ where they even get half off that listed price if they buy them themselves. If anything the kids value it more because its affordable to them. There’s a lesson in there somewhere πŸ™‚

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Stephen says:

    Hi Carter,

    Well I know going in that you are not going to really agree with my view on this but I thought I would chime in. As u may remember from some of my previous post I view the business side of art as part of the ‘living the dream’ because without that component only well-heeled and/or well supported potters can devote all of their time to making and selling pots. Someone has to make them and someone has to sell them. If you are doing both then you have to wear both hats and instead of struggling against it and feeling like its sucking the joy out of your work you might as well embrace it and try and do the best you can with the business side of it all.

    I would argue that Carole is trying to sell art mugs at production mug prices. After subtracting Carole’s cost as stated (firing, materials, shipping and a 75 minute labor cost) I think the solution for her would be to charge the $70+ dollars such an effort should be sold at. If it can’t be sold at that price then based on its cost to make there may be no market for it and she should consider changing it to a more simple design that can be done more quickly or dropping it from her line altogether. She could continue to make it for artistic reasons, for fun or it may be considered a lost leader but based on her cost to produce as presented there is no way for that mug to make money either wholesale or retail for anywhere close to $35 CAN, it takes way too long to make for that price. Every time she tries, she is further weakening the benefit of the items she makes that do make money. Since mugs seem to make up a huge part of sales for most potters the more successful you are at selling mugs at a loss the more damage you do to your business and that may well mean sub minimum wages for the potter. If that’s OK, then it’s OK but at least every potter should try to understand how they got to where they are financially.

    **note my dollars are US
    My definition of a production mug is a thrown mug with possibly a little decoration such as slip trailing or light carving, trimmed flat and hand dipped. The pound or so of clay is about 40 cents and the glaze about 20. Good potters seem to throw the initial production mug form in the 3-5 minute range, trim in about 5 minutes and pull the handle in 5 minutes or so for a raw labor cost with 5 minutes of glaze time of about 20 minutes. I figure studio labor and cost at $50 an hour so that mug cost about $16.60 studio and .60 clay and glaze for a raw cost of $17.20. Firing in our 9cf electric kiln at cone 04/6 is about $8 per in electricity, $8 per firing toward changing elements and an hour of labor directly associated with a kiln load/unload beyond the per piece allocation for a total of $66 cost per kiln load. A mug is about 1/70th of a kiln load x2 so I would say the raw firing cost is about $2 for bisque/glaze firings. So I am at about $19.25 US to produce a production mug and recover all direct cost and its full studio charge. The $50 per hour studio charge is direct labor, building, utilities, insurance, taxes etc. etc. The studio charge is not profit. Yes some of it or even all of it may be paid to an owner operator but if the pottery employs other potters and assistants, leases studio space etc. all or part of it is being paid out. Its labor and variable cost not profit. Now to market that mug directly to the public cost about 20% or $5. So at $25 retail, the total cost is $24.25 and has a 75 cent (3%) gross margin. Once a few other things are added in it’s strictly a breakeven item at $25 retail with studio time paid. If as an owner operator with really low cost the $50 studio charge may well make it worthwhile, BUT if you simply start whacking away at that you better know what it means to your paycheck at every price point. If I sell that mug to a retail gallery for 50% of retail ($12.50) I am going to be very lucky to clear minimum wage for the direct labor.
    One thing I would also point out is that since the actual money out of your pocket, if you work out of a cheap situation (think garage with buckets of water) can be pretty low then yeah I guess one could eke out a meager living as long as pottery is continuously being sold but the number of hours could end up being huge if you screw it up so bad that you are effectively keeping 7-8 bucks an hour when all’s said and done.

    The other problem with screwing this up is that there are cost (think elements once or twice a year, kiln repairs, annual insurance premiums, car repairs) that you may not be covering and when those cost come due you’re eating top Ramon and mac and cheese to eak out those payments.
    I would recommend taking each and every form made and spend some time honestly coming up with what the true cost to make is and then making some clear headed decisions on prices and everything else.

    Regardless of the fact that what people pay for pots is not based on the time it takes to make it’s still a factor in what you, the artist/potter can afford to sell it at. If the two don’t line up then figure it out before you sell the pot not after.

    • Wow! That’s such fascinating detail! I’m so glad you chimed in Stephen!

      (Coincidentally, I was just finishing a dinner of Ramen noddle soup as I got to your comment πŸ™‚ )

      I think you present a powerful case, and I absolutely sympathize with folks in you guys’ situation. I could never do it like you guys do, but I have enormous respect for how hard you work and how smart you are about what you do.

      As you know, I try not to be too smart (overly practical) about my own studio practice. I’m a dreamer, alas….. My reason for being in the studio is that there are few other things I’d rather be doing. So I have to be enjoying the time for me to feel like I’m actually being paid at all. If I somehow became fabulously wealthy making pots but hated doing it I think it would kill me. But some income earned has to be part of the justification at this point. And I agree with you that maybe its possible for some people to “embrace it and try and do the best you can with the business side of it all.” Some people can, but its also possible that some can’t. I hope I adequately respect both sides of that equation πŸ™‚

      I think the dream of being a full-time potter is a noble one, but personally I’d rather have something like my part-time teaching job helping to pay the bills than to put too much pressure on the time I have in the studio. I only really know a handful of potters personally who are able to make their entire living from just making and selling pots. I admire that tremendously, I just don’t think its a lifestyle I could do. One of the only real pieces of career advice I got in art school was Linda Christianson telling us that few potters are actually able to do the full-time gig exclusively. This helped take the pressure off, so I could always feel that as long as the bills were paid somehow by some other means I could supplement that with my pottery sales. Thankfully over the years since I graduated I have gotten better at selling pots and I actually do a decent job of funding myself just with the pots. Perhaps there’s hope for me after all!

      I agree its good to have some business savvy, and you can lose your way quite easily if you blow that, but like Don Pilcher said in the quote above, sometimes it helps to have a boost from outside!

      Hope you are well! I’m so glad you chimed in πŸ™‚

      Just thought of a question for you: Rocco Landesman as head of the NEA a few years ago gave a talk in which he suggested that there was an oversupply of art and artists, that the market for art was diminishing if anything, and that any specific growth was offset by losses in other areas. Huge controversy, as I’m sure you can imagine! If that is the case, isn’t it possible that some local environments at least are saturated with otherwise viable and talented artists, but that the financial support is simply not there for everyone to be doing it full on full-time? You can only slice a pie so many times before the slices are less than sustaining……

      One of the things I am interested in is not just how each of us can do the best we can to sell the most pots possible. Instead, I am also interested in how the field itself is under certain pressures and how this affects working potters. If the biggest portions of the pie go to the established heavy hitters, that often means that the rest are fighting for scraps. You can work hard to become one of those big-timers, but how does the increase of your share of the pie affect others in the field? Don’t I now get to eat at someone else’s expense? Of course I worry about feeding myself and my family, but I also worry about my friends in the field and the students I have taught. If our practices are truly independent then it shouldn’t matter how the rest of the field is either prospering or failing. Not worrying about stuff like that is like saying that its not important to conserve natural resources because everybody else is getting their’s while they can, or conversely that enough others are doing their bit that it won’t matter if you don’t do your part…… Its a question of how our own behavior fits into the possibilities for the community at large. Maybe that’s also too big a question…..

      Maybe a that was a bad example. I don’t want to imply that there is a necessary moral implication here or that there is therefor some sort of reason not to work to make pots full-time. I think I’m just suggesting that it isn’t necessarily a mistake either that some folks work as less than full-time potters. I suppose its even possible to make the case that amateurs are taking food away from the mouths of folks struggling to do it full-time. Who has a better right to be fed making pots? Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle of all that and the problem is that the reality of potters’ situations encompasses too many variables to consider clearly. Making peace with that confusion is maybe the best we can do……

      Rambled a bit there at the end, but maybe you can see my dilemma. Any thoughts? Potters are such a great community, but I’m not always sure we do enough to consider issues as affecting the community as a whole. I’m curious what your perspective is.

  3. Stephen says:

    oops, did ya cough on the noodles when you read my Ramon dig πŸ™‚

    Is pottery a market Mr. Landesman would have even looked at when making those statements?

    I do think you have a misconception of studio potteries who do production work. I think part of that is because so many think the runs are hours long and involve hundreds of forms when in reality it’s just making 10-15 of one form or another based on sales and what’s coming up. Plenty of time to do fun stuff as well, it’s a fun gig. It’s probably not as far removed from how you work as you think,

    Cut-throat? Nah, Its not about the money at all. You don’t open a pottery to make money. Do you know any rich potters? I guess one hits occasionally but I think most work hard and struggle with mixed sucess.

    • I had to believe that was the case πŸ™‚ I’m so glad its true!

      I think you are right that there is a myth about the divide between production work and more eclectic one of a kind work. Probably a majority of folks who got their training in academia make some pretty gross assumptions about how the other half lives. And while it is obviously different in some respects, what you said about no one getting into it just to make money has to be remembered. Even the closer it comes to being an obligation to do work for the market, I think folks still have to be doing it because its what we enjoy doing.

      I guess the conclusion I am driving at in this post is that we all have different ways of enjoying it, and no one way is the right way. That seems to be the most important thing to remember. And its impossible to make that leap unless we either have that experience of difference or are talking to those who do.

      I’m so glad you are a part of this conversation Stephen. All the different voices need to be heard. Sometimes the only way to better understand ourselves is to see how similar and how different we are to others. I think conversations like this make a difference. To me, at least, they do……

      Thanks Stephen!

  4. Denise says:

    Have a look at this inflation calculator showing what a $10 mug in 1970 should cost today just to keep up with inflation – it is Australian, but it would give everyone an idea

  5. barleyhollow says:

    Reblogged this on Barley Hollow Pottery and commented:
    This is a really interesting discussion on pricing. Including the linked post from Carole Epp that got it rolling, it’s a fairly thorough consideration of what goes into pricing. It’s my least favorite part of the process, and it looks as if I’m not alone.

  6. True to some extent, but its more complicated than that. If most of us only believed we were being paid for our labor and we broke it down to an hourly wage it might be more depressing than we could handle. How does $4/hr sound? One of the problems we have is that we tend to see employment value only in the work done (its how almost every job gets paid), but with artists the actual work is often not the thing we are giving to the world. We are responsible for beauty and new ways of seeing things. Much harder to put a price on that, I’m afraid…….

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