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 benefits 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….
Make beauty real!