Fashion painting of models. 52nd Street New York, N.Y., ca. 1948. William P. Gottlieb. Public domain.

Is Under-Pricing Your Art Causing You To Be An Underachieving Artist?

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Coaching, Underachievers 2 Comments

Little Birds. Copyright Dawn Wheat. All rights reserved. This image cannot be used or copied without permission. See www.dawnwheat.com. Used under license.Let’s take a look at art. Because part of the artist’s dilemma is how to price a particular piece. And this is related to our questions about underachievers.

I’ve been coaching Paula, a Chicago-based artist who is a high potential. (If you’re know the numbers, she coded as 4L at 32.) She’s an amazing individual, someone who had Pres. George Bush, Sr. call her up; knew Vice Pres. (and Hoosier Son) Dan Quayle, being quite chatty with him; and knows an amazing list of well-known American artists who always take her phone calls. In addition to producing a decent and diverse body of work.

But she struggled to make ends meet in Chicago.

Here’s the secret: she worked at the wrong level, in the wrong area, and underpriced herself so much that people assumed that she was incompetent.

Paula’s art is crap at $450.

But at $4,500 it’s a bit pricey.

What’s the deal? How can she raise her prices by an order of magnitude and be seen as a better deal?

It has to do with people’s ability to judge higher levels of work, and the role money plays as a proxy in that.


As my brother said when he was a recruiter, once someone has been stupid enough to pay you $100k, everyone will assume that you’re worth it. That’s why in the corporate world hiring managers always want to know your salary history. They use it because they don’t know how to evaluate people’s capacity for work (what work level they can currently work at) nor the work level of the job role. And let’s not get into paying a fair wage.

The same thing happens with artists. Most people have no idea how to judge the intrinsic value of a work. Why is painting worth “worth four times its auction price” if the Rembrandt Project “chooses to reevaluate the work and decides it is a Rembrandt after all.” [NYT 1993] Because no one really knows what a work of art is worth.

Add to that the fact that artists’ language of achievement is different from people who work within business organizations, and you have the need for a proxy for value. A higher number on a piece implies that it is worth that much.

And then there’s the problem with ‘free’. Lowder tells the story of his newsletter. He discovered that if he raised the rate he could get more subscriptions. “Of course if I went too far my sales would decline, but if I figured out the right price point I could actually increase my margins and sell more subscriptions.”

He goes on to tell about a subscriber who had seen his original (cheap) newsletter ad. Seeing the price, the man:

figured that at the low price point I’d initially set for the newsletter the information was probably crap. A couple of years later he received another marketing piece with the higher price and not remembering the first marketing piece he figured that the information was probably high end stuff.

I learned this lesson myself, although it is one that I am always relearning. If you underprice yourself, people see you as a moron. Not only that, but they evaluate your work as if it was priced correctly, as if you were really working at a much lower level. And big work looks like laziness, foolishness and stupidity when evaluated as lower level work.

Are you cheating yourself out of your career because you are not pricing yourself appropriately?

We’ll be looking at pricing yourself appropriately over the next couple of weeks.

Because you are the killer app.

(Thanks to Lisa Deam, my wife, who got her PhD in art history and has taught on many of the issues surrounding works of art and their valuations. I have sat through many happy hours hearing her discuss these things, but the ideas here are my own.)

Image Credit: Fashion painting of models. 52nd Street New York, N.Y., ca. 1948. William P. Gottlieb. Via Library of Congress collection. Public domain.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 2

  1. Hi Forrest,
    Going back to some definitions: CPC and CAC. In your comment “If you’re know the numbers, she coded as 4L at 32.” It’s referring to CPC or Current Potential Capability: what you could do if 1) you valued the work and 2) had the full load of knowledge, skill, and experience, to work at your current potential.
    CAC, or Current Applied Capability, refers to what you bring to the situation today. The idea being somewhat less than your potential due to a shortfall in either valuing of the work or knowledge, skills or experience.
    With these two things in mind the underutilized underachiever question may reduce to fit and coaching. Fit, from a values standpoint – can I find work that lights a fire. Coaching from a skill development standpoint.
    Since the GO conference last year four of us have had the benefit of personal coaching. We have all found it of significant value. As a general statement that value came through knowing ones-self better and, with that making adjustments around what we valued, and how we defined our work.
    Best regards,
    Glenn

  2. Hi

    I found the article on art interesting as I own a commerical art gallery and also consult with RO and capability – the majority of artists I believe are comfortable with Work Level II and those who make a reasonalbe living have mastered and regularly experiment with pracital skills.

    Those whose work goes on to be traded on the secondary art market and who have art books written about them are normally the higher modes since they use their art to interpret and reframe.

    The other thing is those with capabilty develop (without knowing it) tactical strategies for marketing themselves in different markets and those with the capability (potential) to move into the cogintive capabilty associated with Level V and beyond, redefine their art and their positions as artists within a broader societal context – here lies a true art strategy…

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: