What is the worth of an artwork? (Or, how do I price my work?)

A hot button for artists when discussing their work is price. It's a hot button for everyone else too, from auction houses to collectors to the IRS. As Sarah P. Hanson, Editor, Blouin's ART+AUCTION, recently wrote, "One of the tiresome fallacies about the art market is the equation of high price with high value. To the uninitiated, the hammer price of an artwork seems to extol its worth." (Blouin's ART+AUCTION, p. 22, May 2014)

Freshly minted artists with newly acquired and hard won MFA and BFA diplomas from prestigious (and expensive) art schools launch with a graduation vernissage (French ver-nee-sazh: An opening reception for an artist's work at a private or public venue), where they debut work and hope for sales. As a collector, and champion of these shows, I often hear from artists, "I didn't know how to price my work." or "What do you think I should ask for this?"

What a tough question. How does one ask for the value of education, the development of aesthetic, mastery of medium, and finally, polished presentation? It seems crass to offer a price based on dimension and materials, and for an artist with little or no following outside of friends and school, it seems foolish to offer an hourly sum for each work. And we're back to the question: what is an artwork worth?

The answer is there is no fixed formula for pricing artwork. As a suggestion, one might look at stockmarket trends for enlightenment. For example, it's unbelievable that Apple was once a bankrupt company. Today, its assets are in the billions of dollars, with products that transformed a generation and shaped our design expectations. Through trial and error, consistent application of well thought, disciplined practices, and a great deal of bravado and courage, Apple managed to go from broke to platinum.

When I consider artwork for acquisition or exhibition, my first question is: who is the artist and what is the artist's background. I have a fundamental respect for education and discipline, and appreciate the artist who seeks to acquire knowledge, whether in a formal environment (academics) or through professional associations (colleagues).

My second question relates to concept, or the ideas the artist hopes to convey to the public. Do these ideas keep me engaged? Do they make me happy or sad, or do they just piss me off and are offensive? Or, as one fabulously wealthy collector said, "This work is cool shit."

My last question addresses mastery of medium. What did the artist use to make this, and what was the artist's intent when making the artwork? How well is it made? What materials did the artist use? Is the work ephemeral, meant to decay and disappear of time, and evolve from fresh raw newness to bits of dust as part of the artist's performance and art making? Or is it meant to forever withstand the test of time (and subsequently, that of museum conservators), so that it may be enjoyed for generations to come?

When I'm satisfied by answers to questions of artistic discipline, concept, and medium, I look at value, and the answer is all about what has the artist done and said. I feel valued when I know the artist worked to develop his knowledge and skill at his chosen medium (such as drawing, digital media, glass, painting, video, among others), and seeks the company of peers. I feel respected by the artist and the artwork. And I respect the artist who respects her own work and is critically respectful of the work of others. At this point, my perception of value has begun to develop for this artist.

Dear artist, when offering your artwork for sale, start low, and make your foray into the art market carefully. Be patient and wise. Consider your work, who you are, and what your goals are. Do you see work similar to yours? Is that work similar to yours in vintage and medium? Has the artist developed a disciplined aesthetic? Does the artist have a clear concept? And what about the artist's choice of medium? Is it as well made as yours? If you had the means, would you buy it? Choosing a mentor is always a good idea, and it seems it would be an invaluable tool, as a guideline, when deciding how to price one's work.

Develop friendships outside your inner circle, and cultivate friends in "the business," such as architects, art consultants, curators, designers and gallerists. Visit museums regularly, volunteer, support your local art groups (offer an artwork to an auction, but don't do this more than once a year), and develop an interest you've always had (Are you a mad on skis? Do you cook? Have you always wanted to run a marathon?). Make friends and talk about your artwork, so you develop a community that knows and supports what you do (or hope to do) for a living.

As you sell your work, keep track of your sales, allowing your prices to develop as your sales grow. The idea that Ms. Hanson, above, supports is value, not high price, but high quality. I support the idea of value, with the understanding that it can only be achieved over time, and with information. So, again, be patient, wise and disciplined. Cherish and respect your colleagues and community—they are your greatest asset. Their appreciation for your work, and respect for you, will imbue your work with value as you cultivate the kind of social community that considers your work. It takes a great deal of bravado and courage for artists to pursue a career in fine art. It takes a lot of work too.

The worth of your art work is the value you put into it.