Am I Paying You Enough to Paint my Life Size Portrait? A blog about artists being underpaid for their work and how that shapes the art we see.

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I don’t know how much money it costs to live in London, New York or Paris. But apparently where I live right now, it costs $9,000 a month to rent a one bedroom apartment and $11,000 to buy a house.

That is more than any other city in the world.

In fact, it is more than twice as much as anywhere else in the world.

So, why does the art look like sh*t? And why are the artists here so poor?

I have been thinking about this problem a lot lately. It has occurred to me that no one here is paying me enough to paint my life size portrait. No matter what they say or what they think or how much they think they believe that I am worth it. I would need at least $12,000 before I would even consider it. That is at least 3 times my current rate for a large portrait and 5 times my current rate for a miniature portrait. Why not higher you might ask? Because I am not phoning it in and because I am going to make myself work harder than anyone else would if they were getting paid less.

So, who should be giving me more money you might ask? It should be whoever will pay me the most

My friend is an artist. She makes beautiful paintings of people’s dogs and cats. She loves her work, but it turns out that she doesn’t love it enough to let me pay her what it’s worth.

We had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “I’d like to hire you to paint a life-size portrait of my dog.”

Her: “How big is your dog?”

Me: “About 60 pounds.”

Her: “That’ll take about 20 hours.”

Me: “How much do you charge per hour?”

Her: “Fifty dollars an hour.”

Me: “So it will cost $1000 for the whole thing.”

Her: “No, I don’t think so. It will take about 2 months for me to finish the painting, and I only charge $40 an hour for overtime.”

Me: “What if I want the painting faster?”

Her: “Then I’ll need another $10 an hour.”

The upshot is that she ended up charging me less than minimum wage for her work.

I get frustrated when I see the same style of art over and over. It’s like the old commercial, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.” But what I want is more variety than we’re getting. We need to figure out how to pay artists better and how to show their work more frequently.

Trying to make a living as an artist is risky enough. Trying to do so as a representational artist in this country is like skydiving without a parachute. It looks risky to me, anyway.

Artists are routinely underpaid for their work and some are lucky if they get paid at all. And because most of us cannot afford to buy art, we rarely see it except at museums or galleries where it is presented like fine china on velvet cushions behind glass cases.

As an artist myself, I can tell you that people who don’t understand what my job entails have no idea what it takes out of me. That I am willing to push myself beyond my normal limits for the sake of excellence is seen by the marketplace as a character flaw, not a virtue.

If you want great art, you have to be willing to pay for it – both

My friend who is a performance artist sent me this quote from Neil Buchanan. I think it’s great because it has a lot of interesting points about the value of art and the rights of the artist.

“I have been an artist for over thirty years and my work is often commissioned by public institutions, but I have never been paid what I consider to be a living wage for any artwork that I have done. In fact, I would say that the majority of the commissions that I have received have paid between ten and twenty percent of what they would consider to be a fair price to pay an artist. In some cases, when artists are commissioned to do work by an institution, they are asked to waive their moral rights (the right of attribution) in order to obtain a fee. This means that if an artwork is reproduced as part of an exhibition catalogue, or any form of publication, then the artist does not receive royalties. It also means that when you walk into most galleries in Australia you can’t tell whose work is on display.”

I often wonder how much my favorite artists get paid to make the work that I love. So I decided to do some digging and see if there was a way to find out. I found a pretty cool website by a guy named Neil Buchanan called Art Attack where he answers questions from artists and patrons alike, including how much he should pay his artist for his portrait.

I’m going to share what I learned here, so you can have that same conversation with your own artist. Neil’s advice is great, but I’ve added a few things below including some info on pricing that he didn’t include in his answer. First, let’s start with this question: “I am thinking of commissioning a large portrait (about 3′ x 5′) of myself done in an impressionist/fauvist style (this is important because it will be an oversize wall hanging). My budget is $5,000-$10,000. What would you charge for such a piece? And can you tell me any tricks of the trade?”

Neil says “There are no tricks of the trade when it comes to pricing art; each artist has their own unique circumstances and none are alike. If this was my situation, I’d probably price it at around $8,500

The art world has long been a place of injustice and inequality. Many artists struggle to make ends meet in the face of the astronomical wealth of some of their colleagues and the ever-increasing presence of commercial galleries that take most of the profits from art sales. So why does it feel like there’s a particularly bad stench in the air these days? There is, and it’s coming from the big auction houses.

Details have recently emerged about what are known as “secondary markets” – a term for where artworks are traded after they have been sold at auction. It turns out that auction houses have been getting rich by effectively scalping artists by marking up prices for works that have been consigned for sale at a fixed price.

A recent article in Artnet news explains how this scam works (and you can read it here). In short, when an artist’s work sells at auction, they receive a percentage of the final sale price. But some auction houses aren’t content with this – they want more money, so they buy back or consign the work themselves and then sell it on at an inflated price. They then take 80% of this new sale price as profit – effectively paying themselves twice for one piece of art.

There is nothing new about this practice

I’ve been thinking about the question of how much art is worth. It’s something that every artist has to think about, even if they don’t talk about it. Here are some things I have noticed:

1. If art is free, there is more of it.

2. If artists aren’t paid well, they won’t do very good work.

3. Sometimes it seems like no one wants to pay for art because they want the art to be totally new and different from anything that came before, but in fact paying for art encourages artists to do what they do before, even if it’s new and different.

4. The best artists are those who begin the conversation by setting their prices high and working their way down until someone buys a piece from them.

5. Some people who get rich become art collectors because they love art, but most people who get rich become art collectors because they want to show other people (and sometimes themselves) that they got rich.

6. There is no shame in being an artist who gets paid next to nothing for their work, but you should probably keep this fact private unless you are talking to a bunch of other artists who also get paid next to nothing for their work.

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