Be Smart About Art

Exhausted by Christmas? 3 popular 'Sunday reading' articles by 'Susan the elf' to inspire you - A Festive Special

written by: Susan Mumford Dec. 22, 2013 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan Mumford + Chris King's Blog 3149 views

Exhausted by Christmas? 3 popular 'Sunday reading' articles by 'Susan the elf' to inspire you - A Festive Special

from our Sunday reading series - a weekly blog post (subscribe here)

It's been an exhilarating year, and I'm sure that you, like me, are ready for a well-deserved break full of food, fun and rest

I've been delighted to hear stories over the past 13 months of how this weekly blog has prompted fantastic change in both small and big ways for many art practitioners. I learn these stories from artists and dealers alike during Be Smart About Art workshops, mentoring sessions and networking events, in addition to email / social media replies and comments. 

In this Christmas Special, I'm delighted to provide you three popular blogs that have inspired such comments and change. And in the first one, you find out about my own formative days. 

Enjoy reading, and here's to a relaxing & rejuvenating break! 



Lemonade and art fairs, fallen leaves and commissions

Dec.30, 2012

Anyone who knows me understands that I love both art and business. As I have said many times, having both in my life provides a fantastic balance between my left and right brain.

During the summer when I was a kid, I would set up a lemonade stand down the road (noting that I don’t even like the drink) and make special offers - 2 lemonades for 20 cents! The neighbourhood kids, my first ‘team’ you might call them, would help me run the stand and we would sell a variety of flavours in paper cups to the local residents, who would stop their cars to support the endeavour. I didn’t calculate the profit, and certainly never considered depreciation on the investors’ (my parents’) plastic jugs, let alone consider reimbursing their contributions of cups, napkins and other materials. The venture took time to prepare and run, required various supplies and used perishable materials.

One autumn day after helping my dad rake leaves to earn some cash to put towards Christmas presents, I came up with a business idea. My tree-lined neighbourhood, known as Smoking Oaks, was covered in leaves. I could offer a service to rake leaves. Having successfully talked another kid into the concept, the two of us walked the streets and succeeded; a man down the road had a massive back garden covered in leaves and was delighted to have a solution delivered to his door. We agreed a fee of $40, and over the next two days listened to the soundtrack to Cocktail on my little battery-operated cassette player and raked and bagged leaves. On finishing the job, we were paid in full.

I now liken the lemonade stand to exhibitions and art fairs, and the leaf raking to bespoke commissions. Exhibitions and fairs are speculative and require a substantial amount of investment in both finance and time. Bespoke commissions, on the other hand, are guaranteed jobs with the risk being minimal - and better yet, if I were to travel back in time, I would take a 50% non-refundable deposit to commence work with the remainder due upon completion. Such payment terms require confidence that my 12 year-old self did not possess. The deposit provides the supplier confidence that the client is serious about the purchase, and by only taking the last 50% upon completion, the client likewise has the confidence that the supplier will complete the job.

Artists and art dealers should not always work speculatively. What type of art or service can you provide that is guaranteed income with little risk? Some ideas include, for instance, commissions for portrait paintings or sculptures, abstract or landscape paintings, an art installation service, framing consultancy, private tutorials – and the list goes on.

Think about what you can offer that is guaranteed work, for which you can charge a deposit. And make a plan of how you will charge for your services and market such ‘products’.

Personal note:

I would like to give a special thanks to my initial investors, my parents. You were never reimbursed for the lemonade packets, sugar, cups, printer paper, marker pens, leaf bags or batteries – to name but a few items. I hope you agree that your support of those early ventures was vital in providing experience that would pay dividends later in your daughter’s adventures as an entrepreneur in the art world.



Exhibition titles – love or hate them, we must create them

Jan. 27, 2013

Yesterday I became engrossed in a conversation with a photographer friend, in which we were evaluating the relationship between writing and visual art. For some pieces, having a title and concept is vital– however, this isn’t always so. Consider a classic Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite National Park. The image speaks for itself, and as a life-long Adams follower, I needn’t see anything but the photograph, though the addition of descriptive text (location and date) does not detract. However, words are absolutely essential in one form of art presentation; all exhibitions require a title.

The most effective show listings (for instance, in the Guardian Guide and on ArtRabbit) present titles that will stand out owing to the reader’s personal interests. Think about the current National Maritime Museum exhibition, ‘Ansel Adams: Photography from the mountains to the sea.’ It isn’t elaborate or ostentatious; this simple wording captures multiple audiences, drawing in those who regard Adams as well as those with a taste in photography of mountains or sea.

Even though titles can be simple and straightforward, the majority of artists, curators and art dealers spend much time pulling out their hair over them.

When I became a gallerist, I wondered if there was a custom regarding who composes exhibition titles – artist or curator. In fact, there is no exact formula, and it regularly varies. For solo exhibitions, it will often be a joint effort between the artist and curator. And for group exhibitions the curator generally creates the title, with the buy-in of all exhibiting artists. Overall, so long as the balance of power between an artist and curator mostly stays even, do what feels right.

My best recommendation for creating show titles? Don’t be shy! My self-created all-time favourite has received a lot of attention over the years: ‘Art is why I get up in the morning.’ It was the first phrase that struck me for a show, and after second-guessing myself and spending hours devising alternatives, I returned to it. This has since been used for many aspects of my art practice, and is now gloriously the URL for my curatorial practice.



Want to know a formula for pricing art? Stop looking – they don’t work.

July 28, 2013

I’ve come across a number of theories on pricing art. And you know what? None of them work. 

Here’s the most common art pricing formula I have come across (bearing in mind that it doesn’t work in reality) - artists come up with a base asking price for the smallest sized work made, and multiply according to size increase from that point. For example: let’s say a 25 x 25 cm painting is £250. A piece twice the size is double the amount.

You might wonder why such a simple and straightforward formula doesn’t work.

Easy: the pricing structure does not have the buyer in mind. Continuing to multiply figures based on dimensions results in larger works being overpriced, which doesn’t make sense to a potential customer looking at an individual piece.  It is essential that your clients are the focal point. 

Consider how a now-successful West Country landscape painter started. A decade ago, she had already been seriously painting for 10 years, and decided to take the plunge and become a full-time professional artist. In order to build a client base, she started selling oil paintings in small village cafés for £50 a piece. Fast forward to the present day and her works go for £2,000 a pop.

The best part of the story is this: the West Country artist’s early patrons are still active buyers, paying 40 times the amount of initial acquisitions. These individuals have followed her and continue to actively support her career – amongst many others including keen art collectors. Now she is represented by 7 galleries around the UK and has no interest in directly selling – the financial piece is left in the capable hands of dealers. 

An important aspect of the artist’s initial pricing strategy was determined by location: village cafés. As demand increased for her works and she started to sell in a variety of places including galleries and fairs, she steadily increased values. The fewer pieces available with higher demand to acquire them, combined with an increase in status as a credible artist, puts an artist in a healthy position to incrementally step up amounts. 

This is not to say that all artists should start at such a low amount as £50 per painting. However remember that you don’t start at final asking prices, either. By raising amounts gradually over the years, existing collectors will be delighted to see that the investment value of their purchases is increasing. And thus, they might very well want to buy more.

You might be wondering about how to incorporate the time spent, direct costs (materials), etc. Whilst these items do not determine market value, they are essential considerations for calculating profitability of art sales. Profit should pay for your time. And over the years, your time will reap higher and higher financial rewards.  

Have your say! 

What do you think of these three blogs? What stories and examples do you have to share? 
Please leave you comments below - and we will gladly link your name to your website too :-). 


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Photographs © Chris King.