These days, there’s a lot of talk about discounting artwork in order to suit the shrinking wallets of potential clients. While that may be a good idea for the ridiculously inflated prices of the Christie’s Auction House gang, for those of us who are selling to real people, it isn’t.
In the first place, reducing the price of art is a betrayal to anyone who already bought your work, and disappointing your former patrons is a sure way of losing out on the two easiest ways to make a sale, repeat business and referrals. Slashing prices sends a clear message to clients that you don’t respect them or the money that they gave you.
What’s more, it puts your artwork in the same boat as the special on aisle 7. Though I have no problem thinking of art as an object to be sold for money, I don’t think it’s a good idea to treat it like every other kind of product. Art is different from sliced bread and real estate (unless you’re Damien Hirst). If you can discount your art, you might as well sell it for the cost of materials plus minimum wage for time plus a narrow margin of profit. If you’ve been selling it for more than that, it’s because you think there’s more to art than assembly line labor—and that something special about art doesn’t go away just because the economy is in trouble.
All that said, I have discounted my work in the past under the right circumstances. When I was just starting out and mostly starving, I offered a deal on my work which also earned my paintings some exposure. I approached small business owners and proposed that I paint their portraits for a 50% discount if they would display the finished work in their office or storefront for 6 months.
Though my primary motivation was to make some money immediately in order to pay the bills that were accumulating, avoiding the out-and-out discount proved fruitful beyond the initial commission. For example, Jennifer of Viviano Design ordered a second full-price portrait—one of her husband—to go with hers. And the display of at least one of my other “discount + trade” portraits led to a further commission from someone who knew the subject.
I don’t doubt that Jennifer and the other business owners who took me up on my offer knew they were helping me out, but, by staying away from the full discount, I insured that my clients didn’t lose respect for me or for my work.
As far as I can tell, selling art isn’t about how much money potential clients have. It’s about how much they like the artist and the art. People find a way to buy work if they want it badly enough.* So give a discount, but always get something else to make up the difference in the price. It’s not just about honoring everyone who’s purchased your work in the past. Clients will appreciate the work more if they pay off the work in trade, because they’ve gotten a deal instead of a steal.
*The proof: clients work out payment plans with me when they don’t have large chunks money to lay out in one go.