A Brief (and inaccurate) History of Selling Art

It’s pretty impossible to talk about paying artists without referencing the art market – locally, nationally, internationally. And given that my job this week is to write about paying artists, I’ll try my best to pull something together about a world I know literally nothing about.

I’ve sold a few wall works I’ve made in the past (gilded poetry, short form essays, metal screens etc.), but I didn’t have a clue how to price my work. I went through five years of uni, and not once did anyone talk to me about selling work. Whether that was pricing for time, commission or completing sales. There was an elective module I sat through, where someone from CVAN came in and spoke about the value of artists’ time, and gave a list of links (which have since become a sort of bible for me) to day rates for artists and arts graduates [link here to some of the most useful]. The lecture lasted less than an hour, and we didn’t have a chance for feedback or questions once it was over.

But the first exhibition I encountered, as a participant, after graduation asked me to price my work. I hadn’t even considered selling it, so I think I sold one or two things for about £30 a piece. So I made £60 for three months’ work. I’ve accidentally sold things since, but only by direct enquiry. So in 2018 when we produced Independents Biennial and a group of painters from Merseyside took over the ground floor of George Henry Lees, I was gripped.

To my memory, they sold around £17,000 worth of work over a month long exhibition, between 12 artists. The space was free for them as part of Independents Biennial, thanks to the generosity of the owners and developers of the space.

There is huge potential for sales as a driver for artist pay, but only 30% of artists in the UK make any money from sales. And they make on average, £6000 a year. So what is the long term solution? How do we create spaces where you can make that kind of money from sales?

There’s an identity problem around selling work – art as commodity – for a start. I hear it all the time, and I really don’t think it’s fair; the critique that making work for sale is somehow less worthwhile than making work for commission.

Perhaps it’s the tension between art and craft, permanently embedded in art criticism, and creative practice. Perhaps is a generational divide, based on the way we’re taught to understand Fine Art – as a course of study rather than a resulting career?

I don’t honestly know where it comes from, but like I say, it’s embedded in the sector. Obviously you’re never going to walk in to FACT, Tate, Bluecoat, Open Eye, the Walker, etc. and see a price tag. It creates a divide between audiences and separates those who can afford from those who can’t. But even in smaller independent spaces it’s becoming rarer to see a price tag.

In 2018, downstairs at George Henry Lees was the only place you could buy work. Upstairs we had work that was saleable, but we decided not to price things directly (though some work did sell on enquiry). I owe an apology to a few of the artists for not knowing enough about sales at the time. And if any of them read this and want guidance, I’d be happy to learn alongside you if you get in touch. The fact I didn’t know how to price anything stems from my own reluctance to put a price on an end product, but that in itself stems from my own on-the-fence identity between fine and contemporary art.

If I had to offer guidance off the top of my head, set an hourly rate. Price your work on the time it takes. Cost in your expenses for making the work (travel for research, materials etc.) and stick enough on the end to spend the same expenses again on the next thing. So if you’re charging £20 an hour for your time and it takes one day to make the work, one day to research it, and £100 to make it, that’s 20*16hrs + £100*2 = £520. If you’re mass producing, or producing multiples, then it’s harder to cost, because you need to base the cost of the series on the same research – probably why it only usually costs about £30 to buy a print from an edition of 30.

Does that make sense? I don’t know – I’m not even sure it’s good advice. But from a morning of reading and trying to refresh my understanding of art, that’s where I’ve landed.

But I don’t make art any more, not my own, for a long time anyway. Maybe I’ll start again, who knows. So I’m hoping to ask an artist who’s used to this to shed a bit more light on this later in the week.


The rest of the art world talks about The Art Market. I don’t really know what this means beyond auction houses. And I don’t know anything about that world at all, other than the headline grabbing articles when a new record is broken, or Banksy shreds sold work.

Apparently the UK art market is thriving, and a global leader. Which is unfathomably detached from the art world. Statistics from Arts Markets round the world (google Art Market report UK, or Art Market report Canada etc.) separate ‘work by living artists’ from several categories, typically grouped by whatever movement the work was part of. What I can’t seem to find on a simple enquiry, is how much of that art market finds its way back to the artists who are still here to see their work sell, usually for more than they sold it for in the first place.

Also – is it bad? Is it just a symptom of the usual politics within the arts that we think it’s bad that our work becomes part of a profit system? That’s definitely a wider question on identity, but there’s an important point I’m hinting at I guess – If there is a will to buy art, what is the barrier between the buyers who collect art as artefact, and the artists making that work?

You know? If the money is there to buy art, why is the typical view of the wealthy buyer, that there is more value is something that has circulated? It’s one of the few examples I can think of where second hand is more valuable than new.

I’ve got a few original works in my home, and to be honest, I don’t think I paid full value for any of them. I adore them. They define my spaces. The majority of my walls are decorated with personal items though – notes, collections, pressed flowers that remind us of important moments. But the work I have by other artists is also a reminder of a moment in my life. A point where I saw something new, and unseen, and found resonance with it.

I’m not sure how much context this section has provided, but  as I said at the start of this article, I’m learning as I go with this; just trying to understand a world of sales I’ve not been part of.

Locally however, there is, and I’ll use A Long the River Run, the ground floor exhibition from GHL in 2018, as an example again, a market which hasn’t got a proper chance to thrive.

I hate it when articles end on a question. I do it a lot too. Hypocrite. I know.

To artists: Would you be more likely to create saleable work as an income stream if it was more accessible?