Gallery Curator Ashlyn Davis Burns shares advice on Pricing Your Work for Galleries

Tell us a little about yourself and your professional background

 

Yeah, sure. I have been working in the arts for the past 15 years. I earned my BA from Pratt Institute in New York. And as soon as I graduated, I began working for various different commercial and nonprofit art spaces, as well as publishers.

 

I eventually made my way back to Texas. I got my master’s degree and then started working at Houston Center for Photography as their development director, and then as their executive director and curator. I was there for five years and then in 2021, I opened a commercial art gallery [called Assembly Gallery] in the museum district in Houston.

 

What are some of the common challenges you’ve seen artists face when it comes to pricing their work and how do you assist them in overcoming that?

 

I think a lot of students, coming out of BFA programs especially, are not given the kind of courses or meetings with professionals that could really help situate them and help find a context for their work. I think the biggest pitfall is trying to price your work totally alone in your studio. My number one advice is to find a community to talk through it with, look at other people’s work, and really situate yourself within this broader network of artists who are already selling their work. If you’re a student, you have access to professors and fellow students who can connect you to the broader world. If you’re not a student, go to commercial galleries in your area. 

 

How would you guide someone to set prices that are competitive yet reasonable?

 

Study what similar work is being priced at, not only based on materials and scale but also, the artist’s CV. This is going to tell you a lot about where they’re at in the market. How many solo shows have they had? How many group shows have they had? Where are those shows at? Are they at smaller institutions or bigger? Has their work been written about and published? Have they won any grants? Have they done any residencies? 

 

Situating yourself against that is a helpful benchmark. If you’re just starting, you might feel defeated like, “Oh, I don’t have any of this,” but to start pricing your work, you need to be existing within the market to begin with.

 

And there’s a lot of online resources, like Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions. [Check] what’s happening there. Is a certain style having a really big moment? Artsy is a really wonderful resource too, because the prices are transparent. You might be finding more of a mid-to-late career artist there, but it at least gives you a starting frame of reference.

 

Can you talk a little more about the importance of understanding market trends?

 

I really take [market trends] with a grain of salt because different styles, schools of thought, and modes of working are going to rise and fall and that’s just the nature of the market. 

 

One of the pitfalls I see sometimes is emerging artists trying to make work that fits what they think is popular and then that authenticity does not come through. A seasoned collector or institution is going to see that. So I think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening but not follow it too closely.

 

There are also these moments of speculative buying, where collectors go in, think they’ve found the next best thing, price the work, then sell it really quickly at an auction for a higher price. It’s really detrimental to that artist who’s bar for the price of their work has now been so priced out that only certain collectors can reach that. 

 

So it really is a delicate balance and it’s about data gathering and research and comps. What is a certain medium typically selling for and at what size? Photography, for instance, will be very different than painting, but one thing we’re seeing is photography really becoming more and more like contemporary art, in the materials used or what the work looks like.

 

So I think all of those things come together to give you a bigger picture. I know it’s not what artists tend to like to think about, but I will advocate that this is really one of the great benefits of working with a commercial gallery. They know the market, they know the people they’re selling to, they know what other artists are selling for, and they can be a great guide

 

Going off topic slightly, if it’s someone’s first time trying to have their work shown at a gallery, what should their first steps be?

 

Yeah. There’s a lot of do’s and don’ts there. Almost every day that I’m in the gallery, I get an email or a phone call from someone asking me if I will record their work. And that is very much a don’t. It’s just like dating or getting to know anyone. You’re not just going to propose to someone from their presence on the internet. 

 

So for emerging artists: try to start getting exposure in your local nonprofit galleries, get the residencies, get the work [written] about, because most commercial gallerists are attending these exhibitions and that’s how we find work that we’re interested in, that’s at the right point for us to be helpful and that fits the broader roster of artists we’re working with.

 

So really it’s about getting your work out there to be seen by the gallerists rather than knocking on everyone’s door. And I think inviting galleries to your shows is great once you’ve got [something] there to work with and you’ve researched them and feel like, “Wow this is a perfect fit for me [based on] the style of work and career levels of their other artists.” 

 

But, I would say the first appropriate thing to do is ask for a studio visit. Again, it’s like dating. It’s a way to get to know them and have them get to know you and your practice and understand “Is there a place this fits or might there be in the future?”

 

So once you’ve agreed to work with an artist, how do you balance the need to support their financial goals and the financial goals of the space?

 

I think where Assembly is a little bit different is that we intentionally saw the need for a commercial space that did not only offer support to artists by way of selling their work.

 

Of course, that is the primary revenue stream that we focus on, but I think every artist should have multiple revenue streams. Whether that’s applying the work to a commercial field (for photographers, that’s often assignment work for publications); grants and fundraising (which is important not only for the income but also for the association with other artists); artist residencies; and so many artists are also teachers. 

 

If you look back at the history of art, everyone had multiple revenue streams. It is so rare for an artist to solely survive on art sales.

 

So we offer all of those things. We act like an agency for artists – liaising with publications, helping artists write grants, seeking out other fundraising opportunities, or creating fundraising strategies with them if they have patrons who are eager to pre-buy work before its made. So again, a gallerist can be really helpful in opening up these other avenues. 

 

Can you talk about the role of self-promotion, branding, and marketing?

 

Yeah. I mean, it’s critical because there’s no point in pricing your work if nobody can see it. 

 

Also I can’t tell you how many artists I’ve been really excited about and wanted to learn more about but there’s either no website or the website is so hard to navigate that I just can’t find the things I’m really trying to look forthe work, the artist statement, their CV, exhibition and publication history—those things are so, so critical.

 

I also think that’s something that should never be done in a silo. You should have multiple people read your artist statement and give feedback because, at the end of the day, what I look for is work that does work in the world when the artist is not there, that I can read and take meaning from without someone telling me exactly what it’s about, that shows me something new and moves beyond the artist.

 

I’ve read a lot of statements that are to the effect of “the viewer can take whatever they want from this piece,” and I’m like “there’s no perspective or intention here.” And it may look cool but then it just becomes decorative to me rather than a work that has cultural dialogue.

 

The other really important thing I always think about is “Why does this work matter right now? What does it tell us about our contemporary moment?” We exist in an ocean of images and what we pull out from that ocean in the gallery really says something about what we value. So the artist needs to be clear in their statement too about what those values and intentions are.



How would you advise handling negotiations around pricing?

 

When you show your work at a nonprofit gallery you should be paid even if they’re not acquiring it. One way you can gauge what that fee should be is to go to the WAGE, Working Artists for the Greater Economy, website. Once you know that nonprofit’s budget size by looking up their 990, you’ll see what their standard rates are for exhibitions. 

 

Artists should be paid. If anything is taken from this at all.

 

[For us], if an artist is represented by another gallery, we can’t change the price of their work without every gallery representing them agreeing to a new rate. 

 

If we are the only gallery that that artist is working with, we basically build a document that shows what their current pricing is, do our own research, and shift those prices based on what we think is successful in the market and the comparisons we’ve seen.

 

Are there any other resources you can offer that might help someone through this process?

 

Yeah, the other thing I didn’t mention is that there are consultants who can work directly with artists, outside of formal representation, to help them get these things in order.

 

Like let’s say they have their first show coming up and they really don’t have anyone else to turn to for feedback, there are consultants. I do that with artists and there’s a number of people that do. You kind of have to search or ask around but that can be a great tool.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 

I would say, don’t let pricing intimidate you. Get your ball rolling and it will build. Keep those core questions and reflections about your work in mind and let that lead the way to open the doors for you.

 

Where can people find more of you and your work?

 

Website: www.ashlyndavis.com – you can see past shows I’ve curated or articles I’ve written 

Email: ashlyn@assembly.art

Instagram: @ashlyndavisburns

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