Artists and the Scarcity Principle: truth behind demand, marketing and the importance of originality in your art.
Or, how Original Art, Marketing and Demand really work.
You’ve created something. Congratulations! Why should anyone give you anything for it?
The reasons are many, despite what your ego says. If you want the authoritative list, dive into the study of Microeconomics. We won’t wait, you’ll get lost and may never come back.
However, we can focus here on ‘original visual artwork’ to make things more simple. Something you can purchase, put in your home and look at every day. We start with this reality: if you have created an ‘original artwork’, your creation is way down on the microeconomic scale of importance. Let’s see…food, shelter, clothing, toilet paper, feminine products. Nice shoes. A phone. And not always in that order all the time, but still, ‘artwork’ is always parked near the bottom. Possibly above ‘snake bite’ but still well below losing money at the casino, binge drinking and bungie jumping.
You get the picture. The majority of people who earn money would rather lose it, waste it or get duped out of it than invest it in an original creation that will make them happier every time they see it. And as an investment, increase in value.
Unarguably, even though everyone needs art in their lives, and a lot of art enters people’s lives through design and consumer culture, few believe they should own original artwork even when they can afford it. Instead many in this vast middle zone of art commerce will buy art-y things that fit their perceived ‘budget’ and the confines of their social class and will decrease in value.
And this art market is where many creatives toil, maybe including you. This is where we find prints of artwork sold by the Creative who offers them because no one (or few) in the market will purchase their original work. This is where tiny original artworks the artist did in a day or less are sold at a reasonable profit for the artist. They are easy-ish to market, easy to purchase, easy to ship, easy to hang in your living space. This is where genre painting, trendy illustration, fantasy work, alternate and adult art and digital work in general live, and where craft thrives.
But it is a challenging way to make a living. If, for example, the Creative Person wants to earn what the apprentice trades-person earns (about $20 an hour in Canada, learning to lay carpet, paint houses, assist carpenters, help bricklayers, sell cars, shingle roofs, install toilets, bend pipes…) by selling artwork in the middle market you’d have to paint and sell one hundred and forty (140) 8 in x 12 in paintings every year at $285 a painting, before shipping and taxes. That is almost 3 paintings made and sold every working week non-stop. In ten years, 1,400 paintings made and sold, just for apprenticeship wages. Picasso only painted 300 paintings in his entire life. He made most of his money selling quickly done paper based work after he was well known. Similarly, Peter Paul Rubens, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damian Hurst, Ai Weiwei (and of course many others) evolved into conceptual artists who did very little actual work on the art that made them famous. Their impressive outputs were produced from their concepts by studio artists and assistants. These skilled craftspeople are like the highly skilled studio musicians of the music world who make other’s music into hit recordings.
Such massive original painting production is not feasible for a single person, so you must evolve into something else. After the ‘factory model’ there are other options if you want to go high-volume. Like David Hockney you can get creative with photography and collage. Like Frank Stella, you can combine just about any mechanical and digital method of image making into never before seen surfaces that would be almost impossible to directly paint on a 2D support.
Or if you can, sell high end limited edition prints like naturalist Robert Bateman, or do something innovative with silk screens like Warhol, use giclee printing as your underpainting in a series to save time, like Kinkaid, or make serigraphs or similar, like Christopher Pratt. These methods, however, require a considerable investment of time and money…a gamble.
But for most Creatives in this middle ground the reality is that your creativity earns money through several streams, and this is perfectly acceptable if not the norm.
You have your very best and reasonably priced artworks (or repros) at the local co-op. You sell the same using the Internet and social media. You may even have ‘small gallery representation’ if you are lucky. You might try a pop up store, especially in connection with a charity blitz. You spend every weekend all summer humping your shit all over Hell’s half acre hitting every Farmer’s Market, Art Fair, Street Scene, Rib Fest, Beer Fest, County Fair and art-a-polooza you can drag your ass to. You might also teach through the winter and take commissions, where there is real profit. You submit your work to contests, you join every applicable Society and Organization.
If you learned trade skills at college — animation, cartooning, illustration, design, wallpaper design (somebody’s gotta do it), CGI, compositing, theatre and set painting, even makeup and costume design, then you have skills to support your personal creative work. Art conservancy and restoration is a lucrative and burgeoning trade. With such training you can have a career. And if your creative work is exceptional and in vogue, you might even, eventually, make a killing.
Yet, the message we receive from the established high end art world is this: you don’t see Creatives whose work sells for tens of thousands of dollars having to toil in this vast middle ground of art commerce. How do they do it?
Well, they likely approach their work differently and they sell a different product to a different class of people who comprise a much different market.
For starters, the work these Creatives produce is peerless. No one else is quite as good as they are at whatever they are doing, or work quite as large or quite as small. They have found where they have an advantage in the art world and they work it hard. (Mostly. Some toil not that hard within their own niche or bubble after getting solidly established.) But in general, these Creative’s are mercenary about their careers, and they can be because they love what they do. As Steven Pressfield writes in ‘The War of Art’, “Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he [they] do it for love.” So the first part of your journey as full time artist is to find that happy place where your love, aptitudes and craft meet.
And you can’t do this by being dishonest with yourself. You might have an amazing skill at portraiture…of dogs and cats, but absolutely despise that sort of genre work. You need to find out why and what else you can do with your skill. So you learn who you really are, where you are uniquely and honestly yourself, truly original in your work so that you can enjoy what you do when you compromise in order to make money.
Alright. What then is this high priced market?
In the great world of goods and services, expensive original artwork is part of a class called “Veblen goods”. You’ve probably never heard the term.
Investopedia says this:
Veblen goods are typically high-quality goods that are made well, are exclusive, and are a status symbol. Veblen goods are generally sought after by affluent consumers who place a premium on the utility of the good. Examples of Veblen goods include designer jewelry, yachts, and luxury cars. (Dec. 1, 2020)
As a Professional Creative, this is what you strive for, correct?
Expertly crafted, exclusive, sought after, ‘of premium utility’ works of original art. Do you strive to create at this level? You should.
Let’s examine the definition of Veblen goods closely: High quality, Made well, Exclusive, Sought After, Status symbol. Affluent consumers looking for “premium utility”.
High-quality: In terms of art, this means artworks that clearly are cutting edge, unique, different, original. Impactful. Shocking, daring, disturbing, contemporary, meaningful; sublime, unforgettable, beautiful, so beautiful or spiritual they are disturbing.
Made well: In making art, this refers to craftsmanship and skill level. Original art has two components, the idea (or concept) and the craft (or technical execution).
Schools today can give the adept and dedicated art student astonishingly high technical levels of skill and craftsmanship. An original artwork that is ‘made well’ is one where the knowledgeable viewer can identify a high level of proficiency, great technical skill, clear expertise or years of experience, all used deliberately by the Creative in service of the idea the artwork embodies.
“Made well” artwork shows a Creative in control of his or her craft. A professional.
Exclusive. This means available to only a select few. Not only the original work itself, shown for sale to a select group, but also exclusive as a one-of-a-kind creation.
Part of exclusivity is established by price, like antique Breitling watches or gated mansions, there are not many available. But for the Creative exclusivity also means originality. The work so unique it could only come from you.
Of course, no copies, no prints, no posters, no cheaper versions. No following trends, no imitating. Stealing and making your own, yes, imitating no.
No exclusive buyer wants cheap copies of the art they spent a fortune purchasing available to the great unwashed at discount prices. (However, if the Artist or artwork in question reaches a high enough level of public exposure then the publicity the reproductions provide will actually increase the value of the original. So then its okay.)
Wealthy buyers want work that leads, not follows. Collectors don’t want work that looks like all the other work coming out of a particular region, that follows whatever art theory or philosophies or technical innovations currently dominate the MFA scene. Honestly, I can’t count the number of portrait painters and figurative artists locked into whatever new iteration is out there of Burne Hogarth’s ‘dynamic style’ of figure drawing. Lord. Use your own eyes.
Sought After: this is the realm of marketing, of creating demand. A whole separate kettle of fish. See below.
Status symbols. Well, by default, owning striking, unique, maybe even important original artwork is owning a status symbol. Kind of part and parcel.
Affluent consumers: your target market. Gotta get in their faces. It’s tough. Market yourself. Find out where they shop for art. Approach galleries and pitch your product. Do social media. But know who you are marketing to. To whom you are marketing… Admittedly this is difficult for people who are not good at the gregarious, selling part of business. Find an Art Agent to help. Read books.
And finally: “a premium on the utility of the good.” [Eh, what?]
“Utility is a term in economics that refers to the total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service.”
Ah. When a wealthy person buys something exclusive and expensive they expect a full value experience. With artwork such total satisfaction includes believing that your art was “good value”, which means for the wealthy not only “a deal” on the purchase price, but an acquisition that accrues value over time: an investment.
Luckily for Creatives, original artwork steadily increases in value, year after year. It is an investment!
This is where the smart wealthy buyer becomes a collector. The better their collection the more all the items in that collection will appreciate in value, so the buyer has a reason to keep buying premium original artworks.
Your job as the Creative is to support this process.
Okay, you say, BUT WHO ARE THESE EXCLUSIVE BUYERS?
From Wired.com, this article said it in a nutshell:
NFTs Boom as Collectors Shell Out to ‘Own’ Digital Art March, 2021.
NFT technology, [non-fungible tokens] Harrison says, provides a way to attach a price tag to digital art, tapping into that primal high-quality hoarding instinct — the quest for status-affording Veblen goods, coveted only insofar as they are pricey — that is behind many collectors’ urge. Mix that with a frothy community eager to trade and meme any new shiny blockchain-adjacent construct to considerable prices and the trick is done.
There you have it. That is your market.
You now have a standard of creativity to strive for and a market to sell to.
Sure, take private work. Compete for and win government grants and public art commissions. You may even have true patrons. But you’ll still want to sell in the marketplace.
Anyway, be ORIGNAL. Originality triggers that “primal high-quality hoarding instinct”. Originality is the new currency of art collecting.
If you feel confused on this point you can be original in only two ways: your ideas and your craft. Because that is all art is: the information the artwork contains, and the stuff it is made of. Both take work. You need to master ‘craft’ before you can truly innovate with it, and in the realm of concept, information and meaning, most people don’t even know themselves very well, let alone have any creative discipline over their thoughts, feelings, memories and imaginations.
As Edward Hopper said: “The Man’s the work; something doesn’t come from nothing.”
At any of the massive Art Fairs (pre-covid I guess) you see this in full display. Every Creative trying to out-craft and out-conceive everyone else. At that level it’s mostly conceptual art and to be honest a massive shit show.
However, your order of operations is: commit to being a professional, steadily work at your craft and the uniqueness of your ideas and concepts, and support your efforts by pricing your work consistently, and honouring the implicit exclusivity of your product.
Use whatever pricing formula makes sense and stick to it. Price by the hour, or the square inch or the dominant colour or the day of the week or astrology. It really does not matter as long as your formula allows you to consistently justify what you charge.
You will be asked to discount your work. Have a discounting scheme and stick to it. Part of ‘premium utility’ for your customer is their belief that they got a great deal, that’s just how most wealthy people think. You can be flexible but only to your limit. So set limits on discounting and sales and so forth, and absolutely stick to that. Show backbone and integrity. Turn down exploitative offers (I’ll buy two if the second one is half price!; I never pay full price, take 30% off the top and I’ll bring you more customers than you…blah blah. Don’t.)
To help the Exclusive Buyer in their decision making present a fully realized Brand. As annoying and difficult as it is, it really helps people decide to purchase your work if they can quickly understand how you want the world to see you. Get someone to help you if you can’t do this branding stuff on your own. Even if it costs money.
The message put out by your Artist Statement, brief Bio and all that marketing and image material is that you are a Professional committed to a long career. Or at least a clear time frame. This assures the buyer that you are committed to creating a body of exceptional work. And this on-going professional creativity assures the collector and buyer that their purchase will continue to accrue in value.
This is how it works: new creative output pushes old creative output up the price ladder. The new work is always worth more (inflation, it’s new!, it’s fresh! etc), so the old work, which absolutely must keep ahead price wise, is pushed to an even higher value.
Where this fails the Creative has flooded the market, the new work is actually inferior, the artist has never evolved and the market is used up, the artist has evolved but the culture has changed even faster, or technology has made the Creative’s niche obsolete. (So keep evolving!)
Does evolving sell everything? No. The best example is Andy Warhol, who had at least as many failed ideas as successes. (At least in their time.) Anyone remember the American Dollar paint by numbers series? I didn’t think so. But like Warhol, you don’t quit.
In the business of collecting original art, that’s how the system works. Create your “Brand”, and commit to your work. Be professional in work and pricing. Always strive to improve; work steadily, work hard. Be honest and be original.
But is your artwork any good? Who cares? Andy Warhol didn’t care. According Steven Pressfield in his indispensable “The War of Art” all that matters is, for that session, that day, you overcame Resistance and gave your work everything you’ve got.
That said, you are still going to need to sell your work.
Thus enters marketing and the Scarcity Principle. The basis of marketing original art.
So what is the scarcity principle?
The scarcity principle is an economic theory in which a limited supply of a good — coupled with a high demand for that good — results in a mismatch between the desired supply and demand equilibrium.
And Demand Equilibrium is:
The point where the quantity demanded is equal to the quantity supplied (and the price becomes stable).
The scarcity principle is an economic theory that explains [predicts] the price relationship between dynamic supply and demand.
According to the scarcity principle, the price of a good, which has low supply and high demand, rises to meet the expected demand.
Marketers often use the principle to create artificial scarcity for a given product or good — and make it exclusive — in order to generate demand for it.
The scarcity principle is related to pricing theory.
According to the scarcity principle, the price for a scarce good should rise until an equilibrium is reached between supply and demand. However, this would result in the restricted exclusion of the good only to those who can afford it.
Charge what you need to for that stage of your career, so you can keep going, keep healthy and achieve long term goals (personal, financial, social, whatever…), knowing that you are selling only to those who can afford it.
You’re not making baguettes or cell phone covers or pot holders or t shirts with slogans (although merch is probably an okay sideline tbh…).
Your friends can’t afford your major work? Or your Church, your family, your peers? Don’t feel bad. You’re not selling frozen pees, life insurance to retirees, used cars or ‘lawn care’, all of which is in abundant supply.
Your originality, coupled with your commitment to your craft, work ethic and professionalism mean your creative output is already a limited supply, a scarce good available only to those who can afford it!
You don’t have to create artificial scarcity, you’re already scarce. You just have to reach your market.
Even more revealing is this message: because your creative output is always a scarce good in low supply selling to an exclusive market, once demand starts it will always out-pace your supply and drive up your prices, provided you don’t sabotage yourself.
AND the Scarcity Principle predicts that the longer you’re in the marketplace the greater the demand disequilibrium, and thus the higher your prices.
Basically, every time you sell all you have or are willing to market in any period, the scarcity of your work will create a mismatch between what people want to pay but can’t (because there isn’t any supply anymore), and the higher price that will result once the supply returns (because the demand has created a new market that can afford it, “the new demand market”). This new market will be in equilibrium until the current supply of your art-output is zero. Or near so.
The old market will give up trying to buy your artwork, now it’s too expensive. The next “new market” isn’t interested yet because your work isn’t quite exclusive enough. But the ‘new adopters’, the speculators and the outliers will soon take serious interest.
You evolve, your work improves or explores new territory, and eventually this new work is finished and shipped out. Your prices go up as you try to enter the next market “tier”. Like selling cars or real estate, you start at the bottom, learn how to reach wealthier markets as you go, and hope to be able to sell to the wealthiest buyers in the top tiers.
And the advantage with Original Visual Artworks, a Veblen Good, is that once started, the ‘marketplace’ does most of the marketing for you. Until you’re dead. Then the new supply is zero. But you’re dead, so you don’t care anymore, do you? At this extreme the supply becomes one art object at an auction, where one person is the new market, the one who buys it. For more money than you made in your entire life. Sigh.
So, to recap, your goal, the Gallery’s goal, your website’s goal, your Art Agent’s goal, Your Marketing Goal should you desire to escape the vast but limited middle of the art market, is to find the wealthy people, the collectors who can afford your work, convince them that your work is exclusive and an investment, and then walk that razors edge of supply and price, originality and market demand. Easy-peasy. Don’t get cut.
Just do the hard work and get it out there for sale.
Sean, March, 2021.