Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Limited Editions: Let's do the math

After the 2012 Houston Fine Arts Fair I received this criticism from the gallery:

Your work generated a lot of interest. One feedback we wanted to share with you was related to the size of the addition. Several collectors indicated that they would like to own unique/more exclusive pieces.

So I emailed the gallery with this question:

Can you tell me what an 'exclusive' edition size is?

And I got this reply:

As far as the size of the edition is concerned, some collectors thought that 250 was too large and that the piece they are getting was not unique.

I expected a reply with a number, so I asked again (which I should not have had to) and got this answer:

I have seen artists doing it in one of two ways: either limiting the edition to 10 prints or mounting prints on panels -- whether aluminium (sic) or wood and positioning them as originals.

Well, that’s not helpful.  The most useless, and false information, is …mounting prints on panels -- whether aluminium (sic) or wood and positioning them as originals.  Printing on panels or aluminum (correctly spelled) is not an ‘original,’ it’s another print made on a different medium.  Presenting a print on a different medium and calling it ‘original’ is a lie and is unethical.

My Certificate of Authenticity states: Other limited editions are available in other sizes and media.  That means ‘other sizes and media’ are not originals but are prints on another media.  I include this information so the buyer will know exactly just how exclusive an image they’re getting.  In my view this is called ‘doing business honestly.’  So, …mounting prints on panels -- whether aluminum or wood and positioning them as originals… is dishonest and I won’t do that.  I’m a little surprised that a gallery would suggest that; after all they’re supposed to be ‘experts.’

The real issue here is ‘exclusivity,’ or the perception of exclusivity; this is not a new issue and I’ve been hearing this same old thing for decades.  Quite frankly it is nonsense and I’m tired of it.

This ‘exclusivity’ business goes back to painting, which is a one-of-a-kind genre.  Painters make one painting and sell it (if they’re well-known and represented by a good gallery) for a large sum of money.  Sometimes the painter will scan or photograph their painting and sell reproductions for a vastly smaller sum than the original.  This is a very old business model and it works for artists who produce one-of-a-kind, singular works.  Unfortunately the ‘painting model’ has been forced upon photographers, and now digital artists, and it’s not a good fit.  In photography the idea that the negative can be printed again and again limits exclusivity and it also limits price.  Anything that’s not a one-of-a-kind cannot be sold for one-of-a-kind prices and photographs are much cheaper to buy than most paintings.  The ‘photography model’ also holds true for digital art; just replace the term negative with digital file and we’re singing the same song.

So if one painting can sell for $10,000 a lucky photographer might get $1,000 for a single photograph.  This is why many art collectors begin collecting by buying less expensive photographs before they spend tens of thousands on paintings.  This is also the reason photographers must sell multiple copies in order to making a living commensurate with their painter counterparts. 

Photographers, and now, digital artists, have created limited editions to provide some ‘artificial rarity’ or ‘exclusivity.’  The market doesn’t seem to recognize that each print from a negative or each print from a digital file is, in fact, an original.

My edition size for the particular body of work I showed at The Houston Fine Art Fair is two-hundred-and-fifty prints, 250.  I arrived at this number after analyzing artworks that were editioned between 10 and 1000.  I made my decision on the knowledge of the realistic prices I could ask, my need to earn a living and on being able to offer some form of ‘exclusivity’ based on the size of the edition.  I also have another motivation that most artists I know don’t share; I want people to own my works, so I make more than one copy available.

Let’s do the ‘limited edition’ math and find out what ‘exclusive’ really means:

250 = size of edition.
7,000,000,000 (7 Billion) population of Earth

Now let’s figure out what percentage of 7 billion 250 is:

250 x 100 =25,000
25,000 divided by 7,000,000,000 = .00000357

This shows that 250 is .00000357 of one percent of 7 billion.  That’s pretty darned exclusive!

The standard argument against this formula is that 7 billion people do not collect art.  This is true.  In fact over 2 billion people on planet Earth live in abject poverty, so no, they don’t collect art.  Let’s choose a smaller number of ‘global art collectors’ and take a guess of 500,000, a half million people planet-wide who do collect art.

Let’s do the math again, with different numbers:

250 = size of edition.
500,000 = estimated number of ‘global art collectors’
250 x 100 = 25,000
25,000 divided by 500,000 = .05

This shows that 250 is .05 (five one-hundredths) of one percent of 500,000.  That’s still very exclusive!

I think the arithmetic shows that even a ‘large’ edition of 250 is very, very exclusive.  And that still puts 250 of my originals in the homes of collectors. 

The mathematics shown above proves that an edition of 250 is in fact very exclusive.  Now let’s continue the math and figure out the income potential for the artist:

My price for this particular edition is $600.00 per print (unframed, print-only).  If I were to sell out the whole edition of 250 I’d earn $150,000.00 ---but that number isn’t entirely correct.  The gallery keeps a 50% commission so my real earnings for selling out the edition is $75,000.00.  And let’s figure $5000.00 in expenses to produce and ship the artworks leaving a net $70k for selling out an entire edition.

Is this not as much money as you’d thought?  Art may be subjective but math is objective and doesn’t lie.  This is where the numbers fall.

Forget that crap about ‘prints on panels and aluminum’ and let’s now do the math for a ‘gallery acceptable exclusive’ edition:

10 = size of edition.
$600.00 each = price of artwork.
$6000.00 = total income from selling out an edition of ten.
-$3000.00 = less 50% gallery commission.
-$300.00 = production cost
$2700.00 = net profit to artist for selling out an edition of ten.

So an ‘exclusive’ sold-out edition of ten nets the artist about $2700.00 and that is not ‘earning a living.’  You can’t afford to continue making art at these rates and edition sizes – despite what your gallery thinks.

Once you’ve sold out your ‘exclusive’ edition of ten you’re done.  You’ll never earn another dime from that image.  And guess what?  The gallery is done with you too!  They’ve earned as much as they can from your ‘exclusive’ edition and if you don’t have something equally popular that they’re willing to exhibit you’re all done but the gallery will just find someone else’s ‘exclusive’ art to sell.

The gallery cares about ‘exclusivity’ but it’s at your expense and they don’t care about your ability to earn a living.

A gallery might argue that for an edition size of ten, to raise prices.  Every artist would like to sell their art at the highest possible price but that isn’t feasible for everyone.  ‘Unknown’ artists can’t command as high prices as ‘known’ artists.  Galleries that are perceived as ‘high end’ can justify higher prices than other galleries.  And photography and digital art does not command as high a price as painting and other ‘one of a kind’ works do.  One must be realistic and understand their position in the ‘art food chain’ when setting prices.

I think this notion of ‘exclusivity’ is snobbish and elitist.  And I also believe, based on arithmetic, an edition of 250 is ‘exclusive.’  Again, two-hundred-and-fifty pieces measured against a collector-base of five-hundred-thousand people means the buyers of my edition are among only five one-hundredths of one percent of the total number of art collectors.

Really, isn’t 0.05% exclusive enough?

I’d like to know what YOU think.  You can’t argue with my numbers, there is no ‘wiggle room’ with math.  If you’ve got an opinion I’d like to know what it is.  Leave a comment below, or on Facebook.  If you disagree with what I’ve written, please justify your position with cogent facts.

Dale O’Dell
October 2012