I just had an intriguing online chat with an artist friend.
He creates these great sculptural pieces that I love and he told me that he was in heavy thought. My big mistake was in asking him what he was thinking about. Then he asked me the question ... if he were to sell these works through galleries, how much should they charge for them?
"Wow, that's a tough one," I replied. "Give me a minute." "Take your time," he replied.
In those sixty seconds or so of trying to come up with a semi-coherent, somewhat informed response, I got this rush of conflicting thoughts and emotions. Do I tell him what I could afford to pay, which would likely insult his artistic sensibility? Should I come up with some ridiculously inflated price that an art gallery would surely charge?
How do you put a price on someone's work? How do you determine what you and your products or services are worth? Should you consider yourself a salaried or hourly wage earner? Why does the guy sitting next to you get paid more for essentially doing the same, if not less, work?
As these questions flooded my mind, I recalled attending a big art fair just a couple of years prior. I bumped into this artist from Buffalo, New York. This guy had some really large, kick-ass, abstracts on canvas. They blew me away. I had to go over and ask him about himself and his work.
Keep in mind, I was just attending the art fair as an observer, writer and art lover. I was merely looking for cool things to write about. After chatting with him for a moment, he looked at me with this look of sheer desperation on his face, grabbed three really cool pieces leaning against the wall and said, "I'll give you this, this and this one for five grand! What do you think?"
I was stunned, first of all because I had nowhere NEAR five-grand handy and two, because it actually seemed like a nice deal given this guy's talent, quality of the work and dimensions of the paintings. Not that size matters, but these were very large works. For him, getting the raw materials ... the canvas alone ... couldn't have been cheap.
That's when I sadly replied ... it was sad for both of us ... "Oh, I'm sorry. I wish I could." The guy didn't look very surprised. It was clearly yet another disappointment for him during this fair.
For some odd, completely unrelated reason, this is making me think about those old ads that used to run in the back pages of magazines. You know, the ones that said things like, "Make extra money stuffing envelopes" or "Make $500 in a week stuffing envelopes."
Now, I don't know about you, but while I was tempted, I never fell for those pitches. Could I really make decent money? How many envelopes would you have to stuff? How many hours would it take? Was it THAT difficult for businesses to hire people to work in their mailrooms?
It just seemed unreal that you could make real money doing something as simple and low skilled as stuffing envelopes. How did they pay you ... by the envelope? Don't they have machines for that?
Again, that nagging question. Who gets to decide how much things should cost or how much people should be paid for a product or service? Why does a nurse make $50,000 a year while a television star in a hit series can command $1 million per episode? Sadly, the television star has more clout in society.
Of course, we usually blame such things on the symptoms of capitalism ... the markets, supply and demand, reputation, competition, negotiation, what consumers are willing to pay and so on. Economists, marketing experts and academics of all stripes have their theories and formulas, but you know that when it comes to certain things in this world, it can very arbitrary. Somewhere in the mix, there's someone, probably in a position of unbelievable power and responsibility who is just pulling these figures right out of their ass.
Like stuffing envelopes, putting prices on products, people and services doesn't always make much sense. How can an identical jar of peanut butter – not on sale - be $2.69 at one supermarket and $3.79 at another? All of this has given rise to the whole, "shop around" thing which smart consumers have been doing forever.
After I fumbled around for roughly sixty seconds trying to come up with a respectable response for my artist friend, I sent a reply. I recalled telling him that I wasn't so sure he should sell those pieces.
In a nutshell, I told him that I thought they're one of a kind creations that really belong in the halls of a museum rather than for sale in art galleries. I’m not sure this went over so well. While I don't doubt he was eating out, he messaged me back saying something like, "Dinner is coming to our table, I'll talk to you later!"
I know that my answer was a cop out. But it's tough. When we put prices on products, wages or even people, we pass judgment on their value in society. We tell the world what we think they're worth.
Yes, it's often a well-defined science, but it's also very subjective. In short, the trick is to at least get what you feel you're worth ... if you value yourself. This isn't a call for greed, but an exercise in self-esteem.
Maybe I should have told my artist friend my whole stuffing envelopes story. Would that have helped? Of course not.
He probably would have thought that like many who grapple with buying, selling, pricing and evaluating the marketplace, I was just ... blowing smoke ... or in this case, let's just say ... stuffing envelopes.