The Artist Hierarchy: Invisible Jump Shots

Tacqueria mural -- by Joe Reifer

Tacqueria mural — by Joe Reifer

Last year on this blogging contraption we had a lively discussion about fine art print pricing, where I divided print prices into four general quadrants. Earlier this week the DLK Collection wrote a review of Dan Thompson’s book: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art that included the following graphic analyzing the artist hierarchy:

Artist Hierarchy

A key part of this hierarchy is that 95% of artists never make it out of the Invisible category. Mapping the artist hierarchy categories back to the print pricing levels discussed in my previous article is an interesting exercise. My pricing categories have been revised slightly since last year. These prices are for unframed prints:

  • A: $50-150 for a small/medium sized print
  • B: $250-500 for a medium sized print
  • C: $1500-2500 for a medium/large sized print
  • D: $4000 and up.


For most photographers, Invisible maps to Level A. Having some friends that would be categorized by the art world as Emerging, this category maps well to Level C. After raising my prices last year to Level B, my print sales dried up. We all know the simple premise that things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. By raising my prices I found out that Level B barely exists for me. I know photographers who are selling at Level A, C, and D, but don’t know anyone who’s selling at Level B.

Last year I was wondering how to get from Level A to Level C — perhaps a better question is how to go from Invisible to Emerging. The price schedule just follows the trip up the pyramid. Photographer Brad Evans made a remark last year that really stuck with me when he equated the trip up the pyramid with making it to the NBA. Even if you’re quite good, odds are slim to none. It’s rarified air. This ties in well with the 95% Invisible number. I’ve found the NBA analogy to be an easy to understand answer to the question: “Do you make a good living as a fine art photographer?” And the NBA analogy answer is more polite than: “Are you crazy? Fine art photographers either teach, have day jobs, or a rich uncle.”

Anyhow….the place where the NBA analogy breaks down is that traveling up the artist hierarchy has less to do with your skill on the court, and much more to do with talking about your game. The important piece of this puzzle is that it’s not only how you talk about your game, but who you’re talking to. I’ve had some interesting discussions recently with photographers who would be filed under Emerging as to the best way to identify and engage the who. More on this topic later.

For those interested in reading more about the art world, I recommend adding both the DLK Collection and Edward Winkleman to your feedreader. I also found Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World to be both entertaining and thought provoking. See you on the court for a game of H-O-R-S-E later.

3 thoughts on “The Artist Hierarchy: Invisible Jump Shots”

  1. I remember this post and still have not forgotten about it. You have posted some thought full discussions on your blog and it is good to revisit them to remind previous readers and to introduce your new readers. The Stuffed Shark book looks like an interesting read and just the type of subversive material I can get behind.

    Etsy is a new factor in the pricing of art and it challenges the value for an original piece. How about the Life collection now online? How do you justify selling your own bl & wh 8X10 print for $300 when a framed print made from a scanned Gordan Parks negative can be purchased for only $120! This Life image selling machine makes it tough for the A & B level artist to climb up the ladder. Like Etsy it changes people’s perception of the value of art. Or at least changes the value to the A & B level customers.

  2. Thanks, JW. Picking up the Stuffed Shark book from the library tomorrow.

    What’s the photographer’s equivalent of Etsy, or is there one?

    Yeah, the Life thing doesn’t help anyone except Getty. Maybe I need to add a level A minus for the folks that sell prints at $20. For individuals who don’t sell any volume, they’re often subsidizing these print sales for exposure or pride. If I factor in the cost of my time in selling, producing, and delivering a print, then I need to charge $100. And why wouldn’t folks just buy an awesome Nickolas Murray print for $45 instead?

  3. ??What’s the photographer’s equivalent of Etsy, or is there one??

    The answer is Etsy. Tons of photographers & GWCs are now selling their work on Etsy. Jamie says some artists are selling work for big money but most transactions seem to be priced in the $30-50 range.

    Your Nickolas Murray example is exactly what I am talking about. There is no way an individual photog or artist can price work this low and still make profit unless they sell color copies or have some type of automated drop shipment system in place. Maybe Etsy does this but Jamie has purchased some photography from there and the work was printed on high end ink jet paper. Talk about time intensive.

    Is the only way around this is to sell prints that are artifacts like alternative process prints, collages, etc…


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