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:

DLK Collection Artist Hierarchy
DLK Collection 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.

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