Sunday, the sun is shining, and the temperature is close to zero. Going to an art gallery is a perfect excuse to trick me into going out of the house despite the cold. The Brick Lane gallery is at a comfortable walking distance for me and my hip pain issue (I'm improving on that front). It has two separate spaces, which makes it feel like visiting two independent galleries (more fun!). What surprised me the most on this visit was the pricing. I immediately thought "low and underselling" for most featured artists. For instance, I saw many oil paintings priced like acrylics. But oil paintings should be more expensive than other mediums because the paint and materials are expensive. Storage of such expensive materials may also be costly. It is also a medium that requires more time because of the layering process and drying time in between. And from the size of the painting, I have a rough idea of how long it might have taken them time-wise, and I can assure you that they undersell themselves. Assuming that artists in that show are paying themselves a salary based on time spent on the piece, then it is clear that some artists wouldn't cover their basics.
The paintings by Isabel Russel are priced at £375 each, and I believe that price is lower than their value. I mean, LOOK AT THEM: they are beautifully executed, have an original composition, and have an interesting artistic point of view. However, while the pricing is a bargain for buyers and investors - if I were you, I'd grab them now- the downside is that it harms the artist and the entire community too. Like Isabel, I also undersell myself, so I know how difficult it is to not continue to do that, and I definitely feel the guilt of it.
Let's break down the pricing in this example. Excluding materials (paints, MDF board, studio space charges), £375 is roughly like paying oneself double minimum wage for 20 hours of work or minimum wage for 40 hours of work. I would estimate this kind of painting to take about 15 hours on the low end of just painting labour (the artist confirmed that in a private discussion). The time she may have spent prior to the painting process could range from a few hours to indefinite. These may include; the conception of the piece (thinking about it, creating it internally as well as sketching it), finding or creating references for the painting and testing out the composition and/or colour combinations on smaller pieces as paint sketches. Usually, the work done before the painting process is about the same as the painting time and quickly takes twice or thrice as long as the painting stage.
The reason why many artists stops their career in art is usually because of selling matters (which lies in the field of economy, sales and capitalism) and less often because of artistic reasons.
The artist is 20 years old, so by age alone, we can assume she takes longer to create, and her fictitious minimum wage is, therefore, lower. We could estimate 15 hours for painting and the same or more for conception and pre-painting work. Hence, I estimate around 40 hours of work per piece. According to the UK government website, the minimum wage for those between 18 and 20 years old is £6.83. This would mean £273.20 for her pocket. However, she is an artist studying at Goldsmiths and living in London. I believe she would deserve the London living wage, which is about £2 extra the minimum wage. Those above 23 years old have a living wage set at £9.50 by the government. It rises to £11.95 for Londoners. So for the sake of logic, let's add £2 for a living wage destined for a 20-year-old Londoner, and we now reach £353.20 for her labour. Well, you will tell me, does it not sound right considering she is selling at £375? Those £20 something definitely goes towards covering the costs of the materials. It does not cover her labour of social media marketing, the transport (including wrapping materials) of the artwork to and from the gallery, or the time required to find a place to be exhibited. Thankfully for her, she does not have to think of commission in her price since the brick lane gallery takes 0% commission which is fantastic. Still, it also means they will likely do no to little sales work and that the artist is probably paying a fee to be exhibited, which I can assure you will be well above £20.
So all and all, I estimate the artist barely covers her costs and labour time. My heart breaks because while it can be considered fair that artists are paid the same as everyone else, the reality is that we are NOT paid the same as everyone else. We do not get near fair compensation for all our time working because making art is more than just painting or drawing. I believe this artist deserves to double this painting's price. Actually, I think she could add a 1 in front of that price tag (£1,375) because her piece of work is also the best of the show, and she has a promising career in front of her. I hope that these prices will not slow down her professional progress to the point of halting her career altogether. Because unfortunately, the reason why many artists stop their career in art is usually because of selling matters (which lies in the field of economy, sales and capitalism) and less often because of artistic reasons.
As artists, we are often in a hard place decision-wise. Do we accept to be exploited for our free labour, or do we choose to give our labour freely? Essentially we are choosing to volunteer (i.e., make art for free or so underpriced we don't feed ourselves from it) in the hopes of securing a better opportunity later on, but we are faced with two different routes to do so.
One way is to conform to the current game. Similarly to accepting an unpaid internship and hoping for a paid long-term contract at the end, we hope that by agreeing to be exploited, things will turn around and finally pay off. We all know the low certainty of that method, and most of us recognise its unfairness and how it favours some more than others. But we can easily believe it works because of those outliers for whom it did.
The other route is to not conform to the current game. We hope that by arguing the rules, they will be corrected and adjusted for greater fairness. This choice requires an unshakeable faith that by modelling the art scene we deserve, we will create the art scene we want. Yet, many of us may not believe that and start with some helplessness already hardwired. In this case, the first solution seems to be an emotionally logical choice. The sad part is that, in both cases, we have to choose between volunteering to make art or making no art by finding another job that takes all physical and emotional resources away from art.
I can hear the people at the back saying that many artists in that gallery are "emerging", and there is a post-pandemic economic crisis, so we should expect low prices. I don't see it this way. First, I believe we still deserve the same pay as everyone else in the country and the same opportunities to make a living from our professional skills. Because we also need to eat and have a roof over our heads to survive and thrive. Second, why would we expect the most vulnerable members of society to be the ones to struggle further during a crisis? I argue that it would be more logical, fair and righteous if established artists reduced their price points during economic crises. In contrast, emerging artists increase theirs to level up the field. I am not saying established artists should absolutely do that; I am only making a point. The point is that we find it absolutely acceptable to consider the vulnerable artists in the community as unworthy of financial support.
The point is that we find it absolutely acceptable to consider the vulnerable artists in the community as unworthy of financial support.
Here is an excellent example of how artists are often considered outsiders, not part of society. The myth that 'art is not a real job" persists. That stereotype is so pernicious that it has sipped through and can even be found among us artists. This underlying false belief rears its head when we underprice ourselves. As artists, we can regularly review our choices and treat each situation differently to assess which version is best: conformity or rebellion. The market involves more than just artists, so different responsibilities lie within different roles we have in it. Even if they offer no selling service, galleries could advise better on pricing and ensure that group exhibition features coherent pricing among artists to uplift the values of every artwork. The public could pay attention to their reason for buying art: do they like the piece or consider it an investment? They would help by buying art, not just for themselves, but also to build a relationship with the artist: support in exchange for an original piece. And suppose the public cannot buy art. In that case, there are other ways to support an artist, like being more conscious of how to consume art or being emotionally supportive (as opposed to financially).
On this food for thought, I hope you will look at Isabel Russel's art and show her some support. Follow her Instagram and write some comments under her posts to show that real humans are engaging with her, not just robots. Share her images (and credit her, of course), especially with those you think may like it or to places where you wish to see her art on their walls. If you can afford it and like her artwork, get your hands on some of her work. Build a relationship with her and see her progress and how she evolves in her art journey and career, knowing you were there from the start.
🤍 with love, x