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NE of the troublesome problems of the artist is the matter of charging properly for his work. There is an old saw to the effect that a workman is worthy of his hire, but few people outside of the medical, law and plumbing professions are able to put it into effect. One finds that only too often a charge reasonable enough for the time spent in designing and cutting a commissioned block is far beyond the client's idea of its worth. An artist may flatter himself that since he enjoys perhaps a nation-wide reputation he may charge at least as much for his time and skill as does the ordinary physician or lawyer, unknown beyond the purlieus of his neighborhood, but he will find out quickly enough that as a purveyor of beauty or, if you will, of spiritual values, he does not rate in matters of recompense.
Every sensible person will want to know first of all what it is going to cost before ordering a design of his own. The artist might ask not how much money the client has, but what he is willing to pay for the job. The artist may mildly suggest to the prospect inclined to quibble that when he is in the market for a car he does not expect to get a new Pierce Arrow for the price of an ancient Ford. A bookplate or a greeting can be cut for $25.00. To the client $50.00 may seem a fairly reasonable price; to the artist a more reasonable one is $75.00, and $100.00 not too much to ask for a piece of good work. An advertiser does not get much in the field of commercial art for that amount. The client might be informed that if he wishes to pay but $10.00 for the job, but $10.00 worth of time will be put on it. If he wishes to pay a better price he will get a better job; he is to get what he pays for. At busy periods the value of time may be raised, and in periods of depression one might better take on anything than go hungry. If the client insists upon a cheap job, give it to him.
If the prospective customer offers to pay something in advance, for Heaven's sake do not discourage him, even if he is a stranger! An artist diplomatic enough to get a client to pay when the trial proof is submitted and approved has missed his vocation. Do not be afraid to check up when references are given - failure to do so may be rued.
In the matter of print prices: When the innocent bystander learns that an edition of prints can be pulled in one day, he looks upon the process as being pretty much in the nature of a mint. One merely pulls the lever, and at every pull there lies a brand new fifteen dollar bill, or its equivalent. The actual cost of the material is not much. The block, ink and paper would come to but a few cents to a proof. It looks very pretty to calculate, say, $500.00 for a paltry day's work - assuming there are fifty prints to the edition, and the price of the prints to be $10.00 each. That is a theory. The actual return from such an edition and price is small when one considers the time that elapses between the inception of the idea, its execution, the getting of the finished prints in the hands of collectors and consumers and the money into the bank. For it all takes time - to order the block and prepare it, and to make the sketches for the picture; to get it in shape may takes weeks. A subject may be in mind for years - gnawing at one's consciousness all the time, and interfering with other more profitable ideas. Once the conception is fully developed the cutting of it may not take long. Again, when there is uncertainty it may drag on for months. The paper for printing has to be ordered and cut to size, and perhaps dampened. There may be trouble with the make-ready. Finally the proofing is done. Then comes the selection of the best prints, which is a wearisome business, for each print has to be carefully scrutinized and compared with the others. There is the numbering and titling and signing and recording and storing. Then one has to consider the time spent in matting and in shipping them off to dealers and exhibitions. Often they are returned in such bad condition that they are fit for nothing but the waste basket. The prints have to be checked when they go out and checked when they come back. And last of all there is the matter of getting the cheques.
The commission for selling prints will run all the way from 10 per cent charged by the more philanthropic galleries to 66% or more by dealers and publishers. As one publisher has put it to me: "We do not sell at retail ourselves except at rare intervals and do all our selling through our salesmen who get 10% for themselves and we have to allow at least 40% to the trade, so that if we only take 15% for ourselves, there is left for the artist 35%." Some dealers who ordinarily take a 33 1/3 per cent commission go 50-50 when a sale is made to a retailer, who may get from 25 to 33 1/3 per cent off on the one print. A print publisher likes to make it one-third to the retailer, one-third to himself and one-third to the artist; or if he makes the sale himself to the consumer he takes two-thirds of the price. It is difficult to do business with the publisher otherwise. When he does take work on consignment on the usual basis of 33 1/3 per cent on sales, and he has other artists who give him 50 per cent, the lower rate stuff is kept in the dusty corners. The dealer or publisher will very naturally advertise and push the work of those artists from whom he can make the greatest profit.
Sometimes you may wonder why obviously inferior artists are rated so highly, and at the same time the men whose work you think superior are ignored. It is the matter of profit. I fear that a great deal of 'art appreciation' is in the same category of profitable endeavor as professional reforming. It may be safely inferred that many artists are rated highly primarily because they are giving their publishers the lion's share of the proceeds. That is a reason, too, why foreign artists produce more salable work than the American. The profit on foreign art runs as high as 1,000 per cent to the dealer. What better reason for making out that so many foreign artists are more heavily charged with genius than American? One of these men can submit to a big exhibition a lithograph of a torso that is within the ability of almost any art student, and it gets the prize or glory. The average jury composed of curators and chamber of commercers seem to feel it would reflect on their judgment not to give the award to such an highly advertised man. There is no tariff on prints. The government has adopted a liberal attitude in this case, since Big Business is not engaged in print-making, and no offense will be given to contributors of leading political parties.
My advice to the print-maker would be to get a publisher and accept his terms. In this way his work will get as much attention as that of the other artists carried, and he will be more highly rated than those who foolishly hold out for better terms. His reputation will be advanced so much faster, and he will be spared many annoying and time-consuming business details, and consequently his mind will be freer for creative work, and his development can keep pace with the reputation his publisher is building up for him.
Considering that the artist has had all the trials and tribulations of making the prints, and that the dealer merely hands them over the counter and takes the money, it seems like an unfair arrangement, to say the least. In reality, the better art dealers handle $10.00 prints merely as convenience for their wealthy customers, who sometimes are not in the mood to buy seriously, but may want to make some little present. In other words, the profit on such a transaction is apt to be considered negligible. So don't be hasty in denouncing the 'rapacious' dealer. When it comes right down to it - making prints to retail at $10.00 is a game scarcely worth the candle to anyone if money-making is the object.
There is another phase of the work that should be mentioned - the matter of publication fees. The privilege of using a woodcut ought to be worth $10.00 to anybody, for either public or private use, even if the cut has appeared repeatedly in print. If it is the first reproduction, the artist ought to get at least $25.00. This does not imply that a woodcut ought to be made for that price, nor that the artist may peddle his wares to all publishers as unpublished work. It is for a subject made not to order but done con amore, and to issue as prints, which a magazine finds suitable to some particular article as illustration. Some magazines are still interested in such independent expressions but they are becoming extinct. If the woodcut is to be used in an advertisement the charge should be higher than it is when used by a publication having general circulation, where such reproduction has at least some publicity value for the artist.
Publishers of periodicals make a point of emphasizing the credit and glory that accrue to the artist from association with their publications. This is true enough in some cases. The artist can well afford to be generous when the publication is such as is likely to promote print sales or commissions; art magazines, for example, and more specifically, those devoted to prints.
There is a drawback to indiscriminate reproduction. The reproductions, especially if printed from electrotypes and used as 'inserts' in a high class magazine, may be so well done as to discourage print sales.
There is still another item that may be mentioned here. Women's clubs make the pardonable effort of cutting down the operating costs of their organizations. Since poets, musicians and lecturers in general do not subscribe to the notion of being made the instruments of that economy, there is no reason whatever for the graphic artist to do so. There is a great deal of work and expense in putting on an exhibition, with very probable damage to mats and prints. The least an organization can do, if disinclined to pay a lump sum for the privilege, is to guarantee a minimum amount of sales commensurate with the trouble and expense involved. There will be talk of the exhibition adding to the artist's reputation, but since he is approached only after he has achieved a considerable one the value of the local advertising to be realized is likely to be slight.
The artist should hold out for decent compensation all the time. No one thinks any the better of him for giving his work away. In fact, it will be assumed that it is of little value and that he wants no better reward. The artist must stand squarely on his own feet. In that respect he differs from the hard-headed business man, who, when his philosophy fails, goes yelping to the government for help, and gets it.
The practice of woodcutting, like any other of the fine arts, is likely to be a precarious affair, if one tries to make a livelihood from it alone. The practitioner of it ought to have another surer-paying trade, occupation or profession, if there are any such, at least until he is established - if one ever is at woodcutting.