Arts·Art, Death & Taxes

How do you price a work of art? Veteran illustrator Anita Kunz has advice for a younger generation

"There's so many things that you don't think about when you're beginning as an artist."

'There's so many things that you don't think about when you're beginning as an artist'

Anita Kunz (CBC Arts)

Art, Death & Taxes unpacks the art world's greatest taboo: money. Nine acclaimed artists explore the economics of their practice, peeling back the curtain on all the work that goes into the work. Stream the full series now on CBC Gem.

"The topic of business for artists is kind of a complicated one," illustrator Anita Kunz (recently seen on CBC Docs in an artistic collaboration with a monkey) tells us in our new series Art, Death & Taxes. "I think that most artists think that it's an incredibly boring subject until they get ripped off or until someone doesn't pay them. Then suddenly it becomes interesting."

When she first became an artist, Kunz — a trailblazer in the world of illustration who broke through in the highly competitive and male-dominated world of publishing in the 1980s — says she knew two things. "One of the things that I knew was that I don't come from money so if I didn't work, I didn't eat. The second thing I knew was that I never wanted to go into debt. I always lived within my means, because I knew that if I got into too much debt I didn't have a safety net. So I really had to make it work. I was all in."

Inspired to become an artist by an uncle she calls a "consummate artist" who made work from stained glass to oil paintings, Kunz wanted to live that dream. Only later, after he passed away, did they find in his financial books that he struggled financially. "There were all these entries that said, 'Financial crisis, we're going to have to sell the farm,' and I thought, 'Woah, I had no idea.' I wonder sometimes had I known the difficulties that he had being an artist, I wonder if I still would have done it. Probably, but it was a real rude awakening."

Stream Anita Kunz's episode of Art, Death & Taxes now on CBC Gem

Having come out of art school without having taken a business class and moving from feeling "woefully unprepared" to building a career as an artist, Kunz now strives to pass along the lessons she learned to a younger generation of artists.

In particular, she stresses the importance and difficulty of pricing your work — a challenge that has shifted throughout her career but remains difficult. "One of the first jobs I ever got, an [advertising] art director called me; I went up to see him and he said, 'OK, we want you to do this baby food ad and we need four illustrations — black and white illustrations. We need a quote from you. How much will you charge us?' And I literally said, '$100...?'"

"I mean, I was so clueless and so naive. And I think he sort of took pity on me and said, 'Anita, we'll give you $1000.' That's one of the reasons I teach now. I really impress upon students that their work does have value, but back then I didn't have a clue."

But what a piece should cost isn't such a simple question. "It's very difficult to quantify in financial terms what a piece actually costs," she says. "There's no template here. Every single piece of art I do has a different purpose, has a different fee attached, has a different reason for existing."

As an example, Kunz uses a cover she made for The New Yorker that wasn't published (they still paid her). "I use that as an example to show that there's so many things that you don't think about when you're beginning as an artist. When you have a basic fee, you have to shave off so many things that you have to do just to keep in business — pay your rent, pay for all these other expenses — before you actually have the money free and clear to use. So what began as $6500 now could be around $2000."

Anita Kunz in her studio. (CBC Arts)

For Kunz, knowledge is power and ongoing education through the changes of the world is vital as the task of merging art with business doesn't necessarily get easier. 

"The art world is changing all the time. In my own career I've seen a lot of changes, and I've had to learn how to cope with all these changes. It's all about strategy and I would never tell young students or people who just graduated to follow the road that I did because it's no longer appropriate. The way that I see young people making a living now is in a number of different areas — they might be doing some editorial work, they might be doing some teaching, they might be selling stuff on Etsy, they might be doing fine art. There are different hats they're wearing. For me it was a singular focus, and that is not the right strategy anymore."

"If you can educate yourself about all the business aspects, all the ways that you can behave like a businessperson and an artist at the same time, then you're going to be that much further ahead. It's still difficult for me. There's nothing I hate more than having to quote a job. I have to really push myself to understand what I should be quoting and then look at my bottom line and understand what I'm providing is something valuable."

Stream Art, Death & Taxes now on CBC Gem.