The Pricing of Art

by August Schulenburg

in Tech & the Arts

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“When I was young I used to think that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old, I know it is.”
Oscar Wilde

How much should a ticket cost?

This seemingly simple question ignited the blogosphere through Trisha Mead’s 2AMT post on Dynamic Pricing. After being introduced to this concept by TRG Arts, Trisha’s theatre tried dynamic pricing to strong success: “to our amazement, our earned revenue and average ticket prices started to steadily climb.”

How does it work? Trisha advises to “set target dates and agree as a company that once an individual performance has sold a certain percentage of the house (say, 70%), you’ll raise the price $5 for the remaining tickets to that performance. When it hits 80% full, you’ll raise it again…And that perpetually sold out closing weekend full of people who waited till the last minute? That becomes your most profitable weekend.”

Then Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox questioned about the underlying philosophy of dynamic pricing, asking, “What message are we sending to the public when we do that sort of thing? Could dynamic pricing undercut the ‘case for support’ that many nonprofits use to solicit contributed income?”

Indeed, some theatres go the other way entirely, with companies like Women’s Project offering their first 1,000 tickets free; Soho Rep offering .99 cent Sunday performances; and the Subjective Theatre Company presenting their entire run “at no cost to the public”, saying “art is not a commodity”.

This pay-what-you-can philosophy is finding traction in the restaurant world, with Panera Bread experimenting with suggested donations for meals. According to Panera’s Ron Shaich in the St Louis Business Journal, a trial location’s revenue was up 20 percent from the previous week, prompting him to say, “I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about…My hope is that we can eventually do this in every community.”
But the pricing of tickets isn’t a zero sum game; indeed, as Jim McCarthy on Live 2.0 reminds us, “The person who comes to you through good discounting practices and the person who buys your inexpensive tickets are two different types of people.” Embracing the variety of relationships potential ticket buyers may have to your organization is essential.

TRG’s CEO Rick Lester, who is leading a session at TCG’s 2010 National Conference on The Art of Pricing, says “it has always been TRG’s contention that dynamic pricing is a tactic that works best when combined with broader strategies for sustaining revenues across an entire season…It’s easy to sell through the most and least expensive seats in any house.  The middle is where success or failure lives.”

So whether you object to the pricing of art, or are trying to master the art of pricing; wrestling with the complexity of your community’s relationship to ticket sales is more essential than ever. We’re looking forward to continuing that conversation here and at our National Conference.


By day, Gus is the mild-mannered Circulation and Customer Service Manager at TCG. By night, he transforms into August Schulenburg: playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble. His produced plays include Riding the Bull, Carrin Beginning, Other Bodies, Rue, The Lesser Seductions of History, and Jacob’s House.

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