WHAT'S YER RATE? Where to Start as an Artist Assistant

It's very hard to figure out what to charge people for your services (whatever that service might be).  Too little and you undercut yourself - too much and you lose the gig.  There is no perfect number and it's good to adapt a flexible approach to what you charge.  I always tell people the following (probably in an annoying teacher voice): nothing was ever sold in the history of humankind unless there was an intersection of what the seller wanted and what the other person was willing to give.  The venn diagram would look like this:

Who doesn't love a good venn diagram?

The following is a brief email exchange between myself and an artist assistant who is just starting out.  She contacted me regarding what she should charge an artist for assisting an install.  She's assisted the artist before and is trying to be reasonable but she knows she needs to raise her rate.

Hey Lucas,

Just wanted to ask you about a job I've been offered. (Name withheld) is in need of another assistant for an upcoming project and it will entail three 8-9 hour days, with at least two hours of driving, one there, one back. Two of those days are during the week, and one of them actually conflicts with an obligation, so that's out.

The previous rate was $12/hr and she's asking if that would still work. I know that I'm still sort of starting out, and I am not interested in charging artists a high price, but I think that it's too low. For the last job, I was able to work out the 15/hr rate while I was doing more delicate work in the studio, and 12/hr while I was at the museum. Even still there was so much driving, had to coordinate rides for the assistant, and the traffic...it was sort of crazy.

Should I ask for more? I'd really like to help her out, but now I'd be driving. Further, we'd have to pay our dog-walker an extra day. I hate to sound like a money-hungry assistant, but after re-reading this email even I am not sure if it makes financial sense at this point. Where does one draw the line for experience v. realistic monetary needs?

Any advice, as always, is appreciated. Thanks so much for your time, Lucas. 

Hey (Name Withheld),

The whole idea of raising your rate is that you are worth more per hour as you gain experience because it translates into speed and quality.  In essence you are not asking them to pay more, but asking them to pay the same amount for the work (because you're better and faster).  Make sense?

However... be careful not to "nickel and dime" your clients.  Continually bumping your price by dollar amounts can make them unsure what your rates really are.  I try to stay at the same amount for a year with the same client.  This can hurt my cashflow because I don't get the rate increase right away but the benefits are that the client gets a solid rate to rehire me and they like that consistency.

Note that you can totally have different rates for different clients.  For example, $15/hr for assisting an artist and $20 for institutions.  You can also have different rates for different tasks.  For example, $20/hr plus materials for installing versus $15 for driving plus fuel.  Be careful not to complicate things too much -  I try to keep it reeeeeeaal simple for my clients and they like that a lot.

And then I also cut my rates all the time if I like someone... or sometimes increase them if they are a pain in the ass! Anyway that's how I do it. Hope that helps.