I am an Artist. This Does Not Mean I Will Work for Free

I have been seeing this image everywhere lately. (Via http://margaritapassione.blogspot.com/)

When I became serious about becoming a full-time artist, I met the challenge with the same indomitable spirit that carried me through previous endeavors. I lowered my expectations for how much money I could expect to earn and I was realistic about the prospects for making a profit immediately. And yet… I was not prepared for the full extent to which the deck is stacked against working artists.

I think I can offer the value of an outsider’s perspective on the problem. In my view, there are two reasons and they are the result of attitudes, both within the art world culture and the culture at large:

  1. The belief that someone who has chosen the arts has also chosen probable destitution as the price of a dream. (Essentially, they asked for it, so it’s okay to ask them to volunteer their time, their work, and even their own funds.)
  2. The belief that the art world –elitist and incomprehensible –  has nothing to do with the lives of average people, so “ordinary” people do not engage in it and, consequently, do not support it. This means the flow of money is trapped in that top layer.

In those early stages of my journey, I was encouraged to do whatever I could to get exhibitions under my belt. Any exhibit was fine, I just needed to establish an “exhibition history.” So, I began to show my work whenever I could, at both nonprofit and private galleries. This was very time-consuming and costly and in most cases I was assuming all of the risk as there was no insurance to cover losses. Although my work was always for sale, I did not sell anything in those venues. In most cases, none of the other artists did, either.

I was discouraged at first and then frustrated when talking to galleries who insisted on a 50% commission despite offering no insurance of the work while in their care, no help with shipping, and sometimes minimal effort connecting with collectors. I am not saying that all gallery owners are like this, but it sure seems that way when you first start out and feel compelled to take what you can get.

Working with nonprofits can be even dicier, as this article on Hyperallergic makes abundantly clear.  A recent survey revealed that “58% of the nearly 1,000 artists interviewed (including visual and performing artists) received no compensation at all for exhibiting or presenting their work at nonprofits in New York.” This includes things like the Whitney Biennial, not just the neighborhood community art center. And furthermore:

“Research by the NEA shows that artists across all fields earn much less than other professionals, with dancers earning a median income, including non-arts earnings, of only $15,000 in 2005 … And women artists earn only 65% of male artists.”

So back to that job I used to have. There were many things that frustrated me about being a federal worker, but my compensation was not one of them. I took for granted that my time, education, and talents were of value. Even with the current state of the economy and the degradation of wages by globalization, I do not think most Americans would take on a job in which they are expected to pay out and offer their time and travel expenses for free, hoping it might earn them a meager living some day.

What is the answer? For patrons of the arts, I think they need to think seriously about getting behind projects that include funding for participants’ time, travel, and work. For artists, I have an additional theory. Free market capitalism is often cited as the true disease that afflicts the art world. Ultra-wealthy collectors and blue chip galleries control a stratosphere where art is bought and sold freely for mind-boggling prices, while most artists struggle to even buy health insurance. But I think the free market is where the answer lies for most of these artists. I mentioned earlier that most Americans would not fork over money, time, and labor for the prospect of maybe earning eventually… Well, I take that back. They would if they had started their own business selling a product or service directly to the public. The difference in that case is you are in control of your destiny, you are your own boss, and while you are taking on all of the risk, you will also enjoy all of the rewards if your business takes off.

It is my view that more artists need to think like small business owners. You invest your time and money, but you sell directly to the market place (via the internet and through personal connections) and do not get hung up on crooked galleries or nonprofit opportunities, which do not in themselves lay the groundwork for career success. It’s nice when a gatekeeper chooses you, but, let’s face it: the gatekeepers are failing us on a broad scale.

And let me be clear, I don’t want an end to museums and galleries. I LOVE these institutions. But perhaps we need to take back some of the power they wield. There are especially a lot of young people out there doing work for free, not just in the art world, but elsewhere (see unpaid internships). I would encourage people to think hard before volunteering too much of their time and work. There is a way to go about it smartly. The alternative is to get used.

I wish I knew who to attribute this poster to… It has become a popular meme in artistic circles.

For my free market model to succeed, it is a matter of convincing the rest of society that art – and the finer things, in general – can be a part of their lives, too. The handmade movement and the “foodie” movement have both spread like wildfire in recent years. I believe a more democratic art market may follow. I believe that you do not have to live in an ivory tower or be at the center of the cultural universe (i.e. New York) to appreciate art and culture.

When I was in Santa Fe over the holidays, I had the opportunity to stay in the condo belonging to friends of a friend. The owners were an older couple that had traveled the world. Their walls were covered almost entirely with handmade things and original paintings, no doubt collected over a lifetime. I do not believe any of the pieces came from hotshot artists, but it was clear the works were chosen with great care and sensitivity. I very much admire this couple for filling their home with unique objects. It showed confidence, curiosity, and a zest for life that I, myself, aspire to.

I do not think artists require the backing of institutions and galleries to persuade society of their work’s value. This may be best done in our own circles and communities, one person at a time.

And, just to prove to you that I mean it, I have decided to put my money where my mouth is. For every twelve sales I make of my own work, I am going to invest in the work of an artist I admire. This way, I can support the art community with my work and my money, but I am getting so much more in return. Here are two pieces I just purchased for my own little art collection, both from fellow Etsy artists:

Picnic Table in Woods, Anna Gulles, Ink on Paper, 8.75 x 10 in.
Top Knot Painting, Elizabeth Mayville, Gouache on Paper, 5 x 7 in

3 thoughts on “I am an Artist. This Does Not Mean I Will Work for Free

  1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog today. What an interesting and well thought out piece….Art is my “secondcareer” and I find it much harder than my first career, which required a Masters Degree and sometimes 12 hour days!

    1. Thanks, Abby. You and I are definitely on the same page. I always felt like I was working hard in my former career, but at the same time there was something simple and unchallenging about just checking all the boxes, both in school and work. Creating art is an amorphous undertaking with no clear boundaries or rewards. I think that’s what makes it so hard. I also think that’s why many people get scared away from it.

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