“The exposure you often receive is the exposure that you are willing to work for free.” Andrew Lentini
The above quote is something a friend of mine said in response to a facebook conversation that I somehow missed when it first made the rounds back in early March. My friend Ron Philbeck started the conversation by sharing a photo and relating an experience that I’m sure most working artists will be familiar with:
“Last year I was asked to demonstrate at a prestigious pottery event here in NC. I did it with the hopes that I’d get invited to sell my work in the show this year. I did not get invited to show. When an organizer called me and asked if I would demo again this year I mentioned that I would like to be paid for demo’ing. She was very surprised that I asked and could not understand why I ‘d want to be paid. I explained it but sadly she didn’t understand. Of course I’m not doing it. I feel that many potters think that the ‘exposure’ they get from demo’ing or having work in an exhibition will bring them something in the future. And it well may. It has for me. But honestly too many of us are giving our time and talent away for nothing. If you value what you do then I think it’s fine to ask to be compensated.” Ron Philbeck
If you spend any amount of time as a professional artist you will undoubtedly eventually be asked to give your work away for some absolutely worthy cause. Occasionally it will be services for an event, like Ron’s adventure above in demo’ing for free. And there is nothing wrong with donating our talents and gifts to worthy causes. Except when it becomes a way of life. Except when it becomes expected of us, and gets taken for granted. Except when the practice becomes institutionalized and the culture of giving is no longer optional and based on generosity but is now the only way of accessing certain opportunities….
Ron suggests that he has had at least minimal turn around benefit from his ‘volunteer’ exposure. I can say that I have not had a single dime come back to me…. I have donated at least a few thousand $$$ in retail value outright and not a single new customer can be attributed to any of it…. I have had work sent off with the promise of some percentage in the received money returned to me, and yet never saw the work again or got a penny back…. I have placed work in galleries and never gotten paid for some of the work, and when they have gone out of business or changed ownership that’s the last I hear of my pots…. I have offered barely break even cost on sizable commissions for worthy organizations and gotten no publicity, no thanks, and no new customers as a result…..
There’s plenty more I could tell, but we all probably have our own stories, and at this point there is very little that might surprise any of us. Its a fact of our culture these days. And we agree to it because there is a faint mythical promise of restitution, that our sacrifices will pay off down the line. We are informed that we are just lucky to be involved in the first place. That we should count our blessings that we are invited to participate at all…. But I’d like to think that being told to sit at the back of the bus is something we have a say in. I’d like to think that ‘might’ doesn’t make ‘right’, or that just because this is the way things are that this is the way they are supposed to be……
The art critic Matt Gleason had an essay in the Huffingtonpost blog on Arts & Culture that criticizes the endemic culture of charity art auctions. These are some of his points against the practice of artists donating work:
•You don’t contextualize your art as being a synonym of pretentious panhandling
•You don’t announce that your art is worth low bids
•You don’t risk that your work will be publicly seen getting no bids
•You don’t empower strangers to devalue your artwork
•Most importantly, you stop publicly proclaiming that you give your art away
Charity art auctions, donations, free services volunteered, inequitable gallery situations, articles contributed to journals essentially for free, ‘entry fees’ for juried exhibits that often only pick the usual suspects of already ‘established’ artists, consignment practices, unauthorized, unattributed, and unrecompensed use of artistic work….. The list goes on and on.
I’d like to think that artists are part of an ecology, and the organizations and institutions that value our work also value the artists behind the work. That its a case of mutual benefit and working toward common cause. And in some cases that is absolutely true. There are institutions that go out of their way to actively encourage and sustain working members of the community. There are organizations that don’t simply take what they can get but conscientiously give back when they are able, even when it makes no immediate ‘business sense’. There are places of business that don’t simply promote their own self interests but go out of their way to support artists’ efforts that are not measured by their own ‘bottom line’. There are community situations where the management is actively engaged in looking out for the interests of its community members and not simply their own bank statements and business agendas……
But because so often we are dealing with a situation where respect and generosity is not mutual, or trickles more heavily in one direction than the other, our ecology ends up looking more like that of giant parasites draining a multitude of already impoverished and underprivileged hosts. They are ‘seizing the day’ on the backs of artists’ sweat, creativity, and generosity (What other than “generous” would you call a skilled and educated work force where most professionals labor for substantially less than poverty wages in any other field?).
You’d think that an industry that is based on and depends on the hard work and genius of its creative members would honor that unique gift and nurture it. The goose that laid the golden egg. Instead of appreciating the goose as an important member of this ecology the goose is routinely put to the knife for the secret behind its creative generosity. The action of pirates rather than caring ecologists…. We are more like Cinderella innocently toiling, not even aware of the fairy godmother who might rescue us from the exploitation of our selfish step sisters……
Part of being in a community with common cause is that its an ecology where everyone sets aside part of their own self interest for the mutual advantages that can be achieved by working together. That a collective interest is more persuasive than a fractured cacophony of individual agendas….. I’m not saying that artists need to unionize (some already do in places like the movie industry), but we at least must get ourselves on the same page, and with the unity of our mutual interests have an honest conversation with the other members of our environment. We need to affirm that the flow of benefits is a two way street rather than a tributary of streams feeding an ocean….
At present many organizations seem to be banking on the historical fact that they can use up one artist and find ready replacements. Like cheap labor in a college town. And because this seems to be the way things are done we are often willing to do their dirty work, ‘volunteer’ our services, donate our art, and be exploited and wrung dry in the process. Its a cycle that has to end somewhere.
Or not. We can allow the situation to go on festering, while individual artists are ground down in isolation, or get together on facebook for a brief but ultimately irrelevant communal moan…… And we wake up the next morning having vented some of the back pressure of our situation but nothing else in the world has changed.
Which is why we maybe need to care a bit more than we seemingly do. That we need to take the ‘red pill’. That we need to put our money where our pouting mouths are. That we need to become advocates.
I’ve written about these issues plenty, trying to encourage others to at least think deeper about the situations. Thinking and discussing are obviously part of the solution. But what else? Its not my job to figure out everything on my own. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. And my personal efforts have only limited reach. But I do my part. I do what I can. I try to think these things through, but I’m just one person. Who else out there has ideas? Who else cares? Who else out there is motivated to join the conversation and perhaps go even deeper than that?
What do you all think?
Make beauty real!
And get paid for it when you deserve to…..