The world takes advantage of artists. Perhaps it’s because the artist is a vulnerable individual in a society that doesn’t particularly value the arts. We live in an age that worships technology and science while painters, musicians, and writers struggle to make ends meet. Most Canadian artists live below the poverty line: “Some income sources bring median total of artists’ earnings to $20,000 – not starving but certainly not affluent” (Art Gallery of York University). Despite this, artists continue to be the ones who are always approached by much wealthier people and asked to contribute their artistic ‘favours’ to fundraisers and volunteer events, or else they’re asked for a deal.
— My sister, who is a professional cellist, was recently asked to accompany a singer for a half-hour concert at a music festival. After learning a ton of new music, attending rehearsals, and giving an excellent performance, she received a thank you card – with nothing in it. She hadn’t settled on a price ahead of time, so she didn’t feel comfortable asking the singer for retroactive payment, but then it had never occurred to her that someone would contract her services and assume it would be for free. By comparison, imagine not paying a plumber or electrician who comes to service your house; such an idea is preposterous.
— My mother is a painter with an art gallery that she just opened and is working to pay off. Several months ago, two well-dressed women driving a swanky car showed up at her gallery, asking her to donate a painting to a local library fundraiser. They did not like my mom’s alternative suggestion that wealthy library patrons pool their resources to buy the painting at full value so that a struggling artist can be paid properly. From the opposite angle, my aunt bought a painting at a fundraiser and, much to the shock of the organizers, insisted on paying the full price, instead of the deal she was eligible for. “You’re the first person who has ever done that,” they told her in disbelief.
— A family friend and potter was asked to make all the dishes for the G8 Summit held in Huntsville, Ontario, in 2010. When a government official came to his pottery studio and offered him the contract, the official explained that, according to government policy, they had to get a deal on all the pottery. “I don’t do deals,” the potter replied. “Every piece is handmade and unique and has its price.” In the end, he accepted the contract and grudgingly agreed to a 10% discount – for the wealthiest, most powerful leaders of the world.
— In the summer, my sister runs a wood-fired pizza company. She is often approached by cottagers (who are among the wealthier members of society just by virtue of owning a cottage in Muskoka) wanting free pizza for lake events, such as annual regattas or meetings. Her response: “No, I’m working to pay off my student loans.” That usually shames them into leaving empty-handed.
The argument that deals and freebies give artists much-needed “exposure” is just a sneaky way of getting stuff for free. Yes, exposure is important, but there comes a point when other people start benefiting at the artist’s expense. A better way to give artists helpful exposure is to pay fairly for their services and then spread the word. Just because artists have something tangible to give doesn’t mean that they should be targeted by people who usually can afford to pay but don’t want to. Fair trade practices need to be implemented even domestically, so next time you’re considering supporting a fundraiser of any kind, please make sure it’s one in which the artists have been paid in full.
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Dollars and Sense: I want my kids to be financially literate
Can I cook for you instead of paying cash?
A Freeze on Freebies (Elizabeth Johnson’s blog)