The Artists Are Actually Starving

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.


You might also like:
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)


7 thoughts on “The Artists Are Actually Starving

  1. Imagine this scenario:

    [Car Salesman]: “Can I help you with anything?”
    [Customer]: “Yes. I’m looking at this new Mercedes / BMW / Lexus / etc. and I’m interested in buying it.”
    [Car Salesman]: (Quietly doing mental backflips) “Ah yes, that’s a great choice. Would you like to take it for a spin?”
    [Customer]: “Sure!”

    After the test drive…

    [Customer]: “I’ll take it. Oh, but I’m wondering if you’d donate the car, and in return, by me driving it, your employer will get all kinds of exposure and free advertising!”

    [Car Salesman]: “Exposure to what? More people who want us to give them free cars?!?!”

  2. I’m agreement with the intern baloney. No one should have to work for free. Hugh’s fiancee worked in theatre for years without payment, just so she could get exposure to people who might actually pay her in the future. It has mostly worked out for her, but she gave away a lot of work for free and ate a lot of rice and beans.

  3. Oh, how right you are. This is a subject that has often made my blood boil. And even more so now with the internet, and kids growing up to think that “content” should be free. We are no longer artists…we are Content Providers. Grrrrr.

    However, in my design business, I have learned to harden my approach to being paid, which helps a lot. Whenever someone approaches me about a project, I say “Wow! That sounds so interesting! If you’d like, I can provide a quote.” Then, I ALWAYS put it in writing, with detailed descriptions, signatures and amounts. I learned it the hard way.

    Thanks for the shout-out to artists!

    Gotta get back to my studio and produce some great Content.

  4. Thanks, Katherine, for writing this blog. The more we all band together to insist that we give dignity to our artists (that includes all forms of art), the louder our plea for justiice for artists will be heard.

  5. Unless it’s a well -defined work co-op program which the student works before graduating, it’s best not to assume free internship. Some college and university programs have mandatory short work stints tied directly to topics of their study. Short meaning only a few weeks.

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