As you know, I have been serving as the Gallery Director at CrazyLake Art Gallery for nearly a year. And I have spent a lot of time thinking about the attitudes about art and artists espoused by visitors and often, unfortunately, reflected by artists.
In fact, it’s something I have been pondering in the context of my own art business for several years.
So here is my interpretation of the comments I’m hearing regularly:
Artists don’t deserve to make a fair wage for the work they do, whether in producing art or teaching it.Every time I hear it from a gallery visitor, I patiently try to educate them on the value of what they are looking at, and remind them that there is a real human being behind each piece of art in the gallery. Someone who spends a great deal of time and care on each piece, and deserves to be paid a fair price for that. Someone who is quite possibly using this as their main means of support for themselves.
The next comment is usually something along the lines of “well he could get a ‘real’ job and just do this on the weekends.”
And when it comes to classes, they want a full roster of classes available so they can be sure to find one that is convenient for them, and they want them offered at a price that is nearly minimum wage for the instructor. And this is the very community that supported me as a private piano teacher 20 years ago at $20 an hour without a single complaint that my services were too dear.
There was a time when it was recognized that art was a good thing, generally. That creativity was something that everyone should nurture in themselves because it helped them broaden their horizons and cultivated their problem-solving skills. That people who dedicated their lives to being creative and coaching others in creativity were worthy of admiration. Art served many functions – it taught appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, recorded and interpreted history, demonstrated moral lessons, provided glimpses into emotional states that we all share at some time in our lives. It connected us. It gave us a reference for trying to understand the lives and decisions of people with whom we have little in common. These are the attitudes that support a healthy art community, and a healthy society in general.
Now everybody wants something for free.
I realize this isn’t a problem confined to the arts. In times like these, many people are forced to tighten their belts, and they begin looking for bargains in every area of their lives. I would like to remind everyone that 99% of all artists are among that crowd.
And there are a fair number of people who haven’t in fact been forced to tighten anything, but they will certainly use the economy as an excuse to extract a discount everywhere they go.
But the thing that really roasts my peppers is when I hear an artist (especially a teaching artist) making excuses for the very people who devalue the work they do! Just because the price of a gallon of gas went up, how do you then conclude that your services as a teacher are now worth less? In fact, it now costs you more to get to work – and you are willing to lower your fees? Where is the logic in this? If you were a doctor, do you suppose you would lower your fees to accommodate people’s pinched budgets? Or is it just that you don’t believe what you do is important? If you don’t, no one else will either.
My belief is that it isn’t an action rooted in logic, but in fear. These are artists in fear that others will no longer pay for their art or their teaching skills if they don’t set their prices terribly low. But this is a losing battle – once you tell the public that YOU don’t believe you are worthy of your asking price, they won’t either.
So I will end this with a call to action to all you artists out there: stand up and demand the respect you deserve. Don’t let your insecurities allow you to be bullied into working below poverty level. Don’t let your insecurities contribute to the perception in the public mind that art isn’t a real job. I believe our society depends on it.
*I am not in the habit of justifying my prices, because I believe that if I have to explain them to someone, they don’t want what I’m offering much anyway. But in this case I want to illustrate a point.
The only piece I have produced in which I kept record of both the materials I purchased and the hours spent was Indian Summer. I purchased over $200 worth of materials, although a fair bit was left over to use in other projects. Let’s say I used $75 worth. I spent 60 hours on the construction of it, although I didn’t think to keep track of hours until the concept and design work and surface prep was already done. Let’s add a conservative 3 hours for that.
Now let’s work backward. It is retail priced at $900. Subtract 30% right off the top for gallery commission (that is a decent commission – one of my galleries takes 50%) bringing our total to $630. Subtract the materials = $555. Now at this point I could also subtract the entry fee and shipping costs for the exhibition I sent it to hoping to get more exposure, but we’ll even leave that out. That means that when it sells, I will have earned myself an hourly wage of $8.81. However, if I were to go work at McDonalds and happened to work my sorry self up to an assistant manager position, I’d be making $10.36 per hour (click HERE for reference).
I know artists whose numbers don’t work out as favorably even as that, and yet the perception from the public is that we want too much. So my point is that I believe art is being valued at a level that puts us on a par with fast food workers at best. And if you don’t also think that’s a problem, then I really think there is no hope for us as a civilized society.