“Making art for free” – I’m opening that can of worms

An interesting gentleman I recently met at a party leaned over a kitchen counter at me and slurred something to the effect of, “Every artist is exploited for their passions.” He continued on after this point but as he was drunk and getting a little incoherent I don’t recall the rest. The gist of his argument seemed to be that because everyone knows that artists love to do what we do (be that music, theatre, dance, visual art, photography, etc.), we are expected to do this for little or nothing.

I couldn’t agree with him more. All of the theatre I have been involved in since finishing my BFA has involved little, but more often non-existent, compensation.  I entered into the work fully aware that nobody was being paid. I did it because I respect and enjoy the people I work with, and because if I didn’t take the time to be an artist sometimes, my soul would start to die.

There is a very prevalent though very misguided attitude surrounding the idea of payment in the arts community. People seem to believe that because artists enjoy their craft, they don’t require the same kind of compensation they would if they were doing a job they hated. I would like to make something very clear:

Enjoyment DOES NOT EQUAL easy. Enjoyment DOES NOT EQUAL lack of time or skill. Any good piece of art involves time (during a theatre production, for example, usually 20-50 hours a week on top of a full or part time job) and skill (most of the artists I know have either a university degree and/or extensive studio training, which they supplement with workshops). In a regular working environment, this time, training, and skill would be compensated.

Making art also requires an emotional and often physical investment not found in other jobs. Making art is not an activity in which you can “coast” (i.e. writing that report for your boss while you flick through photos of last weekend on Facebook or watch a funny cat video). Coasting results in shallow, if not plain old shitty, art. An artist is required to be emotionally, mentally, and physically present in their work. I enjoy everything I do involving the theatre but maintaining this focus isn’t easy. Sometimes I’m ill but I have to be on my feet for a two-hour run before I can sit down again. I’m exhausted sometimes but I’m staying at rehearsal late into the night, knowing I am going to be waking up at 6:30 to go to work and THEN I’ll be going to rehearsal all over again. Sometimes the work scares me or makes me so angry that I hate it and hate everyone involved and hate myself but we get through it and we make some art.

And then I am told by the prevalent public opinion that I don’t need to be paid because I’m having so much fun!

What can be done? I’m not sure. The other night I met some (relatively) new theatre friends for drinks in the Backstage Lounge (the lovely bar behind the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage). The conversation, while passionate and animated, was rather disheartening at times. No, we (and I mean “we” in a broader sense than just those present) shouldn’t all be doing what we’re doing for little or no money. Yes, anyone working this hard should be appropriately compensated.

But I’m going to let you in on the not-so-secret dirty little secret of the art world. There’s. No. Money. Not for me, not for you, not for the many and varied brilliant performers, musicians, visual artists, writers, dancers, stage managers, designers, composers, producers, dramaturgs, and wandering minstrels in this city, this province, or this country. Working in the arts is a Catch-22 of survival:

1. I cannot survive without money. I need to eat, I need a home, I need to be able to clothe myself and have a telephone. Without money I am starving and I am cold.

2. I cannot survive without creating art. I need passion, I need ambition, I need goals to work towards, I need my inner fires to be fueled and my inner children to be nurtured. Without creating art my spirit is starving and my heart is cold.

If I use my time to work at a job that pays I have money, but no art. If I use my time to create art, I have art, but no money. I get by by straddling these two worlds. Monday to Friday, I work a job I like that pays me well. When I’m involved in a project, I spend my evenings and weekends on it. My system is working for me right now and I feel fortunate to be able to do this.

This is not sustainable, however. The older I get the more demands there will be on my time. This is not a system that can work for me if I ever have a family, if I am ever less healthy than I am now, or if a loved one is ever in need of my care. I also might simply burn out.

In fact, most of us are in danger of burning out, simply because there just isn’t enough money out there for all of us to get work in the arts that pays, and there’s only so long many of us can keep going without any hope of eventually being paid to do this.

I am aware that by agreeing to work for free, I add to the problem. As long as there are artists willing to work for free, there will be artists working for free. There will also be people who expect artists to work for free.

I hope that this situation will not last forever. I hope that the time and hard work put in by artists everywhere will eventually receive respect and provide them with the means to earn a living. Achieving this utopia would be complicated and take time. Government, artists, and audiences would need to be involved in supporting arts and culture and those who sacrifice so much for them.

In the meantime, I think it is up to every artist to decide what they can and cannot do. My system works for me. Other artists have theirs. I am engaged in an ongoing struggle with myself and I am always reassessing my relationship with work, money, and art and hoping I will find a way to reconcile them.

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5 thoughts on ““Making art for free” – I’m opening that can of worms

  1. Yup, it’s a dilemma every artist faces. I know exactly how you feel. But at least you’re feeding your soul on evenings and weekends.

    I also write professionally, and it’s funny, there are some potential clients that expect writers to create content (for websites, etc…) for pennies. I mean, really. Fortunately there are lots of good ones too, and I’ve started to figure out who they are.

    All we can do is keep trying to feed the fire.

    • The really discouraging thing is that I know so many artists infinitely more talented than me. And THEY’RE still having trouble getting work that pays.

      I don’t have all that much experience with the writing side of things, though from what I hear it’s a whole other crazy kettle of fish with similar issues.

      • Yeah, I guess one advantage of being a writer is that we don’t have to pay for costumes, materials, etc… We just need to invest in professional development and a computer.

  2. This is SO true!!!
    One day, I would really like our #1 gripe in the arts community ($$) to change to another topic!!! We are still at stage one, trying to convince the public (and ourselves) that artists contribute something of immense value (anyone still debating this, please look into tricycle theatre in England, and their play The Great Game about the history of Afghanistan which has had performances for the Pentagon staff as well as for top members of the British military). However, we as artists need to start valuing our skills, and find alternative means of attaining value for our contributions (ie. using alternative economies – how about an exchange of services)?

    This is one thing I like about burlesque dancing right now: dancing sexily makes me happy, so while I’m working on a solo I’m giving myself some much-needed therapy. There are one or two regularly-occurring events here events that are open to me performing. I don’t get paid, but I also don’t have to pay for a venue, or the lighting, or the dude that presses “play” for my music, and I only have to put in the time for a 3-4 minute (or whatever piece), so I’m creating a physical performance that does not demand an extensive number of hours (ie. for a full-length play).
    That being said, I’m still out $$ for costumes, props, etc. and, of course the audience is small, but ultimately, I just need a performance space (where I won’t get arrested), a sound system, and a couple of willing observers. It’s a start…

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