It started innocently enough when I stumbled upon a long and detailed facebook discussion thread involving several participants, most of whom were artists. The thread was examining the age-old question: What is art worth and how should artists be paid? The overwhelming majority seemed to side with the opinion that there is no free art; an artist’s work and time are valuable and the assumption that they should be given away for free leads to the death of many burgeoning careers. I read through the thread and thought about all the times I have been asked to sing at weddings and other events only to be met with a shocked expression upon bringing up the subject of payment and I thought: here, here.
The next morning over coffee and my daily facebook addiction, the topic arose again. A friend of mine, currently studying musical theatre composition at NYU, had posted a TED talk by alt-rocker Amanda Palmer entitled ‘The Art of Asking’. Over the course of a 15-minute talk (a must-see for any art lover, regardless of their position on the topic), Palmer compared her experience busking to the way music is available online. She talked about the exchanges she had made on the street – a human, artistic connection in exchange for a free will donation – and how that had inspired her to price her digital music as ‘pay what you can’. If that meant giving it away for free, so be it. She summed it up by saying the solution to the ‘cost of art’ problem was not about making people pay for art but asking people to pay for art. There may be people who scoff and yell ‘get a job!’ as they pass but there will be more who see the real value and will pay what the art is worth. After watching the presentation, I thought back to the nearly 4 months I had spent in 2012 as a busker in Melbourne, Australia. I had managed to feed myself on the money passersby were willing to exchange for the songs I was singing and I thought: She has a point.
A few days later I really got smacked with it. I had been contracted to work as a performer for a set amount of time and money. With less then 24 hours’ notice, the employer asked for additional services which I was unable to provide and so declined. The next thing I knew, I was dealing with an employer who wanted to halve my agreed-upon wage for not consenting to work outside our agreement. After a long, hard meeting over what was fair and what was deserved, I left fully paid but my head was spinning, wondering what in the world I had signed up for when I decided that I wanted to work in the arts. Was this going to be a constant theme in my life? I have always found myself struggling with the idea of what exactly I’m worth as a musician, actor and arts instructor. Am I less of an artist if my passion for what I do gives way to a need to put food on the table? I have always hated the term “starving artist” and tend to respond to it by saying ‘I ate three meals today, all of which I paid for. Thanks.’ but I also do certain gigs for free if the cause is right or the experience is worth it. It’s always been a matter of personal judgement and a personal balancing of the books. So am I less of an artist? Less a contributing member of society? I have to admit, for a moment in the midst of my head-spins I was contemplating law school.
Then, on Thursday night I got my closure. I was traveling through Eastend, SK. and staying the night with a couple of married artists in their eighties. She works in watercolor and he works in stained glass. As we sat in their kitchen chatting over a cup of tea, the topic came up again and I thought that, surely, this couple with decades of experience would have the answer. They didn’t. They’d come up against the question of ‘the cost of art’ their entire lives. They had built careers, they had had their art purchased for good prices, their art was hanging in collections all over the world and yet every now and then they still came across someone who didn’t view what they did as a ‘real job’. Grandparents in their eighties.
I said that that evening gave me some closure on the issue and it really did. I walked away from that night grateful for all of the people around me who know that art enriches their lives every day. It’s a community of people who instinctively know that art is ‘a real job’ and that it encompasses entertainment, sentimental and monetary value. If that community can continue to work and bring value to our larger community as a whole then those people yelling ‘get a job’ as they pass will be vastly outnumbered by those who are willing and excited to support the arts – financially, physically and spiritually.