The Value of Art; the Love of Groceries

July 28, 2009

An article in today’s Oregonian by critic D.K. Row excited me enough to write the following:-

Dear D.K. Row,

        Your very welcome and appreciated article in today’s Oregonian (July 27th 2009) sideswiped a very large issue. How America views art; of any discipline Cheaply, is the truth. As a performing artist married to another performing artist we are always being asked to “donate” our work or accept levels of payment which if you take into account the time spent preparing for the performance and any other costs, yields an hourly pay rate that makes the state minimum wage look like a Wall Street bonus.

It is one of the awful things that creative professionals have to live with. American society values professional corporate gamblers more highly than artists of any kind. Even now despite the revelations of the past year and continued excesses in financial sector pay.

 We creatives have to endure much talk of the value of our work and how it enhances the lives of many, decorates our cities, making them more livable, attractive; how it excites the imagination of the young and provides solace for the old; and all the while be paid wages that undocumented migrant field workers would hesitate to accept.

And I am not forgetting the enormous range in quality; whatever that word may mean; that exists in creative work. But there is an equal range of ‘quality’ in accounting, banking, medicine, the church (and how!), politics, engineering, and every profession or vocation. And yet the idea of a starving priest or doctor or pharmacist or broker seems to have disappeared with the characters in the novels and stories of Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham.

 I provide sales and marketing workshops for artists through RACC, the Clackamas County Arts Alliance and other groups. In every workshop I ask, “How many of you make a living from your art?” Out of the nearly one thousand individual artists I have met at these events, and events like them, less than ten said they had achieved self sufficiency, and most added that it was precarious and uncertain.

 There will have to be a huge tectonic shift in the way Americans view art to change the way artists live. I do not have any easy answers to this, and I am not so interested in what happens in other parts of the world, although there may be examples from which we can learn. We really require an American solution. Until that miraculous time we will all remain at the anxious crossroads of which you wrote. Without belittling the noble efforts of local heroes working to find more money to sustain creative work, nothing much will change.

 It is the national consciousness which continues to insist that artists will work for nothing or close to nothing because they love what they do. That is the erroneous assumption that must be challenged. Of course we love what we do, but like everyone else we also are human and love groceries and a roof over our head.

 Perhaps you can be a catalyst in that shift? Think globally, work locally.

 Yours sincerely,

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