Artists Like Groceries Too

May 21, 2010

I was churning through pieces I had written last year and came across this little gem which I wrote as an answer to an article by D.K. Row, the Art Critic of the Oregonian. I sent a copy to the Oregonian. They chose not to publish it and D.K. Row did not reply.  I don’t have a copy of the original article, but it is probably available from the paper.

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 creative people 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,

4 Responses to “Artists Like Groceries Too”

  1. Paul said

    Bob, I’d like to introduce you to Peter Clothier. He is the author of “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce,” which I published. It’s a book of essays about this very topic.

    Not only is Peter an artist (like you), one who appreciates fine art (as do you), is a fine writer (as are you), he is (like you) a Brit.

    His blogs:

  2. Peter Clothier said

    Good to meet you, Bob. To judge by this entry, we do have much in common. Given your interest in helping artists market their work, you might be interested in Greg Spalenka’s work, referred to in my latest entry in Persist: The Blog. Cheers from a fellow Brit, Peter

    • bobsterry said

      Thanks, Peter. I have yet to take a look at your blog and Greg’s. I’ll get around to it as soon as I get these gutters unblocked and the chicken out of the oven. Survival is just so draining (sic).

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