Last night, White Pines Productions did their final installment of their lecture series “Should Art be Bought?” This last one was MC’d by Andrew Simonet from Headlong Dance Theater and took place at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, my workplace.

The seminar began with participants placing a chair within the floor-bound chart to pinpoint how much time you spend making art in a month with how much money you make. (The task here was to point out the humbling fact that the more hours you spend making art, the less you tend to get paid.) I was among the lowest paid in the bunch, but I also don’t spend 100+ hours a month making art like some of the crowd did, I spend the majority of my time administering art and artists.

It was easy to see that the more time you spend making art paired with the amount of money you actually get paid for that work (if it’s a flat fee or any pre-determined amount), artists themselves tend to drive down their own hourly rate b/c they are so invested in the work, they are perfectionists, and generally won’t stop until they are self-satisfied.

Andrew went on to talk thank everyone in the room for devoting their lives to a creative mission that is complicated, exhausting, not understood by a large portion of the public and whose marker for success is often elusive, if it exists at all.

Here are some comparisons Andrew made that make a lot of sense to me:

  • Artists are researchers. There are two methods of experimenting that result in progress: the scientific method, which asks material, physically prove-able questions; and the artistic process, which asks questions of thought-provoking, often immaterial things. In both situations, negative results are just as important as positive results.
  • Art vs. Entertainment – Art focuses attention, entertainment distracts it.

Simonet: “I’m struck by how punishing an artist’s life is, and it’s often self-imposed. There’s this ‘Survival of the Bitterest’ culture”, especially in the dance world, of people who think they should have made it and are angry at the world for not being discovered and financial-panic-free – but there are partnerships to be made, all over the place, you just have to ask. “You have to define success for yourself, no 2 artists’ lives look the same.”

There are 4 things that Andrew credits for this “punishing lifestyle” of the artist:

  • Workaholic-sim / Last Minute-ism – artists need to work less but smarter. Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. If you do nothing but create, create, create, you have no time for introspection, inspiration.
  • Perfection-ism – some might think this is humility, but for many, it’s vanity. It’s the belief that an artist is inhuman and shouldn’t create anything unless it’s the epitome of perfection. No. You are human. And faults add character. Perfectionism in one area (your art) can result in mediocrity in all other areas of your life – relationships, family, health, finances – not good.
  • Competitiveness / Careerism – most artists start off mission-driven but we get tricked into Careerism b/c the benchmarks for an artistic success don’t really exist. What is good for one artist is good for another, good for the field in general. We need to stop calculating the haves and have-nots in the artistic sector, and start defining what success means on a personal level, not based on the artists who hit it big. Success for artists looks a bit different from other careers. Success for an artists means an opportunity to MAKE MORE work, not a big bonus or vacation or a new summer home. So where do we find downtime, even when we do experience success?
  • Poverty – there’s this stigma around art and artists that art-making isn’t sustainable. But artists are among the most educated and productive people on the planet, we can make the money, we just need BALANCE in all parts of our lives to live within our means. Think about it – artists are the executives of their field – they conceptualize, manage, implement and deliver their work, from beginning to end. That deserves compensation. Pay in the art world is ALREADY a race to the bottom, being willingly broke (like that class of social activist/artist who demean capitalism and choose to live on the streets) diminishes artistic practice, works of art. (I’m not trying to pick on the artists who aren’t struggling by choice).

It’s not ALL gloom and doom, folks. Here are three things Andrew credits all artists with mastering:

  • YOUR MISSION – and being able to articulate it to a broad audience, all the better. When the non-artist understands why you do what you do, the artistic community strengthens.
  • YOUR COMMUNITY – in every civilization throughout history, an artist is a community engager. Artists can make just as many visual/musical/etc. connections as personal connections.
  • YOUR TALENT – artists are ever resourceful and flexible. Artists are completely overskilled in a very beautiful way: they have the ability to observe, experiment and acquire an entirely new skill totally on their own. Artists are not intimidated by impossible or imaginary things. In the for-profit world, that’s called being a EXECUTIVE.

So what do we do will all this information? How to we begin the slow, uphill struggle of demanding more for our time/talents? Here are some exercises:

  • Think about the amount of money you need in a year to live without financial panic: this should include your gross annual income, paying down debt, savings, taking some time off, health insurance, etc. From this number you should be able to divide down into your hourly rate, day rate, weekly rate, etc. of what you need to get paid in order to be comfortable. When approached by a freelance job, you can tell them those rates and say “Here’s how much I need for this project to be possible.” From that number, negotiations can begin.
  • SAYING NO IS AWESOME. Pay in the art world is already a race to the cheapest – so when you say no to a job that would cost you more money to perform than it’s worth, SAY NO. Saying no to a ridiculously low rate actually helps out the arts sector, it gives artists the leverage to say “nobody will do it for that cheap, you need to scan through your budget again.”
  • PLANNING. (or for the fancy folks, Strategic Planning). “Planning is the opposite of Hoping,” Andrew says. Think about what you want for the next three years professionally, personally and artistically. DREAM BIG HERE. DON’T PRE-SHRINK your dreams for the sake of reality. The bigger the goal, the more people can share in your dream! After a week or so of mulling those over, prioritize, chose the top 2 or 3 that mean the most and break them down into the TINIEST of steps. Steps that are achievable from one day to the next.

So with that, I leave you all, artistically inclined or not, to think about what art has meant to you, what art does mean to you, and the treatment (financially or otherwise) of the makers of the art that means so much.