Friday, January 25, 2008

who pays whom?

Disclaimer: I work for a professional development program that is offered for free to participants around the country. It is paid for by state and local arts agencies and organizations. It is incredibly affective, and is part of the change in the system, but it serves a small number of people.

I was having a conversation the other day about the art market (yeh, i have those conversations a lot). This one was about the fact that artists aren't willing to invest in their careers in order to grow. Its a common practice in pretty much every other business on the planet. Invest in new equipment or software to increase productivity and boost profits. Invest in a consultant to create a strategic plan to grow and boost profits. Invest in hiring more people to increase productivity and boost profits. You get the idea.

There is also the personal investment for growth. Loads of people every year go into massive debt to subsidize their law degree, medical degree of MBA. They do this with the belief (usually true) that with this degree their earning potential will be much higher.

We were talking about why artists don't believe in paying the high price for learning the skills to grow their careers. In particular we were discussing professional development programs. At first I agreed, thinking why don't artists pay for this kind of training? Especially if they see proven results from those who have taken it. Well, here's why they don't: the system is broken.

All those other people investing, are pretty much guaranteed a return on their investment (with work). Artists just aren't. The return on investment (ROI) is just not that high. Even if they do succeed at getting more shows and grants, and can negotiate better deals the pay still isn't that significant (unless you are the 1% of 1% who become art stars). Sure, its enough to live on and continue doing your work, but its no doctor, lawyer or CEO salary.*

Here's another problem. A lot of us already did invest. A LOT. A lot of us have our terminal degree (until this PhD in Fine Arts fad hits critical mass), we have the MFAs. And we paid dearly for them. Probably as much as some MBAs (I know my debt until I retire is enough to rent a small house in some urban areas). So we have made that investment and it probably hasn't paid off. I know my school did no such thing as professional development which actually prepared you for creating what is, essentially, a business.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed and learned a lot during my MFA, but really, it was like a really really expensive 2 year residency program. A time to focus on your art and develop your work.

And another thing - I know plenty of artists who are feeling really tapped out from giving away work for auctions, getting underpaid to put on great shows for non-profit arts organizations or state agencies. We won't pay entry fees or subsidize the gallery system. We won't pay for consulting or promoting or transport or framing or any of the other things to do with a show we may or may not sell from.

So how can we change all this. Well thats something that takes looking at the entire landscape. The system really is broken. From a misconception by the public and the government about the value of arts. To the hierarchy that exists where the artists are at the bottom instead of the top. To our own undervaluing of what we give to the world.

Where to start? Start with your own circle of friends. Start with talking about it, come up with some creative solutions and help each other grow and learn. Share your knowledge of marketing, planning, fundraising, negotiating, etc. A rising tide and all...

*I have been able to observe and attend a few professional development programs and some are really effective. I also have a pretty good background in business and when I applied that to my art - plus just took the discipline and commitment up a notch (all investment), I have reaped tangible rewards.

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