by Theresa Wells
When I was asked a few weeks ago to speak as a guest panelist at the Arts Council Wood Buffalo Annual General Meeting I almost declined because the meeting was scheduled one day after a very busy day in my professional life – but I agreed because the topic of the panel is one near and dear to me, and I decided I wanted to be there to share my experience.
I would suggest that most individuals who are involved in creative pursuits such as literary arts, visual arts, performing arts and the like have experienced being asked to provide our services for free. As a writer I have been approached dozens of times over the last four years and asked to write for free for a variety of groups, organizations and publications. It has truly been a learning experience for me because while I once would on occasion work for free I now rarely do so, and only because I now understand the financial value of what I do, and what I am giving away.
I have been fortunate, too, as most publishers, editors and organizations (such as this one) have always paid me fairly for my writing services, contributing to my understanding of the market and helping me to develop the confidence I needed to request payment for the content I generate – but there are some who are less willing to pay, and why is that? Why do we value the arts less than plumbing? Would we ever believe a plumber should work for free or do we recognize they are trying to make a living from their craft just as writers, actors, singers, painters and the like do from theirs?
It is a troubling question as somewhere along the way we have lost the understanding that the arts have value and that artists are individuals who spend time, money and energy honing and refining their craft. We seem to have lost the concept of arts as a skilled trade, seeing them as a frippery to be subsidized by government instead and devaluing those who pursue them. We try to bribe them to work for free with mythical concepts like increasing their exposure without ever acknowledging that unless we learn to value the arts in a financial way no amount of exposure will allow them to earn a living at their chosen craft. We have romanticized the vision of the “starving artist” living in a loft, gaunt and pale, struggling to survive instead of seeing this as an indictment of what is wrong with our view on the arts.
As I mentioned above I am passionate about this topic, and hence my decision to participate in a panel on Sunday evening that was lively, enlightening and at moments alternately funny and deeply disturbing. My fellow panelists, Sean McLennan (photographer) and Misha Albert (actor) come from different areas of the arts and as such some of our experiences are similar while others are different. I had a chance to learn more about the creative economy from their perspective and how the devaluing of the arts has impacted them personally and professionally, and we had the opportunity to share our experiences with an audience of other individuals involved in the arts. One of the things I noted, though, was the need to take this dialogue even further, to explore it in my work to help the general public understand that the creative arts are a profession no less worthy of financial compensation than lawyers, doctors and plumbers.
Has the artist been paid? This is a question we should ask when we realize we are enjoying the output of any creative individual, whether they are a singer, a writer, a photographer, a painter, an actor or any of the rest. Has the artist received financial compensation – not a promise of exposure – for their work? Have they been recognized in the same way every professional wishes to be recognized? Until we ask ourselves this question – not just artists, but all of us – we have not learned the true value of the arts. And sadly until we do the answer to the question is just as likely to be no as it is to be yes. Follow me on Twitter @mcmurraymusings