Everything costs money. Even money costs money. When you’re asked to help raise it, how do you decide if it’s worthwhile or if your generosity is being taken advantage of?
At some point every emerging artist is invited to participate in a charitable or cultural event as a partner, or reads a call for participation on sites like Akimbo or Canada Arts Connect, where their work is donated for auction— often for nothing more than the promise of exposure. Many articles have been written on whether or not participating in events like these is actually in the best interest of the artist or artists in general. I believe that each artist, depending the stage of their career, should weigh the pros and cons for each call on it’s own merit. I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years, to help make evaluating these calls easier for the emerging artist, and as a public service to help organizations write proposals that are more equitable and attractive to artists.
Over the past several years I have participated in both organizing and marketing cultural events as well as participating in them as a cultural partner— everything from Museum London’s “Museum Underground” initiative, promotions for the Grand Theatre, a brand revamp of the Fanshawe Pioneer Village, the London Poetry Slam, London Fringe’s Petite Nuit Blanche and The London Short Film Showcase’s board to name a few. Within these roles I have authored and responded to many Calls for Submission/Participation and have learned from internal and external perspectives what constitute fair proposals and which ones are simply uncompensated asks.
From my perspective, for an emerging artist these events are an opportunity for networking, marketing and audience building. As stated, often all an organization provides is the promise of exposure, but as my grizzled artist friend always likes to say “people die from exposure.” The conceptual razor that should always be used is “Is the artist being compensated?” Ultimately, as a professional artist, money is the king of all forms of compensation but there are others:
Social Capital— Perhaps you have enough money, or you simply don’t care about money. Contributing to a social cause and being publicly recognized as an all around great person is one intangible form of compensation that can be cashed in later for assistance in your own projects. Cool attracts cool. Remember, if you are planning on marketing the event via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc you are effectively giving marketing services for free to the event. Many organizations rely on this advertising, and it has a cash value to them. You are in essence lending them your social capital. Of course, if the organization has a lot more social capital than you do, more of their “whuffie” will likely get transferred back to you in the process. That’s how social capital works.
Exposure— Ah, good old exposure. Getting your name out in the marketplace is important, but make sure you get details on where the event will be advertised. How many impressions? Is there an opportunity to give a small statement or interview to a newspaper, and if so ask if you can be that person. Is the exposure primarily online? Will your name be sent to an email distribution list of the organization’s supporters? Check the organization’s social media history to ensure you want to be publicly associated. If the exposure is something that you can get without participating consider your decision carefully.
Networking— Sometimes the media exposure it not the primary benefit of participating in an event. If you are from an economically disadvantaged social class (and as an artist, let’s face it, there’s a good chance you are) then getting to rub elbows with the monied, art-buying classes is part of your compensation for giving people who don’t need a deal on art a deal.
In-kind— At the very least, an organization should be providing free entry into the event— tickets for you AND your spouse/partner— or a cash value of in-kind services/products for your donation. If the event is being sponsored by a private business, they can trade your donation for inventory which costs them less than full-market value, leaving them still ahead in the transaction while treating you fairly.
Experience— By participating are you going to have an experience you have never had or could not have otherwise? Will you get to see an amazing musical act who is sponsoring the event as well? Hear a great speaker? Go someplace you’d never be welcome otherwise? Often, the best things in life are simply the experience of being there.
Money— Cash is king. Make sure, however, that the compensation is fair. Will they pay artist’s right if it’s an exhibition opportunity? (ie. rent for displaying your art). Are they auctioning your artwork? Are they splitting the proceeds with you? Are there other cultural partners for the event such as a band, or speaker— if they are being paid so should you. Never play for free when other people are being paid.
The secret is weighing each of these forms of compensation against each other. Sometimes there’s more of one than the others, and depending on where you are in your career, financial considerations may be trumped by the others. However— never forget this— making a living is your number one goal, and to do that you need to be paid. Do everything you can to maintain fair market value for your artwork and that of your peers. Often, the number one obstacle facing artists is other artists or the artists themselves.
I often field questions from audience members at events, before, during and after. Not to belabour the point (I want to make sure you get it), the number one question from patrons who bid on artwork is I have fielded is “Are the artists paid?” Patrons who bid on artwork often express their disappointment if none of the money raised is directed towards the artists. Other commenters have expressed the opinion that they would bid higher on specific pieces if they had know that some of the money goes to the artists.
One individual, who has been a past patron of my art, has stated that they are always happy to bid higher than they know they know they could secure my artwork for at an event, simply knowing the fair market value of the work. (They know who they are and how much I appreciate their candour and generosity.)
Before determining is a call is fair compensation don’t forget to consider all your expenses: Who is paying for insurance of the work? Who is responsible for shipping costs?
Pay to play— this is the simplest. A straight up fee is paid to the artist for the value of the artwork, or services rendered. Ensure all of your costs are being met— you should NEVER have to pay to participate, or incur material or service costs you cannot recuperate.
Tax Receipts— Sometimes an organization really is hard up for money, but would like to compensate you for the value of your work. If you anticipate that you may have to pay tax this year, or if you still want to help despite not being paid, most charities are only too happy to write a tax receipt for the market value of your donation. Don’t be shy— value your work accordingly.
Split proceeds silent auction— This is perhaps the most common model I see. Your art is auctioned and a percentage goes to you, and a percentage to the event. I cannot say this enough times— the artist’s split should always be greater than the organization’s. Period. You incurred the expenses, you did the work, you should get paid fairly. Understanding that there is a fixed cost to produce your artwork, ask to set a reserve bid if they aren’t already doing so. That way, if the artwork doesn’t sell you will at least incur no costs. If the reserve bid is not met then you get to keep your art. Simple.
Reserve and surplus— This take on the silent auction is a personal favourite. You set a reserve bid— I recommend full market value— and you get to keep the full amount of the reserve bid if it’s met, and the organization keeps the full amount over and above the reserve. Everybody wins.
Tithed— Sometimes, an organization, particularly if it’s an art show and sale, will have a charitable partner they are planning to support. In this case, all sales are handled by the event in your name, and you pay a percentage back to the event. The genius of this approach is that not only do you set your price, but you are often eligible for a tax receipt for your tithe from the beneficiary charity. It’s like the icing on the cake.
One last word regarding auctions, there is always a min-max analysis that an experienced venue or organization can do over time to fine-tune the ratio of profit sharing appropriate to a silent auction that most gainfully respects the fund-raising goals, fair artist compensation and the innate need for bidders to understand how their funds are allocated. Sometimes, at best, a publicly-advertised revenue-sharing can encourage more and higher bids, and more importantly can curtail the worst-case scenario where a target audience perceives an event to be inequitable, driving down ticket sales and impacting other fund-raising initiatives as a result.
An Alternative Approach— Timeraiser
One organization who organizes the fairiest and most productive calls for participation is Timeraiser. Their model is a four-ring circus:
Timeraiser— pays full market value for donated artwork to the artist, with funds raised from corporate sponsors. Timeraiser then organizes events where patrons bid with volunteer hours for the artwork.
Charitable partners— are the ultimate recipients of the donations. They receive volunteers from the event who have one year to complete their time commitment to the charity in exchange for the artwork.
Corporate sponsors— donate money to the event, and in return get media exposure and possession of the artwork to decorate their offices during the year while the volunteers complete their pledged hours.
Patrons— get a fun night out on the town, get to network with non-profits, get to feel that warm glow from doing good and at the end of the year receive a “free” work of art.
Win. Win. Win. Win.
What really prompted me to share all of this with you was a call for participation I recently received from the Canadian Diabetes Association/Banting House to participate in this year’s annual “Banting and Friends” fundraiser. Sir Frederick Banting himself was an artist and avid supporter and patron of the arts— friend of the Group of Seven no less— who understood the need for artists to be compensated fairly. As you surely know, the average salary of a professional artist in Canada is much lower than the average salary in almost any other field, and artists are sadly perhaps one of the economic groups least likely to be able to afford to give charitably, who are one of the most often asked, and who are surprisingly, among the most willing to do so when called.
Banting House has produced one of the fairest, most considered and equitable calls for participation I have seen in my long arts-related career, spanning nearly 22 years of active professional support, personal practice and volunteerism. In particular, I was most impressed by the section they have drafted on institutional responsibilities. I think it most eloquently expresses what is considered the best practices in such endeavours.
I have included the call here so you can read it for yourself.
In closing, there are many ways for an artist to be compensated. When evaluating any opportunities that pass your way keep in mind that if you want to eat, you need to be paid. As long as you let yourself be treated unfairly then there will always be starving artists— and nobody really wants that— least of all us, the artists.