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In the meantime, pay artists what we’re worth.

Posted on May 07 2018

If you prefer this article is also published on Medium and Linkedin.
I read Why One Woefully Underpaid Philly Actress Exposed Her Income on Tax Day, originally posted on April 18, 2018 on Phillymag.com and felt the need to respond. The interview frames an artist only making $16k a year in taxable income as acceptable and positive. A sub-poverty level income should not be celebrated, but reflects a serious problem in Philadelphia. The romantic framing of happiness as a reward for artwork is a harmful narrative which spans across many creative communities, and hurts people who deserve to make a living.

One artist’s comfort level is many others’ struggle.

$16,000 taxable income might be okay for some, especially people like Jess with a strong network she can rely on, but for most that is far from close to living a comfortable life. My rent alone is $12,900 a year and expected to increase as Philadelphia becomes a more popular place to live. This does not include utilities, student loans, health insurance, car payments, travel expenses, general cost of living including, food, etc. I could go on.

Moreover, most artists are freelancers. As freelancers, we have to put a lot of our time and the money we earn back into work supplies, costumes, computer expenses, studio rentals, and more. Philadelphia’s policy for paying tax for the upcoming year means that a rare good-earning year doesn’t even help, as you pay twice the increase in your taxes.

Philly is a city for arts organizations. Not Artists.

Philadelphia is known as a great arts city, but that love is largely reserved for visible organizations and institutions. There’s not much support for independent artists living and working in our city. Galleries are few and far between, and most of their sales are to buyers outside Philadelphia. This means there is next to no art-buying culture here, which means the few patrons that exist don’t properly value our work.

Many of these opportunities focus on what the artists can do for them, not what they can do for the artists - other than provide space. For instance, forthcoming rentable artist studios openly advertise studio space (which minimal costs are around $300/month) to artists who are guaranteed visibility. The artists and their displayed art contribute to the space’s appeal which creates an attraction for locals and tourists. In places like this, the artists are expected to act as advertisement to the venue, who then brings in other higher-paying corporate clients. The artists do not get a cut from this. So, the artists greatly benefit the organization, but have to pay to do so in their time and out of pocket costs to just receive a lottery ticket with a possibility of selling work. Artists are interior decorators they don’t have to pay.

Between these studios and festivals, artists are told to spend money to promote their work, but are given no resources or opportunities to make money. Rentable studios, festivals and dues for collectives are popping up everywhere with high prices, and it’s extremely rare to cover those costs with art sales alone.

Artists’ time is extremely undervalued.

If you want your house painted or need something fixed, you hire somebody to do the task. They invoice you, you pay. But when it comes to paying an artist or designer whose service adds significant value to revitalizing neighborhoods, making venues pop, providing much frothed-over entertainment for the weekend, making new companies generate interest and old companies rebrand for new business, designing our clothes, designing the furniture we use every day, there are completely different expectations.

With rare exceptions, when I meet with somebody for a job or commission, it’s immediately met with “we don’t have a budget for that”. I tend to hear this phrase, too: “it’s not about money, it’s just about having fun”, and “this will be great exposure for you and lead to more opportunities”. Ask any artist and I bet they have heard the same. At some point, all of us sometimes give up and work for free because it’s what’s expected of us. There isn’t much choice.

This is across creative industries and media: fine art, graphic design, illustration, performance and theatre, music, interior design, fashion, video production. The result of creativity is all around us, no one is exempt from creative influence. So why don’t we value independent creators?

By undervaluing creativity, we’re hurting ourselves and missing opportunities to build together.

When an artist is scraping by and sweating over how to eat this week, we’re taking all the energy away from what we excel at. Without support to experiment or opportunities to elevate their craft, the entire city slows down while others speed forward.

Stifling creativity by undervaluing the time and effect art can have, we lose opportunities for larger experiences in entertainment to choose from and we halt creative businesses from opening and thriving. It’s a big hit to our economy and drives locals away to experience this elsewhere instead of attracting tourist here.

It also only give voices to the privileged and financially stable artists here who are able to afford the costs and time of the few opportunities available. This means we only get the kinds of art made by people who can afford not to earn money.

So how do we turn this around?

Simply put… PAY ARTISTS. If you are going to be involved with something that deals with utilizing the skills, talent and attraction that artists can provide, make sure the compensation for the artists is thought out and provided. 

Businesses and organizations need to shift their thinking when working with artists. Artists are content creators which can be used for marketing and advertising the organization they are working with.

Philadelphia also strongly lacks any media coverage of the arts especially individual artists. Without a connection or education on the many creatives that call Philadelphia their home, it’s easier to think the artist doesn’t matter. Media focusing on the artists can create a connection to them and hold companies and organizations accountable for paying what the value of the project is. Through interviews, process documentation and other forms of media, artists can help create awareness and connect with different audiences and communities.

The great thing about Philly creatives is the camaraderie and encouragement to be the best.

The special bonds creatives have here is more than just all being in similar tough situations of financial struggles. We encourage each other to continue to push ourselves to do our best work and be the best people we can be.

I see very little competition here, but instead excitement for each others’ accomplishments. If we are able to eliminate the struggle and being devalued then we will see a lot more incredible collaborations across genres. Give artists freedom to create comfortably and what will result from that will be something that you have never seen before.

Find fulfillment however you can. But in the meantime, pay us what we’re worth.

I’ve been an artist and designer in Philadelphia for more than 18 years. Even writing this takes away from billable hours in my usual 15 hour work day.

This is not a rebuttal to Jess Conda, this is a response to the system. When we only tell stories of artists making it work for themselves, we skip over the negative parts of their struggle and tie it up in a happy bow. I’m tired of skipping over the serious struggle in this equation, and avoiding that reality will cost us that creative community that we boast so much about.

Jess is a remarkable artist, and I believe her when she says she is comfortable and happy. However, artists all over Philadelphia are struggling, and high visibility publications should not enforce the starving artist narrative as being normal, satisfactory or status quo.

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