Commentary: Why are (most) visual artists (so fucking) poor?

William Powhida,, 4/23/12

[In April,] W.A.G.E. presented the results of its survey of payments received by artists who exhibited with nonprofit art institutions in New York City between 2005 and 2010. The survey found that 58% of artists who responded received "no form of payment." The audience asked questions critical of the survey methodology, but did not refute the group's findings. That artists should be remunerated for their cultural value in capital value is one of W.A.G.E.'s positions. The counter-arguments include the belief that artists will eventually be paid through the sales of the work in the commercial market and that nonprofits do not have the budgets to pay artists. W.A.G.E. rejects the positioning of the artist as speculator and seeks to address the agreements between nonprofits and artists regarding fees with their certification program. One audience member brought up the underlying issue of exploitation. This is one of the more controversial issues that connects W.A.G.E's certification efforts to the broader critiques of free labor such as unpaid internships [in the art world] recently reported by Hyperallergic. While the market certainly works for some artists to different degrees, it is also a system where very few artists are paid incredibly high prices and most artists profit very little from their practice, if they are able to sell anything at all. Art [is] often internally motivated and done out of passion, not the expectation of getting rich, but that is not the same as being paid something. W.A.G.E. is not asking for society to pay all artists or the government to provide subsidies. The group is asking for exhibiting artists to be paid for their role in educating the public through artistic practices, or in their words to "make the world more interesting," in the specific context of nonprofit arts institutions.


Related: People are willing to be poor if that's what it takes to be an artist

Robert Boyd, The Great God Pan Is Dead blog, 4/24/12

I am on the board of Frenticore/Frenetic Theater. When we put on a show, we pay performers. Why would an art exhibit at a non-profit space be different? But a performance is different. First, it's expected that the theater will charge people to see it. And more important, the performance itself is the work. A visual artist, by contrast, has something physical to sell. So the theory is that for an artist, being in a show at a non-profit space gives you exposure with which you can then leverage to sell physical artworks. The question is whether this justifies no payment at all from the non-profit venue. I don't think so. The institution [isn't] showing this work as a favor to the artist. They are like any other venue for creative work. One argument that a non-profit [gallery] might make is that they don't have a lot of money. And with certain exceptions, this is true. I don't expect non-profit art spaces, as a class, to suddenly conjure thousands of dollars out of thin air to pay artists. But they should pay artists, and the money needs to be taken from within the institution. Maybe this means fewer shows per year, or a smaller staff or less marketing. It would be a real sacrifice. I'm not denying it. But as someone who sits on the board of a non-profit that pays its artists, I know it can be done. One wonders how it got to this state. But the answer is economically obvious. More people want to be artists than there is demand for art. In fact, people are willing to be poor if that's what it takes to be artists. It's one of those professions that attract way more people than can be reasonably paid. So this makes it a buyers' market -- and non-profit art spaces essentially rent artfor six weeks or so at a time. And right now, the rent they pay is close to zero. That should change.


Commentary: With less work/funding available, who will step up to help artists?

Susan Jones of a-n, The Artists Information Company, Culture Professionals Network, 5/16/12

During 2011, artists began to say they were finding it very much harder to make ends meet. There seemed to be less work around to bid for and unremunerated opportunities were on the increase. We now have the data to prove it. [a-n's report] Artists' Work In 2011 uses data [about] awards and fellowships, academic posts, art vacancies, commissions, exhibitions, residencies, competitions and prizes to identify trends. Findings include:

* The overall value of work to [UK] artists in 2011 was only marginally better than the 2008 recession year in which the total value of openly-offered work dropped by 60%

* Only 36% of jobs and opportunities in 2011 offered to pay anything to artists, in comparison with 57% doing this in the recession year of 2008

* Jobs in higher and further education, including lecturing, research and technical salaried posts amounted to 27% of all paid work on offer in 2011 (34% in 2010)

* Residencies that make up 2% of the value of all work offered in 2011 paid an average fee of less than 2,000, in contrast with 5,600 paid in 2010 and 6,342 in 2007

* In 2011, nearly half of all work openly offered to visual and applied artists came from the public sector arts and higher or further education, all facing further cuts and squeezes in 2012

Changes in Arts Council England's funding priorities mean many visual arts organisations dedicated to supporting artists' career development have been cut and need new ways to support themselves. So whose responsibility is it to invest in the great artists of the future? The US is often cited as a glowing example for arts philanthropy but a recent report from W.A.G.E. suggests room for improvement there too: "The NEA devotes less than 2% of its meager budget to direct grants to individual artists. State arts agencies spend only 3% of their grant dollars on individual artists. The bulk of philanthropy in the arts goes to only 2% of the nation's arts institutions, who are among those with the largest budgets. And we know that many of those institutions don't pay the artists whose work they show. Everybody keeps shifting the responsibility of sustaining artists to some other group; meanwhile, the money keeps finding its way into the coffers of the few who hold the most power and the purse strings."


Commentary: Musicians face challenges making money in emerging markets

Attorney/law professor Caz McChrystal, Future of Music Coalition blog, 5/14/12

The musicians I represent aren't being offered multi-million dollar record deals that land them on the cover of Rolling Stone or in a mansion atop the Hollywood hills. Quite frankly, I'm not sure those deals exist other than in an idealized memory of what the record industry looked like in its days of excessive hedonism. So where does that leave work-a-day musicians - the ones that actually make music for a living? On the composition and sound recording side, licensing and distribution deals are getting smaller, each netting less pay than in years past. That is the bad news. The good news is that there are infinitely more opportunities out there. However, as deals get smaller, a musician must both look farther afield to earn her money and make the most of every deal that comes her way by avoiding costly mistakes. Rather than relying on a record label or large publishing house to distribute and license their music abroad, musicians are increasingly setting up their own distribution networks in foreign territories and handling film, television, and other forms of licensing on their own. That's where attorneys like me step in.  New revenue streams generated by uses in foreign markets that would have been beyond most musicians' reach a decade ago have proven a boon for the folks I represent. However, international transactions present concerns that are both nonobvious and brutal for the unwary. One in particular blind-sided me when it first came up: foreign currencies and exchange rates.


Commentary: Musical artists should avoid Spotify; it pays very little

Paul Resnikoff, publisher/founder of Digital Music News, 4/12/12

When it comes to artist pages, Spotify 'play' buttons are mostly good for Spotify, not the artist.And after wading through months of intense debates involving Spotify's artist compensation (or lack thereof), this one doesn't seem that complicated. Here are just a few reasons why:

(1) Spotify pays fractions of a penny.  You can make more in other ways, even if cash isn't directly involved. For example, swapping a download for an email seems like a better deal than 'sonifying' with Spotify. 

(2) Other formats pay more - a lot more. A breakdown was offered recently by Uniform Motion based on their receipts. [Spotify paid musicians 4 cents compared to $2.60 via, $6.80 via and $8.59 via iTunes.]

(3) Spotify enables discovery, but this isn't discovery anymore! Once [people find] your page or app, they've already discovered you. It's not background noise anymore. So monetize that fan, instead of pushing your fan to a platform unlikely to produce any meaningful revenue.

(4) What happens after engagement? Engagement is good and important; engagement in the form of buying stuff is more important.

(5) There are other ways to embed streams (without the baggage). You can easily integrate on-demand streams of your music into your site, without the strings and issues that Spotify presents. This is now 'off-the-shelf' technology; and optimally the service itself is in the background - and encourages engagement with higher-revenue formats.

Your site should not be a pitch to subscribe to Spotify -- which is what a Play Button ultimately encourages. Getting subscribers is Spotify's problem, not yours. And if they really want to convert your hard-earned fans, let them pay you to advertise.

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