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Should Artists Ever Work for Free?

Should Artists Ever Work for Free?

Amy Wilson

This post is a little different from the kind of thing I’ve been writing lately, but I thought it might be helpful to young artists out there. Some of my absolutely favorite students have graduated over the last couple of years, which means that I’ve been getting pleas for advice on how to navigate through this crazy art world of ours. I can’t say I’m an expert by any means; it’s one big learning process and you have to sort of make it up as you go along, adjusting and adapting all the time.

What I’ve written below are a few things I have learned from either bad experiences of my own when I was starting out – and they’re exactly the sort of thing I hear my students going through.

So, I’ve tried to write this in open enough language that it can be applied to freelancing or showing your work, or even other situations, but here are some red-flags that should let you know to be cautious. Obviously, you have to judge every opportunity as it comes to you and there are no hard-and-fast rules. But that’s why it’s a red-flag – it’s an indication that maybe something is wrong, so you need to find out more before you blindly proceed on faith:

1. You are asked to work for free, or to participate in an exhibition you normally wouldn’t, or to pay for something you usually wouldn’t, under the theory that “It will be good exposure for your work.”

Whenever anyone uses the expression “it will be good exposure for your work,” alarm bells ought to go off in your head – it is probably the phrase most overused by sleazeballs in the art world. It is entirely possible that the person telling you this is correct; on the other hand, a lot of disreputable people hide behind this very vague assertion as a way to screw over young artists. Artists are known for doing anything to get exposure to their work, including but not limited to paying people to represent them (yes, this happens) and appearing in really crappy reality TV shows.

If someone says that your participation in something would be “good exposure,” you should ask them how and inquire about the specifics. No one worth working with will be intimidated or put off by your questions if you ask them politely (even if they’re pointed questions); most people looking to rip you off will find their stories falling apart under scrutiny. Think about what sort of audience you want for your work, and what sort of audience you will get in exchange for this opportunity.

2. You are asked to accept less money than you would reasonably expect for your work, under the assumption that if things work out, you’ll be working together a lot or “this could lead to future gigs”.

Right. See, the thing is that this is a really crappy way to start out a business relationship. Instead of starting it out with everyone being really honest with what they need and want, you have a situation where the artist is bending over backwards to help out the businessperson who, in exchange, has absolutely no obligation to help out the artist long-term.

Think of it this way: Would you ever start out a romantic relationship with someone where you tell them, “For our first date, we can do whatever you want to do, as long as you promise me you’ll keep me in mind for other dates?”

(Now, bear in mind that young artists do have to build up portfolios and client bases and do have to be flexible and supportive of other young people out there trying to make a go of their businesses and that sort of thing, but the good rule of thumb to use is this: Does this situation make you feel gross? Like you’ve been used? Because if it does, don’t do it. No amount of future work will ever make that gross feeling go away. Do you feel good about the project; is it the sort of thing you genuinely want to do and you’re just bending a bit to help out someone who you know well and have a real connection to? In that case, it might be okay to do this.)

3. You ask the gallery/dealer/client for some kind of written-out agreement for what has been discussed between you two, and the gallery/dealer/client either: A. Rolls his or her eyes and sighs deeply; B. Exclaims, “That’s not how we do business in the real world!” and makes you feel incredibly awkward for even asking; or C. Refuses to do it.

If any of the above options (or a combination thereof): Run. Run as fast as you can from that place and don’t ever look back, except to warn your friends.

The truth of the matter is that contracts and written agreements are rarely used in the art world. This is not a good business practice, but it’s honestly what happens. However, if you want to have a written out agreement of what has been discussed in terms of pricing, commission, and so forth (and you should want this, at least early in your relationship with the person you’re working with), it’s your right to have it and no one should make you feel crappy for requesting it. It’s 100% reasonable and the whole thing should take about five minutes to do. And do you really want to work with someone who can’t be bothered to give you five minutes of their time?

4. The gallery/dealer/client goes way out of his or her way to point out what a favor they are doing for you by working with you.

Again, to put it in dating terms, would you ever date anyone who says, “Sure, I’ll go out with you – but just to be clear, I’m doing you a huge favor because you’re really beneath me”?

The truth is, galleries put a lot on the line when they take on an artist, but the same is true about artists who join a gallery (substitute dealer or client for gallery as you see fit). What we’re talking about is a mutually beneficial situation for all parties, or it’s one that’s highly dysfunctional – it’s one or the other, period. Either both you and the person you’re working with get something good out of the deal or you should both walk away.

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