"Experience teaches only the teachable." -- Aldous Huxley
Do I always have to learn the hard way? I recently asked a curator for the return of work I had sent her in the spring. She was confused. Evidently my contract stipulated that the work was to be "donated" to the art center. Didn't I know?! I had read the contract, but nothing was highlighted, boldfaced or clearly written that the work was to become the exclusive property of this art center upon shipment to them. This was equally clear as mud in the curator's emails. Biggest shocker was to learn that my work had sold at the art center's benefit. I haven't a clue as to who bought the piece, let alone receive a thank you from the director for participating. What I received was a small stipend in the summer that didn't even cover the cost of my materials. I should be grateful. The curator's response to my anger at feeling so duped, "Well, I was surprised that you spent so much time on the piece. It was lovely work."
Frivilous comments don't put food on my table. Money does. I had spent 60+ hours making the piece, not including the cost of materials and shipping. I received less for it than if I had actually donated it and been able to write off the donation on my taxes. The meager stipend guarentees that I can't write off the piece.
Worst yet was hearing from the curator and a colleague who had joined us for dinner that they don't think artists should necessarily recoup the cost of their labor in the sale of a work. When asked if they expected to be paid when they taught, curated shows or did other art administrative work, their response was affirmative, but for some reason artists should give away their time. Their labor and experience shouldn't be a part of the equation.
For some reason I've been hearing over and over that artists create just for the joy of it. This somehow then implies that we shouldn't care if we are paid as enough satisfaction is derived from the process of making and exhibiting. A sale of work is pure gravy. Frankly, I am fed up with this train of thought and the sooner artists ban together to insist on real wages, the sooner we will receive respect and earn what we should. But I despair in thinking that I'm fairly alone in this line of thinking.
My mother loved to cook. She cooked for her family. She also owned a restaurant and cooked for others. She found joy in the process and loved to see others happy eating her food, but she clearly expected to be paid and indeed did receive money for her creative endeavors. No one quibbled at her prices. No one said she should be satisfied giving away her talent. Her art is one that feeds the body, mine feeds the soul. Maybe I'm just a stubborn old dog, because I don't get what the difference is as both provide nourishment.
There was a Chicago Tribune article a decade or so ago about an artist living near one of the housing projects who earned a comfortable income from painting murals in project apartments. People who were at the bottom of the economic ladder found value in his art. They needed to have it in their lives and paid for it. I wish I could find my copy of the article. It clearly blows apart the notion that art is an exlusive of the wealthy who have extraneous income, let alone that art is not a necessity.
Another news report that sticks in my mind aired on NPR a month before the US invaded Iraq. There was a sudden rush on the purchase of art at galleries. The reasons given for purchasing weren't economic, but emotional. The collectors knew what horrors were soon to come and wanted to know that a little beauty would remain in their lives.
I can't do much to change how the art world works, but I can tighten up my response to it. I'm always a stickler for reading contracts, but based on this recent situation, I obviously need to have a lawyer review them each and every time. As this is an expensive enterprise, it may mean I exhibit less frequently. I can't afford a legal review for every exhibition I've been involved with in the past year, but I can't afford to give away my art either. I'm not going to bother quibbling further with the curator or the art center. They aren't worth my time. I will simply chalk this experience as a teachable moment and try to do better in the future.