The starving artist. It’s a cliché based in fact. It’s a three-word cautionary tale which deters some people from pursuing their dream of being a painter, a poet, a filmmaker, a musician or an author.
However, not everyone is turned off by the threat of poverty – especially in the modern age when technology can set up anyone who failed high school English as an author. They just need to get a CreateSpace account and they think they are the next Hunter S. Thompson or J.K. Rowling and anyone who has ever seen a guitar can pick it up, record a few songs on their cellphone and release an album on Spotify, selling themselves as the next Kurt Cobain.
In an interview in a book published by RE/Search Publications, Henry Rollins, the former singer of the seminal Los Angeles punk band Black Flag turned poet, author, publisher, actor, comedian and journalist, described his frustration with the ease of producing his own products.
“I think there are a lot more players and a lot more pretenders to the throne now,” he said. “That is where this new access to communication kind of kicks you in the teeth because even the mediocre can make their thing look really good. I see a lot of independent books and I open them up and they’re really bad. It would make you not want to pay attention to the underground book world when you see some of these books – they suck! And why did that book come out? Because anyone can lay out and design a book at home now.”
When I posted a message on Facebook asking why artists accept the promise of exposure as payment, Terry Mills, a Mississauga-based filmmaker, responded by describing the art world as “a town with too many restaurants.”
“How many artists could the market really bear?” he asked. “Sometimes I dwell on the old saying “Ars gratia artis” which translates to “art for art’s sake.”
Ron Reyes, who was also a Black Flag singer, agrees with the “art for art’s sake” train of thought. He said if it’s what you are compelled to do, and you can do it then do it.
“Many of my all-time favourite bands died broke,” he said. “But, they did what they did because they loved what they did. And their legacy survived. Many of these bands made recordings that have lived on … and thankfully have inspired countless disenfranchised youth. They played, they wrote, they recorded, they died. That is the circle of life in music. If by chance you were able to pay some bills along the way with your art, count yourself lucky and amongst the .001 per cent club.”
Crystal Smith, a Brantford, Ont. actor, has seen a negative affect through word-of-mouth promotion since she did some work with the promise of exposure as payment.
“Working for exposure has had some negative effects,” she said. “When word gets out you have a habit of doing this everyone wants you to work for free … In my opinion if a promoter, filmmaker or business is making money to put into their pocket you deserve a cut of that money. I feel exposure is now used as a way for promoters and businesses to make a bigger profit while making the performers and artists reach for the carrot exposure promises to provide.”
Ottawa, Ont. musician Steve Adamyk said being asked to work for exposure is just another word for “for free.”
“So, unless you’re opening for Metallica, the answer should be screw you,” he said. “Even if you were opening for Metallica, there’d be money to go around. The only exception is if it’s a benefit gig, free show or if the promoter isn’t making money. Moral: if someone is making profit, so should you … Not being paid isn’t an issue per se, it’s where the money is going that’s most important.”
Jordan McClelland, a concert promoter and radio DJ in London, Ont. never takes money from the shows he promotes and does not entice local bands to play with the promise of exposure.
“I always pay the travelling bands first and at least give the locals something,” he said. “Half the time the locals give their cut to the travelling band.”
Kitchener’s Terre Chartrand, an artist who has found a way to make her living primarily off her artistic endeavours, warns that “you can die from exposure.”
The Religious Society of Friends building in Kitchener is like any other repurposed old house on Frederick Street between the Conestoga Parkway and downtown. Well, not quite. Most of the other houses have been turned into law offices but this one balances its use between the Quakers’ religious services and art studios.
Chartrand, a regular renaissance woman who runs workshops, writes plays, makes an array of visual arts, dabbles in digital arts, and has single-handedly raised a couple of kids on a shoestring budget, pours a couple of coffees in the small kitchen near the back of the large old house which has stood near Kitchener’s core for over 100 years. The first room off the kitchen looks like your grandmother’s dining room has been converted into a meeting room with a cozy forgettable blue couch, loveseat and recliner set. The main floor also has a large living room which has been filled with rows of folding seats where the Quakers hold their services.
Chartrand said they might start holding small concerts there because they have been given full use of the entire space, except on Sundays.
Upstairs are the studios where the creative minds work. There are plastic hampers filled with many colours of fabric and other materials in the process of being turned into art, but the chaos is contained and orderly.
An old ping pong table sits in the centre of the largest room with many seats around it. Although quiet and empty now, Chartrand she said the indigenous children who often sit in them learning and creating their own art bring the room to life.
Chartrand, who’s background is Algonquin, does a lot of work with the local indigenous communities.
“I’m a full-time artist,” she said. “I run a company called Pins and Needles Fabric Company. I’m a visual artist and a playwright.”
A typical day for Chartrand includes meetings with organizations like the City of Kitchener or artists she is collaborating with. She tries to keep these meetings scheduled for the morning.
Her day often begins in a café at 8 a.m., where she studies her day planner making sure she can make all her appointments.
As an artist she doesn’t have a lot of extra money so one way to save is to do without a car. This means she must schedule walking time or public transportation if she is leaving the downtown core.
A few times a month she travels to Toronto for meetings. As often as possible she packs all them into one day.
“If I have time I’ll go see friends at work or at galleries to see what the landscape is like,” she said. “That is pretty important.”
She describes her living as basic.
“Most years I don’t clear $20,000.” Chartrand said. “For a single income with two kids it’s pretty tight but we make do. It works.”
Chartrand said there was a period of about 10 years when her income was probably less than $10,000 per year.
She made use of social housing, cheap rent through friends and lived in a co-op to get by.
“Usually it’s off the back of a community,” Chartrand said as she described making ends meet during the lean times. “A lot of artists have friends or family who help them out. I come from a family where we’re generationally poor, so I haven’t had financial support.”
The progression to get to where she is at now, a level of income where she can usually make ends meet, was fueled by a determination to make it despite the poverty.
“There were times when there was no food except for the kids,” she said. “There’s times when we relied on food banks and community kitchens.”
She said she had to push herself to be persistent.
“It’s really easy to quit,” she said.
Chartrand is now introducing digital media into her art. Learning how to do that means she has to learn to use experimental technology.
In addition to spending up to 40 a week on her art, she estimates 20 to 40 hours a week gets spent on grant writing for up to four months of the year. She applies for a wide variety of grants from many sources such as the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, Ontario Arts Council, Musagetes Foundation (a Guelph-based foundation promoting the arts and artistic creativity as tools for social transformation), the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts.
“If you stop painting for four weeks you start to lose skills – your work suffers for it. So, it’s a matter of balancing so you can accomplish everything over a week,” she said.
During this grant writing
“All that means is I’m good at telling funders what they need to hear, and my projects hit a certain level of novelty,” she said.
Chartrand spoke of the market for art being a place where buyers think they can haggle.
“When you pay for art you don’t just pay for the week it took to create it,” she said. “You pay for the 30 years of experience and expertise. You are also paying for my name which will have an increase in value.”
She said you don’t get that increase in value without being known as an expert in the field.
“So, it’s undervaluing creative expertise for the sake of getting a deal on a commodity,” she said. “I find that inappropriate. That’s why I say – respect my pricing.”
Chartrand bases her pricing on time spent, size of material (some of the paper she uses for painting can be up to $70 per sheet), the cost of brushes, paint, lighting, water and other incidentals.
“There is also my time,” she said. “As an expert in my field, I’m going to say any artist who is capable of selling any of their work is an expert in their field. If you are telling me that an expert should only earn minimum wage, then I am going to say that is wildly inappropriate.”
The large pieces Chartrand makes take two to three weeks of work, so she charges between $2,000 and $3,000 for those.
“If I sell a piece like that after each completion I think my income would probably be, after I take my costs off, about $25,000 per year,” she said.
Chartrand wasn’t sure she agreed with artists who say art is now being devalued because it’s easier now to make art, which in turn leads to a glut of people who claim to be artists.
“I think art has always been devalued,” she said.
She mentioned stores like Ikea that sell prints for $100 or less, asking why people would buy an original when they can get an affordable print that will match whatever sofa they have that season.
“There is a whole group of art I call sofa art because it’s very much geared around trends,” she said. “Ikea fits into that. HomeSense fits into that too. You can walk into any Value Village and you can find last season’s Ikea and HomeSense paintings by the yard. Whereas, good original art you rarely find at Value Village.”
Michael Del Vecchio, a London, Ont. musician and promoter, pointed out the reason some artists may get offered exposure and not guaranteed pay is because they value their work more highly than the public does.
“Coming from both the artist and promoter side,” he said, “artists are generally completely out to lunch when it comes to what they think they are worth.”
Chartrand also keeps busy by holding art workshops with i
She is being paid to run this workshop, but she runs volunteer workshops as well.
Typical unpaid requests she will say no to are when what she refers to as “high calibre not-for-profits” expect artists to contribute time and work to galas and fundraisers.
“I am categorically against that because artists make less than any of their staff,” she said. “Artists make less than many of the people those charities help. There have been times when I have been asked to contribute work to a charity auction and I’ve thought – ‘Wow, I use your service as a poor person and now you are asking me to give my product for free.’ They are just contributing to a cycle of poverty when they do that.”
Dave Tanner, a musician who has found a balance between performing his original music and paying his bills by playing the role of Paul McCartney in several Beatles tribute acts, replied to a Facebook post regarding exposure as payment for artists. His problem with exposure as payment was the expectation artists need to accept unpaid work.
“What I don’t like about it is the expectation everyone must play or work for exposure for years before anything can happen,” he said. “I get paying dues, and I’ve done it. But the thought an artist simply must survive on zilch for years is defeating. Art is subjective anyway, but for subjectivity to automatically translate to zero is not right.”
Chartrand said she has no problem when other artists donate their work to these “high-calibre not-for-profits” although she does think it adds to the devaluing of the entire market.
“When artists do that we teach organizations our work doesn’t have value,” she said.
She will offer pieces at basic cost.
“A piece I normally charge $500 for I might charge $250,” she said. “That’s half off.”
Chartrand finds it difficult to price work and sometimes she feels bad doing it. So, when she asks people to respect her pricing she has put a lot of thought into doing it fairly.
“You want it to sell so it has to be priced competitively,” she said. “You want to be compensated and you want to make a living because if you are not making a living you are not making art. You move on to non-arts related work.”
She feels there is value in the work artists contribute to society.
There was a time when Chartrand took a break from creating visual arts and she could only describe that period as awful.
“There is an innate need to create things,” she said. “I think a lot of artists have that. Yes, it’s a job but it’s also a vocation. I often joke we’re like monks, but we don’t need to take all the vows … we don’t need to be poor, but we are … there’s a portion of it that’s a calling. Why else would anyone go through a life of poverty if they are not called to do it.”
Chartrand’s work touches on issues of race, disability and identity.
“Everyone has a story to tell and as an artist, whether I’m working with other people to facilitate their stories or I’m telling my own story – when I say working with other people to tell their stories I’m never like, ‘Hey, I’m going to write your story and make money.’ The person is along as a collaborator.”
Chartrand sees her role as teaching skills, techniques and offering encouragement to build people’s self-confidence in their ability to create.
“A lot of work I do centres around belonging,” she said. “So, whether I’m talking about queer issues, disabled identities – I’m autistic – I’m using my own learning and knowledge to create spaces where people feel they can belong.”
When talking about how there is a space for everyone she also mentioned there is an audience for everyone and in many cases a community of support for everyone too. Sometimes they just need to find it.
The incorporation of digital tech in her art has been made possible by groups in the community such as the now defunct Felt Lab in St. Jacobs. They lent out advanced equipment such as Christie Digital projectors.
The Common Studio which is part of the Working Centre helps with reasonably priced rentals for audio/video equipment.
Many artists rely on the community for supplies, but Chartrand pointed to her paint brushes as an example of something she’d be loathe to share.
“They cost a bloody fortune and I’d be worried they wouldn’t be treated properly,” she said. “For my work I need the proper tools and I need good tools.”
She said unpaid or low paid work can be necessary to establish a career but there needs to be a balance.
“I still do too much unpaid work but that’s because I’m still trying to build my company, but I think that’s part of any entrepreneurial venture,” she said.
Her latest free work is an indigenous art market which will be held June 12 to 16 at Kitchener City Hall.
“I imagine I’ll be putting 18 hours into that space without making a dime for five days in a row,” she said.
It’s a pop-up initiative and Chartrand is offering tables free of charge to the indigenous community to sell arts and crafts.
“I want this to be something which is of 100 per cent benefit to the community,” she said. “I have the time and the ability to do that so there’s an example of consciously contributing free work for the sake of a broader initiative.”
Chartrand differentiated between working for free when it is her choice and when other people expect it of her.
In her experience she has found Waterloo Region expects culture without having to contribute to it. One thing she feels stops the region from having a more vibrant art community is businesses expect entertainment without valuing it.
“Art is more than entertainment,” she said. “They are expecting a full parcel of culture without supporting any of that culture. I would say that affects the individual artist and the arts organizations. There is an expectation of culture without infrastructure or support. Waterloo Region, I think is probably one of the worst places in Canada for that.”
She has found there is more support from government agencies and individuals than businesses in the area and she said the tech sector is particularly cheap when it comes to contributing to local culture.
“It’s not because artists have not asked,” she said. “We have.”
Many artists fear
Michelle Kyle, a classically trained musician with a masters in piano from McGill University, had no problem talking about being taken advantage of by Cadbury, the multinational confectionery company.
“Cadbury hired my string quartet in Toronto for a corporate event,” she said. “They gave us chocolate, but didn’t pay our invoice; I had to pay the musicians from my own pocket and keep asking Cadbury for our pay for about three months before they did what our contract said they were required to do … They thought chocolate was enough.”
Chartrand gave Super Crawl in Hamilton as an example of a corporate community supporting the arts, but she could not think of a similar event in Waterloo Region. Not only does Super Crawl have a series of large concerts
“There is corporate philanthropy into health here and that’s great, but culture is critical,” she said. “Waterloo Region doesn’t value its stories. If it did it would pay its artists … which means it doesn’t value its identity. Your identity is built through your stories and your narrative. We don’t value who we are as people who live in this region.”