The Real Cost of Being an Artist / by Chris Hall

Recently I got a job in an art supply store.  I am thankful for the work, and my employers and coworkers are great people, but I can not help but to feel a little ill compensated for my expertise and knowledge.  I spend the bulk of my day consulting other artists on all sorts of materials.  Specialized knowledge in arts should be properly compensated, just as lawyers, mechanics, carpenters, doctors, and engineers are compensated for their expertise.  I invested $75,000 and six years of my life for a formal education to get to where I am today.  It seems only fitting that this knowledge should be properly compensated.  But I would like to keep my job right now, despite the low wage, so I will not mention the employer.  Still, this situation has got me to thinking about the real cost of being an artist.

Artists should do their art out of love, yes, but this does not mean we should be open to exploitation.  Too often we are asked to do things for free, for exposure, or for promotion.  How about the next time I host a large party at my place, I ask a caterer to supply the food for free, for “the exposure.”  Do you see the double standard?  The only time I have ever done anything for free was for charity.  It is a habit I intend to keep, as I do not want to devalue my work or the work of others in my field.  This notion that artists produce their work out of some benevolent gift-giving gesture is false.  We work hard for our craft, and we desire to be properly compensated.  Artists are the same as everybody else; as humans, we have the same biological and psychological needs.  We do not live on air alone, or magic manna falling from the sky, and we do not live in trees.  We expect our sacrifices to be rewarded.

It is not just the outside world who are exploiting artists.  Those within the field are also exploiting each other, and they should know better.  I am sure that performance artist Marina Abramovic once struggled to get by (a reasonable assumption), yet she recently put out an advertisement in NYFA seeking four unpaid, skilled interns.  And this was after her “collaboration” with Adidas and her receiving over $660,000 in a Kickstarter campaign for her Marina Abramovic Institute.  The unpaid intern system of free labor should be abolished.  It is a form of slavery.  We also should not forget that many people can not afford the time to work for free.  The unpaid intern institution is a glass ceiling, as it promotes only those who can already afford it financially. 

According to artist and activist Coco Fusco, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed 1,000% since 1978.  This is not in step with median income adjusted for inflation, as more and more people are making less and less every year.  All the profits are staying at the top of the food chain.  And don't even get me started on minimum wage. . . Incidentally, where does all this tuition money go?  It certainly doesn't go to the professors.  In 1990, 75% of college professors were tenured or at least full-time with benefits.  Today, only 25% are tenured or full-time with benefits.  To cut costs, universities are relying more and more on underpaid part-time adjunct professors, without benefits or job security.  This is bad news for those of us artists who want to teach.  It seems that this, too, is becoming a not so viable employment option.

Artists go to school for the specialized training and for the luxury of being able to make art full-time.  The luxury of spending six years in school is a shortcut.  It would have taken me twice as long, if not longer, to get to where I am today as an artist, had it not been for the time I spent in school.  When you are out of school, time is hard to come by, unless you are rich.  It is becoming harder and harder just to make ends meet.  We have to work long hours and be poorly compensated.  How can we afford to have the time to create?  And sometimes the outside world can be openly hostile to artists.  If they can smell artist on you, prepare yourself to be prejudiced against, and good luck even getting those poor paying jobs without benefits.  One prospective employer even had the balls to tell me, “We saw on your resume that your background is in art.  We almost did not bring you in for an interview.  Artists can be weird people . . .”  

Sadly, it seems, that art is quickly becoming a rich person's occupation, in that you have to be rich to even consider being an artist.  The cost of an education, and the cost of finding the time to work once you graduate, makes it prohibitive.  Real artists are born, irregardless of social class.  It just seems that in today's climate, only the more affluent can actually afford the real cost, that is, the training and the time, to reach their full potential.  What does this say about the future of art?