A Freeze on Freebies

29 02 2012

I’m really not a negative or stingy person, but there is one very popular fund-raising trend that evokes some violently negative and Scrooge-like reactions in me.   That is when well-meaning people and organizations ask me to donate a painting to be auctioned off for their community event or charity.  It is when businesses invite me to decorate the walls of their offices or cafés with my paintings, free of charge, of course.  In both cases, I am supposed to be grateful for the “exposure” it gives my work.  Frankly, I am furious.  There is, however, something other than art that I would like to expose in this blog.  It’s just a few alarming facts.


“The bottom line for artists is dismal, with the typical artist losing $556 in 2007 on their practice. (Other income sources bring median total earnings to $20,000 – not starving, but certainly not affluent.)”  (Waging Culture:  the social-economic status of Canadian visual artists. The Art Gallery of York University)

The same study found that Canadian artists are “overwhelmingly more likely to be highly educated with an average of more than six years post-secondary education., but that only 43.6% of visual artists made any money at all from their studio practice.”  The economic returns due to higher education are much lower for artists than for other Canadian workers.

More than 30% of artists have no supplementary health benefits and no retirement funds whatsoever.  Another approximate third has only self-financed benefits and retirement funds.

A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada Based on the 2006 census confirms that the average earnings of artists are very low.  “A typical artist in Canada earns less than half the typical earnings of all Canadian workers”

They also found that there are more female than male artists, yet women artists earn much less than men.

Considering these stats, are artists really the kind of people charities and businesses should be targeting over and over again for freebies?  It sounds more like Canadian artists are in need of a little support and charity themselves.

You may counter the argument by saying that artists choose this profession.  (That, too, is debatable.)   Even so, they should be paid fairly for their work.  I wish Canadians would acknowledge the value, contribution, indeed, the necessity of arts and culture, the health of which reflects the health of a nation and its people.  If Canadians purchase art from their local artists, they are doing far more than just acquiring an item. They are helping their own, local artists to live with dignity and strengthening their own economy.  Buying art shows that the artists’ work is valued, their chosen profession respected, and their contribution to society recognized and honoured.

Life would be pretty dull and limited without our Canadian artistic legacy.  Was it not The Group of Seven who, by their paintings, changed Canadians’  and, eventually, the world’s perception of our wilderness?  Did not Emily Carr’s art open our eyes to the rich cultural and artistic magnificence of the West Coast Natives? Would PEI have such a strong tourism without L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables?  We need to ask ourselves these questions.  Just maybe arts and culture might be our most valuable asset, and most important export.  After all, it employs more people in Canada than the car manufacturing industry does.

It is the artists who create, preserve and rejuvenate culture. Artists define who we are and point to where we are going and from where we have come.  They replenish our souls, homes and communities with beauty and a unique vision.  Their art beckons us to slow down, to look and listen, and feel alive.   Our Canadian artists are more necessary than ever today, in an age of globalization, speed and the sameness of culture through electronics. But they cannot live on nothing.  The arts are fragile, and always have been, necessitating extra nurturing and protection, not exploitation.

The best way to protect our culture is to support and pay our artists a fair price. The old saying, “You get what you pay for” applies to art, too. If you pay nothing, you’ll soon have no Canadian culture.  So, if you are thinking of targeting artists for freebies, stop.  Stick your hands back in your pocket, and reverse the flow. Our Canadian cultural life depends on it.




6 responses

1 03 2012

Marvelous, as usual! And I can relate, from having been asked countless times to play violin for free, “because it gives good exposure!”

I’m going to reblog this post (meaning that I’ll post it on my site for my readers to see, but with all due credit still given to you).

1 03 2012

Reblogged this on Feisty Red Hair and commented:
My mom posted this on her blog yesterday and it really resonates with me. As a musician, I’ve been asked countless times to play for free, since it will give me “good exposure.” There are only so many times you can play for free before you start feeling like people are taking advantage of you! Ironically, people start taking your music or art more seriously once you start charging for it. Has anyone else experienced this as well?

5 03 2012
used to be red head but now grey head

I feel compelled to respond to your blog and disagree with your comments. I know it’s difficult to see your hard earned work go for peanuts but as a quilt artist (in my day), I was asked many times for display and show purposes. One of my quilts was even sold during a show and it was clearly marked “not for sale”. One could feel complimented that it was wanted that much or be furious with the manager of the show. The truth is, I think, that it’s part of being in the public’s eye for those few minutes when anything can happen. Insurance works in that case.
I feel that if you are appealing to the public for a sale of your art then you have to be willing in a community to loan or contribute to the cause. It’s tough but it’s reality if you want to be known. It does give exposure for an artist and it does lend credibility to your work. No one can live in a community and not be willing to contribute to the community. I know it irks if you are already a major player in the community but it’s life in an artist world.

22 03 2012
Drawing the Line « Elizabeth Johnson

[…] reason why Jane comes to mind as I write this post which is a conclusion to my earlier blog, A Freeze on Freebies.  Jane believes strongly in fair trade and buying local.  Not just in her own personal business […]

6 01 2013
Why I Must Read 52 Books This Year | Feisty Red Hair

[…] The other influence leading to this resolution was a long overdue coffee date with my dear friend Lauren and her new man, Paul. Over gulped-down lattes and chocolate-almond croissants, we shivered in a frigid Toronto park while watching my kids burn off energy in a playground and talking about self-development and the plight of the Artist in society. Of all people, they know what that’s about. Lauren is a musician — violin and piano teacher, songwriter, singer — and Paul is a fashion photographer. Paul articulated some of the sagest advice I’ve heard in a while: “You’ve just got to start doing what you want people to hire you for.” As frustrating as it is that this world loves to take advantage of the poor artist and ask for free favours in the name of “exposure,” the reality is that exposure — or, at least, making it look like you really know what you’re doing — is what gets artists into the jobs they crave. (See my mom’s blog post about this very problem: A Freeze on Freebies.) […]

12 07 2013
The Artists Are Actually Starving | Feisty Red Hair

[…] and writers struggle to make ends meet. Most Canadian artists live below the poverty line: “Some income sources bring median total of artists’ earnings to $20,000 – not starving but certainly not affluent” […]

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