Starving Artists : Whose fault?

Starving Artists : Whose fault?

By: Goreti Cardoso

Recently, I went to a very fun party with a group of friends in Toronto. It was just the way I like it, a very nice atmosphere, great music, and lots of dancing going on. I left the event with an amazing feeling, and looking forward to the next party to be organized by that group of musicians. Unfortunately, that positive feeling lasted only until the following morning when I learned that the dance artists who were teaching and making that awesome party happen had worked pro bono.

This event inspired me to write one more article about my research work. In my paper, I discussed the challenges immigrant artists face in Toronto while participating in their respective cultural industries. As you will see, some of my research findings have lots to do with what happened at this music event that I attended.

What is an artist number one challenge?

Although there are a number of factors that contribute to this reality, the shared societal belief about the arts represents a significant challenge to earning potential for artists. And the most surprising fact is that an artist’s mindset plays a central role in contributing to fewer financial rewards. Let me elaborate further.

 Why do many people think they should not pay artistic honorarium?

Arts is sacred and should be offered for free

First, overall, many people believe that the access to the arts should be for free. This belief (or myth*) speaks of art as sacred and divine, a gift to be shared. The tie of the arts to some sacred world, although still reflected in the contemporary world, began long before Romanticism. It creates and feeds the belief that the arts should be offered for free while it has been linked to sacred or, in other words, it is a divine “gift”. This said, it should be donated, not sold.

Artists are being compensated intrinsically by their art

Secondly, there is a belief that artists are intrinsically motivated and compensated by their ‘gifts’. They are being rewarded by the fact that they receive infinite satisfaction from their work (Abbing, 2002).

My interviewees, observations, and experience working for over ten years in the Toronto’s dance scene, have confirmed the deeply-rooted consequences of such myths in the contemporary world. Almost all of my interviewees spoke of the audience, contractors, and presenters constantly intensifying the financial challenges they faced during multiple phases of their careers.

Artistic work is not seen as a serious profession

Yes, by many! And as a result, artists are frequently requested to work without financial compensation. This challenge was discussed by an immigrant visual artist in Toronto, who has been often asked to work at no cost or in exchange for exposure:

“I think I had a lot of financial barriers. Even to this day, I would say, they want me to work for exposure or pro bono. And then I wonder, “Do these people that asked me to work for free, would they go to their full-time jobs for free if their bosses ask them to?” So there is a constant struggle there with the social barriers, where people don’t consider arts serious. So they think I am just drawing for fun? No, this is my full-time job! Constantly I have to explain to people that exposure doesn’t pay my bills… Artists need to earn a living…like any other human being, a doctor, a lawyer… They are considered serious, but just because I am an artist, people don’t see it as work” (VA, March 2016).  

 Artists themselves contribute to this reality!

It may seem awkward to say that, but many artists contribute to their own income constraints. During my interviews in Toronto, many artists blamed the society’s socio-cultural values as some of the main causes for their financial challenges or low levels of income. But, it has been identified that an artist’s mindset can also play a central role in contributing to fewer financial rewards.

This was in fact what occurred in that party I was telling you about. The organizers invited the dancers to teach in exchange for exposure, and they easily accepted it. Why? The main reason is that the dance school’s owner doesn’t see his dance business as a ‘real job’. He had spoken once to me and to many other artists I know, indicating that he runs his business for the love of dance and for the enjoyment of his community of dance students.

You must be asking yourself how can someone invest their time and money in a business, without expecting economic rewards. The reality is that this dance school’s owner run his business on a part-time basis, and just as most of my interviewees, his full-time job is his primary source of income, not his art business. Artists tend to work during the day to allow themselves to have sufficient funds to invest in and run their art business in the evening/weekends.

This is not an isolated fact. In my research project, the vast majority of artists that I spoke with worked in their art as a second job. Also, a surprising finding was that almost half of the interviewed immigrant artists who were not making a living with their art did not believe the arts could be their main source of income. A common justification for this personal belief was related the type of arts they chose practice (the artistic discipline) or to cultural values.

Can we change this reality?

    There is a number of other factors that contribute to overall artists’ income constraints. For example, interviews showed that most artists don’t know how to sell their art. I am sure you can think of several initiatives to overcome this challenge. Affordable access to training is one. But how can we solve other factors, such as the issues presented here?

In my paper, I suggested that marketing campaigns such as the Live With Culture from the City of Toronto could create vast long-term positive results. But, instead of focusing on promoting the arts and cultural activities happening in the city, cities could leverage the importance and seriousness of artistic work. Cultural values influence a myriad of topics, including the financial challenges faced by artists.

Although I do believe that an initiative like that could have a great impact, unfortunately this does not change the fact that artistic work is often done as a second job, which strongly influences how artists truly deal with their work. I see the second job hold status as the main aspect that determines many artists’ mindsets and consequently shapes this relationship between their art work and the world of money. All this makes me think that marketing campaigns on their own would be only one component of the movement for change. We also need to figure out ways to change this reality by creating greater possibilities for artists to make a living solely from their art (or at least mainly). But, does this suggestion sound feasible in the contemporary world of money?

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*Why Are Artists Poor? Hans Abbing, 2002.

* In the picture: Newton Moraes – Reborn Choreography / Photography: Marcia Provenzano