Monday, August 24, 2015

A Missed Opportunity

Back in June, an opportunity for a commission came up.  I won't say who it was with, except that it was a large organization with a lot of money.  They put out the word that they wanted seven large artworks, two of them 48"x60" and five of them 36"x54".  In addition, they wanted very specific themes for each artwork.  And they were actually going to pay for them.  What an unusual concept!  I could relate very well to their subject and themes.  So after a bit of a back-and-forth with the contact, I submitted a proposal in early July.  They were on a tight timeline and had said they'd make their decision by the middle of the month.

Which came and went with no word.  More weeks passed.  Still no word, even after I sent them notes.  It got to the point where I couldn't have completed the paintings in the time remaining, anyway, so I wrote it off.  But then they contacted me, asking about purchasing one of the paintings that I had submitted as a sample of my work.  Okay, well, if I can't get the commission, then maybe I can at least sell them one of my existing paintings.  So I gave them a discounted price for the painting, plus my costs for framing and shipping.  As it turned out, they only had enough in their budget for the framing, shipping, and my cost of materials, but then asked if I would do it anyway.


Something like this is really frustrating for me as an artist.  First, it's obvious that they didn't do any homework before advertising that they wanted seven very large paintings with specific sizes, subjects, and themes.  A little bit of research, even just ten minutes on Google, would have given them something of an idea of the cost.  Had they talked with a couple of artists, they might have had an even better idea of the cost as well as the time required.  But they didn't.  As a result, I spent a lot of time preparing a professional-quality proposal, carefully discussing how my paintings would meet their requirements, how the process would benefit their target audience, what would go into the effort, and what the cost would be.  And it's apparent that the proposal was dead in the water before I even printed it out, because the shipping costs alone for the seven paintings were twice as much as their entire budget.

The second thing that's frustrating is how little value is placed on an artist's time and effort.  This organization was typical of so many in that they willingly pay professional-level fees for architects, engineers, and even day labor.  Yet when it comes to artists, they expect us to work for minimum wage or less.  Or, as in this case, to essentially give them the artwork.  Why is that?  Is it because they don't consider art work to be real work?  If so, how do we turn that around?

When I was in the River Arts District, I participated in the semi-annual Studio Strolls, in which we opened our studios to the public.  I spent a lot of time talking with people about my paintings and how they came to be.  Most people had some appreciation for what goes into the process.  More than once, though, I had somebody say something like "Oh, it must be so relaxing to be an artist!"  Yes, ma'am, it's about as relaxing as it is to be a defense lawyer or high-stakes stock trader, except it doesn't pay as well.

Unfortunately, very few people ever see the inside of an artist's studio and understand what it takes to make art.  It's a very private process - we don't work in large bustling offices where lots of people see what we do.  And, for artists like me who make two-dimensional art (paintings, drawings, prints, and so on), the end result is a still image.  These images tend to get lost in, and significantly devalued by, our culture's constant flood of advertising, posters, TV, billboards, movies, YouTube videos, and magazines.  Everybody's got a camera, and anybody can take a picture to WalMart and have it printed out at any size they want for next to nothing.  For many, a print from a cellphone snapshot and a painting from an artist's studio aren't fundamentally different - they're a nice design of colors and shapes in a particular spot on the wall.  So there's no need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for a painting when Little Ronnie's photo can be printed at Target for just a few bucks.

I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining.  I'm frustrated, yes, but about the larger issue of the value of an artist's work in our current culture.  I don't see that changing any time soon.  Still, I learned a few things during this event.  For one, now I have a good structure for a proposal the next time an opportunity comes up.  There are a couple of things that I would do differently in future proposals as well.  And the next time somebody wants to talk about having me do an art project, I'll make sure we have an understanding of the ballpark range for the costs before I spend a lot of time putting together a proposal.

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