Dear Savannah, Stop Asking Artists for Free Art

Imagine working your 40 hour work week, and then being asked to hand over your paycheck to charity.

What are you feeling right now? I bet it’s similar to what most artists feel every time someone asks us to donate to this week’s charitable event.

This occurrence is an epidemic here in Savannah.

I’m entering my eighth year living and working in the Hostess City. Before the Southeast, I lived in the rustbelt of Ohio, steeped in a mighty work ethic. I moved to Los Angeles where I watched dreams happen during a fast paced 12 to 16 hour workday in the film industry. I worked hard to make time to make art.

Once I was asked to design a theater set for free in LA. After much negotiation, the theater group made me a member and I performed comedy a few times in exchange. I appreciated the mutual respect of my time and creativity. It seemed to benefit both parties.

And then I moved to Savannah.

I watched the city in the shadows during my first year here, wondering where I fit in, whether I would find success again and how I would replace my design crew. It hasn’t been easy and until the last two years, I felt really under-appreciated. I know we’re all in control of our self-worth, but getting paid a quarter of what you were making before is a major downgrade.

Entering my second and third year…I kid you not, this is what I was asked weekly: “Oh, you’re an artist? Will you donate a piece of your artwork to our non-profit benefit?”

I started staring in the mirror wondering if I looked like a millionaire. Do I look like I’m in my 70’s, retired with an amazing financial portfolio? Do I look like a bored hobbyist? What the hell?

This went on and on until I finally used Facebook to vent about being asked to donate my artwork. I was shaking and really nervous that I’d just become another asshole on social media. Then people responded and other artists agreed. Friends who run major non-profits posted things like, “I guess I never thought about it that way.”

If you’ve never thought about it before, here’s what I suggest you never say to a professional artist when asking for free art.

  1. “It will be great for your resume.”  

My friend, who is a well-established photographer in his 70’s with credits including National Geographic, recently told me someone said to him, “It will be great for your resume.”

My response: I don’t have ”Free Giveaways” on my resume. Artists will appreciate it if you look at their portfolio, experience and resume before you ask them to donate something that took 40 hours or more to make.

  1.   “It will give you great exposure.”

My response: I understand your nonprofit is really important to you, but giving my artwork away is not giving me positive exposure. Having a collection of my work on display in a museum or gallery will give me great exposure.

  1.   “But, it’s for a great cause…”

My response: Tugging at my heartstrings is not going to change my mind.

If you think I’m being mean, think again. It takes someone with guts and sympathy to stop this madness.

Artists are extremely sensitive. I cannot think of one artist I know who doesn’t care deeply about animal welfare, education, the environment, injustice, equal rights, etc. We became artists because we want to express what we see and feel by explaining ourselves in colors and textures on canvas. It’s easier to make a brushstroke than discuss a thought at a dinner party.

For the non-artist, it may be a disreputable occupation in your eyes. Please realize, we are working our fingers to the bone trying to become successful artists with a lucrative brand. Success can be defined in terms of reputation, but it also means money. Artists want houses, cars, retirement portfolios and even a vacation once in awhile. We are just like you except we may dress weird, dislike social interaction and want to be in our studios full time.

ARTISTS: Next time someone asks you to donate your artwork, try replying like this:

“As much as I love the________, I just cannot afford to give away paintings. It’s equivalent to my monthly car payment or rent! A suggestion: Other galleries and organizations have switched to a 50/50 division of profits between the artist and a charity. That way, the artist can get paid along with the cause.”

I recently met Peter Roberts, a local artist and the Gallery Director at Location Gallery. I attended one of the gallery’s opening receptions and to my surprise, realized he is using this business model.

I asked him, “What made you decide to have a 50/50 cause/artist business model?”

This is what he told me: “Austin (of Austin Hill Realty) is very philanthropic and I am community/volunteer driven, so this idea was a mutual progression. Location Gallery gives 50% back to artists and the net profits (after expenses) to a local non-profit, which can range anywhere from 30% – 40% of [the] overall total. We are very mindful of keeping expenses low to get the maximum donation for the non-profit. The shows also give non-profits a platform to reach an audience that may not know their mission yet. We try to sensibly pair the non-profit with each show so that the artists, patrons and participants connect in a more meaningful way.”

One day, I hope to be wealthy enough to give away stuff. Statistically, I may be dead first (though I hope not).

Please, charitable organizations of Savannah, for the love of your sweet tea and blessings, can we all work together to benefit both the arts and your causes?  

Lisa D. Watson

Author: Lisa D. Watson

Lisa D. Watson starts her day with a delicious cup of coffee ground from the bones of litterbugs and animal abusers. She is an upcycling mixed media artist, muralist, home decorator, garden designer and now needs a second cup of coffee.

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