Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why is visual art so expensive?

During a conversation with my mom, she expressed surprise to learn that I have to pay a fee nearly every time I submit art to a jury.  I thought of how often my prices are questioned, and how people make comments to suggest that the price should be based on the amount of time it took to create each individual piece.

This mosaic, for instance, took about 3 weeks to complete, though it took many weeks of sketching, and much longer to gather and prepare materials.  I manage to salvage most of my materials (a typical mosaic artist probably spends about $100 per square foot just on tesserae), but I collect them when and where I can, spending time finding and sorting them.  My bases (in this case, an old window frame) are from salvage yards, the side of the road, contractors, or people who seek me out when they want to clear out some junk.  I spend as much time cleaning, sanding, priming, re-glazing and painting my bases as I do making art.  Other mosaic artists prefer to purchase manufactured bases, ready to use, and that gets expensive.

Tools and materials are only a small part of a professional artist's expenses.  Once I have hand-cut my odd-shaped glass shards, taking time to file the corners of each piece, carefully adhering them into a design, and the work is finished, I then have to sell it.  Much of my work is commissioned, in which case I already have a deposit, and final payment is owed on delivery.  But my commissions seem to come in spurts, and I can go 6 months with no projects.  During this time, I make individual mosaic panels to sell at art shows and galleries.  I meet with potential clients, many of whom decide to put their project on the back burner, saying they will get back to me (sometimes they do.)  I sketch and research and experiment.

There are a few organizations that post Calls to Artists, so I am constantly perusing these, submitting to the ones that apply to me.  Most public art submissions are free, but most juried exhibits and festivals require a fee.  Exhibits increase an artist's exposure and contribute to the perceived value of the art, and festivals are a good way to sell a lot of art directly to customers in a short time, but those jury fees sure add up.  For the exhibit I was discussing with my mom, it costs $25 per image, I have no idea whether the juror will find my work at all appealing, and the work won't be for sale when the show takes place.  In addition, once I have submitted a piece, I cannot sell it or submit it to another jury until I am rejected, which can take many months.  If I'm rejected, I still lose my jury fee.

In the meantime, I may take some work to one of the galleries that represents me.  Some galleries take 40%, but most take 50%.  It can be very bittersweet to get a $30 check for something that took 3 full days to make.

As local people have become more familiar with me and my work, I am constantly asked for donations.  I think I get at least 20 donation requests per year, and I donate to about half of them.  It is very difficult to say no, especially in a small community, and when so many of my friends are involved in various kinds of fundraising, all for good causes.  But the value of my donations adds up to about 50% of my gross income, which is kind of crazy.  My artist and musician friends have all felt this same pressure to give away their work, and some are becoming increasingly frustrated.  How many other professionals are asked to give so much?

It speaks to an overall perception that working as an artist is not really work; that it is done out of pure love and inspiration without real effort or sacrifice.  Although I spent my childhood and youth planning to become an "Artist", I now find myself telling strangers that I do custom mosaic tile installations.  According to the general population, "Artist" is not a respectable occupation. 

Well, that covers some of the overhead for an artist, but each of us has different markets and specific expenses.  A friend who wholesales her work has many flights to buyers' markets, huge booth fees, staff, and the cost of printing her art onto a variety of products.  Another must rent large warehouses, import wool, ship large work to museums, and pay engineers to install amazing felt draperies that suspend from vaulted ceilings. Some have to pay to use specialized studios and equipment to make their glass or clay work.  There is the annual Society of American Mosaic Artists conference that costs thousands to get to, and workshops to learn new techniques and skills.

To someone uninterested in art, it may all seem superfluous, but I'll bet they don't question the huge salaries of actors, pop musicians, or even professional athletes.  Visual artists may provide a quieter sort of entertainment, but we provoke and delight, and civilization would be very dull without us.  So there.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Community-based mosaic murals

Tomorrow, I am flying to Oakland, CA to attend a workshop on Facilitating Community Mosaic Projects with Josef Norris.  This is something I've been interested in for some time, following the work of Josef Norris's group Kid Serve as they work in schools to create amazing mosaic murals with the students, and also following Laurel True's work in Ghana and Haiti.  Community-based mosaic is a fun way to bring groups of people together for healing, empowerment, and beautification of otherwise plain concrete walls.

This one was made by pre-schoolers, their parents, and adult volunteers.

Through the magic of facebook, I've been offered lodging on a houseboat near the Institute of Mosaic Art, and I am so very excited to go away for the weekend on my own.  I hope to come back and begin covering the sides of buildings with fun mosaic murals, along with members of community groups and schools.

Winter squash risotto

Just a quick follow-up to my squash recipe quandry: I looked up a standard recipe for winter squash risotto online that used ingredients I happened to have on hand.  Feeling lazy, I put all of the ingredients into my rice-cooker and pushed the "cook" button.  I opened it quickly after it had been cooking for a bit and stirred it all up, then closed it and let it finish.

It was yummy!  It worked!  So, if you are like me, and just not into real cooking, try putting a fancy rice recipe into the rice cooker and let it do the work for you.  My husband even liked it.