Valuing Artists, In All Senses of the Word

You may have read that the rise of the creative entrepreneur is leading to the death of the artist. That’s not our experience. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with people in communities all across the United States, and there are artists everywhere. There are artists who call themselves artists, artists who haven’t yet claimed that word, artists creating work in studios, artists who are making their blocks feel like home and artists who are taking on the most critical issues of our time. Artists are everywhere, in every community, on every street and their work is more relevant than ever.

We have been sharing these artists’ stories from across the country on the Creative Exchange platform, a partnership with Issue Media Group and the Knight Foundation. We’ve been able to share the stories of people like Cincinnati theatermaker Joi Sears, whose Theater for Free People uses “…theatre to put the audience in the position to experience and invoke change in themselves and in the world.” We shared the story of Nikiko Masumoto, a farmer and artist in California’s Central Valley who says, “I believe in the magic of storytelling, not only for teller but also the listener. The possibility of public exchange is so rich for inspiring changes in behaviors and public policy shifts.” These are stories of artists working at intersections, supporting, engaging and making change in communities across the country.

These stories share the work of artists, how they bring people together, adapt to their circumstances, “reflect the times,” as Nina Simone put it. Through their projects, they build community and help people see possibility, which is a fundamental power of artists. That power of artists is a huge untapped resource, especially at a time when we have so many challenges facing our communities and we need new ways to connect and bridge our differences. Which is why we also share toolkits via Creative Exchange, so that if you want to spark some change and start something new, there is guidance and structure for you to work with and adapt. We want you to know you aren’t alone.

The fundamental principle at the heart of these stories and toolkits is that artists are valuable, contributing members of their communities. The value of artists can mean things like surprise, delight, emotional attachment, social cohesion, shared experience and connection to our common humanity. Artists are valuable because they create special, deep relationships with audiences, stakeholders, and communities that can transcend short-term transactions. It also can, and should, mean financial and economic value. If communities are going to realize the full potential of artists’ power to contribute to positive change, then they need to sustain and support their artists.

Here are five ways to think about that value if you are an individual or organization who wants to work with artists:

-Get Past “Exposure” Instead of empty offers of “exposure,” or expecting artists to work for free because they are passionate about their work, pay an artist to share their passion, build audience and sustain relationships.

-Consider Quality By considering artists as a part of the budget for your project, you’ll be able to more clearly communicate expectations, likely get a better quality project, a deeper working relationship and a better understanding of how the creative process can support your goals or mission.

-Don’t Be Afraid To Ask If you don’t know how much to pay an artist for a project, just ask. Don’t be afraid to ask an artist to tell you their rate – they won’t expect you to know or guess at how much they usually charge. If you’re an artist, consider your time and overhead costs, as well as supplies and materials when setting your rate.

-Budget Transparently When you’re working with a limited budget, let artists know up front, because transparency builds trust. Artists are inventive, ingenious and resourceful – ask them to propose what they can provide within your budget.

-Think Outside the Frame To build in that budgeting capacity to pay artists, think differently about what artists can do. You probably don’t (yet) have a special line item for artists, so find other places in your budget where an artist might be able to help – we’ve seen community organizations repurpose consulting, marketing, and evaluation budgets to work with artists and achieve better results than more traditional ways of thinking about those tasks.

Artists know the power of their own communities and can bring out its authentic voices in unique and effective ways. Sam White, who runs Shakespeare in Detroit, has this to say, “Art can’t be an ‘or,’ it has to be an ‘and,’ and we need to keep art talent here. People aren’t going to stay if they don’t have those experiences. If we really want to have a healthy, thriving city, we need to have our artists…” Artists can only stay and create experiences if there are communities and organizations who recognize that value, and support it financially.

This is not to say that artists are a silver bullet or a quick fix to a community issue. Investment in the creativity of communities is an ongoing process, and it’s one part of a whole set of things that contribute to the health of a community. But in good times and lean, art brings people together, sustains and connects them, and needs to be a part of the consideration. And since art comes from artists, we need to value our artists, in all senses of the word.

Laura Zabel is Executive Director and Carl Atiya Swanson is Director of Movement Building at Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development agency run by and for artists. Dedicated to helping communities connect to the creative power of artists, Springboard’s programs link artists to patrons, healthcare, entrepreneurial development, fiscal sponsorship, and more. Springboard operates Creative Exchange, a platform for sharing stories and helping artists and communities replicate successful development projects.