Getting an answer to the question of value

Posted by Mr. Carl A. Swanson, Dec 12, 2019 0 comments

“How do I know my value?”

That was a question posed by an artist in a recent workshop around Artists Statements, and if you stop for a moment, the question is profound. On one hand, there is a practical answer, one that we at Springboard for the Arts have been seeking to help artists answer for years. In our Work of Art: Business Skills for Artists curriculum, there is a whole section on pricing your work. You, as the artist, have to know what your target income is from your creative work, what the costs of your materials and labor are, what your overhead costs are. It takes research, and yes, you’ll have to do some math.

There also are an increasing number of efforts to increase transparency around wages and rates for creative work. Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) offers a fee calculator for artists working with institutions. A crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet has collected hundreds of salaries and fees for theater work. The Canadian Artists Representation / Le Front des Artistes Canadiens offers a minimum recommended fee schedule for artists’ work. The nuts and bolts of pricing your work is a knowable skill, but transparency in the market is also increasingly key to valuing and supporting artists. We do ourselves and each other no favors for our sector when we race to the bottom in wages and fees.

But that question of value is even more than knowing how to price your work and where it might fit in to your market and economy. The question of value is inherently one about belonging and identity, and about being seen for the work you do. We can talk about the economic impact of the arts until the cows come home (and we should, because the numbers are impressive and important), but unless people see themselves in those numbers, see themselves as valuable in their community, that question of “How do I know my value?” stays frustratingly out of reach.

Musician Annie Humphrey at the 2019 Rural Arts & Culture Summit in Grand Rapids, MN. Photo by Holly Diestler.

Helping to get to that question of realizing and supporting the value of artists is why we at Springboard for the Arts worked with the Helicon Collaborative last year to release Creative People Power. The report offers a new framework for imagining the intersection of creative and community development, one that centers the creative people in a community. It offers a few essential functions for creative people power to take root and flourish, driven by our own work and the inspiring work we know from across the country. For creative people power to flourish, to truly answer that question of value, we need:

  • Hubs and homes—Welcoming gathering places that enable civic and creative activity to be incubated and thrive.
  • Support for making a living & a life—Tools and supports that help artists, cultural workers, and creative entrepreneurs start businesses, find employment, access health care and other services, and otherwise contribute to the community (including, but going beyond, support for discrete projects).
  • Artists and creativity at the table(s)—An appetite among civic leaders to use participatory processes and creative approaches to community change, including creating roles for local artists in civic decision-making and non-arts settings.
  • Support for “lots of little”—Resources and supportive structures that enable people—artists and other community members—to put their creative ideas into action, in large and small ways, creating a “think it, do it” norm for community improvement.

In that workshop where the question was asked, we were in an artist-owned space, a hub for the creative community. We were talking about practical skills for making a living and a life, and holiday market opportunities coming up. There were artists present, but also people who worked for the city there, bringing artists to the table in formal economic and community development conversations. And one of those conversations was about creative re-use of vacant storefronts, offering lots of little opportunities for artists to be visible and try things.

We have these opportunities to build things together, and if we do it intentionally, based in equity, with the people from our communities, we can foster the creative people power it takes to sustain our work, and make sure that question “How do I know my value?” has a clear answer.

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