How not to barter for artwork

"Coy Coit", cityscape painting on wood block.

Day 188: Coy Coit

Today is another installation in my “Art Public Service Announcement” series (click here to read the others). Part three: How not to barter for artwork.

I love the concept of bartering. In fact, the less I have in my bank account, the more appealing bartering becomes. So I try to keep my eyes and ears open for opportunities to do it, and it seems to me a lot of other artists do too. I’ve traded with other artists and crafters before, and it’s usually a rewarding experience.

However, there’s the other side- we’ll call it “the dark side”- of bartering for artwork. Usually, it’s a situation where custom artist services will be rendered (graphic design work, illustrations, mural or sign painting, etc), but the party wanting the artwork doesn’t understand that the basic concept of a trade requires similar values on both sides. I met up with a local business looking for mural work on a barter basis recently. My interaction with them was a model for “how not to barter for artwork”, so I thought I’d share it here. I know a lot of you can relate!

I should have trusted my intuition when red flag #1 came up on the phone call…

“You can supply your own paint & stuff, right?”

To the layman, this may not seem an alarming statement. I always choose and bring my own supplies for each job. The reason this question is concerning is that almost every time it’s used, the asker means, “I don’t have to pay anything for supplies, right?” Red flag #2 went up when we hit on value.

“Yeah, so we just want all these walls covered with a scene of the city, you know, the bridge and boats and trees and buildings and all of that.”

“All of these walls, or just this one?”

“All of them, and the one out front.”

“That amount of work is something I’d usually charge around $2000 for.”

“Well we’re not talking detailed, I mean we don’t need to see people waving and stuff.”

“Even if it were pared down and done simply, you’re covering a lot of space. I’d need at least $600 worth of barter in goods for that to make sense for me.”

“Well, I can tell you right now, we’ll take care of you, but it’s not going to be that much.”

This phrase is an odd one- “we’ll take care of you”- because in the dark side of bartering for artwork, it actually means “we’ll kick down free lunch while you’re working one day and expect that to cover it”.

Once the Sith lord uttered his damning confession, I was ready to leave. But he wasn’t done with his faux pas yet.

“You know, 2500 people a day come in here, so that’s great. They’re all going to see it and want a mural and call you.”

I’ve been on that merry-go-round enough times to know that all the brass ring in the clown’s mouth gets you is a stuffed animal keychain.

“I’ve been painting murals for over ten years. I can count the number of paid referrals I’ve received from public murals in that time on one hand. Shaped like this.” Imagine me making a zero with my left hand. Okay, I didn’t really say ‘shaped like this’, but in retrospect, that would have been perfect. Darn you, hindsight!

He then proceeds to bust out the last of his manipulative dark side tactics. It has probably been used in lots of industries, like acting. I call it “last chance at desperate ranch”, or the “make a homeless man dance for a burger” maneuver, or “the whore dangle” (my personal favorite, as it’s the most accurate).

“Yeah, so I’ve got like 20 other artists that contacted me about this. (Checks phone) In fact, I think one of them just called me right now. So if you don’t want to do it, that’s cool, we can just shake hands and say goodbye.”

I paint pretty good cityscapes. I know he wants me to do the mural. He knows that I’m unemployed and expects me to grab his morsel from the dirty floor and say thank you. But I know that I am not a shameless art-whore, so I tell him that sounds like the best way to go and leave.

Today’s artwork is another SF cityscape on wood block. “Coy Coit” features Telegraph Hill and the barely-visible-in-the-foggy-air shape of Coit Tower. Which, according to Wikipedia, Lillie Hitchcock Coit commissioned “for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved”. Well said, Lillie. Well said. 🙂

The wood grain gives the city a little extra texture and movement.


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