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.

Day 94: Sway

Yesterday, some kind soul left a couple of comments on the blog expressing his disdain for both my style of artmaking and for this project altogether. One remark in particular that I found interesting was “I can tell that your no artist, you shaded in the canvas with pencil.” I think he was referring to charcoal, which I like to use in conjunction with acrylic, since it combines drawing with painting, and drawing was my first true love. 

So I thought it was time for part two of the Art Public Service Announcements. The term “artist” can be defined pretty loosely, and it definitely isn’t based on what type of media one uses. As I’m a huge fan of the dictionary, I looked it up. This definition states: “One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.”

There are quite a few imaginative and skilled artists out there using pretty unconventional media. For example, Jim Victor creates amazing sculpture in butter. Italian artist Piero Manzoni sold several works for approximately $150,000 each from a series entitled “Artist’s Sh*t”– 90 tins filled with said material, apparently. Marcel Duchamp, an extremely famous artist from the early 1900’s, used a urinal as sculpture, entitled “Fountain”. 

Piet Mondrian once made charcoal drawings on phone book pages when he had no money for supplies, and those rare pieces probably sell like the tiny $12,000 pencil drawing by Renoir I saw up in a gallery in San Francisco.

The point here is that simply choosing one medium over another is not the deciding factor in what makes someone an artist. The beauty of art is the freedom to create. Whether or not you like the end product is an entirely subjective experience, of course. I think being an artist means being creative and making artwork consistently, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say I fall under that description. 😉

To honor our pencil-loving blog readers, today’s piece is a charcoal sketch of a scene I noticed on the car ride back from spending Easter with my family in the bay area. The glow of city lights made the night sky gray instead of black while a lone palm tree shook off the cold rain.

Day 28

I ended up trapped in line at a grocery store today, waxing philosophical with a random nice lady about what we’d do with ourselves if we had more time. I told her I hoped to go back to school for my master’s degree if I could raise enough in grants and scholarships- which at this point feels essentially the same as saying “if I can trick that leprechaun into showing me where he hid his gold”.

And she immediately proceeded to tell me about all of her family members who are talented artistically, which was a laundry list of her grandkids and nieces and nephews- particularly a 4 year old who is really just brilliant with fingerpaints.

Now before I proceed with my mini-rant, which will be Part One of my Art Public Service Announcement series, I’d like to point out emphatically that I am always delighted to hear about people who are into art. It’s great that families and friends support them and talk about their skills and pursuits- hell, that’s where pretty much anyone that’s reading this came from- okay? I love hearing about it and I’m always polite and interested when I do. So I’m not coming down on people who do this. It’s great. However..

This is, on a small scale, part of the great social problem of belittling art as a skilled, professional pursuit. It doesn’t make sense when applied to the same situation in any other field. For example, if you met someone and he told you he was an Electrical Engineer, I doubt that your immediate response would be “Oh, right. My son made a battery out of a potato in science class.” Because when you do this, you’re essentially saying, “Oh that? Pshaw. I know forty people that do that. Anyone can do that. Children are equally talented. In fact, I am probably going to make a piece of art when I wipe my ass after coffee in the bathroom later.”

Okay, so maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but that’s how it FEELS. For the record- making art is hard. It’s tiresome. It’s a struggle. And in general it takes a lot of time and practice and frustration to get to the point that you’re doing anything good or worthwhile. And even then, the entire art world is filled with some of the snobbiest snobs in the history of snobbery, so it’s not like we’re even immediately accepted among our own kind.

Just because it’s damn hard to make a living doing it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. On the contrary, people who tirelessly follow that pursuit should be applauded and praised for their foolhardy dedication, but they aren’t. They’re looked down upon as layabouts and hippies who don’t want to get real jobs- unless they get super famous and people are forced to respect them.

So, the next time someone who is trying to make a real go of art as a livelihood tells you about it, do all of us a favor and don’t immediately jump to comparisons with barely potty-trained family members. Thank you. Now you know.

/end rant