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Should Artists work for free?

This week I have seen a few comments on social media, had a few emails and even a conversation around artists and offering their services for free (or very low cost). It breaks my heart. Do you expect your accountant to work for free? Do you expect to go to Coles and get your groceries for free? Do you visit your gym and expect your membership to be free just because you're a walking hulk-like billboard for the gym? No.

When I run workshops I always get asked about money and pricing. I always make a very clear point that:

If you are investing money and time into your creative practise, then people should be investing in you.

By being at my workshops you are investing both time and money. By reading this post you are investing time. By painting, creating, gluing, sewing, researching on You Tube, following inspiring creatives on socials - this is all time (and sometimes money) invested in your creative practise. Charge for it!

'But I'm a new artist and I'm building my folio', I hear you say. I get. I do. I was there. So, I believe there are some exceptions to the rule. And remember, these are my opinions. Your opinions might be different, and I'd love to hear them - so don't forget to comment below.

Pro Bono Work // I strongly believe in giving back to the community. Pro bono is short for the Latin phrase pro bono publico, which means "for the public good." I do think it is important to be selective about which project you want to offer your services for free. I often approach the client myself and ask if they need my help. For example, the Currimundi Football Club (Sunshine Coast) was in the local news as it kept being tagged. So I reached out to the President and offered my services if they were able to supply the paint. As far as I know the club hasn't been tagged since. Even when offering services I made sure I wasn't financially out of pocket for the paint. I also take 10% from every school workshop I run and put it into a Community Fund. Once there is enough money I run a low or no-cost workshop at a local Community Centre, Nursing home or not for profit. I believe you need to give back to keep the passion and sense of worth alive in your business. But who you should give back to is entirely up to you.

Building a folio of work // We all need to start somewhere right? I get it. Just like pro bono work, I strongly suggest you are selective around who you would like to work with. If you are going to offer your services for free or low cost, then you should have pretty reasonable creative freedom. Work with a person or within an industry you really want to build your folio in. For example, if you want to paint murals for fashion shows, approach your favourite fashion brand and ask how your talents can best be used. Make sure you are clear on the parameters of what you will deliver to ensure you don't get milked for everything you are worth and then you leave feeling resentful. For example: I will give you three concepts for this 7x3m backdrop design. You have three rounds of changes and then I will paint the backdrop and deliver it to site.

Money // Oh I've been in that place where you're not sure if you can pay the bills next week. A job comes in but they don't sound like they have much money. To ensure you get the job and get cash in the bank to cover the mortgage you drop your prices. I've done it. We have all done it. It's not a great practise - but I understand it. If this is the case, then I'd reduce your deliverables as well. Instead of providing three proofs, just provide one. Instead of doing three rounds of changes, just do one. I've worked for less than I'm worth and I end up feeling resentful. This is not a nice space to be. You could even ask for their budget and speak with them about how this is lower than you usually charge but you could make it work if they undercoat the wall and approve the design with minimal changes. It's a tough one though...

Contra // When I was starting out as a young designer and muralist and trying to build my folio, contra was my go-to plan for clients who were short on cash. Contra is when both parties decide to barter or exchange goods and/or services without cash changing hands. I have worked with three different hair dressers over the years on a contra basis. Ever wondered how I have painted so many hairdresser murals and always have spectacular hair? I have had gym memberships, free roller derby gear, nutritionist services, pilates classes. This is a good way to build your portfolio without completely working for 'free'.

Promotion/Giveaway // This one is bordering on marketing rather than 'working for free'. If you want to run a promotion where you give away a free mural and people enter to win. That one free mural you are painting for the contact details of 50+ other people who would love your artwork in their house. A great opportunity to market a 'special offer' to the people who entered the competition. You know they want your art in their homes. Promotional ideas like this might mean you need to give a little to get a lot back - but this is part of business right?

There is one clear moment when you should not lower your prices. When you know you are up against other creatives in your field for the job. This is undercutting. This is what devalues the industry. This is why a lot of artists keep their rates to themselves - for fear of undercutting. It makes it hard on platforms like Book An Artist when you can see that 4 other artists have bid for the same job. A lot of the time though, the client will go with the style that they love over the cost. People form emotional attachments to art and are not always focused on the cost. These are the clients you want - the ones that love what you do and trust you to do a good job.

Just be really careful when you lower your pricing or offer free work. This may start to devalue the industry and your brand. Step back and take a look at the value that you offer and how worthy you are to be paid well for your valuable, talented time. Sending quotes is hard. Giving a price estimate when the person is standing in front of you is super hard (and I don't recommend it - say you'll check your pricing list and send through a quote).

As my husband said to me this week when I threw a tantrum about a project that was on Facebook. When I offered to quote on the project and others offered to 'give it a go for free'. He said 'these are not the clients you want. You want the clients that value your work and value you as a creative. They will pay for your experience and your talent and they'll be easier to work with because they can trust you will do a great job.' Don't tell my husband, but he's right. And I'm going to steal his advice and hand it to you.

What are your thoughts around Artists working for free? Any other exceptions to the rule?


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