Artists Should Get Paid for Their Work—Especially By Lena Dunham

a pennant reads "get paid"

A mantra for artists everywhere — this “Get Paid” pennant by BT Livermore is, of course, for sale

Yesterday Gawker reported that Girls creator Lena Dunham would not be paying the opening acts on the tour for her book Not That Kind of Girl. This was a galling financial revelation given that this is not a typical book tour—an author with a miniscule travel budget hoping to fill seats at a few bookstores—but a 12-city extravaganza where tickets to see the author and opening local performers were going for $38 a pop.

By the end of the day, Dunham had responded to the criticism with a pledge to pay the opening acts. “As an artist raised by artists, no one believes more than I do that creators should be fairly compensated for their work,” Dunham tweeted. “This feature of the tour was meant to showcase local talent and I could not be more excited about it. Some good points were raised and I’ve ensured that all local acts will be compensated for their time, their labor and their talents.”

While the opening acts will now be paid, this discussion raised the issue of how people frequently assume that artists don’t need to be paid for their work. A very similar thing happened in 2012, when performer Amanda Palmer defended her plan to pay musicians for her tour with “beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love” but not cash. Like the opening acts for Dunham’s current tour, Amanda Palmer’s musicians volunteered for the gig and, like Dunham, criticism promoted Palmer to eventually change course and pay the musicians.  After all, they both had the money to pay artists—as Palmer explained, “We have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it.” The fact that both of these women who are artists themselves had the money to pay other performers but didn’t initially think it was necessary speaks to a troubling reality.  

Why is it assumed that professional artists will work for free? It would be absurd to expect a computer programmer to build a database for free or to ask a plumber to repair your pipes for free, but when people are experts at writing, music, dance, and visual art, employers routinely expect to exchange nothing more than beer, hugs, or good vibes for their time and skills. New York advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) surveyed artists in 2010 and found that 58 percent had at some point not been paid for exhibiting in NYC museums and other nonprofit institutions.  

a chart shows that 58 percent of artists say they are sometimes not paid

From WAGE’s report on New York artists’ income. 

I think this lack of payment comes in part from a perception that artists are getting something out of the arrangement—that art is its own reward. It’s true that many artists love creating their work, but it’s not a joy that appears for free out of the ether. Becoming a professional artist takes lots of time and money. An extensive 2010 study on the finances of professional artists in Australia (tellingly titled “Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?”) revealed that cost of creating art: the average artist working in Australia invests more than $5,000 annually in their work.

a chart show the costs of being an artist—anywhere from $3000 to $6000

Despite the significant financial investment that their career requires, the Australian artists are underpaid compared to people working in other fields. This definitely looks like a pattern that we see in the United States, too. Money isn’t the single motivating goal for many artists, but payment is necessary to allow them to keep working. You can’t survive on beer and hugs alone.  

a chart shows that artists are underpaid compared to other full-time professionals

I think that underlying the trend of not paying artists is the perception that technical work—in traditionally male-dominated fields—is more worthy of payment than work that creates a better social environment. Similar to women who have demanded wages for housework and domestic workers who have organized to demand fair pay for their labor, many artists spend their personal time and money on work that makes people happier, healthier, and more socially connected. Or, as WAGE flashes in bright text to visitors on their site, “We demand payment for making the world more interesting.”

Many artists are generous in giving away their time and skills for free to support good causes and to entertain folks. But more than anyone, other artists should understand that paying an artist who is working onstage at their well-funded event isn’t a bonus or an afterthought, it’s essential support for someone whose work requires significant energy, time, and money. 

Sarah Mirk is Bitch’s online editor. She clearly likes charts a lot.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

Anyone know if there's a

Anyone know if there's a gender dimension to this as well? I wouldn't be surprised if male artists get paid more/more often than female ones, given that they're generally taken more seriously and women might feel more pressure to "help out" with free labor.

It would be absurd to expect

<blockquote>It would be absurd to expect a computer programmer to build a database for free or to ask a plumber to repair your pipes for free</blockquote>

This ignores the mind-bogglingly huge contributions made by software developers to Free Open-Source Software and the pro bono work done by plumbers around the world. Doing free work is not limited to artists. It is also done by lawyers, firefighters, doctors, teachers, engineers, etc.

no it doesn't. there is no

no it doesn't. there is no sort of work that -someone- doesn't do for free but artists are -expected- to work for free.

no, it doesn't. there is no

no, it doesn't. there is no sort of work -someone- isn't doing for free but artists are largely -expected- to work for free. like getting paid in hugs and beer or 'exposure' or the 'opportunity' to sell merch is actually a completely reasonable arrangement and doesn't amount to the artist doing a favor for whoever isn't paying them.

"Can you just..."

It's the kind of field where people are ALWAYS asking favours and do not like to pay a decent hourly rate. I am a graphic designer and illustrator and it's always 'Can you just design me a quick logo' or 'can you just throw something together for my wedding invitations' or 'well I have an entire wall you can use to go crazy on'.

These people assume you just click a button to design a logo or that you would be flattered to have the opportunity of a free wallspace. Creative work is work. If it is a personal favour, perhaps you can offer to vacuum and mop my floors whilst I try to fit in your free project in my spare time? But the offer never comes...

Open source software is different

Open source software programming isn't a great comparison, because most open source software is provided to users for free - you're not offering your time and effort to a company which is going to turn around and sell the final product at a hefty profit. (Obviously some other company could use your open-sourced code in a commercial product, but you're usually not working directly for the company.) The Lena Dunham situation is more like IBM calling you up and asking you to write code for free, because it might be good for your career.

Women artists suffer even further!

"Anyone know if there's a gender dimension to this as well? I wouldn't be surprised if male artists get paid more/more often than female ones, given that they're generally taken more seriously and women might feel more pressure to "help out" with free labor."

This is a great point! The Guerilla Girls focused much of their movement about female representation in the art world.

Artists suffer so much, but female artists suffer even further or are not taken as seriously as a male artist, no matter how established. We statistically still get paid less for our art. It's a fact.

In the illustration and sign painting community, an artisan specialty field that is dominated by a "good ol' boys club" mentality, and I am often seen as "lesser than" and "arts and crafts" because I'm a female artist and routinely get asked if "I'm in art school or something" rather than asking about the fact that I run my own small business, or have been doing so since 2008. As soon as I removed my name or gender from my business and did advertising as "Ghost", I noticed the number of sales increase along with immediate surprise when customers realized I wasn't male. Interesting, huh?

I have read a lot of comments

I have read a lot of comments on multiple sites concerning this event and I come across many readers pointing out how great of an opportunity she was providing the opening acts because otherwise they wouldn't have the opportunity. Reading those comments do not settle well with me because as an up-and-coming whatever you may be-artist, actor, whatever, you always have struggles. So yes, though it is a very creative and thoughtful way of including those who are in shoes you once may have filled, why forget the struggles you were facing when in those shoes and not serve them all around? It just appears as if Lena was concerned with some self-fulfilling humbling act to make herself feel better and appear a certain way, doing a "service" to those opening up for her, without remembering what it's like to be the opening artist again. Off my soap box I go.

I have a different take on

I have a different take on this and I appreciate the article. I kind of think this becomes a problem not only with people hiring artists and their expectation of the artist but artists expectation of themselves and their definition of art. I think that often times the artist is often contrary to being linked to commodity and consumerism which have to do with profit. This leaves a stale taste in the artists mouth sometimes and deters them from engaging in a conversation about compensation or asserting themselves. I think often times artist thrive on their principal and their art usually speaks to that. This is admirable and one the most beautiful things about artists. However because of this II think it is assumed they have somehow transcended the idea of "profit." The "starving artist" I think everyone has heard before. I honestly think it becomes a question of principal and an artist has really put themselves out there as assuming an alternative lifestyle because lets face it as far as the world of education I think Business administration and Marketing has hijacked campuses and are considered more "serious" "mature" and "reasonable" fields of study. I think the stigma is the "starving artist" especially in regards to art with a social message and we have to pull away from that and give some validity to that type of art. I would say it's more valid and more deserving of profit then an add for an Iphone.

Uh, no?

I am a professional artist and gallery manager. I assure you that the vast majority are not wrapped up in the idea that being paid somehow violates the principles of their creative process (indeed, artists who believe this do not remain artists for long). Supplies are not free. Equipment is not free. Space to work in is not free. Housing is not free. Travel is not free.

Artists do not want the kind of alternative lifestyle where one can't afford to see a doctor, or buy clothes, or stock their pantries, or have a family, or pay off their student loans and credit cards. Artists do want the kind of alternative lifestyle that embraces creative problem-solving, free thinking, and time to dedicate to their creative practice after work and outside of their social lives.

Artists do, however, do a bad job of standing up for themselves. We often rationalize that the "exposure" is good and important, but if the exposure just gets you another unpaid gig, then what's that really worth? We often do not believe that our efforts are worthy of generating money - not even profit, just payment - because we live in a culture that tells us that we should not expect it. Working in galleries, and insisting that other artists are paid fair prices for their work, has made me more aware of how little I value my own work (in a purely monetary/exchange sense).

So few people are willing to pay for art, for music, for good writing, that it's easy to believe that our creative output isn't valuable or valued. But I assure you, we want to get paid.

You're right I'm not a

You're right I'm not a professional artist or gallery manager. But i am an artist. I was just making a point that principle can play a part in why there is this expectation to not pay or not be paid. I didn't mean that artists don't want to eat or pay their credit cards. Thank you

Artists Should Get Paid for Their Work—Especially By Lena Dunham

You are sooo right, having a roof over your head, eating, taking care of your health etc. is not free. So many people struggle and I want to direct them to Thomas McFreeman's website The Art of Debt Guerrilla Warfare for information, advice, and getting back on your feet.

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