June 27, 2016

The Trouble with Arts Writing: Real Talk about Money

I am prompted, by events of today, to share some thoughts and a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek at the life and times of an arts writer. I am at the end of my Kresge year, an opportunity which I have cherished – not least of which because it gave me a safety net within which to test the feasibility of supporting myself primarily through arts writing. Spoiler alert: it is not feasible without independent funding.

How can that be? Haven’t I, in just the last 12 months, published 150+ pieces of original writing, for local, national, and international venues? Do the math – that is roughly an article every three days! How could that possibly not add up to a healthy living? Well, friends, because it doesn’t pay hardly anything. Freelance writing is a very low-margin business to begin with, and arts writing is one of the most under-compensated forms of freelance journalism. For some of these articles, I was paid as little as $25. The best-paying ones pay $75 each. A whole handful of them were done pro bono in an effort to respect and support other hardworking folks in the Detroit art community. One of them was written for a new publication that received a massive Knight Arts grant, but still does not pay its contributors anything for lengthy original content! Every once in a while I get a special job that pays several hundred dollars, and then I cry grateful tears and use it to pay my quarterly taxes because, as a freelancer, none of this work does any withholding on my behalf. Health insurance? Haha, you’re cute.

The events of today are an occurrence that has become common for me over the last year: a salaried employee of a marketing department within a well-endowed institution emails me to let me know about an exciting art event that is opening, in the hopes that I will come write about it. If this organization is within a 20-mile radius of my house, I typically absorb the cost of travel – which includes time. If it is outside that radius, a geographic area that includes Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Ohio, Chicago, New York, Boston, Miami, and Texas – to name just a few of the places from which I have received solicitations – I ask that they cover my travel expenses, typically at the IRS-approved rate of $0.54/mile, if they are within driving range. This covers the brass tacks cost of gas and wear and tear to my 16-year-old truck; it honestly does nothing to defray the time it takes to travel hours out my way to write a $100> article.

Sometimes they do, and then I dutifully saddle up my truck and drive to the four corners of the Midwest to look at art and write about it. Why? Because I love it. I really love to do it. I find it meaningful, and based on a lot of feedback I get (which I very much appreciate) other people find it meaningful, too. So really, I’m looking for any way I can afford to write about art, without actually going bankrupt. Before the Kresge, I worked three part-time jobs aside from arts writing, and now I will work three part-time jobs again (and do a lot less arts writing, unfortunately).

Sometimes, as today, they inform me that it is not their policy to “compensate journalists.” Hey guys, far be it for me to tell you how to run your show, but I didn’t ask you to compensate me as a journalist. I would never do that; I view it as a conflict of interest (although I am told that actually a lot of art critics take payoffs to write about specific shows. DAMN THESE MORALS). I requested that you cover the travel expenses that I would incur by traveling far beyond my normal range to view your show. Even in the case where my travel expenses are reimbursed, I eat all the cost of travel time, which can be significant. Here, let’s do a word problem:

I traveled by car to Columbus, Ohio – a 4 1/2 hour drive each way, requiring an overnight stay. My gas, hotel, and some food was picked up by the Ohio Bureau of Tourism. I managed to pitch two pieces of coverage at $75 each, bringing my total compensation to $150. Subtract 30% of that for taxes. Including the time it takes to reflect, write, edit pictures, and go through editorial, we’re looking at a full 48-hour investment of my time. What’s my hourly wage? **

I understand that from the institutional viewpoint, perhaps you think it is your job to put on art shows, and it is my job to make a living writing about them. The trouble is, there is no living to be made here. I understand that there is an illusion of success associated between frequently publishing with prestigious institutions, such as Hyperallergic, Art in America, Flash Art, and ArtSlant – to say nothing of landing a sweet book deal! I hate to tear the veil, folks, but the publishing world no longer has the margins to support content. I will receive, at best, about $0.40 per book, for a project to which I contributed 10,000+ words of original content, and countless hours of sweat equity. That’s all. I live off the occasional, unpredictable, higher-margin piece of work: the commissioned essay, the speaking gig, the curatorial honorarium. The most I have ever been able to publish in a single month was 14 pieces of arts writing (literally one every two days) and for that, I totaled $1,187.50. Before taxes.

The point of all this ugly math is to urge you, if you’re someone with concern for the arts in the Detroit Metro area, to think about what might be done to help support criticism (either mine or by other people), because it seems to me to be work that greatly benefits everyone besides the people who do the actual arts writing. I find it ultimately quite disheartening when extremely well-endowed organizations balk at even covering the minimal travel expenses of a freelancer who survives on an excruciatingly small margin. I would not request reimbursement for gas if it did not seriously impact my finances.

I mention this to underscore a missing element of support within the arts ecosystem in the Detroit Metro area. There are a number of venerated institutions that self-define as being deeply committed to supporting the arts in Detroit – if this is truly the case, picking up the tab on arts criticism enables coverage not only of your great works, but of the smaller and scrappier artists and organizations that legitimately cannot afford to help support writers. Because of the very need for criticism to remain impartial, it is impossible for me to directly solicit anything close to fair payment for services – but something like the Kresge Fellowship I received last year enabled me to literally quadruple my output as an arts writer, in ways that materially benefited artists and arts institutions all over the region, but especially in Detroit. Having no-strings support for arts writing is a crucial element of a functioning arts ecosystem. I wonder if there is some capacity, among the well-funded pillar institutions in the city, to form independent funding for criticism in Detroit. I wish I could afford to work for exposure and appreciation, but I can’t.

Just a thought.

** That’s right! $2.50 an hour. Sigh.

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