The Other Columbus: Pay artists, period.

While the value of art can be debated, that it has value cannot

Scott Woods
Governor Award for the Arts winner Richard Duarte Brown, a mixed-media painter, works inside the studio at the Aminah Robinson house on the Near East Side on Feb. 21, 2022. As the recipient of the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, Brown will work from the home of the late Columbus artist until April.

If you are an artist who creates for therapeutic reasons, that’s awesome and I hope you stay well. If you are an artist who thinks that selling art somehow demeans its true value, then I hope you never make a dime off of your art and your integrity stays as pure as the driven snow. If you are an artist who loves doing charity work, God bless you. Artists are not a monolith, and I wish all of you and your art your very best life.

Have we cleared all of those folks out of the room? OK. The rest of this is for the people who aren’t artists but love asking for the work of artists: Pay artists. Period.

“Artist” here means everyone who creates an artistic thing: painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, dancers, DJs, singers — the whole lot of you. If you created something that could be considered artistic, and someone wants it, they should give you money for it. This even applies to that nebulous designation “content creator,” which always makes me throw up in my mouth a little when I hear it but admittedly still manages to meet the criteria. 

How much money? As much money as the market will bear. As much money as the artist thinks their art is worth. As much money as is on the tag. As much money as can be negotiated. But what should never be negotiated is whether or not the work costs anything. We call it work — artwork, work of art, “this work is a Basquiat” — because work is involved. 

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Despite all of the opinions swirling about the subject at all times, art is a necessary thing. The act of creation is going to happen no matter what anyone thinks about it. As long as someone has needed to express how they feel in a given moment, art has existed. The cave painting of the wooly mammoth hunt. The classroom scribble. The Confederate quilt. The military patch. All art, all work, all worthy of pay. It is the reason any argument about whether or not art has value or should be protected is nonsensical. Of course it has value and should be protected; and it’s clearly needed.

The temptation to not pay for art because it can be had for free is great. Artists are notoriously self-deprecating (why do you think so many people make art?) and constantly undervalue what they do and who they are. But let me make something crystal clear: If you put on an event and you don’t have money in the budget for the artist, then you do not have enough money to launch your event. If you spent money on flyers and not the artists on the flyer, you do not have an event. If you booked a caterer but not the DJ, band or poet, you might have a meal, but you do not have an artistic affair. If you’re walking around telling people you are an event organizer or producer and you don’t pay artists, then you’re not an event organizer; you’re a pimp.

I don’t care how much the pay is; that’s a different discussion about value and worth that takes more nuance and time than this chapter of the matter requires. If you can’t get on board with the concept of paying for artists’ time and work, then it doesn’t matter what it’s actually worth. We have to get you, the people who want art, to the table first, and then determine if you can afford what’s on the menu.

I’m not trying to change the entire business model of how performance venues work. If you’re a musician that cut a deal to get some or all of the door and the crowd didn’t show, that sucks, but venues can’t make money appear out of thin air. Bars aren’t nonprofits. They don’t campaign to raise funds for the express purpose of paying musicians regardless of who shows up. They campaign for beer sales and moving plates out of the kitchen. (But this is Columbus, so mostly beer.) If you want to get paid regardless of who shows up, then book college gigs or play company picnics and weddings. But don’t take gigs that simply don’t pay. 

I wish there was a public database for artists to submit info about whether or not a gig paid out. I’d even settle for a simple checklist where artists simply marked whether or not money was offered in the initial ask. I’m pretty sure I already know what the ratio would be, but it would be fun to watch unfold. But then, I’m a bit of a sadist when it comes to art talk. I like watching people’s faces drop when you apply math to their perceptions of art.

Another thing we can all do to make everyone's life easier and less awkward: Tell artists upfront if the thing you want them to do pays anything. Don’t try to get us on the hook for something that sounds awesome, only to reveal after the rush of blood and good will that the effort doesn’t pay. That’s a slick way to get free art about 25 percent of the time — which is a pretty good rate considering you gaslit an artist to get it — but it’s a horrible thing to do to another person. 

The School Teacher Caveat: We know you need things and that your school has likely provided you nothing by way of budget for those needs. I’m writing this in Columbus, so I know this is the case for at least 90 percent of you. That said, you should still ask artists for things, but you have to ask in a productive way, and the productive way is to tell us upfront that the gig don’t pay. 

We’re artists, but we all came up in schools. We know you don’t have budgets. We want to give back and help because most artists owe their craft to a teacher from their past. I owe what music ability I have to Mrs. Butler. I owe my occasional painting to Mr. Young. I owe my love of words to Susie Lowmiller (Indianola was a progressive school) and later, Mr. Kerwin. Every artist can name the instructor who pushed them forward. We’re happy to help teachers and foster appreciation of the arts in students. Just tell us you don’t have the money upfront so we can schedule accordingly, because if I need the loot that month, we may have to wait until your poetry unit comes around. 

I work with countless artists of all disciplines and levels of experience. I love breaking new artists onto the scene, helping shore up the work and value systems of working artists, and giving long-term artists new audiences and shine. I love watching a musician or artist blow up in front of a huge audience, then saying to them, “I can’t afford you no more.” They assure me that they’ll still come if I ever call, but I rarely take them up on it. We stay friends by not asking for that particular favor. I value the authentic friendships I have gained in this game precisely because they are so hard to earn.

One of my favorite bookings of all time was putting the legendary Willie Phoenix in front of an audience that specifically came to see a blues show but had little experience with live blues. Willie guided them gently through the motions, and years later in 2017, when I booked 31 straight days of Black art events, I booked him with his band, and a lot of that audience filled Brothers Drake to see him again, this time in full rock-out mode. The first time I booked Willie it was a solo acoustic set because that’s what I could afford. I didn’t try to finagle his whole band to come out for less money or anything like that. When I had more money down the line, the band got what they were worth, and everybody won. Book what you can afford, but always pay. If I didn’t have the money for a solo Willie Phoenix show, then I didn’t have the money for Willie at all. Simple as that.

The issue of artistic compensation looks different depending on your creative discipline. For visual artists, the issue isn’t getting paid for a painting — most people understand that a painting is something for which you pay. They make whole movies about stealing them off of museum walls. Rather, it’s about how much to ask. For musicians, it’s another step down the ladder, where everyone gets that music should cost something — gear, delivery of said gear, rehearsal time, learning tunes — so a lot of musicians end up in Bartertown: “Here are a few beers for your charms, sir. Ye’ be a true bard, you do.” 

Then there are the poets. My god, the poets. They will pour their hearts out to anyone anywhere for nothing. They just want to be heard, perhaps to be loved. Poets will drive many miles in a car that should not be on the road to perform as much poetry as a coffeehouse audience can stand for nothing. Early in my career as a poet, one of the most storied poetry venues in the world paid me 50 bucks to do a 25-minute set in New York City. Mind you, I live in Ohio. I took that gig back then just so I could tell you this story 20 years later in a newspaper column about paying artists something. 

Poets are the most delicate flowers on the artistic food chain. They will stop being poets at the drop of a dime, perhaps because poetry is treated as readily disposable. Do you know how hard it is to catch a financial break as a poet? How hard it is to generate enough work to be a Hanif Abdurraqib or to develop the performance chops of an Izetta Thomas? I can tell you that it is an enormous amount of work to do that well. And to be as consistently good as they are at what they do takes even more work. And if you think that should come for free just because you have a cousin who writes poetry at open mics, I’d like to talk to you out back in the alley. Oh, this? This is just my crowbar. I locked my keys in my car. Out back, like I said. Come give me a hand while you tell me all about your cousin the poet.

I can’t tell you what you should pay for art because there are too many factors that should go into such estimations. Determining what art is worth is why the phrase “case-by-case basis” was created. I will, however, offer this decree for all art by all artists everywhere: Nothing an artist provides can come in less than three figures. 

No poem, musical performance, essay, forum appearance, painting or choreographed dance should even be at the table for anything less than $100, and that’s regardless of its quality. Yes, even the worst poem, song, painting or dance. That’s how cheaply $100 should be perceived. If the worst artist is worth $100, then you should adjust the pay for someone who is actually good at art. I remember the worst poet I have ever seen. I can spot and name him at 50 paces. I maintain that even he should be paid no less than $100, because then you understand why you should be paying a poet like Zach Hannah $300-500 for poems no one else could dream of writing, let alone perform at the level he achieves. 

And look, if you don’t think you should have to pay the worst artist $100, the good news is that you don’t have to. Nobody should probably book that artist. You just saved yourself 100 bucks and the rest of us a horrible night out on the town. 

And if you won’t pay the worst poet I’ve ever seen $100 — someone who doesn’t even spend money on pencils — then you can’t ask a band to play an hour-long set for the same price. You can’t pay Richard Duarte Brown $100 for an original painting. You can’t ask Gamal Brown to choreograph a dance recital for $100. You can’t ask Philip Hickman to write a play for $100. You can’t ask Marcus Meacham to cater your event for $100. You can’t ask Steve Abbott to read 30 minutes of poems for $100. Benjamin Franklin isn’t enough to get good art to your table, and you won’t pay for bad art, so no one loses by starting there. 

If $100 is too rich for your blood, then maybe you should consider striking out on your own. The art table has infinite space. Anyone can pull a chair up to it at any time. Worst case scenario? You become the $100 artist.