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Left to Right: Corey Ruffin, Laura Caprara, Tommy Allen, Erin Wilson, George Wietor, Miriam Slager, Brian Kelly, Jenn Schaub
On Wednesday, Rapid Growth Media hosted the fifth panel discussion in its monthly series of conversations about issues facing Grand Rapids. Titled "Good Business is the Best Art," the panelists discussed issues surrounding assigning value to art and creative work. For a complete report on the event, be sure to read Rapid Growth panelists dissect the value of art in Grand Rapids. The following thoughts are my editorial response.
The evening began with a slide presentation of a recent body of work by Grand Rapids photographer Terry Johnston called Exposed. Johnston invited local artists and creative professionals to pose with handmade signs with slogans like "Can't eat exposure" and "Exposure didn't pay my rent," all while dressed as homeless people.
Johnston's argument was very clear: Organizations expect photographers and other creatives to donate their services in exchange for exposure rather than a fair wage. The result is a cycle where creatives are constantly underselling themselves, perpetuating a market where the value of creative work is artificially low. The solution, we were told time and time again throughout the evening, is stop doing creative things for free.
Johnston is absolutely right that professionals in creative industries should coordinate their efforts in order to maintain a healthy market (terrible economy not withstanding). But despite a large, diverse panel and rousing audience participation, I still felt like there were a number of important points missing in the discussion.
First, the premise that refusing to work for free is the solution to the devaluation of art in general is too simplistic. Having this discussion could do great things for the photography and design markets, but it doesn't translate well to artists not working on a for-hire basis. Slapping higher prices on paintings will not create an art market out of thin air. Providing support for artists whose practice doesn't produce a commodity at all is an even trickier task.
The second gap in the conversation is a very tricky topic, and it began to come up a few times, but seemed to be carefully avoided. At one point, Dottie Rhodes of Plenty Creative spoke from the audience. She more or less echoed the prevailing premise, that creative professionals should have the courage charge what they're worth, and that they should "man up." Rhodes' design firm is a great example of a smart, assertive business in action. But there's one really important thing Dottie didn't mention. Plenty Creative is good. Really good.
This also began to crop up when a web design student asked if he should work for cheap, given that he's still in the midst of study. Brian Kelly, an accomplished local photographer, said, "Well, you should charge a competitive rate if you're working at a professional level." This was a tactful way of saying, "if you happen to be really good." I respect the desire to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but l think it's safe to assume that no students are really good at what they're doing yet. In fact, I'd venture to say that it's exceedingly rare to find anyone who's very good at their creative work before having done it for ten years. And even then they might not be good. Good has value, and good takes time.
But what makes creative work good? Isn't that subjective? Yes, it is, but there's also consensus, discussion, and valuable debate. Several times panelists grumbled about how an artist's work wouldn't have value in Grand Rapids until it found a market in New York or Chicago. This isn't something to complain about, and it makes perfect sense. With any type of creative work people are always looking for some ephemeral value that goes beyond the thing itself. Call it meaning, beauty, relevance, whatever you want. Knowledge that a work has value in a larger cultural center assures the local buyer that their inclination is correct. Yes, this is good.
Grand Rapids does need healthy markets for the creative industries, but we're not going to get there if we're unwilling to talk about what's good and why. Don't be afraid to say that one thing is better than another. Make a statement, make an argument, be critical. The more vibrant our on-going critical discourse becomes, the faster we'll each get to a point where we can say with confidence: I made this, it has value, and it is good.