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Good Art is the Best Art: An assessment of issues brought up during the Rapid Growth panel

Left to Right: Corey Ruffin, Laura Caprara, Tommy Allen, Erin Wilson, George Wietor, Miriam Slager, Brian Kelly, Jenn Schaub

Left to Right: Corey Ruffin, Laura Caprara, Tommy Allen, Erin Wilson, George Wietor, Miriam Slager, Brian Kelly, Jenn Schaub /Jon Clay

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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.

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Since I barely know anyone on the panel, except for Erin, I was worried that if I offered up my reaction to the event it might be construed as harsh or one sided criticism but here goes. 

It was nice to be included and it was good that this dialogue started.  That's the most important part.  Just as a first show for a new band is gonna suck, so will the first panel on an artist's wage be a little meandering. 

Kevin is making a great observation of the night that I have heard echoed from many in the audience.  He wrote; "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."

The panel was mainly graphic designers, visual artists, and photographers all working in very similar industries while George and I represented a massive culture of performance and non commodity art which has no standards of quality or restitution that it adheres to.  I learned from the panel that they are tired of being undercut.   I did not hear much talk about laying the foundation for a set of standards or how to mentor young artists on how to respect themselves, their work, strive to be better, and give them the courage to be competitive and professional.   How can a local actor or musician "man up" and be better than all the rest for the good paying jobs when many of the most talented and skilled of their craft are working for pennies or for nothing at all?  Or when the task of the artist is not to compete for an existing job but, rather, create that job out of nothing? 

Kevin, it is hard to be "really good" when there is no competition (when a musician's option is to play at bar A, B, or C for free, an actor to act at theater A, B, or C for free you aren't competing you're just staying busy), what onus is there to want to be noticed or earn more when the ceiling is so low?  


There needs to be a web-site, acting as a clearinghouse, in much the same way the neighborhoods of the city have publicized their businesses, or WMEAC promotes sustainability on its site.  There needs to be an open marketplace of ideas of how to solve a problem, or else the existing clients will be forced to stick only with known vendors.

The creative work has value, but there is no market for it to be valued.  The artists need to create a market, beyond the lavish awards for a few, that something like ArtPrize advocates.  Until creative types can barter their services, in exchange for future work, the one-offs will be pointless, as the Exposure expose wordlessly explained.

Someone needs to invest in putting up a web-site, beyond what you can find on Google, and deliver an inter-active platform for building relationships within the community, as well as matching up creatives with firms or individuals willing to pay.  An indexed web-site does not allow for competition among firms that do similar things, like web design or even music, to be measured against each other.

Right now, its just all word-of-mouth.  Why? 

Douglas, I really agree with you. I was telling Erin during the panel that I really hope that ArtPeers follows a format similar to:

I feel like a resource like this would be incredibly helpful for Grand Rapids' burgeoning arts community.

Do you know about

I just kind of randomly came across this while perusing the Community Foundation's site.

The Arts Council site is a good resource as well.





We are working on revamping the site to include a couple new elements. First, artists will have the ability to create a "profile," so a database of GR artists will be created. Second, artists will have the option to agree to a set of standards. There is more, but these two things will be very important to ArtPeers and GR artists moving forward. We hope to have the site finalized and live within the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned...


-Ryan w/ ArtPeers

I think in the future it might be useful to have panelists with more common backgrounds in the practice of monetizing their creative efforts. This was a good first panel, but the diverse range of the panelists' backgrounds as well as the topics brought up by the audience made for a wide ranging and scattered discussion without much opportunity to offer any consensus on any particular topic.

Perhaps a solution might be to host a specific discussion of issues facing fine artists; meaning those artists whose work is (initially) created primarily for their own self-expression and not necessarily for a specific commercial application for use by a business. I would say most of these artists do hope to assign value to what they create, discover markets/audiences for their work...and sell it.
The issues facing most painters, poets, sculptors, installation artists, performance artists, fine art photographers, etc. are quite distinct from than those facing creatives with a more accessible (or obvious) commercial market for their work (like graphic designers, illustrators, copy writers, web designers, commercial photographers, etc).
I think Erin and Rapid Growth did a great job of putting a lot of important issues on the table in a public forum. I'd love to see further discussion in targeted creative groups led by panelists who are leaders in their respective fields.

Good write up, Kevin...thanks for the re-cap. 


I'm glad the discussion is still rolling. I just came across this piece in the New York Times, the timing couldn't be better.

Creative Types, Learning to Be Business-Minded

It almost makes me dizzy to imagine the CITY funding a course like this. We can get there. 

First off, MC Paul Barman, whoa.

Secondly, it's interesting that none of the artists they mention in the article are commercial artists in the same sense as photographers and web designers. I totally agree with Brian, there are different issues at play here. This was the third discussion/panel of similar ilk that I can think of since February, and I think that I was wrong to assume that it would be more of the same. Particularly because it never occured to me that monetizing commercial work could be such a big deal. I thought it was as simple as "manning up," as Dottie put it, when you have such a clear commercial product.

Doesn't our local Art Council attempt to meet these needs? I know they teach classes in financial planning, management, and marketing. Are they not reaching a wide enough market of artists? How can we, the local artistic community, help them serve us more fully?

Great article, Kevin. This is the key take-away for me from this article: "...and the Bloomberg administration does not want artists to leave the city. Culture is a magnet for tourism and a major reason why people in other professions (and often higher tax brackets) want to live here. Ergo, two city-financed courses devised to help artists help themselves."

This is basic Florida Creative Class ideas in action at the local gov't level (NYC). Artists do create cultural capital and many others will want to live in and around that energy.

I think the current GR administration is quite artist friendly and might explore ways to mirror the NYC program. Also, I think local foundations might explore supplementary funding/grants to support something like this program and take some of the sting off the politics of City budget constraints. This type of class offered to artists would be hard for the City to push uphill by themselves when the City swimming pools need private dollars to operate. Also, a tactical question to ask is; is the City the best conduit for this training/information? Would it be more credible in the hands of another entity/institution? I don't have an answer either way...just thinking out loud.

George, I'm not aware of specific classes by the Art Council, but I'm the first to admit they're off my personal radar a bit...if they are offering specific classes to help artists develop their careers I'd be happy to try to spread awareness for what they offer.

 We are what we think we are. If Kevin Buist ( and his organization ArtPrize) think Art is subjective they will foster that mind set.  And Grand Rapids will suffer with Art events like ArtPrize where knowledge and professionalism is intentionally replaced with personal opinion( why doesn’t ArtPrize pay their curators?)  and The GRAM will end up presenting the remnants of Princess Diana’s wardrobe showcased as Art.


Or we can simply choose to look at Art with objective professionalism and foster standards of excellence and innovation and foster a place where people are willing to pay for that excellence because they have been taught the value of it.


Refusing to work for free is not overly simplistic as Buist suggests. It is a simple solution which begins the change of how we as a society will value our artists. It’s a choice.

For me, the whole should-artists-work-for-free or not kind of misses the point. It's a symptom of a larger problem: GR does not have the criticism, competition, or collectors that would keep artists from having to work for free.

There are some extremely talented fine artists here. There are also many that suck. The viewing public doesn't know the difference. And why would they? Both are featured with equal prominence at the same salon-style, non-juried, uncritiqued events. I don't have any beef with ArtPrize, it is what it is. It is not an event to help people develop discriminating taste. How can artists to price their work for a public that by and large doesn' t know the different between fine art and creative memories albums?

I, personally, am kind of over all this. I think we should start positioning GR as an arts incubator, for local and even imported talent, not as a final destination. We're already unintentionally doing that anyway, maybe we should try developing it instead of trying to be a "little Chicago"--something we clearly aren't.

OgreOgress productions is the largest classical-experimental recording label in Michigan and our recordings are well reviewed worldwide. We're based right here in Grand Rapids and we're getting ready to release our 25th recording.


Our musicians often performed live in many local venues in the 1990s and those venues would ALWAYS make small profits from our events, not by renting their venue but by taking 50% of the door. This was a fair arrangement. This all stopped around the time the Bush era started so our artists started to focus on making recordings instead of performing live concerts in the area.


To be more precise, since around 2000 we started asking UICA, the Art Museum., Wealthy Street Theatre, Saint Cecelia, etc. several times to trade the use of their space for recording purposes in return for presenting live concerts of the same experimental music we were recording, FOR FREE. We were willing to give UICA, etc. a chance to market these concerts and make 100% profit in return for use of their space. UICA, etc. had no risk and could make a small amount of money by presenting such music. However, UICA, etc. did not have a guaranteed amount of "rent" coming in for such an event. The fact that UICA, etc. would have to market and promote such events in order to make a return, rather than simply renting out a space with a guaranteed profit made things difficult for such bloated bureaucracies.


So a question arose in my mind many times after 2000 (before that, we had no such problems) ... is UICA, etc. an arts organization or a real estate vendor/landlord? From my perspective as past chair of UICA's music committee (early 1990s) I've viewed the influx of high profile local donors and board members as the catalysts for starting a process of growth that resulted in real estate investments and new buildings becoming more important than the presentation of art ('art music' in this case).


The result ... since around 2000 we're always told we can rent these spaces for 1000s of dollars and present our concerts in that way. No responsibility from the venue at all ... only guaranteed profit. So we just continue to laugh at the ongoing real estate-based approach to art music here and we continue to make our recordings.


So then ... why are we good? People around the world purchase our recordings and those recordings are reviewed very favorably by global publications. Think global. Act global. It has been good for our business to ignore the local arts-releated real estate projects and their concern for guaranteed profit and the bottom line.

There are complex issues at play, and a simplistic approach (a refusal to donate work, ever) might be impossible, or at least counter-productive.  As director of a local npo theatre, I'd be an out masochist to support it.  We are conservative about our "asks" but occasionally the cause justifies.  We lay out what we can provide (i.e. professional video recording) among other barter services, and let the artist decide.  Only comes up a few times a year, we've generally weaned ourselves off this temptation.   

I presented (via ArtPeers) a view that's not simple: we want to encourage artists to consider a number of factors, some of which may self-contradict.  As I mentioned during the panel discussion, we encourage artists to examine and establish their works' value.  This is a complicated but healthy exercise.  Consider what your heart says it's worth, then filter that through - as Jenn Schaub mentioned - what the local market will bear (my comment was VALUE "X" -[GR] as a joke, but in all seriousness, the "local economy" factor is critical.)  Try to sell a few and see where the sales begin.  See what name-recognition is worth, or how the lack of it (drives down your price.)  It's like any business model with a new/unique product.  But discovering some sort of pricing for yourself, based on all these factors, is a healthy first step, based on what we've been told by artists and others, throughout these community conversations.

The second part of the process ArtPeers suggested during the panel: decide if you want to donate to *this* event/org.  Do certain factors take precedence?  Loyalty?  Exposure?  Do you support their mission?  Will you be treated well, fed, able to sell other pieces/services onsite?  Is there money there?  If so, where's it going?  Are others getting paid?  Etc.  As director of a local theatre, I would expect - by asking for free work - the artist is entitled to ask almost any professionally relevant question about our operation.  Maybe no single factor is a deal-breaker, but maybe three factors are too much... it's up to the artist completely.  ArtPeers is hoping to initiate a conversation - it's really more about the process of examining, thinking, being either strategic or true to your heart. 

And invoice them!  You can list an item/services value on an invoice that you zero out, so the entity/org *receiving* the donation *knows* what it's worth.  They pay nothing, but they accept an invoice that advances acknowledgment that a thing has value. 

I think we'd find the market bearing more, going forward, as we advance a conversation about art having value.  Because right now there's a presumption, locally, that does not advantage artists.  It works against them.  I mean, it helps them to know the community "values" their art, which is true.  But if we *truly* value our creatives, we'll support them, by paying them what the market will bear.  It can bear a lot more than most of them would know. At some point we'd find an answer to the question, "How much is this worth to us, to have local artists living, working and surviving, here."  And for the artist (see quote at bottom) the question becomes, "What sort of survival is acceptable?"  It's an ongoing conversation and nobody has the answers right now, but it's reasonable to assume - whether you're a fan of Richard Florida or not - that, by marginalizing local artists, we construct and inherit a community of marginal local artists. 

In the end, there may be marginally little impact on the total number of donations made by artists - but if those donations are made with forethought, examination, and through a process that includes recordkeeping, I think we all would agree the process would benefit the community over time.

Speaking of ArtPeers, we're excited to announce the second Fall Festival will take place on the second weekend of September.  With the second incarnation of "Salmagundi," at Wealthy Theatre.  As boundaries continue to loosen up with ArtPrize, maybe someday Uptown will be a corridor, and how exciting would that be.  In the meanwhile (that's just a phrase, I'm not really at the bar) we're excited again this year to provide a mechanism for local artists to continue to explore these partnerships, showings, sales and general excitement for local art.  And I *am* meeting at the Meanwhile later with our web designer, to review the final couple tweaks to the V.2 ArtPeers website, w/ Artists Director and "best practices" suggestions for artists in the business of art.

I can see this reply is ridiculously long, so I finish with a quote that we at ArtPeers find very inspiring, from an individual who is now considering issues of compensation with experience on both sides of the poverty line: a certain point we need to be supported. It is just so lovely to be supported …You cannot give the fullness of your life to your work if a large percentage of it is spent on survival.

-Ran Ortner

Cheers- Erin Wilson

Sorry for posting two post so closely together( see above) but I just want to comment on something you said Erin that I think is key in understanding the issue.  Erin says..

"Try to sell a few and see where the sales begin.  See what name-recognition is worth, or how the lack of it (drives down your price.)  It's like any business model with a new/unique product. "

I don't believe this is completely true. Marketing the visual arts is UNLIKE any business model and unless we understand this point we will make mistakes in trying to develop a cultured economy in SW Michigan. The professional art market in Grand Rapids does not exist in a bubble outside of the national city centers of art in this county and the world for that matter, Chicago being the closest example. Price rules our supply and demand capitalism but not solely in the the art market. The supply is vast and varied in type and style. Demand can be influenced by a host of factors. As a artists in Grand Rapids one has to become educated  on what art is selling where and for how much but even more importantly who buys the art. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the majority of significant art that hangs in offices and homes in GR was purchased outside of GR. That hurts to admit but it's probably true. So to ask artists to donate work (outside of personal causes they believe in) doesn't even make much business sense if the market you are trying to connect with doesn't exist in GR.

Ruth, I completely agree with you. The theatre I work for is part of What's Your Art GR and we're hugely thankful to GR Community Foundation and Plenty Creative, along with the Arts Council, for having conceived of this visionary tool. The best of the best.

Our soon-to-launch ArtPeers directory hopes to fill in a different niche, creating an archive and reference directory for past/present artists in GR. Beyond a useful resource for the city and those looking to Grand Rapids to understand who we are, artistically... the directory should even provide a means for some people to hire local artists. We also want to continue the discussion about artists obligations, providing guidelines that may be useful to consider, resources for taxes and mentorships, and more.

I'm with you 100% on the lack of authentic and accessible criticisms of artists and art events. We can only grow, artistically, when challenged. It's really nice that most publications are effusively positive, this helps start something... but you're so right, the ongoing discussion needs objective reporting about the content of the art. We need to be not afraid to criticize, openly.

I personally believe the reluctance to criticize ties in with the lack of compensation, though. I think, in the eyes of the prospective critic, a paid artist would be more suited to criticism (good and bad) than one who never gets any money. In a vacuum it's all the same, but this simple factor (compensation) if more normal, would enhance a climate where genuine criticism were more desirable, possible, and beneficial. Just my thoughts.

Thanks, Erin

Richard, I'd have to concede to your point - it would be overly simplistic to make too many parallels between generic business marketing, and the business of art.  Well said.  It's an excellent conversation and there is much to learn about the complexities: many voices can (clearly) lead to greater understanding, and a stronger, more sustainable future for our local creatives.  Cheers.

 I'm really pumped that this conversation is so lively. Mission accomplished.

Also, I need to point out something in case it isn't clear. I work for ArtPrize, but any editorial writing I do on The Rapidian is entirely my own opinion, and does not represent ArtPrize. When I am speaking on behalf of ArtPrize, I will use the ArtPrize account we've created through The Rapidian's Nonprofit Neighbors program (which lets local nonprofits communicate directly readers of the site).

Erin, I'm really excited about this new ArtPeers website, I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

I created two logons, as well, Kevin =)

Though I'm sometimes not sure where one part begins and the other ends.


Regarding the ArtPeers website, thanks so much for your interest (we're really excited) and we should have a quite public launch sometime near Fourth of July weekend.  We've had outstanding backend coding perfrormed by folks at Atomic Object, and design work by our own Christopher Apap, who has branded ArtPeers since its inception.  Meeting with the programmers tomorrow at Meanwhile Bar.


And regarding ArtPrize, we're proudly sponsoring a modern dance entrant, who appeared at Trip The Light.  We're sort of hung up on modern dance at WT, this piece made the most sense for us.


Thanks for the excellent write-up about the "Good Business Is The Best Art."  I hope I did a better job explaining in writing (in an earlier comment) ArtPeers' take on the notion of donating creative work.  The number of comments about your write-up show there's so much to discuss... similarly, out of twelve scripted questions Jenn had in front of her, there was so much audience participation, so much to say... that I believe we got through three questions, that night. 


Cheers :)