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Rapid Growth panelists dissect the value of art in Grand Rapids

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Photos by Jon Clay

Rapid Growth Media held the fifth monthly segment of its speaker series last night at Wealthy Theatre. The topic of the night was "Good business is the best art." 

Panelists included Brian Kelly (owner of Brian Kelly Photography, photographer for Rapid Growth Media), Miriam Slager (Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts visual arts committee), George Wietor (Community Media Center employee, co-founder of Nest, Division Avenue Arts Collective and G-Rad), Erin Wilson (director of Wealthy Theatre, founder of ArtPeers), Tommy Allen (lifestyle/entertainment editor for Rapid Growth Media), Laura Caprara (president and co-founder of Grand Rapids Social Diary) and Corey Ruffin (The End Times Orchestra, Mr. Happy Pants from Super Happy Funtime Burlesque). Jenn Schaub (Avenue for the Arts, Dwelling Place) played moderator.

Terry Johnston, a local photographer, kicked off the presentation with a photo essay entitled "Exposed." The weekend prior to the panel, he invited Grand Rapids artists to his photoshoot for starving artists. Johnston feels that artists are asked to donate their services more often than most professions.

"That great exposure is great exposure for the business that's using you," Johnston said. "When you do that work for free, that's free exposure that will probably never lead to a paying gig."

Models held signs that read, "Can't eat exposure," "Exposure didn't pay my rent" and "My degree is in free exposure."

Schaub kicked off questioning by asking panelists how they assign value for their work.

"I am the queen of odd jobs. I will do anything within reason to make some money," Slager said. "A lot of my odd jobs are also research for my artwork."

It was quickly established that each artist is a jack of all trades. Panelists may be known for being the ring leader for SHFB or as an editor for Rapid Growth, but each brings many other visual arts talents to the table, from graphic design to music lessons.

Wietor differed from most of the panelists, stating that his art contributions are not consumable commodities. Wietor is a community organizer who has co-founded various arts-oriented collectives. He is also fully employed at a local nonprofit. Wietor invests his free time in the projects he is deeply interested in and, therefore, does not charge.

"Because how do you charge to organize?" Wietor asked.

Audience members and panelists batted around the origins of undervalued artists in Grand Rapids. Some felt other cities have higher costs of living that also mean more expendable incomes while others felt the blame lies with artists.

"There's a mentality that [our art is] worth (x - GR),'" Wilson formulated.

Ruffin made the point that artists are practicing their art when the performance showcases their values. However, when artists lend the brand they have built doing what they love, it changes the picture.

"That's not an artistic event. We can give it an umbrella, but it's a money event," Ruffin said. "If you're bringing us into that, you have to meet our terms. That's the separation of culture—artists versus craftspeople."

Addressing how to price their work, Kelly advised artists to take successful and more experienced counterparts out to lunch and pick their brain. He made the point that when an artist earns $50 per day waiting tables, $75 for an artistic job might seem like a significant amount.

Allen advised that artists be careful about to whom they give their artwork without charge; do not give away work except to arts organizations.

"It's rarely handled with the respect and dignity it deserves," Allen said.

"It wasn't till I started representing other artists till I realized I needed to help them stand up for themselves," Caprara said. "Whether you're a doctor or artist or lawyer, you're going to give away the things that you're passionate about; not everything's going to have a dollar, but they deserve it. If they're not paid, it takes a little bit away from the value of what they feel." 

Ruffin brought it full circle by plugging the SHFB's Kickstarter project to raise money for a national tour.

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 Corey's plug was perfect. It couldn't have fit in more.

Overall, I agree with the statements made by the panelists who are artists in the community. I feel that artists should receive monetary payment for all of their contributions even if it is their choice to reduce the price based upon their personal interest in one organization or business over others.

Personally, I have benefited professionally and personally from giving a portion of pro bono time (while being paid for some of my hours worked) to a favorite arts organization. I feel it is my way of giving back to the arts in the Greater Grand Rapids community where we all benefit from supporting worthy arts organizations who are also struggling with funding at this time.