“Attention Shoppers! Creativity on Sale, Aisle Three” Figuring Out Your Artistic Worth!

I have always had a problem placing value on my artistic work; writing, drawing, plays, TV scripts, whatever. Even though I have created hits on stage that run up to a year, TV shows that play for years or writing and illustrating a bestselling “how to” humourous book, I have always found it difficult to figure out the value and what to charge. Based on the number of times I’ve been ripped off, other think I have value. For some reason, because I enjoy doing the work so much, it has been hard putting a price on it.  Perhaps this comes from my early Catholic upbringing which indoctrinated me with the idea of putting others first and yourself way at the back of the bus.

However, after decades of being on this planet I think i figured it out. Actually, dealing with government bureaucracy did.

For the past three months I have spent my days filling out numerous grant applications. This is all new to me for I have always been one that believes art should pay for itself. If it is good, demand creates value.

For years I have sat back and watched the same would-be artists and administrators, whose ideas are neither original nor good for that matter, continue to line up at the various agency money troughs. In the process they got to pay themselves first! (A novel idea in my world.) And because they were a known entity in the system, they got to come back year after year. Image

I have always backed my plays, television projects and other creative ventures by mortgaging my house or raising sponsorship.  And I’m talking about work that made a mark, that had great runs, toured, sold lots of tickets, received awards or were sold internationally. And because I never placed myself first in line to be paid, I rarely saw proper renumeration.

When I opened the TWG Gallery the past year, I was amazed at the number of my known artists who literally figure out the value of a new painting by the square foot. I know when I have written under Writer’s Guild contracts for programmes other than my own, one is paid by the minute. Under the Playwrights’s Union there’s a standard fee based on the number of seats. But because I like to take on the producer/writer role and using my own funds, unions rarely come into the picture. Only if I sold the project was there ever a few shekels for me, the creator, the guy who started the ball rolling in the first place!

So finally, after years of self-flagellation, (Thanks Sister Martha Ann), I finally realized something.  Unless you can create a mechanical blockbuster that appeals to the masses, will the creator see any monetary reward. And even then, because bigger means the pie is sliced into more pieces, gross doesn’t always guarantee a net return. Yet, all these various funding agencies are willing to support, or as they like to say, “invest”, in the same ventures, year after year. Festivals, films, theatre companies whatever, art does not pay for itself…the government does!

Now on my seventh grant application for next summer’s big project, with each one I have become more confident that I have the answer to artistic sustainability in Canada. First of all, besides the odd agency, like some on the grants offered by the Ontario Arts or Canada Councils which are “juried” by fellow artists and “friends of”, quality means nothing. Schlocky films get made, obscure theatre gets staged, bad television programmes are produced and insignificant annual festivals and events will continue to be mounted. The most important criteria for receiving funding is not standards or originality, it’s “How many jobs are you going to create?”.  

Holy crap! Is that what it takes to get government funding? Let’s see, considering the fact that I rarely paid myself as writer, the ideas I have conceived and have made it to full production since 1985 in various media,  I am responsible for close to ten thousand plus jobs.  Mind you, most are short term contractual, but they are jobs.

Besides jobs, the impact your idea creates is equally important. I am not referring to emotional impact, for that has no worth in the funding formula, but rather economic impact. If someone drives from beyond forty kilometres to attend your event, it’s more than likely they will go out for dinner, do a little shopping and even stay over for a day or two. Whether they buy your painting, like your music or laugh at your comedy, means nothing. Again because that would imply appreciation and acceptance, which is too hard to measure. It’s easier to use formulas like “For every dollar spent on a theatre or entrance ticket, five to seven is spent in the surrounding community.”  So suddenly your thirty-five dollar ticket translates into two-hundred and forty five! Or your TV programme or article in a magazine generates millions in advertising revenue. I would assume the formula for film is jobs created, times money spent in the community, times world-wide distribution, times the taxes on the Hollywood producer’s LA home.

So following this formula, if you count  the dinners in restaurants, items purchased in stores, overnight stays in hotels, cable television subscriptions, magazines sold,  commercial time bought, ad space in programmes, sponsorship money spent, gas tank fill-ups, care rentals, lumber purchased, electricity needed, (etc.) plus the jobs created, the value of art goes beyond the applause or how well it looks hanging above a couch.

As I proceed securing funding for my various ventures, I have learned that the value of the artistic product has nothing to do with the number of hours spent, the feeling it causes nor the brilliance it displays. Art is a commodity. Actually art is more like a loss leader. Art is that item they advertise and put on sale at the back of the grocery store in hope that as consumers proceed down the aisle they’ll pick up full-priced items. I finally get it. “Attention shoppers!”

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