The shame of acceptance around asking artists to work for free

Sainsbury’s made a big error last week. The supermarket put out an ad asking for an artist to
volunteer their skills to refurbish and upgrade their new canteen in London’s Camden Town store.

The ad copy ran like this: “Sainsbury’s is giving you the one opportunity to build your career and build your reputation. Your work will contribute to our success. Share your gift. Leave your mark by doing what you love and do best.”

It was written without a hint of shame that an artist should work for free to get exposure. The underpinning message from this big supermarket is that we would rather not pay you but will give you space to get seen so maybe someone else will pay you at some future time. The lucky artist who gets this commission would be able to leave their mark and do what they love, but not get paid. This is from a company with an annual £26b turnover.

What does this say about how we value art in our culture? At a time when art and creative studies are facing cuts from education and are being dropped from school timetables, it’s time for us to start understanding what art means in our culture and establishing more respect for the artistic process. We need to put money where our mouth is in regard to supporting art and artists. We have got really good at spending money on endless manufactured products, but when it comes to spending on art and artists there seems to be cultural block and an assumption that artists can and should work for free.

Photographers I know are regularly being asked to shoot for free — it’s a regular pattern. It’s something seen to be done for love but not for money and how do you gently tell someone you do expect to be paid for the work that you do even if it is “artistic”. Writers have the same conversations. It’s regular practice for magazines to ask freelance writers to do full page features for free to get their words read and their name exposed. New writers coming through will never make a living if this continues and the craft of writing is set back to the status of “not a proper job”. Most of the excellent writers I know have to supplement their regular writing work with other paid jobs. With the explosion of bloggers and thousands of platforms and content spaces to fill, it gets harder and only the top percentile of good writers can earn a living this way. Philip Pullman resigned from his post as patron of the Oxford Literary festival pointing out that at most of the book festivals the only people who don’t get paid are the authors themselves. It is the authors that people come to see and yet they are asked to do it for free with “exposure” as the return.

My friend Fin Dac is a highly-regarded international urban artist. His work appears regularly on the front cover of art magazines and pops up in prestigious locations all over the world.

He was recently contacted by a powerful hotel chain in New York and asked to do an urban art piece for this new multi-million pound hotel. The art project planned is for the outside of the new building. The only snag is that in this multi-million project, there is no financial support for the art project appearing at the center.

Here’s a copy of the pitch sent by the hotel group to a number of well known artists:

“I am the Marketing Director, not an art curator. I love the energy and spirit of street art, and happened to have this vision and idea of creating a bridge between the energy and spirit of street artists and the hotel. I don’t get paid by running this art project at the hotel, FYI. But I value this project a lot more than money. I am certain that our guests and local New Yorkers in this neighborhood would appreciate the bridge of celebrating the energy and spirit of street art/artists.”

The offer for the artists taking part in the project is to be exposed to the A-list clientele, art collectors and media.

That’s nice. So these highly talented artists (and the hotel would only allow the best ones) could spend a great deal of time and creativity as well as materials and paints to create a massive art piece for the hotel to get “great exposure” but without an appropriate share — or in most cases any share at all — of the significant investment being spent on the project. When the artist contacted them to clarify this, they didn’t reply.

It’s time we call for proper payment of artists, writers and musicians. We have to value artistry in our culture or we are poor in mind and spirit.

Most importantly, we will have missed the point of the magic of human creativity. The value of art in society is bigger than all of us and has a much greater impact on our health, wellbeing, society and education than we give credit. To imagine a world without art, is to imagine a body without a heart.

Art and culture illuminates who we are and powers up our emotional world, teaching us compassion and tolerance. A life without art isn’t living.

Let’s hope this whack ad from Sainsbury’s will get the debate under the spotlight for increased respect and payment for our artists all over the world.

Susie Pearl

United Photo Press 2016