On Compensation and Love

Today I opened my email to find this letter from Portland Art Museum inviting artists to paint pianos for an upcoming exhibition.

I'm familiar with the partnering organization and am a fan of what they do, so I inquired further— namely, I asked about compensation.

Here is the response I got, verbatim, and in its entirety:

$0.00This is purely a labor of love.

I am an artist, and I am accustomed to such requests. Still, this response landed beyond the bounds of what I have been conditioned to expect. There was no half-hearted apology citing budgetary concerns, or promises of 'exposure' and 'opportunity' (whatever that amounts to). There was simply an assertion that my love should be enough.

"This is purely a labor of love." It was almost refreshing in its honesty, in its accidental revelation of what many arts institutions have come to expect of us, the artists they claim to represent. The Portland Art Museum has an annual operating budget in the $15-20 million range. In 2013 (the most recent annual report I could get my hands on), 3% of that budget went to art acquisition, and it's a pretty fair bet that a significantly smaller percentage than that landed directly in the hands of the artists themselves.

I am not trying to single out the Portland Art Museum per se, but I wonder where our priorities lie that this is the accepted norm, the reasonable expectation of artist involvement. I wonder what exactly this proposed labor of love would be in service of. The truth is, I'd love to be involved in this project: it tugs all the right heartstrings: community engagement, arts for underserved populations, art in public spaces. I've seen these pianos around, and I love them. It is also true that I make work for free all of the time. My work is, indeed, a labor of love... but when that labor of love becomes simply free labor in service of a system that exploits artists for profit, when it fuels a capitalistic art market—one that, as an aside, last night brought the highest ticket sale of a work of art to date at a Christie's auction ($160 million for Picasso's Women of Algiers)—it becomes expressly exploitative.

But I'm not sure that even that is what's getting to me the most.

I think it is this, the thing that has kept it nagging and tugging at my mind all day: Why are compensation and love somehow mutually exclusive? Why should we not put our blood sweat and tears into the things we love and also be compensated for those efforts? Have we, when I wasn't looking, all mutually agreed upon this operating procedure? Should there be no support, no exchange, no return for those who are working in service of something that they love? What does this say of the tortured artist trope? The martyr? I try to—and am honored to—give of myself wholly and freely to whom and what I love, but I don't want to give more than I can, get nothing in return. It is not in anyone's best interest when energy flows only in one direction. We need exchange in order to thrive. In short, I think we—all of us—need compensation for our work.

So, no. Thank you for the invitation, but I will not be painting a piano for you this time. Maybe it's time we all stop offering up our services for free and start valuing that labor of love.