Art as a Labor of Love


Aurelio Madrid

Art as a Labor of Love

So many literary magazines describe themselves as “labors of love.” The writers get paid in copies, the editors work for free. The same is true of non-Equity, start-up theatres, where income from tickets, subscribers, private and corporate donations, and grants goes to pay rent and royalties, utilities and advertising, not the theatre artists involved—the actors, directors, and scenic designers who bring you that thrilling  or hilarious experience in the theatre.

Artists give up a 50% commission to the gallery on any works sold, and have to price their work accordingly, making some crucial decisions all along the way. And many artists are asked to donate their artwork to charity causes or arts organization fundraisers. The artists do not receive anything from the proceeds of the sale and sometimes are not even invited to the event, to share in the food, champagne, and general goodwill and to receive a wee bit of honor and praise.

I’m pleased by the enterprising Etsy stores, the start-up small presses doing their own chapbooks and magazines, the online adventures like this one, and all the resourceful and creative solutions to the problems of surviving while making and promoting art of all kinds.

But I do notice that businesses manage to get paid for most of the goods and services they provide, while artists and arts organizations do not. Yes, businesses are in the business of making money, and artists and arts organizations are in the “business” of making and supporting art, but I’m wondering how often the caterer donates goods and services to the arts fundraiser? Are the cooks and servers working for free that night, the way the artists did, who donated their art to be sold to support the gallery? How often does the newspaper donate the advertisement for the event? How often does the printer donate the color postcard costs? And so on.

It seems like it would be good business to donate goods and services to arts functions, leaving business cards for patrons who might hire the caterer later, etc., and I know that does happen sometimes! And I know that private sponsors do pay for certain things so grant money can be spent on what is more directly connected to artists and art-making.

But what I’m wondering now is what, specifically, is done for or given back to individual artists who give of their time, energy, and labor over and over again for free—performing, painting, reading their poetry or fiction, etc. They do it for love, yes, but how can we share the love, as they say?

A magazine editor I know bought a drink (coffee, juice, or wine!) for all of the readers at the release party in a bookstore/coffeeshop/winebar in Chicago. A gallery I know gives a free artist’s membership to artists who donate a work to their annual summer fundraiser. I wish the local theatre, which does not pay its actors, would at least give them a season ticket. Seems like it would be good for audience development, as they’d come back with friends, no doubt!

If you are laboring for love as an artist, you are already “giving back” to the community. I’m wondering what the arts community has been giving back to you? What are some fine and generous examples of reciprocity you’ve experienced?

And/or what are some you might suggest, to help “share the love” in a practical and meaningful way?

Artworks by Aurelio Madrid in the Escape Into Life Store!

And please visit Labors of Love to see a sampling of poets who love what they do!




  • It comes, I guess, of thinking art is not essential. Just a pretty add-on.

    At the site I work with, I wanted our artists to be paid. Some of them are. And when we can’t pay all of them, we at least try to pay in credits and links that would promote them. Sometimes I even buy their work on the side.

    I think art is essential 🙂

  • Kathleen Kirk

    I think art is essential, too.  Thanks for what you are doing for your artists, LL!

  • Kathleen Kirk

    I don’t think the problem of getting paid will ever be easily solved for artists, that’s for sure, and I’m glad we keep doing it for love.

    I am wondering what specific ways the arts community itself gives back (since it’s not in payment) to you individual artists. I’m glad to hear that art gallery labor makes Hannah’s reading series easier for her, and I praise Woman Made Gallery in Chicago for similar labor, plus refreshments for the audience!

    Like Christian, I appreciate the marvelous generosity of people on the Internet–tweeting, sharing, forwarding, getting the word out in all kinds of ways about art and writing they like!

    What are some other things that have been done for you that seem in direct response to your art, in thanks for your free art labor, and/or to help promote your work?

  • Kathleen Kirk

    Ah!  Time for me to re-read Flannery O’Connor’s letters!

  • Christina Wegman

    Hi Kathleen!  I’ve met many kind and inspiring individuals along the way in my endeavors as an artist. . . their encouragement has managed to drown out any of the occasional negative experiences for me, however, the rewards I have received tend, more often than not, to fall into the category of personal growth rather than paying the rent.  I guess it is simply a matter of priorities that I seek personal growth and creativity before money and simply keep my expenses low.  Of course, I wouldn’t mind seeing artistic communities offering low-cost housing specifically for artists, free studio spaces, a more inclusive and open-minded approach to promoting artists (EIL does a remarkable job of this!), more widespread monetary compensation for the artists who need the money most to continue their work, etc.,. . . but how can these things happen?  I am not entirely sure. . . everything is so costly, and the fact that so many artists are willing to work with little expectation of compensation makes it all the more simple to keep these rewards out of their hands and keep assuming that art is a pretty luxury, free to look at in abundance and not necessary to take home.

  • Kathleen Kirk

    Thanks, Christina.  I too have benefited in personal growth ways.  

    I keep wondering, though, about small but helpful specific suggestions or examples of how the arts community is giving back to artists, since so often they cannot pay them.Like the season ticket.  Or free artist membership.  Is no one giving/receiving this simple but helpful tokens of appreciation out there?!

  • Kathleen Kirk

    Another follow-up.  I do love your low-cost housing and other ideas, and our state held meetings in which just such things were proposed….to a group of consultants paid, of course, to facilitate the meetings.  

    One really simple thing I proposed at that time was group health insurance: all artists in the state could belong to a group and thus qualify for lower rates.  Those covered by spouses’ secure jobs are already fine.  Everyone else would surely benefit from something like this.

    Tonight I went to an arts meeting on collaboration.  They gave us nametags, fans, sheets of notepaper with logo, sample brochures, and refreshments.  I was really grateful for the refreshments.  Somebody got paid for all these small items, no doubt.  But not artists.  

    But artists got fed.

  • Christina Wegman

    Those things do seem a bit rare. . . but there is hope!  I’ve known a few gallery owners/directors to foot reception bills themselves, and the Tennessee Women’s Theater Project (a small but dedicated group I displayed some artwork with during their yearly Women’s Work festival) allows all performers/artists a free pass to festival events (you’d think this would be widespread!)  One gallery owner I worked with over the summer has been particularly willing to help artists with little things like that (anyone who had already paid the registration fee, a very reasonable $25 per event, to set up art at three or more events over the summer was personally invited to participate in a very well-attended Gallery Tour night for free, among other things).  A few non-arts businesses I’ve had dealings with offered lots of symbiotic promotional perks to artists who displayed work on their walls and were very willing to offer their spaces as workshop venues.  Quite a refreshing experience compared to how many galleries I have come across that literally try to rent out their wall space to artists, then still charge a commission (a lousy tactic, I believe, even though it has proven profitable for more than a few venues in my town)!