Psssst….wanna hear the Artist’s Dirty Little Secret ?

XXX red on black backgroundThe most talented, beautiful wonderful people I know – artists, dancers, musicians, songwriters, sculptors, writers, film-makers –  ALL have a very dirty little secret.

It’s one they refuse to acknowledge, even to themselves. One so heinous and deep as to affect all that choose an artistic profession, no matter the discipline or genre.

This is a dirty, horrible secret that festers and eats away at the very fabric of our human existence. One that reaches far into the bowels of all of society and kills souls with it’s rank putridity.

It’s a self-mutilating secret of the worst kind. One that cuts silently, deeply in a poisonous, hushed way, killing from the inside out. It’s a suicidal action with the deepest hurt to all, yet appearing on the surface to be a well-meaning act of do-gooding societal servitude. It is the most powerful and worst killer of creativity in any form.

It’s never spoken about in public circles amongst artists for fear that one be seen as non-compliant in the brotherhood. Play along, now. There’s a good boy and girl. Have a cookie. Good doggie.

Only the bravest, most confident dare utter against it and sometimes sing it loud enough to call a cry of battle against this sin.

If it is whispered in the dark corners of damp alleys on the backstreets behind wealthy corporations, public institutes of education and galleries, it is only whispered in the quietest of the junkie’s voice, for fear of retribution or exorcism from the Church of Artist and Exhibition or worse…..the fearful chance of never being considered again and getting that much needed “hit”.

The Others ….expect this sin to be acted out and performed willingly over and over again for their own personal pleasure. They have come to expect and even demand it of artists In The Form and In The Name of Well-Cloaked, Well-Meaning, Do-Gooding ways.

They tempt with the sweet candy to the baby.

You know it….you’ve heard that juicy, dripping, temptress phrase,

“Come on – it will be GOOD for your reputation. It will get you more EX-PO-SURE, and it will all be for a good cause.”

I’m not afraid to name it.
I’ll cast the first stone.
I’ll tell you the dirty little secret.

Artists  volunteer and give themselves away too much. Artists work for much LESS than colleagues in an a parallel professional practice or ….WORSE!!!…..for FREE and never even ASK to be paid for their professional services.

Artists STAND for not being paid on time, and maybe not at all!

A volunteer gig and donation once or twice? I’m all for it. My entire artistic practice is about community and relationship development but anything beyond that, you’re doing nothing but disservice to the profession and your fellow colleagues, creating flakes and harlots of us all and mocking the incredible value, purpose, insight and passion that artists offer to society.

Have some respect for yourselves. Get off your knees, pull up your panties, get out of the alley and wipe that smeared, cheap red lipstick from your face.

After all, we’re not LAWYERS or POLITICIANS for heaven’s sake.


Bill at a decent rate. Be professional in every act and demeanour when you represent yourself and your work. Join CARFAC or a similar artist’s advocacy group in your city or country and don’t kneel for it anymore. GET involved. Share this post far and wide. Educate your clients, industry, your galleries and your local schools and charitable institutions and your government funders. Don’t just SETTLE.

Every ounce of professional respect that you give yourself, your colleagues and profession will be returned a thousand times over.


Artists – Teach Others How To Treat You

“This Photograph Is Not Free” – John Mueller

6 Limits for Donating Artwork –

Educate Those Who Ask for Donations of Your Art – Fiona Purdy on

The Problem With Donating Art and the Solution – Maria Brophy

The Art Newspaper – Artists should have the same tax deductions as collectors when donating works of art

This Post Has 29 Comments

  1. Dea Fischer

    There are different sides to this situation, Janice. Any developing/emerging artist gives their skills or work away for free as they build those skills and their style and reputation, as with any other profession. We did it in the legal profession too – pro bono work was always done by the articled clerks and newly qualified as a way of earning your stripes and giving back to the community while you could still afford to. In my own practise, I find enormous creative energy generated by engaging community in random acts of creation just BECAUSE and without a price tag. It nourishes and empowers both them and me, and mightily inspires and stimulates me for my own (paid) practice. It also gets my name and face known in a way that draws people to me and makes them familiar with my work. I don’t volunteer my time or my skills because I think they have no value. I give them from time to time as a gift to my community because it makes me happy and fulfilled and inspired and energises me for even greater things. I think there is a place for both.

    1. Janice Tanton

      Everyone certainly has their own opinion and choice on how they choose to use their time.

      I do point out in the post that I have no issue around volunteering one’s time and work once or twice for selected projects. I actually have a policy established which helps me to support my craft and my fellow professional artists by filtering how I choose projects to which I volunteer my time and energy. It’s not something new to me, but a policy that I’ve had since 1989, in the early stages of my career.

      I would encourage everyone to think of HOW their choices also affect the views in their industy and their colleagues in the profession. Proportionately, artists and creative folk tend to give much more of their time and efforts to volunteer activities than others and are generous in this regard. However, it is another thing altogether not to consider one’s motives for doing so.

      You teach others how to treat you. Choose well.

      1. Sari Grove

        hmm… Lawyers & politicians get paid…Artists are giving it away for free…Maybe we should be more like them?

        1. Janice Tanton

          Considering one’s own measure of self-value can be quantified many ways. I’d say it’s a good thing to know yourself well, where your limits are and what you can and want to give of yourself. Breaking the stigma attached to any profession when it’s less than beneficial to the human being in the profession…good thing in my sketchbook.

  2. Vanessa

    Great posts! For sure, few artists talk about his and even fewer stand up against it. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a balance but often we don’t even find that balance because we’re too buys “falling over”. Though it’s easier said than done for many, it’s something to aim for at all times.

    1. Janice Tanton

      Although it’s true, Vanessa, that it’s easy to fall into, think about establishing a policy for yourself and your practice. I have found this immensely helpful over the years when I am asked over and over again to volunteer time, expertise or goods.

      1) Think about what inspires you and what you really want to support in your volunteer capacity. Define it. Write it down. Keep it in your studio policy manual. Haven’t got one yet? Start one!
      2) Measure and cap the value, whether it is in your time, or cost of goods. You need to know just what that is! Stick to it when you choose to move into the volunteer area.
      3) Revisit the commitment and your policy once every three months and celebrate your achievements.

      This will help you understand where you are at with the time you spend, “on the street” and also help you highlight where you can best use your time to benefit your community and passions for volunteerism.

  3. Elizabeth Marshall

    Janice- you go girl! I see that Dea was a teensy bit defensive, but speaking from my own personal experience, I could spend all my time soley on charitable work opportunities that seem to be thrust in my direction as the “resident artist.” I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about the free work that I donate-I’m currently (cheerfully) making 20 lifesize pandas for my church’s VBS, and donating time and product to my kid’s school funraiser auction. But You have to draw the line eventually…guilt free. It crosses over from gracious donation status to expectation to guilt to yuck. Thanks for the fun article. I’m gladly repost!

    1. Janice Tanton

      Elizabeth, have a look at the post reply above to Vanessa. It outlines something I’ve found helpful in working towards not saying “YES!” all the time.

      Establishing a policy and measuring the time and value of your gifts is important.

    2. Anonymous

      “gracious donation status to expectation to guilt to yuck” says it all!

  4. Wayne

    In an analogous way, as an editor, I echo these sentiments. Pro Bono is fine for a non-profit once in awhile, but the problems facing freelance editors and writers in the digital age extend to what they are actually paid when they do charge. From my standpoint, the problems are as follows:

    *many editors undervalue themselves and their work and do not charge enough (typically, they are not business types and low ball estimates). Or they are retired profs, teachers, etc., and do this as a “hobby” business. I wish they’d give the rest of us a break and stop driving down prices 🙂
    *too many people masquerade as editors and writers and work for free as a favour.
    *content is considered something that is included in the project (websites, offline print material, etc). The problem? Good content takes talent.
    *the general public no longer values freelance editing and writing and the hard work involved (clients who understand the amount of labour actually involved in fixing their communication problems are few).
    *globalization and the internet has driven down prices for writing, proofreading and substantive editing to insanely low levels.

    This was somewhat tangential, but I could not help but see the connections between professions. Oh, well, just my 2 cents.

    1. Janice Tanton

      Thanks for your input, Wayne. We are indeed in a changing world and it affects organizations, artists, arts and cultural workers of all kinds. There are indeed many connections between all genres and practices. How we perceive ourselves in relationship to others and how we represent our professions is important.

  5. Sidney Peck

    Well, I wanted to comment on your introduction page because I love the bumper stick that has inspired you. I am going to add it the post it notes on my iMac 🙂 As for this entry, I agree that artists struggle with self worth and therefore adequate compensation. I think it is because if we are adept at our craft, it seems effortless. Nice to meet you on Twitter! I hope you’ll check out my sites as well. Peace to you and yours.

    1. Janice Tanton

      Thanks for the note, Sidney and yes….looking forward to more Twitter engagement with you. 🙂 I think there might be a link with self-worth and adequate compensation. Also, with perceived worth by the audience. Elevating that, no matter the genre of the work is our responsibility too.

      Glad that I’ve passed along the inspiration in the bumper sticker. Just little things every day can get us to very lofty achievements!

    2. Janice Tanton

      Hiya Sidney. Weird…like CabinArt’s comment here, I’m just finding that this showed up today on the blog (Feb 2, 2012) but it looks like you posted it 3 months ago. Apologies for not seeing it.

      I think you hit the nail right on the head where the relationship to self-worth correlates directly to adequate compensation.

  6. Anonymous

    Thank you for this, Janice! I got tired of giving away my work and learned to say “I don’t give away my work; you are welcome to buy it at a discount so that you can write off the expense and I can make a little money”.

    People just don’t know what they are asking, that we can’t “write it off”, that it just depletes our inventory and that exposure is a lousy way to die. Frankly, I’d like to see coupons for gas and groceries and haircuts and teeth cleaning at these auctions. THAT’s the stuff we all need during these difficult times. And where I live, “difficult times” are the norm.

    And one more thing – have you ever sat through a live auction waiting for someone to bid on your work? Ages me considerably – it is sort of like a junior high popularity contest in its stress level.

    1. Janice Tanton

      It’s a tough one, but a necessary one and I really believe we teach others how to treat us. There is always a compassionate way of delivering the message.

    2. Janice Tanton

      Wow…thanks for your comment. You know, I’m just getting it today (Feb 2, 2012) – must have been stuck in Cyberspace somewhere.

    3. M.K. Hajdin

      Though we disagree on the issue I really love the phrase “exposure is a lousy way to die”.

  7. M.K. Hajdin

    It’s perfectly true that artists often get taken advantage of by people who don’t sufficiently value their time or skill. But some artists enjoy giving their work away – myself included. It’s a way of subverting a system that wants to commodify everything. I give my work away, but not just to anyone. If some random person expected me to give it away for free, that would offend me, because I know they’re either underestimating the effort required to make it or they’re planning on turning it over for a profit. No one has the right to EXPECT being given art for free. But I still like to give it – to people who mean something to me or have done something kind for me. Often these are people who could never afford to buy a painting and would otherwise live lives deprived of art. They love my work with an intensity no rich person glutted with luxury can ever match, and my gift to them makes our friendship stronger. Though I starve in a garret for the rest of my life, making a difference in the lives of others matters far more to me than making money.

    1. Janice Tanton

      That’s a noble idea, M.K. However….I know many artists, including myself who have literally gone through the “starve in a garret for the rest of my life” period of time, with two small children in tow. I hold the opposite position, and feel that artists need to take more care in valuing their work and be VERY mindful that they are a part of an economic system. No man is an island, really. If you “give away” without thinking about how that hurts others who do have to make a living, feed children and put a roof over heads, then you’ve completely defeated the social system and care that you hold so dearly.

      Be mindful of this, is what I am saying. Value it.

  8. Ionart Morgan

    I don’t give away what I do for a living! I may donate a print or barter for a service… But you will need to pay for what pays my bills a puts food on my table… The money that someone pays for my work shows me how much they love it! If they are willing to spend their hard earned money on a piece of my art, I know they love it as much as I do! If I give it away for nothing, It’s to my kids who are going to end up with it anyway.

    1. Janice Tanton

      I am in complete agreement. I do not “give it away”. However….I do have policies for legitimate and specific charities and organizations that align with my view of social justice and art. This is definitely not a discussion about what is “kind and right”….but about how to value your work and yourself in a community that does not necessarily value you. Holding tight to those values is the important piece for me. I do have kids to feed, rent and bills to pay, and enough is enough. 😉 I value me.

  9. Janice Tanton

    Today? The ultimate insult – a local arts organization asks artists to donate their work for raffle/auction… recover costs from an arts festival that in some cases, they charged artists to attend. BAH HA HA….um….NO!!!!

  10. iHijinx

    I have just won the Versatile blogger Award and Very Inspiring Blogger Award. As a regular reader of your posts I would like to pass them on to you.

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