When working on public art commissions, I deal with both private and public entities. I have found myself having the same conversation a number of times, and this conversation highlights the difficulty that artists can have in valuing their work. A variation of this conversation recently took place with a company that was very interested in the project I had proposed. The company did not question my budgeted fabrication costs, engineering costs, or other line items. The company did, however, question my artist’s fee and the conversation went something like:
Company: The artist’s fee seems high, and perhaps this is an area where we can adjust the budget.
Me: My artist’s fee on a project of this scale is a standard 10% of the budget. It is not negotiable.
Company: Perhaps part of the artist’s fee could be worked into the contingency budget.
Company: Maybe you could lower the fee this time?
Me: This project represents four months of work on my part – how much do you get paid in four months? I bet it’s more than my artist’s fee.
Company: But the exposure on a project like this is going to be beneficial for you.
Me: Exposure to what end? So that other people can ask me to do projects that I do not get fairly paid for? My fee is fair and reflects the scope of the work.
In the end the project got shelved indefinitely (a reality that happens in public art) for an unrelated issue. However, I bring this discussion up now because I believe it is part of a larger discussion happening among artists today. I have come to understand that part of making public requires educating the client and the community about the cost of cultural production. Being an artist is work. If you don’t work for free, don’t assume an artist will.