NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
Erin Washburn is someone I’m always excited and relieved to work with during a creative process. While she is often one of the smartest people in the room, she has a knack for making others feel that way, too. Her cool-headedness and gusto for digging into the depths of new works keep her in high demand in the Philadelphia theater scene. Erin is a freelance dramaturg and producer and currently serves as Company Dramaturg for The Renegade Company, Producing Associate for Orbiter 3, and Literary, Marketing & Development Assistant for InterAct Theatre Company. Erin has also worked with Shakespeare in Clark Park, Tiny Dynamite, Theatre Exile, PlayPenn, the Wilma Theater, and Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. She is an alumna of InterAct’s apprenticeship program and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College.
-Dani Solomon, curator
I’ve never met an artist who did just one thing.
I remember discovering dramaturgy in college and thinking, “This is it. This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.” I think back on senior year as this golden period of self-assured artistry. I was working on a play I really liked, rich with dramaturgical possibilities. I came to rehearsal armed with research that enriched the play without locking the actors into set of prescriptive period-accurate choices. The director and actors listened to my notes. I remember feeling this enormous sense of control and agency—I was making something the way I wanted to. In all the theatrical dabbling I had done, nothing else had felt like this. As an actor, I felt like an inflatable doll being pushed around the stage. As a technician, I was constantly anxious about not being capable enough (with good reason—I once dropped a light from our catwalk and left a dent in our stage). I felt like I had figured out my role in the American theater.
Here’s the thing about dramaturgy: it’s a difficult practice to boil down and describe. Even reading what I just wrote, I’m thinking, “No, that’s not quite right, that sounds like all I do is Google things and watch rehearsal.” Dramaturgy is a nebulous field: it can take form in everything from research packets to new play workshops to lobby displays to Howlround essays; its composite responsibilities shift with each project. But newly armed with my degree and bursting with pride, I decided I didn’t care if no one knew what dramaturgy was. I knew what it was; I knew who I was; and I would demand my work be respected and valued.
As I began to move around in Philly’s theater community and stumbled into other working artists, I noticed that their personal descriptors weren’t as firm as mine. Instead, they would have a list of two to three roles they could fulfill at any given time. Actor and teacher. Playwright and actor and technician. Director and producer and stage manager. And as the months slipped by and I settled into the grind of searching for projects, I noticed myself falling into this phenomenon as well.
I’ve been really lucky, running into various gigs as a dramaturg, many of which I’m really proud of. But I’ve had gut-wrenching disappointments as well, when I felt like my work was being taken advantage of, or that what I had to offer couldn’t do the production much good. What use are my insights when the director chastises me for giving them, claiming I’ve offered notes outside “my” domain and essentially treating me like a human search engine? What good are my research skills when the show I’m working on is barely funded?
As I became less secure in the value I could offer as a dramaturg, I started testing the waters to see where I could be more of use. That’s how I started describing it—I’m more “useful” when I do things people “need.” People always need help raising money, so I’ll help with grants. People always need someone to organize how their show gets made, so I’ll be a producer. People always need someone to handle crotchety patrons, so I’ll work in box office. People always need caffeine; I’ll run and get coffee. Little by little I spread myself out, my crystalized identity softening to encompass as many roles as I think I can handle (a load I’m still calibrating and will probably continue to calibrate until I die or stop making theatre).
You have to be flexible to succeed as an artist. In order to find work, you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get stuff done, put your finger in every pie, throw your hat into every ring. And I wonder, is it because we love what we do so much we want to always be doing it? Is it that knowing how to do multiple things makes us better artists? Or is our scramble to overexert ourselves a symptom of how our work—how our field—is valued? Is it an impulse or a necessity?
My mom is an accountant. She majored in accounting in college; she studies to maintain her CPA status every year; she’s been working in accounting for commercial ventures and non-profits for a few decades. Her responsibilities have changed—I couldn’t begin to describe the high-level work she does restructuring her company’s financial accountability system here and abroad—but the department she works in has stayed the same. She’s moved up, not spread out. Her work is always needed at a higher level. She has skills that are considered necessary. She is valued.
Articulating these feelings makes me extremely anxious. I feel like one of those brats people on the internet want to “destroy.” I’m afraid of sounding ungrateful (why is that the word that comes to mind?). I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do so much (but why do I feel like I have to do so much?). A lot of this is self-inflicted; I have to take responsibility for how I manage my time (why do I feel like I have to apologize?). And the truth is, underneath the stress and the insecurity and guilt, I love a lot of what I do. I believe everyone does. I don’t think you can work in theatre without loving it. It’s not worth the heartache otherwise. So I say “yes” to something and smash it into my schedule, eschewing the daily time commitments of my life. It’s a compulsion born out of love and fear. If I say no to one opportunity, I may never have another.
There are times when Philly’s theater community feels so small, but in fact, it’s huge. There are so many of us and more are always pouring in. And we all love what we do and we all want to work, but there are only so many jobs to go around. And we’re all trying for those jobs and we’re all wishing there were more out there, but there’s only so much money for them. There’s only so much money doled out to so many people, and that money tends to favor certain opportunities, which only certain people can offer. So really this compulsive multitasking is a fiscal strategy. Expand your horizons to encompass everything so that you’re eligible for anything.
It’s proof positive of my privilege that it took so long for me to realize my surety in school was because my needs were taken care of already. There would always be an opportunity for me to work in my chosen path because there had to be, it’s part of the mechanism of the environment. And because I was fortunate enough to be supported through school, I was able to focus solely on this one occupation.
Specialization is a symptom of stability. And anyone can tell you, even if they don’t work in this field—this magnificent field that fills my heart but is wracked with scarcity—that it is anything but stable. There are too many people and not enough opportunities. There are too many projects and not enough grant funding. There are too many Indiegogo campaigns. You have to keep moving, keep following the money. I don’t know what the solution is, or if there needs to be one. The system works for a lot of people, if they can figure out how much they can take. If they can spread themselves out without spreading themselves thin.
Photo courtesy of Erin Washburn.
I have had the excellent fortune to have worked with Dani Solomon on multiple projects over the last 18 months. Dani has a seemingly endless store of energy and creative force, working nonstop with a variety of collaborators while also furthering her own work. After only three years in Philadelphia she is variously accomplished: Dani is a graduate of Headlong Performance Institute, is a member of Medium Theatre Company and Thespionage Theatre Company, and has worked with Lightning Rod Special, Team Sunshine Performance Corporation, 14th Street, and the Institute for Pschyogeographic Adventure. Dani’s work as a theater maker, writer, and director has been produced at Colgate University, SoLow Festival, and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
-Julius Ferraro, co-founder
No matter what work you find yourself in, explaining it to someone outside your field will always be tough. When art is that work, describing it becomes a special kind of challenge.
Outside our dynamic, ever-expanding art-making bubble, art is readily conflated with entertainment—a highly consumable, available product with standardized criteria for what’s “good” and “bad.” Entertainment is fueled by cash in a way that art tries not to be. The value of a physical theater piece, sound installation, or movement experiment is inherent in the experience of it, not in the dollars that flow in and out, but this process- and experience-based value system is hard to sell to someone who is more familiar with the economy of the entertainment world.
On top of overcoming entertainment and art’s sibling rivalry, there is the ubiquitous question (of debatable value in itself)…
– What do you do?
– – I’m a performer and creator in the Philadelphia theater scene.
– So, what do you actually DO?
– – . . . Marketing . . . for a software company.
This is a hard question for me to answer. Are they asking what I like to do? How I make money? What makes me tick? In the same breath that I want to explain my artistic interests, I feel the need to also justify why I make art in the first place, as if it is the elephant in the room. Whereas the value of entertainment is justifiable in a capitalist framework, the pragmatic value of art is difficult to explain in that same frame.
So, what do you do? What do I do? What do we do what do we do what do we do?
As a young artist who cannot afford to rely solely on an artistic practice for financial security, I find myself grappling with a doubleness of identity in both being an artist and having a day job. (Of course, there is more to who I am than my artistic work and my rent-food-and-Netflix job.)
For one thing, I’m still building the confidence to consistently identify myself as an artist, something triply challenging in less artistic spaces. That inner voice constantly prods: Am I really an artist? Is my art financially successful enough to claim that I’m an artist? Do enough other artists know my work for me to be an artist? Do I make art often enough to say I’m an artist?
I try to tell that incessant voice: Yes, I make art, so I’m an artist. But this voice finds fertilizer in environments like these:
– So now that you’re done with that show, does everyone have a break from theater for a while?
– – Uhh, it’s not a universal break no, like, not every theater artist has a break right now, but yes, I have some time between projects.
– Oh, that’s nice. Once I’m finished with this wedding stuff, I should find a hobby, I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.
I could just hide it—pretend this art-making ailment doesn’t exist. Try to pass as a hobbyist. Sometimes I do, because it’s easier. I don’t have to explain that part of myself. I just float. But floating throws away an opportunity.
As a whole, we young artists need to be better at claiming our artistic identity because it is our obligation to communicate the importance of our practice in a society that otherwise will not hear it.
So, when questions like What did you do this weekend? Will I see you on Broadway one day? What do you do? come up, let’s not take the easy way out. Move that uncertainty aside to preserve the integrity and health of our field. Don’t separate yourself from the path you have chosen when it’s convenient. Creativity is not an otherness. Humans survived through our creativity and our resourcefulness. In our own small, humble way, we help move humanity forward while preserving its sanity, vulnerability, and openness.
Let’s tell people about our artistic work. Prepare a short version and a long version, a version for someone who’s last brush with theater was skimming Romeo and Juliet in high school and one for a Walnut season subscriber. Do not be ashamed of your work in all its weirdness, rawness, and contradiction. Peel back the curtain of your art-making and let people in. Let them in, damn it! Do not judge it for others, and do not apologize for what it is or what it is not. But use your judgment: there are times when discussing the difference between boundary-pushing theater and theater built for mass consumption will go on deaf ears.
We need to be the ambassadors of our artistic community because no one else will. Though our interests may be niche, we shouldn’t assume that no one else wants in. That elitist attitude won’t grow our audiences. If you believe in the worthiness of your work and that of your peers, then won’t your co-workers deserve to experience that art, as well? Maybe they’re the ones who need your work the most.
– Lot of housework this weekend. Put up some crown molding, planted some grass in the backyard, hung some towel rods. What about you?
– – I had a rehearsal for this piece I’m making about Mars. We’re interested in questions about our place in the universe, loneliness, and our collective interest in space . . . I’m a theater artist.
– Oh, that’s cool. Would I have seen any of your work? Are you part of a theater company?
– – Yeah, I’m part of Medium Theatre Company?
– Oh, neat.
– – . . . Yeah.
– Well, let me know next time you’re doing a skit.
Photo credit: Camilla Dely
I met Kat J. Sullivan through meetings for thINKingDANCE, where we are both writers. She has performed with Trio C, SKI BALL, Antonia & Artists, and Anne-Marie Mulgrew & Dancers Co, in addition to working with independent artists such as Sean Thomas Boyt, Meredith Stapleton, and Evalina Carbonell. Kat’s work has been shown throughout Pennsylvania and New York, including the Come Together Festival (PHL) and the Triskelion Arts Comedy in Dance Festival (NYC). I am deeply appreciative of the insightful week of content she has curated, culminating in her oddly poetic ledger, below.
-Julius Ferraro, co-founder
I’ve been having the “money talk” with many different people in my life for a while now. I’ve asked my friends how they make ends meet as an artist without selling their souls. I’ve asked them what they do to make a livable amount, yet have enough “free” time for rehearsals, projects, workshops, etc. I’ve asked them how they do their taxes.
From what I’ve gathered from others and certainly in my own experience, performing artists do not hold down one 9 to 5 day job that covers their bills while they rehearse and perform in the evening. Rather, income is made by cobbling together odd jobs that cover not only essentials like rent, food, and transportation, but also classes, performance application fees, production fees for the self-producing, and perhaps paying your dancers/actors/etc. (Funding and grants are another beast entirely.) At the moment, I hold three consistent jobs that pay; these do not include a week of intensive rehearsals I attend once a month, writing and working on the communications team for thINKingDANCE, or other “random” sources of income. No two weeks look the same for me, and oftentimes rehearsals and other plans are scheduled at the last-ish minute. It can be exciting and it certainly keeps you on your toes (ha), but I don’t know many who scoff at the idea of some sort of financial predictability and stability. I’m currently searching for jobs that afford me decent pay but don’t require me to physically be in a place for a long time; I’ve started collecting figure modeling gigs as a result.
I love being a freelance modern dancer/choreographer, but when it comes to money, I don’t really know what I’m doing. How do we maximize our “money making time” so that we may take full advantage of our “art making time”? Let’s talk about it.
Thursday, February 11th, 2016
Today was my first collaborative session with photographer Paul Taylor. I was connected with him through a dancer-friend who has been collaborating with him on dance/movement images for about a year now. In addition to being a gifted capturer-of-movement-on-film, he’s very sympathetic to the financial situation of performing artists; he pays me a bit over the regular hourly fee. Paul lives about an hour and a half away in New Jersey, and I have to stop for gas on the way back to Philly. I also hit a Starbucks for sustenance (although Paul also provided me with a few mini-Snickers and a banana for the trip).
+$: Photography session
-$: Gas, coffee and a sandwich, yoga class in the evening
Friday, February 12th, 2016
I start my day with the mid-shift at Gryphon Coffee in Kensington. This is my “non-art day job” where I make part-time hourly wage. We the employees are a scrappy little crew who are as dedicated to honing our coffee craft as we are making weird slow-motion videos of leftover soup being poured over a gourd. When we’re not serving customers or maintaining the general upkeep of the shop, I spend my shift throwing lattes. They taste great but I’m still working on my designs (though I’m told, “at least it’s all in the cup now”).
After I sign out of my shift, I head to Temple University to pick up some of my students. I teach the Philadelphia Dance Experience, a gen-ed course for non-dance majors. The crux of the class is taking the students to see four shows in the Philly dance scene; tonight, I am escorting them to FringeArts to see Raphael Xavier’s The Unofficial Audience Guide to Watching Performance. My students seem to enjoy the performance much more than the ballet we saw last weekend. I leave to bring a few of them back to campus, thinking about how I will direct our class discussion on Tuesday.
+$: Working at the café, working for Temple University
-$: SEPTA fare to and from the venue
Saturday, February 13th, 2016
A slow day. I visit a few thrift shops in search of a sweater or two. Insomnia Cookies are purchased.
-$: A sweater, some gloves, warm cookies
Sunday, February 14th, 2016
For Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend and I had planned on spending a few hours wandering around Longwood Gardens. However, it’s fucking freezing. We reassess how much we’re dying to see the “Orchid Extravaganza” and end up pivoting directions entirely. We find ourselves in the long, long line into Build-A-Bear Workshop at the mall. Less sheepishly than you might imagine, we emerge with two new Pikachus, clad in garish dinosaur and Star Wars costumes. (Ben named his “Pokémon Kenobi” and, yes, that is why I’m dating him.)
-$: Breakfast, tea, dinner, ibuprofen at RiteAid
Monday, February 15th, 2016
Another shift at the Gryphon. I head to Conshohocken’s Yoga Home in the evening for their Power Flow class. Yoga has become central in my life in two ways: 1) as essential cross-training for dance, and 2) as something I gift to myself to maintain my sanity. I stay for yin afterwards.
+$: Working at the café
-$: Yoga classes
Tuesday, February 16th, 2016
The opening shift at the Gryphon is peaceful, even though I’m not one for waking up that early in the morning. I yawn and manage to make a few drinks. After getting off at noon, I rush to Temple for my 12:30 class. We are discussing the historical and cultural context of hip hop today . My evening contains a Vinyasa class and a glass of wine.
+$: Working at the café, teaching at Temple University
-$: Yoga class
Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
Wednesdays start at The Iron Factory in Kensington, where I create and rehearse my own material. I split a monthly membership here with my friend and collaborator Meredith. I futz around with some movement for a new work before Meredith meets me to rehearse Reign, a piece of mine that we will be performing this weekend at the Ruby Slipper Fringe Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s been a while but we find that the entirely-synchronized duet comes back into our bodies with relative ease.
From there, I am back at the Gryphon. I don’t normally work three days in a row, but since I’ll be leaving to head south on Friday, I need to squeeze my shifts in earlier in the week. Ordinarily, I would rehearse a work in progress by my friend Sean Thomas Boyt on Wednesday afternoons, but we are off this week. In the interest of the topic of this article, I will say that I do not get paid to dance for Sean, but I don’t expect to. I’m happy to help make my friend’s work a reality with as little cost to him as possible, and I know he would do the same for me.
+$: Working at the café
-$: Paying for rented rehearsal space
Thursday, February 18th, 2016
I arrive at Temple at 12:30 to teach. My students discuss the commercialization of hip hop and whether or not it ultimately benefits the form. The conversation is lively and I make a mental note to incorporate the topic into their upcoming quiz. Another evening at yoga—I attempt to fine tune my headstand.
+$: Teaching at Temple
-$: Yoga class, delivered dinner because I’m too busy packing to cook
Friday, February 19th, 2016
Meredith and I leave Philly for North Carolina in the morning and make it to our Airbnb after ten hours of driving (and several stops for gas and coffee). We will tech in the theater tomorrow morning and perform in the evening. The festival does not pay us to participate but their application did not require a fee, which is a plus.
-$: Gas, food and drinks, lodgings for the weekend
Saturday, February 20th, 2016
Meredith and I meet up with my friends Gwen and Nicole to tech at 11am. Afterwards, I explore Winston-Salem with Meredith for a few hours. We visit different venues in the city for their Art-o-Mats: refurbished cigarette dispensers that now relinquish a small piece of hand-made art at the insert of a coin. In the evening, we all reconvene at the theater to perform. The show runs smoothly, though by the time we reach the talk-back afterwards, I am exhausted.
-$: Food, coffee, small pieces of art, more gas
Sunday, February 21st, 2016
We begin the trek back to Philly. We take a more scenic route, hoping to stop in a national park on the way, but the rain is too strong. We reach home by nightfall.
-$: Food, coffee, gas
Photo by Kat J. Sullivan.
I first met Annette when we were in a show together at Little Berlin in 2011 called VASST.info. It was focused on science-inspired art, and Annette’s contribution was to make artisinal hydrogen in tiny little jars that people could take home. Since then, I have been a big fan of Annette’s writing on art, especially when she was doing “One Review A Month.” I love her honest and witty approach, she always has something smart to say and she doesn’t tread lightly. Annette does a variety of great things, she has been a key member of the Philadelphia art scene for many years. Annette is one of the Co-Founders and Curators at Practice Gallery and she is also the current Director at The University City Arts League.
-Angela McQuillan, curator
A couple of instances combined over the course of a few months to lead me to the brilliant conclusion that your correspondent would love to interview a Pew Fellowship Top Secret Nominator (let’s use PFTSN from now on) for her Curate This rumination. The first instance was that over drinks with civilians (here meaning people not strongly connected to the arts community in Philadelphia), I became aware that not many civilians actually know what a Pew Fellowship is. The conversation went something like this. I was explaining that so and so was a notable artist in the community and as part of my description fell back on “they won the Pew,” and the rest of my party replied, “huh?” This led directly to the second instance, which was my becoming aware that I use the Pew as a yardstick to measure notable artists without being all that conscious of doing it, a method I found to be not exactly scary but a little suspect. The third instance was that artists who have been nominated to apply for the Pew Fellowship this year were just informed of their status in December and the 2016 applications were due on January 22nd. This means folks were just nominated by the PFTSNs.
A little history and background: The Pew Fellowship is an unrestricted award given directly to an artist in the sum of $75,000 (people often make a comparison to the much better known MacArthur “Genius Grant”). The award has been given to about 12 artists a year since 1991 in a range of artistic disciplines, including (but not limited to) poetry, visual art, theater, dance, performance, film and craft. At its inception the application was open to any artist who was a resident of the five-county Philadelphia area, but in 2010 Pew changed to the secret nominating process. This year there were 30 secret nominators and each of them nominated two artists. Those 60 applications will be evaluated by a group from outside the region and given a ranking. Applications that are ranked highly then go on to a review panel, composed of people who are also from outside the region. The review panel comes up with the final 12 who get the award money and professional development opportunities.
Important to note: The PFTSNs are the only part of the selection process that may reside in the five-county Philadelphia region. According to the Pew Fellowship application guidelines they are “. . . nominators with a deep knowledge of artists working in this region and representing a wide range of expertise, experience, and points of view. . .”.
All this leads to what this article is about, which is 30 secret people—living and breathing among the artistic community, 30 secret people whom the general populace don’t even know or care to know exist—get to give an amazing gift to an artist. Any artist who has left the cushy enclosure of art school knows that art can be a lonely path, devoid of feedback or recognition or anyone giving two shits. Unsolicited recognition is pretty much unheard-of, so for an artist to be told, without asking for it, that they have been nominated . . . one imagines that must feel pretty good. (One of the irritations of this are the stories about those artists who get nominated every year—one story I heard had an artist receiving two nominations in one year, after being nominated once in the previous year—and never receiving the award. This would be fine if there was no work involved in being nominated, but every nominated artist must send in a lengthy application for consideration.)
In order to interview a PFTSN, one must find one, and your correspondent found a handful—which was no easy feat, requiring a vast amount of slightly ridiculous e-mails and an awful lot of swearing of secrecy. No nominator I talked to took their position lightly, and all were wary of disclosure, having signed some forms (some made the forms sound very lawfully binding and others shrugged them off), but most were just concerned that if they were discovered to have talked, they would never be asked to nominate again. In order to protect my sources to the best of my ability no one in this article will be named.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the largest percentage of people I talked to had never been a PFTSN; those who were, however, often expounded with a great deal of vitriol about the Pew in general, which gives out a great many grants—most of them to arts and cultural organizations—of pretty sizable chunks of money, enough so that they have a lot of power and influence over the sector. One of the most recurrent criticisms concerns this power, and the fact that the Pew waves it around pretty ham-fistedly, basically telling organizations what they want from them, which leads to the organization shaping themselves into the mold the Pew creates, instead of the Pew allowing the orgs to present their own individual ideas. One person I talked to said Pew came to their organization and basically told them what they would fund and encouraged them to apply with that idea. The overall picture presented is of a funder who lives high up in an ivory tower who sort of Eye of Saurons everyone into creating clone armies.
This evil-empire bit fits into the PFTSN narrative because all of the TSNs I talked to genuinely believe the Pew is all-seeing and the very fact of 30 TSNs hanging about means that artists have a good reason to believe this as well. Aside from them being top-secret, interviewing a PFTSN turns out to be a bit of a non-story. The whole process seems pretty fair and basically banal. A nominator gets to nominate two artists by answering a couple of questions in writing about why this artist fits into the Pew Fellowship criteria. The main point of this criteria seems to be that you are judging the merit of the art created, not the artist that created the art. The nominator cannot be related to the person they nominate nor can they have any conflicts of blood, sex, or money. One of the difficulties of the nomination process is that you have to write a great deal about an artist without contacting that artist about their work. Nearly everyone struggled with this part, having to rely on what they already knew and what they could find on the internet. As compensation for the good deal of time it takes to write one of these nominations, the PFTSN receives a stipend of $200-$250 (this varied from story to story). Once the nominator turns in their nomination they hear nothing else from Pew. They are informed of the winners the same way the general public is. No one I talked to had been asked to nominate more than once.
The most interesting part of this whole thing is, all-seeing Pew or not, absolutely no nominator I talked to has kept their status 100% secret. They always told a trusted civilian, roommate, wife or husband (who wouldn’t?). Everyone received a great deal of satisfaction out of being able to nominate someone whose work they respected—especially those whose artists actually won. Everyone also received a great deal of frustration from not being able to tell their nominees they had nominated them, but were sort of ultimately happy to stay anonymous. Being a nominator of a successful Pew winner is a lovely thing, but having all your friends wondering why you did not nominate them is not.
By way of conclusion this leaves us just about nowhere. The Pew is a foundation with a great deal of power and influence and they may be guilty of not listening to Peter Parker’s surrogate father**. Any organization that sends out 30 TSNs into the world can expect to be seen as somewhat shadowy, but the TSNs themselves seem to be great friends to artists, often claiming to have picked people they doubt the Pew would have any interest in. Perhaps the shadowy network we should be more concerned about is that star chamber of evaluators and panelists from “outside the region.” Why put an emphasis on these folks coming from the outside? Wouldn’t a mix of perspectives be more valuable during each part of the process?
Ultimately $75,000 to an artist seems good for building the caliber of art in this region, it would be even better if we could be sure the Pew wasn’t Pygmalion, falling in love with only their own creations.
*Please note that I would never use the word “meow” lightly.
**”With great power comes great responsibility”
Illustration by Annette Monnier.
Sean Martorana is an institution. If you are involved in the local art scene or are a member at Indy Hall, you have seen his work. Everything is Sean’s canvas, from wine glasses to jewelry; his iconic designs have graced both murals and products. Most importantly, Sean believes in fair pricing for artists and has generated one of the greatest self-pricing formulas I have encountered.
– Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
Pricing artwork is tough for an upcoming artist. For 13 plus years I have worked to find the simple formula I now use to price my own work.
A few years after graduating a two-year college I started a small marketing and design company for small to mid-sized clients like architects, fashion designers, restaurants, and financial firms. Eight years later I switched my focus to my own artwork and design. I have been a full time artist for over seven years now, selling works of art, jewelry, murals, select commissions, and more. For all of these, I use the following method to help set my prices and charge for my time.
Pricing on materials and time doesn’t work. Does something that takes one hour cost less than something that might take three hours? What if you were inspired and you got it perfect the first time? Does this make the end result different in price? Absolutely not. Pricing based on your emotional attachment is also a terrible idea. If you love the piece, you will price it out of range and nobody will actually be able to afford it.
So, How to Price Your Artwork.
I price it by the square inch. Yup. By size. And it works every time. I originally learned this technique from Maria Brophy, an Art Business Consultant whose blog has provided answers to many questions I’ve had. Since I found this method, I have molded it to my specific career and helped others find their way with it as well. Let’s look into this formula and go through the process of pricing a 16” x 20” work of art.
16″ x 20″ = 320 square inches
At $1.00 per square inch, that = $320.
Is $1 per square inch an appropriate fee? To determine what you would actually be making off of the work you have to subtract your costs.
Canvas cost you $50, paint cost another $20; so, after you subtract your equipment costs from the square inch price, you are now making $250 off of this art.
A gallery’s commission could be anywhere from 40% to 60%. Let’s go with 50% for a happy medium. If that is the case you are now making $125 off of the painting.
What does that look like on an hourly rate? It all depends on how long it takes for you to create the work. If you spent five hours on the painting, you are getting paid $25/hour. Ten hours, you are getting paid $12.50 an hour. I’m not just talking about the actual time paint is hitting the canvas (or which ever medium you use), I’m talking about ALL the time. The time it takes to set up your easel. The time it takes to clean your brushes. The time it takes to research the subject you are about to create. All these and more are billable hours and should be accounted for.
Knowing around what you want to make hourly is important too. If we look at our final price and you aren’t making that mark, you need to raise your price. A good practice is comparing your rate to the rates at which companies contract freelancers. For example, if I were designing the branding and identity for a company, illustrating a poster, or even consulting on the interior of a space, I charge anywhere from $85/hr – $125/hr and this is within the market standard. Why should my fine art be any different? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.
16″ x 20″ = 320 square inches
We are now at $320 according to the $1 / square inch math. The gallery is going to charge 50% commission. This should be added on top. Not baked in. You saw above that when you bake it in you start making close to minimum wage. So 50% of $320 is $160.
Total is now $480.
$70 in materials could be baked in but let’s add this on top allowing more room for time.
We are now at $550.
If you want to get this custom framed, add another $200 – $400 or more on top of that. Framing costs more than the artwork sometimes. This makes no sense.
So $550 (unframed) seems to be an ok price for a 16″ x 20″ painted canvas. This doesn’t look at the time spent because that changes for every artist and every work of art. You need to do the math and figure out if that actually makes sense to you.
If you don’t profit from your artwork, you end up paying people to take your art away from you, and begin to collect debt. You are not helping your craft. You are actually taking away from it and not financing your next project.
I move fast and I create a lot. I want to create more all the time. But I can’t do that if I have to spend my time making money somewhere else. People are not benefitting from my art or design if I have less to offer due to spreading myself thin with multiple jobs. I want my undivided attention on making this world better through art and design, and to do this I must charge accordingly and realize that this time spent creating art is valuable.
Jessie Hemmons, otherwise known as ishknits, has been a “lifelong admirer of street art,” and is now one of Philadelphia’s most recognized street artists. Jessie’s crochet work has covered the city from her short-lived Rizzo bikini to her Payphones Philadelphia series. Jessie’s yardbombing challenges traditional notions of femininity and craft art, while providing a larger commentary about the creative-self. In this piece, Jessie provides a comprehensive guide to making money off of your work.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
Do some market research.
Take some time to learn about your medium, process, and/or style. How have artists been successful in the past? What pieces seem to be the most successful? What elements of the work/pieces seem to elicit the most positive feedback? How can you incorporate these elements into your own work while maintaining the singularity of the work? On what platform are similar artists most successfully selling their work? How do successful artists market themselves? How are they involved with their audience? What are people really willing to pay for similar work.
Make sellable work.
This doesn’t mean you need to create pieces that people traditionally buy, like landscapes or quilts. It means that you have to incorporate elements that people enjoy (as discovered from your research) when creating a piece that fits into your conceptual framework. This could also mean making work you are willing to place at a more sellable price. If people aren’t buying your giant sculptures, you don’t have to lower the price—don’t ever lessen your value. Just make smaller sculptures, or simpler sculptures that are conceptually comparable.
Engage your audience.
Integrate the consumer into your marketing strategy. Try having a contest, or a giveaway. Give the audience something to do, like a scavenger hunt (finding information online or out in the real world). Give them a reason to talk about you—to share your posts. Collaborate. Let people donate a small piece and incorporate it into your next project. Obviously, make public art or interactive projects. Donate a portion of your proceeds to a good cause. People like to feel involved, and they love supporting (and talking about) people or projects they feel good about. Give them a reason.
Learning how to utilize social media effectively is absolutely essential. First, get an Instagram account. This is the most widely used visual platform, and the easiest in terms of marketing for artists. Next, determine which hashtags are most commonly or successfully associated with your medium. People browse their favorite hashtags, and use hashtags when looking for something specific. Really famous artists don’t use hashtags because they don’t need to, so checking them out may not be helpful.
Finding substantial hashtags may take some serious work. They need to be more specific than “#art” and “#studio,” but they can’t be so specific that there’s only 4 posts associated with them. A quick trick to make these broad tags a bit more specific is to include your location (or the nearest metropolitan location). Turn them into “#phillyart” or “#phillyartstudio.” Instagram now shows you how many posts are associated with a hashtag, and this has been a huge help when trying to invent my hashtag game.
Learning to network online also provides a good opportunity to find a niche for your work. “#Yarnbombing” is a niche hashtag, and yields good results. Photographers seem to be the #igers of everywhere. Finding a specific sector where you belong may just help you find a professional support group for life. Artists and supporters are dedicated to their niches. Find out where you belong.
After all of that, start commenting on other people’s photos. Back in the day, people used to view the Instagram accounts of those who liked their photos. But these days it usually requires a comment to draw someone to your profile. Even a simple emoji can do the trick. So get out there and start commenting. Give to receive.
Assess your business plan.
After you’ve been trying to sell work for a while, stop and take a look at how things are going. What pieces have people responded positively to? Are there any similarities or patterns among your successful (or sold) pieces? What work has been less successful? Use the stats that are available to you from your selling platforms or website. Have your efforts on social media yielded any results? What posts do people respond to most, i.e. get the most likes/comments (personal, art, works in progress, social)? What other social media platforms would be helpful for promoting your work? How connected are you with your local art community? It’s important to periodically assess your marketing strategies to see what steps you can take to make yourself more successful.
Giappo has (literally) stuck his face all over the city. Yet the ownership, the relationship between the artist and the city, that these stickers imply may be misleading. As an ex-gallery owner in Philadelphia, a lifelong artist, and long time curator in the city, Giappo has born witness to the flux of interest in Philadelphia’s art scene from the inside and outside. Despite the challenges, Giappo continues to strive for global recognition in a gallery scene that so frequently ushers its saviors to the manger. Curate This chats with the artist about his radical approach to gaining recognition, how clique-y the art world is, and the dire importance of context in showing your art.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
CT: So, you have an interesting method of sharing your work, can you tell me about it?
Giappo: In an attempt to promote my own work, I decided, after years of taking the traditional route—presenting my work nicely in an email, attaching my resume—I needed to take an untraditional approach. I wanted to take the tools that big-name galleries use, and use them against the galleries.
Instead of wasting all my time looking for a gallery that was the right fit for my work, I compiled mass lists of contemporary art galleries, and sent them one mass email blast. Using email marketing programs I am able to track who’s looking at my emails, which of my links they are clicking on, and how many times. These are the same tools that all of the top galleries use to see what clients are looking at what.
Well, the emails were almost like personal emails or form letters to the galleries, which resulted in the most traffic I’ve ever received on my website. But I did get a lot of generic cut-and-paste responses from the galleries too. Stuff like, “Thank you for your interest in the gallery. Unfortunately we are not accepting unsolicited submissions at this time,” blah, blah, blah.
Typically most email blasts will get 15-20% of people opening them, though my gallery list was averaging well over 30%. There was also a large percentage of galleries reopening the email. I had one gallery who opened the email over 100 times. Whether that is one person opening the email, or them forwarding it to other people, there was obviously a lot of interest in the email.
Interest is one thing, but what happened from there? How did the conversation evolve?
Sometimes I’ll go to these galleries and act like I am a person representing Giappo. I went up to Chelsea one day, bounced around some of these galleries in New York, and stopped in the Zach Feuer Gallery, which is a pretty prominent gallery. I mentioned Giappo’s name, and the director asked, “Is that the guy who sent the emails?” I acted dumb, and she was like, “I think Zach posted it to his Instagram.” At that point, I sort of fell out of character because I got a bit excited. (Laughs) These might be seemingly little things to most people, but to me it means that people are talking about it. Whether it is good or bad, to me, is irrelevant. But it also shows you how difficult it is to break the barriers of these circles, because even with a conversation being generated, it is still difficult to break through.
Edward Winkleman, who pretty much wrote the book on how to approach galleries, reposted one of my emails to his Facebook, and wrote: “the best cold call submission email I’ve seen in 15 years,” though I pretty much have gone against everything he’s ever said to do when promoting your work to galleries. Typically his Facebook posts get like 30 likes, this one got around 300, and with a bunch of comments. Some people said, “give that mother-fucker a show, this is genius,” and some people trashed it.
I would be more than happy to create a show with this material, and I think eventually I will. most people would say that I have to establish myself with a particular style first before having shows about these more conceptual ideas.
I had a show at Bottle Bar East, and it was the strangest place to show these Art Forum ad panel pieces I had made. It was way over most peoples’ heads in that setting. No one had any fucking idea what was going on there. The pieces were very art world oriented and very conceptual. A buddy of mine from New York was like, “you can’t show these now. You have to show them ten years from now when you’ve established your name with a particular style, and then you can do whatever you want.” Unfortunately, I guess I’m forced to conform to that. Right now, I’m focusing on a particular series which is a mixture of what I believe to be my recognizably signature styles, in an attempt to create a cohesive body of work that will appeal to galleries. Once I get over the hump of becoming known for a “signature” style, I’ve got material for days. I can easily have a full show, just of Ed Winkleman’s Facebook post, and print out screen shots on canvas. There is so much visual information in these screenshots. I feel it would make a very good show that provides an interesting commentary on social media, the art world, and people’s perceptions of art and artists.
Well, you have definitely got a conversation going. On the other side of that conversation, what do you think keeps a big name gallery, or multiple galleries, from pursuing you?
For one I don’t have an MFA from Yale or Columbia, that’s probably one of the main reasons. Someone isn’t telling them that they NEED to show my work. That’s honestly how this shit works. I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard it. You have to find that person who is willing to give you that break, give you a show, or tell someone they need to show your work. The art world is very clique-y, very gossipy, and they are all followers. They stick with what works.
What would you like to get out of this experience?
I would hope that the ultimate outcome of these experiments would be a gallery taking an interest in my work. I never really saw these emails as my work. I know in hindsight it turns into an entertaining piece, but this really was just a way to grab their attention and make them take a closer look at my work. Ultimately, I would like to be represented by an international art gallery or multiple. I don’t want to stop at one. I obviously aim big, or else I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I get criticized for aiming big sometimes, but that is the way I’ve always been.