Value of Art

January 23, 2012 — 24 Comments
Today’s guest post is by producer Jason Mundok at The Wood Stove House. I enjoyed working with him on a recent project, The 24 Hour Plays and will be participating in his podcast series “Conversations” later this month. Enjoy!

The Value of Art

At the Wood Stove House, we have immersed ourselves in the performing arts over the past few years. We’ve hosted house concerts, helped promote and book public concerts, produced theater events, provided promotional and logistical support for other theater events, and produced several recordings for wonderful regional musicians.

One of the big questions that we grapple with when engaging in any of these projects is the idea of value. What is the value of what we do and how much should we be charging for it?

A Tightrope Walk

There seems to be a balance between undervaluing and over valuing art that can be very illusive when trying to decide a realistic fee. Many performers feel that what they do isn’t really worth much. Perhaps its the fear of failure, or self-doubt. They are willing to perform for free or for the often-offered, but rarely worth it “exposure” gig.

They scoff at the idea of charging a reasonable ticket price because they don’t feel like enough people will “pay that much”. This results in a culture with low expectations with performances that are free or almost. It prevents a scene from growing or becoming better because those who organize, promote and perform shows can’t sustain themselves financially.

Strike the Balance

On the other hand, the arts can be priced too high for the good of the scene. There is a ceiling that the average person can pay to get into a show or buy some music and if a scene reaches that point, then the perception in the culture is that the average person can’t participate. The arts become elitist. That’s another good way to stunt the growth and improvement of a scene.

In order for a performing arts scene to grow and become better, the balance that allows the producers, promoters, and performers feel worth it to pour in their blood, sweat, and tears, needs to be uncovered. As producers, we need to push the boundaries every once in a while and be open to recognize when the public pushes back. As consumers of the arts we need to recognize that there is value to what performing artists do and be willing to contribute reasonably to the cause.

How do you feel about the value of performing arts?

Jason Mundok is a producer of creative performing projects at the Wood Stove House in Lancaster, PA including the Wood Stove House Concerts and Around the Wood Stove, an interview podcast series. You can also find him on Twitter.
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Andrew Zahn

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I'm a son, husband, dad, business owner, actor and good sleeper/eater. On this blog, I pave a highway for creative growth by providing food, water, and shelter for those wishing to live, work, and play with creative zest.
  • http://twitter.com/DannonL DannonL

    From my idealistic mind, the arts should be accessible to all regardless of ability to pay. I believe that people should pay for the arts the amount they believe it is worth (like a public broadcasting model). This model obviously creates some problems, but it has worked out for some artists.

    • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

      Does the public broadcasting model rely at least somewhat on government funding? If so, a portion is donated by people based on their perceived value (i.e. membership to the local NPR affiliate), but another portion would not be based on an individual’s decision of the value of the product. It’s based on the perceived value by the elected officials (for better or worse).

      I think artists should have the right to make their art free for anyone, but that’s not very sustainable in the end. In my experience, artists end up just not doing it after a while.

  • http://danblackonleadership.info Dan Black

    What great thoughts. I think it’s wise for artist to charge for their work. If they produce a solid product like music or art then they need to make money because of their talents. Just my thoughts.

    • http://www.sarahzahn.com Sarah

      My parents gave me a huge gift as a kid by making a part of their budget (and therefore part of my childhood) go towards “supporting the arts”. They’d buy tickets to things they could see for free, donate to public media, etc, and that set a great example for me.

      Conversely, as a performer, I have trouble toeing the line of wanting to be paid for my work, but also be willing to give it as a gift. I love to be paid for my art, but I feel that I shouldn’t “do it for the money”, because I love it so very, very, VERY much. Sometimes I wonder, if I love it so much, shouldn’t that be enough? I don’t know!

      • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

        Maybe it is enough, Sarah. But, consider all that people do that they don’t love (and sometimes despise)with the finite amount of time that they have, just to make enough money to get by. What kind of energy does that create? How good is that for those around them?

        We feel justified in getting paid thousands of dollars for mundane, uninspiring work that may or may not contribute to the good, yet we don’t feel justified in getting paid for very special and unique talents that can bring joy, happiness, and inspiration to others? Why is that?

  • Daryl

    I’m playing with comparisons… art and music are ubiquitous–they are such an integral part of society. Compare art & music to good food; it nourishes us in various ways. How do we value that “food”? We can cook it ourselves, we can eat at someone else’s house, we eat “take out” or frozen meals at home, we can pay for a restaurant to provide the food & the ambience, we can grab some fast food or a snack to devour without much thought…

    Still comparing food to art, it can be used (or co-opted) for many purposes: to market things, to create a certain atmosphere, as ritual space to unite people or mark special occasions, or as an ostentatious exhibition of revelry & gluttonous excess. There is social value.

    Of course, the cultivation, preparation, combination & presentation of food can also be an art that requires expertise, tools and time (culinary art). The raw materials–the consumables that nourish us–are all taken from nature and are perishable. Perhaps food/art is most valuable freshly plucked from the tree?

    So, yeah, what is the value of art? Any tangible form of art is only a representation of the creative act. That representation is the commodity that we give economic value. The art itself is priceless and can’t be bought or sold.

    • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

      I love this comparison!

      • Andrew Zahn

        I love it too. It’s quite perfect Daryl.

        • Daryl

          Thanks! I do too, actually. No idea where it came from. I guess the muse visited at just the right time!

  • Ken Stewart

    Jason makes a great point. Further, the artist will really only be sustained one of two ways–by charging for their work or by having “patrons”. Even those who are supported by patrons have to produce, and sometimes they are told by their patrons what kind of art to produce–think of Bach and Handel and many of the sculptors and painters of the past. “Works for hire” was the impetus behind the creation of many great works of art, no less great for having been purchased.

    • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

      Thanks for the comment, Ken. I agree that just because something is a work for hire with parameters doesn’t automatically mean there will be no magic.

  • http://rambles.net Tom Knapp

    Creative types, as much as anyone else, need to make a living just to survive. If they’re not getting paid for their art, then their art must be squeezed into those spare moments that aren’t spent working, eating, sleeping, spending quality time with family and doing all the other things that sustain us. If the arts are not a source of income, I fear, then the arts will become the sole playground of the idle rich — people who don’t depend on a weekly paycheck.

    • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

      Good points, Tom. But, I think people will always find some time and outlets for their creativity or the arts, even if they never get paid. For example, I’m thinking of church as a platform, or family time, or mountain music.

      One of my points here though is how to nurture and grow a performing arts scene where artists have the time and flexibility to push boundaries and grow with it. I think a financial component is critical and artists and producers need to find a balance between what is too high and what is too low.

      • http://rambles.net Tom Knapp

        I think it’s a matter of scope. If, for instance, I never got paid for performing music, would I work so hard to promote my band? Probably not, even though I still feel a thrill every time I perform. I’d probably play sometimes, maybe even make MORE time for informal sessions and the like, but I’d probably not be spending so many evenings away from my family, scraping away on my fiddle in dark pubs and alleyways. (OK, I don’t really play that often in alleys, but there was that one time by Central Market….)

        As another example, I enjoy photography and I dabble in the craft, but I’m not paid to do it and I’m content that way. But there are a great many photographers whose work really expands the art and sets new boundaries. They have to pay for models, for equipment, for printing and framing, etc. … If they weren’t getting paid, could they even afford to do so much? Probably not, it’s an expensive hobby. The same could be said of many artists and artisans, whether they paint massive watercolors or knit cashmere scarves. Payment for their work feeds their art and keeps them supplied, if nothing else.

  • Daryl

    Art has social power, particularly when it emerges from something we are passionate about. That power is frightening to some people, and they are willing to pay high prices to control and domesticate it. Do artists “sell out” when they allow money to manipulate their art? This is a tension I think I’ll always struggle with. Yes, I deserve to be paid/supported for my musical services, but I must somehow keep the passion separate from the money. The question is: How? The answer might be different for everyone.

    • http://rambles.net Tom Knapp

      Well, I like to think I’ve stayed true to my art by refusing the lure of big money by going “pop,” instead earning my meager scraps as an Irish fiddler. Then again, I am forced to confess that no one out there — with the possible exception of my lovely wife — would ever pay me to be a pop star.

      • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

        Tom – you’re exactly describing one of the problems that this post starts to poke at. What do you mean by “true to my art”?

        It’s as if, as artists, “big money” and “true art” can’t coincide. I think that belief is one of the fundamental problems with growing a scene. If artists get stuck on the idea that to stay true to the art, there’s a limit to the amount of money you can make, then you’ll simply stop trying at some point.

        Granted, there’s has to be a balance and the growth has to be slow and intentional. It can’t be lopsided one way or the other.

        • http://rambles.net Tom Knapp

          Well, in a sense, being true to your art AND making big money depends a lot on what your “true” art is. If I were young, attractive and with really good hair, I might be able to make a fortune as a pop singer (assuming, of course, that I could sing … which actually is NOT always a prerequisite in today’s market). I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to make big money as a middle-aged, overweight and balding Irish fiddler, but it’s certainly not the norm. Simply from a market standpoint, there isn’t all that much demand for my particular art — except, as you well know, in mid-March, when suddenly we ARE pop stars.

      • Daryl

        Ha! Yeah, while pop music doesn’t get pop-ular without the help of big money and marketing blitzes, the industry does capitalize on the artists they believe have the most mass appeal (and many of us don’t want to fit their mold). Of course, they also do what they can to engineer the appeal and define “appeal” for society. For me it’s just more incentive to avoid it and enjoy the small, local scene.

    • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

      From a recent podcast episode with Amanda Kemp, she said (I’ll paraphrase) that the rigor of budgets (and money) etc. need to inform the spirit rather than the other way around. (http://www.woodstovehouse.com/atws-43-dr-amanda-kemp/)

      Maybe the answer to keeping money separate from art is more about a hierarchy with the art as a priority.

      • Daryl

        Art as priority over money… yeah, I’ll buy that. ;-) And maybe I need to think of it as not selling my art, per se, but rather selling my services and products inspired by my art. And on my terms. Hmm.

        • http://www.woodstovehouse.com Jason Mundok

          I’ll quote a famous artist (oh wait, that was YOU in the comments above!):

          “Any tangible form of art is only a representation of the creative act. That representation is the commodity that we give economic value. The art itself is priceless and can’t be bought or sold.”

          Maybe you’re just selling the resulting representation, not the art (or process) itself.

          • Daryl

            Eggzakly! And the performing, producing, recording, mixing, mastering, photographing, printing, etc. are themselves works of art, all to produce one representational CD. Lotsa goodness in there!

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