December 29, 2014  • Musings

Photo by J. Cregar, Austin, TX, 2014

Sleigh bells are ringing, sugarplums are dancing, and children are scribbling their lists for Santa.   (And really, many of us adults are too. But more on that in a bit.) Clearly, it is the holiday season. The holidays bring a reverence not normally seen in other months, and this time of the year is full of joy, generosity, and light, regardless of the tradition you celebrate.


Individuals wrap presents for others, businesses donate generous sums to their favored causes, and treats arrive daily from clients and colleagues.   We’re all thinking about giving… But should artists really jump on this giving bandwagon? And what does that even mean?


Volunteering is delightful. I love volunteering. Whether I’m giving in my professional capacity (pro bono tax returns anyone?) or in a personal one, donating my time makes me feel wonderful.


But at some point, that fullness is no longer wonder, but something much worse. And yet, we continue to volunteer, perhaps because we feel like we should, perhaps because we can’t say no gracefully, perhaps because we’ve fallen into a dangerous habit.


Whenever you stop getting something out of your contribution, it becomes masochistic. And this holds true whether you are donating your art, your services, your time, or just your energy.


Too often in the arts, we agree to contribute our gifts. Perhaps you share a work with your favorite charity to auction. Perhaps you agree to play for a friend’s gathering for an hour or two. Perhaps you want to add some images to your portfolio, so you agree to photograph a relative for free. Perhaps we’ve even been guilty of asking others to masochistically volunteer for us.


And don’t get me wrong – I love these exchanges. When they work. When the donor gets utils or enjoys the contribution, or believes in the cause, these contributions are wonderful. They work. When the donor gets exposure or enhances her portfolio, her resume, or her network, these contributions work.


They don’t work when the artist is getting nothing of value in return. And here’s the kicker: The artist (not the recipient) has to determine whether or not she receives something of value. (So stop telling artists they’ll receive such great exposure from you. Let them decide whether or not your exposure is really that great.)


No matter what, the spirit of giving your art away is a decision that should only be made after mindful consideration. Reflect on the time and opportunity cost of producing your artwork before you hastily agree to anything. If you decide the value you receive from your gesture is worth the cost in time, dollars, supplies, and sleep, then by all means please proceed. And enjoy the process!


But if not, practice saying no nicely. It’s amazing how your value will increase with those two tiny letters: N. O.


As I scribble my list for Santa this year, one wish is at the very top: The wish that artists will be truly valued for the contributions they make to the world.


And just below that, is a wish that they’ll stop masochistically volunteering in 2015.


Happy New (Masochistic-Free) Year!


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