The Intrepid Art Collector broached a subject in her blog this week that I find painful. - Do Artists Need a Union?
The simple answer is, of course we do. Actors, writers and musicians have a union. Why not us? But answers, no matter how reasonable, don't always translate to action. There are insurmountable difficulties in putting a visual arts union in place.
A "Booming Art Market" notwithstanding, the vast majority of visual artists are not able to assign a monetary value to their work that is commensurate with their efforts. The local markets simply won't bear it. Conventional wisdom in local and regional art markets is that sales over $1000.00 for an individual artwork is unrealistic and if you want to sell your work than you should keep it under that ceiling.
Gallery representation does not guarantee that you will get a reasonable asking price. Most patrons that walk in the door with the intention of purchasing are accompanied by the intention to haggle the price down. Most want at least a 20% discount and some ask for 30% and upwards.
The justifications for these attitudes towards purchasing artwork are myriad. Some believe that, since art is an innate talent, the artist should be happy that anyone even wants to see their work. Making money off of it is just a bonus.
It's not just the individual patrons either. Art organizations have the same attitude about visual artists. Not too long ago, a call for artists from a local organization went out to put together street-level art and entertainment for a conference in our fair city. The performing groups of musicians and dancers were given $1000.00 for taking part. Visual artists that were chosen to decorate the windows of empty storefronts were given $500.00. Their materials had to come from that budget too.
The problem is that visual artists really are so cash poor that they are willing to work for the level of compensation that is offered. Anything being better than nothing. Unlike the performing arts, mass market avenues do not exist in the visual arts. That is not to say that performing artists are all trying to appeal to mass markets: it's just that there is more capital in those fields in general, which does change the environment.
There must be mainstream interest in order for visual artists to gain enough support to implement unionization. Mainstream interest in the visual arts is limited to the occasional news story about some outrageous sum that is paid for a masterwork. Also, if enough artists were making a reasonable living on selling their work, it would increase the pool of resources for the visual arts community, emulating the other creative communities that have implemented unions.