Exposure Exposed: Debunking the Myth that Artists Should Work for Free Part I by Joshua Ginsberg

September 21st, 2010

A Typical Situation

Andy Kane, Black Tuesday

“But just think of the great exposure you will get by having your artwork in here,” the cafe owner smiled and spread his arms, to indicate the poorly lit and somewhat dingy walls around us.

To what I’m sure was his dismay, I did actually stop and consider the exposure. What exactly was the value of the exposure I was getting? Was it to the two teenagers in the corner who had been sitting there drinking free refills of coffee all morning? Was it to the cars that had been whizzing past on the street? Even if the drivers could see the artwork from outside, which was doubtful, it wouldn’t even register at the speeds they were traveling.

Then I thought about how I reach people… thousands of them. Through social media (facebook, linkedin, twitter, etc…) as well as through attending networking groups, advertising in more traditional media, newsletter, fliers, etc… All told, I would probably go home and get the word out to somewhere between 5,000-10,000 people with just a few strategically placed posts and emails. Was this guy going to do the same? I decided to ask.

“Just out of curiosity, how are you going to promote the work?”

“What do you mean?” He seemed confused. “I promote it by having it here, on the walls.”

“But you’ll post something about it on your facebook page, right?”

“Oh, we don’t have one of those yet.”

“Well, you’ll put up something on your website, right?”

“Well, if we did that, we would have to pay the designer to make the changes and at $15 dollars an hour every month, it adds up…”

“What about newspaper, newsletter, anything? Will you train your staff to sell the work? Will you reimburse for installation and transportation? Will you be responsible for theft, loss, arson or other damages to the work? …” After a rapid-fire barrage of questions, he raised his hands to indicate that he was done listening.

He pointed to the far wall. “It’ll be there and all I can say is that lots of folks will see it. Like I said before, even if no one buys it, you’ll be getting the exposure. Take it or leave it.”

So I left it.

Now, the above example is a composite based on several different actual experiences, but I think most artists can relate. Maybe you’ve even had the same epiphany that I did – that in a situation like that depicted above, the artist ends up providing an order of magnitude more exposure for the business than the business provides for the artist. Yet even when this is blatantly obvious, why are so few artists willing to expose this type of exposure for the myth it is?

Exposure Exposed: How to Identify the Real Value

Casey Black, Buildings

There are countless different means of getting exposure, and it’s not always easy to tell which opportunities present real benefits and which don’t. It may take some research and asking questions you wouldn’t typically ask. You might have to find a way to gag the little voice in your head saying, “any opportunity is a good opportunity.” If you persist, however, I think you will find your efforts rewarded. The way I see it though, the value of exposure is more than just the number of eyeballs (it didn’t work when we tried to create valuations for Internet startup companies a decade ago and it sure as heck doesn’t work any better for art). Exposure may not always be a direct payment, but if it is real and valuable, than it has to have a measurable impact on revenue. Maybe it’s a consignment opportunity, a trade of service or barter scenario, an art fair or competition, or even creating the album cover for a friend’s band. Regardless of what the specific project is, the key is to get something of value in return for your work. The conversation example at the beginning of this article would most likely not generate any real or valuable exposure based on the outlook of the owner. Then again, there might be ways to make it valuable for both the artist and the business. If the owner was willing to have an event featuring the artist and actively marketed and advertised the event, than maybe that would be a real value depending on who is invited and who shows up.

Determining the value of exposure may mean taking a hard line as far as the minimum compensation that is acceptable to you and it will almost without question require you to stand up for the value of your work. You alone know the amount of effort, energy, and actual monetary costs that went into making your art, so you are in the best position to defend that cost, time and effort. And if you don’t defend it, you can’t expect that anyone else will. So don’t be afraid to say that your work has value and that you need compensation commensurate with your skill and expenses. You will seldom be offered what you fail to ask for.

Below are a few different scenarios that provide exposure for artists and some questions you can ask to help determine the value.


Shane Swank, Robbery

In my business, I tend stay away from consignment projects, meaning situations where the artwork will hang on a wall and we will get paid only if someone purchases the artwork. My experience has been that in most of these situations, the artwork will sit there until it either disintegrates or the business closes, collecting dust and doing the artist little good. Think about it from the business owner’s perspective: you are providing them with artwork for their interiors for nothing, and if they sell it, they have to replace that odd looking space on the wall – so it is critical to make sure that they are motivated to do so. That said, I have also been involved in some very successful consignment opportunities where work has sold within days of being placed in the location. A Better Tan on Bryn Mawr Ave is one example of this, where the business owners were motivated and committed to helping sell the artwork of Judi Hechtman.

I use the following as a few questions in assessing consignment situations:

1)What is the demographic of the people that come into the store/cafe/office. – This will help me determine if I am being exposed to the right people. I would rather have an artwork on consignment in a wealth management firm or a cosmetic surgeon’s office, where most of the people who see it will be able to buy it than having an artwork on display at the unemployment office. I am sure that the number of people who would see it at the unemployment office is higher, but exposure as I see it is more about quality than quantity. If I get one qualified buyer calling in, that’s better than 1,000 non-qualified buyers just seeing it.
2)How will they market the artwork? – Do they have a facebook page? Are they on twitter or linked in? Do they have a newsletter? If it’s a model home or staging project will they let you leave some information about the artwork along with the relator’s business card? If so, will they include a link to this artist along with purchase information?
3)Will they allow you to create a case study promoting the artwork? – I do this for every project that I am able to. I use these case studies as marketing on our website as well as enticement pieces that I can send to other, similar businesses.
4)Will they allow you to have an event or show for the artist? Will they help cover the cost of an event and/or transportation and installation? – This can be a unique opportunity for the business to promote itself as “different” from all the other shoe store / gym / accounting firms, etc… and there is no better salesperson for the artwork than the artist him or herself.
5)Will the business ask for a portion of the revenue if anything sells? – You might be surprised, but I am usually far more interested when the answer to this question is yes. If the business does not want any portion of the revenue, it’s probably because they don’t plan on lifting a finger to try and sell it. If they do want a portion – typically I offer 10% – than they are motivated toward the same goal as the artist – to make a sale. In my specific case, this 10% comes out of my split with the artist. Since one of my roles is to help market the artwork, I consider this a marketing cost and I have no issues with paying it.
6)If they have done consignment projects before, how successful were they? How much art, if any, was sold and over how long of a period of time?

Trade of Service

As a business owner, things like accounting and legal expenses are real costs. Sometimes I have entered into agreements where in return for providing artwork, I receive an equal amount towards some of these costs. We have a deal like this set up with the law firm that represents us. Even though we may not be getting paid directly, we are still getting a tangible, measurable benefit from this relationship. Some things to consider for these situations include:

1)Is the value of the deal equal and fair? – Essentially, is what I am getting in return for the artwork a similar value?
2)Will the business allow you to create a case study? – Even if it’s a trade of service, it’s still a place where the artwork is being show and as such it’s something I can market to potential clients.
3)Are there opportunities for cross promotion? If you send out a case study pointing people to this particular business as a place to see the artwork (thereby giving the business some marketing value), will they in return send out a note or email to their clients letting them know about the artwork?
4)What is the duration of this agreement – Weekly? Monthly? Annually? Indefinite?
5)Will the business track and provide a list of people who express interest in the work? – This will require some footwork on your part, but it goes a long way if the business will allow you to follow up directly.

Shows, Fairs and Competitions

While I have considerably less experience with this aspect, I think it is worth covering and sharing with you some of the questions I ask:

1)Where and how is this opportunity being marketed? Even if you are not being paid, you can see if the sponsor / creator of the event is putting forth some real marketing muscle to make it a success.
2)Is this an event that has gone on before? If so, what year is this for the event? – You can also look for people who have exhibited and participated before and get an idea of what their experience was.
3)Is there as cost to enter / participate?
4)Is this opportunity juried and if so, by whom?
5)What is the duration of the event / how long will the artwork be displayed?
6)Is there an award or prize for top entries?
7)Will the event be blogged about and/or covered by local media? – You can go further here and ask about what specific news/radio stations and papers will cover the event.
8)Is setup and transportation included or will you need to arrange and pay for labor/rental?
9)Will you be able to select your booth/tent location?
10)Over the past few years, which artists were the most successful (and how is “successful” defined)? – This is a great question to ask. Once you have this information, take a look at the booths these artists were in and look for patterns – were all of the highest grossing artists at the entrances? Were they by the food vendors? Discerning this pattern will help you determine where you want to be.

The Real Deal

I’ve spent most of this article cracking down on so-called exposure, so I think it’s time to look at a couple of examples of where exposure does live up to its implied value. One was the Gethsmane Art Fair this Summer. As a first time art show, it was a risk for both artists and the sponsor, but they made it a great success. Despite the miserable humidity, virtually every artist I talked to was happy with the turn out and with the exposure. By all accounts, the Gethsmane Garden Center crew did a great job of promoting the event, advertising and organizing the event. It was blogged about, written about and talked about before, during and after the show. Some artists made several sales and some made fewer, but based on the experience, effort and demonstrable investment made by the organizers, I believe that this was a great example of exposure that really works. A second example that I believe will provide real exposure is the upcoming Art Loop Open being put together by the CAC. They have spent the time, effort and marketing muscle to make this a success and the locations they have chosen to promote artists are targeted towards reaching the kind of qualified potential buyers that a professional artist wants. I am very excited to see this event come to life.

I hope that this has been helpful and I hope further that you will take that brief moment to consider the type of exposure you will get when it’s offered. Who really benefits from the exposure? Is it a real opportunity that will get your artwork out to the right people or is it just an excuse to avoid providing any real value or effort?

-Joshua Ginsberg

Joshua Ginsberg is the owner and founder of Chicago Art Leasing LLC – a leading provider of local artwork for sale, providing innovative cost-saving, flexibility and benefits for clients while also creating annuities for artists from their inventory. Ginsberg’s diverse background includes experience in industries including technology, sales, marketing, finance, and clinical research. He has written published articles on a wide range of topics including art and entrepreneurship.

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