Nobody Paid Me To Tell You This
by Dushko Petrovich
Nobody paid me to tell you this. I'm not a professional. I'm writing this over the weekend, on an airplane, in-between the other things, mainly because somebody asked me to. So I'll tell you:
We put the paintings in our carry-ons and bought our own tickets to Chicago for our show at the Suburban, which (nobody paid me to tell you) is run by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam. Nobody paid them to start the space in their garage many years ago, and nobody has paid them, ever since, to house, feed, and put up with the dozens of artists whose work they have shown. Nobody pays them to send emails, or patch drywall, or bake cookies. Nobody paid me to tell you that they are amazing because their reputation speaks for itself. Except not loudly enough, which—nobody paid me to tell you—is probably just how they want it.
We didn't pay Michelle to appear in the two Paper Monument books that include her writing, and we haven't ever paid anyone to write for us. The artists we feature aren't paid, and Roger White, my co-editor, and I aren't paid for anything we do for Paper Monument. We sometimes wish we could pay, or fantasize that we ourselves were being paid (exorbitantly!), but we really have chosen to edit for free, and even though people sometimes bail out on us, or delay and complain, we wouldn't want money to be what binds them to the work, or to us. Sometimes people turn us down when they find out there isn't money in it, but I can only remember that happening twice. I don't think anyone who writes for us resents not being paid. That's probably because the things they write for us can't be written for money, but I won't be able to prove that here.
People do pay for the magazine. (We often take whatever someone offers.) People also pay for ads, and foundations pay us to do certain projects. This allows us to pay people when they do tedious work for Paper Monument—like grant-writing, proofreading, and box schlepping—and we obviously have to pay the printers, the post office, the website host, the people who supply the bubble wrap mailers, and so on. n+1, our sister magazine, pays the office rent and the overhead, and they pay their full-time office staff, who often do things for us. So it's not that there isn't any money involved, but even the people who are paid also do a lot of work for free. "Non-profit" doesn't begin to describe it.
If I'm able to edit, or paint, or write without pay, it isn't because I am independently wealthy. In truth, I have a lot of MFA debt, along with all the expenses that everyone has, so I have to do a lot of things for money: I teach for money; I sell paintings for money; I write for money. I used to work in restaurants for money, and, recently, I even recorded an audiobook for money. I also have a very supportive partner, and I have sometimes leaned on friends and family for a loan. Nobody is paying me to tell you about these things, either, but I think it's important to try to take in the whole picture.
This semester, I'm teaching two seminars and one painting section at Boston University, plus one lecture and two discussion sections at RISD. I often feel like I am solving everybody's problems but my own, but that's why they pay you (plus health insurance). Nobody pays me to worry so much about the students, but their problems inhabit even my dreams. They also don't pay me to attend faculty meetings or to get involved in department politics, but getting re-hired every year can be a job in itself—one which requires a certain familiarity. (Nobody is paying me to keep quiet about all of that, but they might as well be.)
Nobody pays me to make a painting, but they do sometimes pay after its made. The commodification of the work of art is a problem, but so is rent. Arrangements must be made. Selling work is less fraught than teaching, but it is also much less regular. Writing for money is also good, so long as you don't do any hourly calculation. I think people who freelance regularly and for a living develop some kind of system; they must. But for me the whole reason to do it is to investigate something new and tailor the writing to the idea, so it takes a lot of time and nail biting. The money alone isn't worth it, but sometimes it does help pull me through. The details of all this can be vexing. I once got paid $25 to write something, and I felt as if my generosity had been purchased pretty cheaply.
Nobody is paying you to read this, but as far as I can tell, two hopeful notions underpin a lot of the casual thinking on this topic. One view of doing creative (or mundane) things for free, is that "paying your dues" and "networking" eventually leads to fame and status—then you won't have to do things for free anymore. This mirage is commonly used to entice interns, teaching assistants, and adjuncts. The opposing view—that writers and artists should always be paid—has its appeal in theory, but its total implementation (besides being impossible) promises a nightmare of ever-present patronage. Both these ideas intend to bridge the strange gap between art and money—but only in the future. Here in the present, it seems like money and art might need a certain amount of space between them. Too far apart, and the artists starve. Too close, and the art does.
This document is part of a larger series of PDFs organized and published by Bodega on the occasion of First Among Equals, an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia that considers the various modes contemporary artists have developed to work with their peers. Contributors to the series offer various perspectives on the social, political, and economic relationships that inform contemporary artistic practice.
Dushko Petrovich is an artist, writer, and editor of the journal Paper Monument.
Titles in this series:
1. Let's Talk by Bodega
2. "What Do You Do?" by Martine Syms & Marco Kane Braunschweiler
3. Seven Reflections on Reconstructing the Civic by Aaron Levy
4. On Forever Becoming What You May Be by Shannon Stratton
5. Dreams & Scarcity by Extra Extra
6. Nobody Paid Me To Tell You This by Dushko Petrovich
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