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What It's Really Like to Be a Working Visual Artist in Cleveland



Let's be frank: Nobody outside of the visual arts field has a real grasp on what it is like to be a professional artist. But let's begin here: They have expenses like everyone else. They begin at 5 a.m., before their day job, after their day job, or in the evening; sometimes it's not until 1 a.m. that artists show up and begin to work. This work will include, but is not limited to, examining the progress of pieces fabricated the day prior; administration, such as inventory, bills, invoicing and checking email; and looking into exhibition opportunities, residencies and grants. They are not sitting in their studios wistfully imagining magical things. In other words, it is not the glamorous life that folks are led to believe. It can be cutthroat and downright discouraging, especially when it comes to getting your work out there. And we haven't even touched on chasing down payments for work from clients and venues.

"Exposure" is the filthiest of words ever uttered to a working, producing artist. Think about it this way: You wouldn't ask your dentist to fix your teeth in exchange for exposure. Fundraisers run by businesses, charities and even arts organizations are at the forefront of offering up this little brown nugget. "You're just driving down my prices," says painter Arabella Proffer. "Someone gets a painting of yours at an auction and they get it for a steal at $100; that's not exposure. They aren't going to go to a gallery show and pay $3,000 for a big painting. They will want that auction price again. So the logic doesn't work. I'm tired of benefit committees treating visual artists like their own personal cookie jar."

In order for an artist's donation to be tax deductible, the organization has to be recognized by the IRS. Tax benefits for artists, meanwhile, are pretty much zip. Artists are only entitled to deduct the costs of materials, but they must deduct the costs of all the supplies in the year they incur them. This is where offering a percentage will drive more artists to consider donating to a cause.

"When you don't let the artist have a percentage back, you are getting inferior work. You're getting the work that they are taking a loss on and that they don't care about very much," Proffer continues, "You (the organization) just got a $300 piece out of me. I'm better off just donating cash money to the fundraiser. It would be more fun to just buy the tickets to the thing and get the full shebang rather than being treated as a second class citizen."

It was disconcerting to learn, when we spoke with experimental filmmaker Robert C. Banks, that he gets approached more often than not to show his work or be involved in some sort of event only to be offered little pay or none at all. Banks was the honored guest in London at the BBC British Short Film Festival, has had his films shown at Sundance, SXSW, and International Film Festival Rotterdam, and has also been named Filmmaker of the Year at the Midwest Filmmaker's Conference. Clearly, this is not an artist who needs your organization's exposure.

Finding the right work environment can also be a challenge. Even lay people know that the studio is mecca. It is the holiest of holies. It is where the intangible becomes physical. It is the workable space, within which the artist can do their job. Natural lighting is paramount and, whether it be fine art or commercial work, when an artist finds the perfect place to create, then everything flows as it should — unless you are dealing with a landlord who has decided otherwise.

Such is the current situation for photographer Steve Mastroianni, whom we spotlighted back in July. Since then, he has received an award from the Slavic Village Development Corporation for being a new and exciting business addition to the neighborhood, as well as a citation from the Cleveland City Council for the same. Mastroianni, who has been vying for a long-term lease since finding his storefront on Fleet Avenue in December, is interested in keeping his business in the neighborhood indefinitely. "He (the landlord) comes in with his business partner and starts talking about the best use of this space and my heart is sinking," the artist tells Scene. "He's talking about how the energy is good and so-and-so wants to open up a coffee shop here and this would be a great fit for them. I can't believe my ears." This is the first that the artist has heard of any such thing happening in his space. The landlord and his partner tell him that they are renovating the second floor, which used to be a showroom with huge windows, and would like to relocate the studio upstairs. "The windows are little. They are no good. You don't understand, I have these big north-facing windows, it was the selling point to me for the space." (Mastroianni is working with his landlord to keep his current studio space, as of this article's release.)

The arts community does not tout itself as a group that cultivates inequity, but it happens more than anyone wants to admit. And, surprisingly, residency programs can be incubators for discriminatory practices. The purpose behind residency programs is to foster thinking and creative work outside of the artist's normal routines and distractions, in order to home in on a particular project. It is important to the career trajectory. Becoming a parent should not have bearing on being accepted into a residency program. And yet ...

"Becoming and being a mama has been a positive and existential awakening and has impacted my art practice," says artist Michelle Murphy, whose performative artwork has bolstered an impressive resume. Her latest series, Origins & Explorations, recalls aesthetics within her experiences working as a photographer for NASA, and incorporates concepts inspired by birth and rearing. "Since pregnancy, I have received comments, opinions, restrictions, and glances about what I should, could, or won't be able to do as an artist with a child. Once the child is born, there are many spaces that exclude or do not create space/opportunities for children to be present, therefore excluding mothers or parents."

Residencies are not the only outlets for expression. Individual artist grants are important to the creative process as well. However, not every artist creates community-based or public work. These grants are going extinct in this city, thus digging a grave for the fine arts it so claims to love.

"We cannot ignore artists that are not being represented because they make things where they live and exist as artists; we need to help and support everyone. We need to be better advocates for the cool stuff we are all doing and we need to do it collectively," says Liz Maugans, who has been on the forefront of this and other artist issues. She adds, "Artists need to come out and be vocal about our own sector and what we do. We need to get out of our studios and our artist silos and network with each other, with our larger community and with our policy makers."

We concur with Maugans in that regard, as well as on the following statement she provided, regarding being an artist in Cleveland: "We cannot moan and groan about our situations and not take some sort of action. We need to stop expecting support (from CAC, OAC, NEA etc.) because it may not be there and it shouldn't control our expectations and the outcomes we want. Coming together, with strength and numbers, is the only way we can bridge these divides and feel represented. I think it is possible."

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