Artists make Philly a better city; so why can't they get paid what they're worth? | Perspective

Original art by Sean Martorana-18052018-0001
Original art by Sean Martorana.

Well-known Philly actress Jess Conda, in a recent Philadelphia Magazine interview, divulged that her taxable income in 2017 was just $16,000. “The longer I’m in this career,” she said, “I realize the reward of the career is not upward mobility in a monetary sense. There’s a reward of this career that is a currency of non-currency.”

Living on such meager wages does not allow for a comfortable life. I’ve been an artist in Philadelphia for 18 years. My rent alone is $12,900 a year, and expected to increase. This does not include my bills for utilities, student loans, insurance, transportation, food, and more. If I earned only $16,000 per year, I would not be able to make my life work. Framing happiness as a reward for producing art is a harmful narrative. Artists should be paid for the work they produce.

Unfortunately, in Philly, it’s hard for artists to get paid a decent wage. While artists shouldn’t be expected to live poorly, Philadelphia was once known as a great city for artists due to its cheap living. It has, instead, mostly become a good city for arts organizations.

There’s little support for the independent artists living and working in Philadelphia; and in fact, the city’s tax policy for independent businesses makes it even worse: Independent businesses and that includes entrepreneurs like artists  must pay their taxes almost a full year in advance or else face significant penalties. That means even a good earning year doesn’t help because you wind up paying double in taxes.

Philly also doesn’t nurture an art-buying culture, which means the patrons that exist rarely know how to properly value artwork. That makes it hard for artists to get paid for the work they produce. If you need an electrician, you hire somebody to do the work. That person invoices you, you pay. But when it comes to paying an artist or designer for a service that adds significant value such as revitalizing neighborhoods, making venues attractive, providing entertainment, designing clothes there are completely different expectations.

When I submit a proposal, I’m regularly told “we don’t have a budget for that” and “this will be great exposure for you.” But here’s the reality when it comes to “exposure”: Artists contribute to the space’s appeal, which attracts more foot traffic. This is an advertisement for the venue, but rarely for the artist. Artists benefit the organization, often paying in effort and out-of-pocket costs just for the chance of selling work. But the “exposure”may never lead to a paying job.

By undervaluing creativity, Philly is hurting itself and missing opportunities. Stifling creativity undervalues the positive influence that artists can have in elevating people’s perception of the city and its influence on the world. Without artists, the city’s culture slows down while others speed forward, forcing locals to look elsewhere for unique creative experiences.

So, how can we turn this around?

Businesses and organizations need to shift their thinking when working with artists. Artists are content creators; they can create inspired marketing. Simply put, they provide opportunity for more business. Pay them for the business they help generate. If you are going to be involved with something that utilizes an artist’s skill set, make sure the compensation for the artist is agreed upon before the work starts and provided when the work is complete.

Philadelphia also lacks media coverage of individual artists. Without a connection to the creatives who call Philadelphia their home, it’s easier to think the artist doesn’t exist. When they don’t exist, they don’t matter.Local media outlets can spotlight artists to create awareness to their craft and empathy with new audiences and different communities.

Philly’s creative community has a great camaraderie. Philly creatives strive to push ourselves and one another to make a more vibrant city through our artwork.

If we don’t have to expect to struggle so hard for our talent and passion, we will see more collaborations across genres.

Give artists the freedom to create comfortably, and the city at large will benefit. That starts with paying artists what they are worth.

Sean Martorana is an artist living in Philadelphia.