Do you have to be a starving artist?

It’s very likely that you’ve told people your major, and career plans, and they’ve given you a pitying look.

“Won’t it be hard to make a living?” they might say. Or some variation of that - because it’s hard to value art. Even with tangible evidence of the work, it is so often in the eye of the beholder whether it is “worth anything.”

Are you supposed to be a stickler and always demand compensation? Should you go for experience points? If you have a project on your desk that you’re excited about, try to remember this rule of thumb:

It’s okay to do things for free, and it’s also okay to charge money.

Helpful, right? The thing is, it’s really up to you. Consider the following while making your pro and con list:

  • If you do a project it should be for at least two out of three of these things: money, portfolio, or connections. A lot of community theater is unpaid, but might offer you a dream role. Doing commissions for family or pet portraits could garner a small income.
  • Recognize not just how much time an effort takes, but the emotional toll as well. Artistic work is hard to price, because it requires little bits of your soul that are hard to quantify. Working with someone who is demanding an artistic product from you might add to the difficulty, depending on how well you mesh.
  • There is a common school of thought that says that people don’t value what they don’t pay for, but if you find the right people to collaborate with that doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. Managing expectations and having a frank discussion about their intentions and how much time it’ll take from you.
  • If you’re working for free, and the endeavor feels fresh and scrappy, that is different. Look for not-for-profit projects. Tell stories that mean something to you. Work for and with friends you believe in. Also be sure that if you’re working for free, you realize that is your decision. Since you said yes, it became your choice and it is still your responsibility to be professional and give it your all.
  • Your work is valuable, but so is your judgement. If you find a project you want to be a part of, weigh the options. There is no right or wrong answer, and it will most likely take some trial and error before you know what is “worth it” for you or not.

Barrett Ogden, an adjunct professor sums it up like this: “Compensation for your work can include both financial and, in special cases, other forms. Whatever you choose to accept, do so with discernment and good will - the universe will take cues from the signal you send out.”