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Getting Paid

“Everyone is broke because they see the arts as a charity, a pristine element on-high that’s too elevated to deal with something as base as money. So what follows is the expectation that everyone should work for free.” —Kathryn Born

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

Chicago art critics talk money

By Ania Szremski

001_emily_got_paid_cmykThe “crisis of criticism” is old news. The rise of art criticism in the blogosphere and the decline of art criticism in print media has been a favorite hot-button issue for the past couple of years, especially here in Chicago. But the question of how current market trends affect the form and content of arts writing is a less examined angle.

How are arts writers getting paid, and how does getting paid affect where they write and how they’re perceived by the general readership? How much is the rise of “amateurism” an ideological stance against an outmoded institution, and how much is it just the logical consequence of the lack of opportunities to get paid?

If not too much gets written about these questions, it’s probably because “it’s a bit of a no-no in the art world to chat about it,” said one writer who asked not to be named. F Newsmagazine decided to talk to local arts writers to get their take on the value of their words.

Who Pays?

Despite all the anxiety about blogging putting “professional” writers out of business, a lot of arts publications still pay for writing, whether they’re in print or online. Kathryn Born, founder and editor of the online platform Chicago Art Magazine, told F, “we’ve always paid writers (and staff — the administrative staff gets paid, too). Spotlights on a prominent collector would pay $125, heavily researched pieces are $50 for each 700 words, most short features are $35, and blurbs range from $5 to $15.”

In order to pay her writers, Born says, “We are aggressive about revenue. We aren’t shy, we knock on doors and sell ads and the reps get a huge cut of what they sell. We run a business. I never want to be a not-for-profit because I don’t think the arts should be charity.”

Newcity magazine, “Chicago’s only locally owned and operated cultural weekly,” also pays for content. Like Chicago Art Magazine, the fees they pay writers are contingent on advertising revenues, and according to their website, “the ‘new economy’ has not been nice to us, or to our ability to pay creators. Contributors to our web sites are currently doing so on a volunteer basis in nearly all cases. … We still pay for stories we run in print, albeit modestly and at a time lag that is equally absurd, about a year after publication currently. Fees for articles generally range from $10 (reviews and short items) to $50, with cover stories paying $100.”

Pedro Vélez, a Chicago-based artist and writer, and a regular contributor to the online platform Artnet Journal, says that he’s always been paid for his writing. However, according to Vélez, it can be hard to get a good fee for content, even before the economic downturn. “New Art Examiner paid something ridiculous like 50 bucks per review, and sometimes you’d get paid, and sometimes you wouldn’t. And if they were doing an auction or benefit that you wanted to go to, they’d charge you,” he told F. “But they were suffering, so no one was really bothered; and you were writing for a good magazine.”

Other magazines pay better. “Arte al Día in Miami paid really well. For a feature article, you’d get between 300 and 500 bucks,” said Vélez. “They paid really well because Arte al Día has different branches, and a version in English and in Spanish, and a subsidiary in South America, maybe Argentina, and they were doing art fairs, so they had a lot of money coming in to sustain the magazine.”

What Vélez suggests is that different profit models are needed to generate the revenue that goes to pay writers. “Artnet pays really well,” he says, “but what people don’t understand is that unlike Artforum and magazines like that, the Artnet magazine is just a tiny part of this big thing.”

“Artnet started online right at the moment of the transition between print media and this new thing called the Internet, and they were never in print. The structure of Artnet produces the money and that’s how they maintain the magazine. Artnet is an auction database, galleries can sell their works online, and it’s connected with art fairs, so it gets lots of advertisements. Artforum has to sell ads to be able to buy content, whereas Artnet doesn’t.”

Vélez cites art blogs like Art Fag City and ArtCat as examples of online publications that have successfully adopted different models of generating revenue (like running gallery postings in a calendar, and fundraising for projects over twitter), so that they’re able to pay writers at least token sums. The problem, according to Vélez, is that these initiatives are based in New York: “It’s different in New York. The whole structure is different, and there are more people. You couldn’t do that here [in Chicago].”

Who Doesn’t?

For the moment, the majority of blogs don’t pay for content. The most infamous example is that of Huffington Post. James Elkins, chair of SAIC’s VCS department and a prolific author and lecturer on the field of art criticism, writes for them. “It’s an enormous site,” he told F, “with 24 million unique visitors last year. They have a Darwinian survival-of-the fittest philosophy: 6,000 approved bloggers write for them; none are paid, and only the most popular get headlined. Everyone does it for free, because it supposedly has a knock-on effect: people get commissions from galleries, or invitations to lecture. Hasn’t happened to me yet.”

Vélez is skeptical about the project. “They won’t pay you but they say, do you know how many people will read your stuff? There’s no empirical proof that people will flock to your blog. There’s so much shit in there [the Post] that the audience will stay there, forever. My mother, after reading your piece on Huffington Post, isn’t going to go read your magazine.”

A recent trend has been major newspapers getting rid of their art criticism section in print, and essentially outsourcing the writing to unpaid bloggers for their websites. Abraham Ritchie (NAJ 2012), Senior Editor for ArtSlant Chicago, says, “I think it’s more of a problem when the media companies try to get content for free with the vague lure of ‘exposure.’ Take the recent example of the San Diego Union Tribune, which fired their longtime, well-respected art critic Robert L. Pincus and tried to replace him with essentially a scab, an unpaid blogger.”

This unpaid blogger, Katherine Sweetman, ended up writing only one piece for the Tribune: an angry letter of accusation. “We were a small army of advanced-degree-carrying practicing artists, college professors, and arts writers,” she wrote, “fixing the mess the Union Tribune created when it laid off its only art critic, Robert Pincus, last June.

“We were assured that we were not taking Pincus’ place. He had, in fact, been replaced by James Chute, formerly the Music Critic and Special Sections Editor. … We hate the Union Tribune. We hate the way they abruptly ended the tenure of the most important arts critic in San Diego’s history, we hate James Chute’s pathetic coverage of artists — which just makes us look bad (seriously, read his stuff).”

Replace the proper names with Alan Artner and Lauren Viera, and Sweetman could have been writing about the Chicago Tribune, which pulled the exact same stunt in 2008. When Chicago institution Artner was fired, Viera, a general assignment reporter, was assigned his beat, to the consternation of many; and the paper attempted to amass a small army of unpaid bloggers to cover the art scene on their Chicago Now website.

The merits (or problems) of writing for free

The consensus is clear: the majority of publications don’t pay very much for arts writing. Should writers just accept this fact?

Jason Foumberg, Art Editor at Newcity, thinks so. “Writers, like artists, should work hard and often to refine their craft. This may mean not getting paid in some venues,” he says. But for young, unestablished writers, just getting experience writing regularly for a publication can make up for not getting a paycheck.

“Writing for a publication or a blog is a good way to cultivate a readable voice,” he told F. “Deadlines are very helpful for writers, which a publication can provide. Editors can also be helpful for a young writer.”

SAIC Art History professor Daniel Quiles agrees. Quiles has written reviews and essays for publications including Art in America, Artforum, the Art:21 blog, Arte al Día International, ArtNexus and several others. “I have no illusions about the fact that art criticism is, with rare exceptions, a ‘love profession,’” says Quiles, “meaning that one does it for the love and not the money. I see something self-deceptively naive about ever crying ‘exploitation’ at a publication, print or web, that elects to publish you, particularly if you are an up-and-comer. I always felt fortunate to be writing for these magazines. … I never conceived of my critical practice as being enough to live on.”

Kathryn Born begs to differ. “Everyone is broke because they see the arts as a charity, a pristine element on-high that’s too elevated to deal with something as base as money,” she told F. “So what follows is the expectation that everyone should work for free. … Chicago Art Magazine has always been seen as materialistic, but it’s actually our way of combating elitism. I want the history of art to be written by working-class people (by working-class I don’t mean blue collar, I mean simply people who need to work for a living), and not the leisure elite.

“We have always aspired to be an ‘art magazine for the working artist.’ We like the idea of work. You work hard, you get paid. And because we pay people, we’ve had some of the best art minds writing for, and working for, the magazine.”

As for Vélez, he agrees that writing for your own blog can be a good way to develop a voice, but “even online platforms like the Huffington Post should pay young people for their work. Editors get paid, everyone gets paid on the chain, young writers should get paid too, always,” he says.

“My main concern is that once you start giving it away for free, word gets around, and nobody is going to want to pay you. They’re always going to hustle with you. The art world is tiny, and they don’t give a fuck about you. You do one thing they don’t like, and they’ll find some other young hopeful to abuse.

“Besides, when people get paid they write better, much better and you, as an editor, can ask for more responsible writing on their part too.”

So, in conclusion: It seems that getting paid makes writers feel good. And it elicits better writing, which is the lifeblood for any publication, be it a newspaper or a blog. When publications try to save money by cutting staff critics and outsourcing their work to other journalists and unpaid bloggers, the results are bad (really bad). So in order to survive, publications are going to have to seek out other ways to earn revenue than just running ads in order to pay for the good content.

In the last analysis, money is essential for good, authoritative, critical writing. And despite the dream of the flat, democratic platform of the blog that is freed from the bonds of commerce and exchange, that will continue to be the case.

12 Responses to Getting Paid

  1. Jason Foumberg says:

    Hello Ania,

    This article is a good start at beginning to chisel away at the complicated and often unfair world of getting paid in the art business. As an aside, it always seemed a little bizarre to me that critics, curators, dealers, educators–everyone but artists–get paid in the art world.

    Anyway, you begin with some really pertinent questions, but I don’t know if you ended up answering them. “How current market trends affect the form and content of arts writing”… and “how does getting paid affect where they write and how they’re perceived by the general readership?”

    The article assumes that all art writing is equal. You cite Artnet magazine (a website that is powered by an auction database), Art21 (operated by PBS, which is supported by philanthropic funds), Chicago Art Magazine and Newcity (both funded by ad sales). The writing in each of these ‘publications’ serves different audiences (some very narrow, others quite broad, some local and some national). Therefore, the writers get paid in different ways and for different reasons.

    Also look at Chicago Art Magazine and Newcity, both funded by ad sales. CAM is pretty transparent about sponsored articles, ie, advertisements presented as content. Newcity, in the traditional publishing model, keeps a wall between ads and editorial. They don’t overlap. These different models influence the type of ‘art writing’ happening in each venue. Therefore, there are different expectations and intentions both within the publications and from the general readership. And that will affect how arts writers get paid. (I am not making a quality judgment here, just noting that there is a variety of ‘art writing’ out in the art world). Perhaps these issues could be a part 2 of your article.

    I think this is not a black and white issue. You’ll find that some prestigious writers get paid high fees and sometimes they contribute writing for free to a publication they respect. This is not charity or community service, but part of their career, or a stepping stone in their career. An established writer like Jim Elkins writing for the Huff Post, and not getting paid, is very different than a new/emerging arts writer not getting paid for blogging.

    Ania, do you believe that everyone/anyone who contributes writing about art, in whatever venue, should be paid for their work?

    Also you did not mention how much or how F News writers get paid, and if that is important to keep the newspaper functioning.

  2. says:

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks for your very thoughtful and well reasoned response! You make some great points and raise some good questions that I’ll definitely consider for a future piece. This is certainly a complex topic.
    Just to respond to a few of your questions…
    a.) Yes, F does pay all writers and staff. Staff is paid a salary, and designers, illustrators and writers are paid either per piece (writers) or per hour (designers). I think it is pretty rare for a student newspaper to pay as well as F does, and it is definitely essential for the survival and the quality of the paper. Many of us involved with F work full time to make ends meet, by working two or three part time jobs; and F is an important part of that. If we didn’t get paid, we simply wouldn’t be able to work on the paper. A writer’s fee is also an important enticement to ask people to write for us, and is a great way for many of our students to supplement their income. The fact that money is involved keeps us all more responsible and more committed to the project than otherwise, I would say, and we feel more valued than we would otherwise, as well. But, we are also dependent on ad revenues to pay writers, which makes this set up precarious (fees are subject to change each year).
    b.) I don’t believe that every piece of art writing should always be paid for. Your point about established writers having the freedom to write for free is spot on. I’m more concerned about publications responding to the economy + the proliferation of free online content by paying less, or not at all, which I think is a good guarantee of getting poor writing.
    c.) As for the different types of publications, I agree that they have different audiences/missions/etc., but it is also true, as I point out, that the way they generate revenue corresponds to how well they pay writers. Platforms that don’t depend on ads to generate revenue tend to pay better than those that do (CAM and New City, for instance, pay significantly less for writing than other models I looked at). I think that’s important to think about in terms of figuring out how to make money off of internet publications.
    d.) As for your aside about artists not getting paid…On the other hand, they do have access to many more grant opportunities than writers do (although I suppose this points to Kathryn’s comment about the arts being a charity). Perhaps there are a few more opportunities for writers in this country, but in other places I have lived, I have been very frustrated by the fact that artists had access to thousands of dollars worth of grant money, whereas there was no vehicle to support independent research/writing projects—and the only kind of writing we could get paid for was for marketing companies and the like. This is also a problem at SAIC, where the vast majority of grant/fellowship money goes to MFA students. Art historians are left to their own resources!

  3. Daniel Quiles says:

    I want to clarify, because I’m not sure if it comes across in the way that I’m quoted here: I am not advocating writing for free when I describe criticism as a “love profession.” I generally (although not always) get paid for the critical writing that I do, and it “makes me feel good” too. But I am skeptical, given the present conditions, of making a living by solely being an art critic. This is in one sense a cultural tragedy and a terrible limitation on the contemporary practice of criticism; my point is, however, that these are the present conditions, and one must learn to make do (and eat) in relation to them.

  4. Jason Foumberg says:

    Daniel (and Ania), I also feel a little misquoted in the article. “Should writes just accept this fact? Jason thinks so.” I guess that’s your interpretation of how I answered your interview questions but it’s also an oversimplification.

  5. Lauren Viera says:

    Ania, I enjoyed reading your article. But I’m also concerned about a few references that may or may not have been checked out in advance: “[The Chicago Tribune] attempted to amass a small army of unpaid bloggers to cover the art scene on their Chicago Now website.” May I ask where this information came from? It’s not exactly accurate.

    It would have been nice to have been contacted for comment in this story, especially since you are making a generalization about my job and others’ perception of it without quotes either way. Please feel free to contact me (or my editors) in the future if you have any questions about the Chicago Tribune’s art coverage. Our contact information is public, and we are more than happy to answer any questions or concerns.

  6. Hey Ania,

    First, let me say that I think you did a great job with this article. This is definitely an area of the “new journalism” business model that needs to be discussed. As the editor of Jettison Quarterly, I know this is a subject which we often grapple with ourselves.

    For those who might not know, Jettison is an arts and culture magazine based in Chicago, which publishes online, for free, but in a significantly different format than the sites listed in this article. Jettison publishes online in a way that strives to be as close to a print experience as possible, which means highly curated editorial content and a devotion to large, beautiful pages for a more overall visual experience. We also only publish every quarter, which brings its own economic disadvantages and advantages.

    I think there are a lot of positive things going on, underlying this article. I remember when I first got involved in journalism, I thought it was a pretty recession proof industry (people always need news, right?). But the move to digital has thrown a significant monkey wrench in business models across the board.

    Although I mainly work as an editor now, I have been a freelancer, and I sympathise with writers and photographers who put forward their exceptional skills and hard work, only to receive a paltry sum for their efforts, especially when covering the arts. The world of journalism is cut throat and many writers who had been making a decent living have now found themselves doing the same thing for no money at all on blogs, or little money writing for established news outlets.

    Still, even as us journalists bemoan the changes in the industry since the “digital print revolution,” I have found very, very few people who dont see the incredible opportunities that it is presenting to the industry as well. I guess I’m one of those people who believe that it will eventually work itself out, and we’ll all be better off because of it in the end.

    Even as the pay for writing has gone down, look at the number of new publications and outlets popping up. If anything, there is more opportunity to get yourself published than before, when writing about art in Chicago. In the arts overall, I look around an see amazing things happening in Chicago and am disappointed when our best talent leaves for places like New York City and LA because of better opportunities there. I agree wholeheartedly with Kathryn Born that if Chicago is going to be seen as a city that supports a vibrant arts community, there needs to be financial support in place there that will allow it to grow and flourish. For instance, if galleries want the rest of the art world to know of their contributions and talented artists, they had better be willing to in turn provide support to those publications that will disseminate that information to people outside of Chicago, but also to Chicagoans too.

    While I think this type of altruistic motivation make sense in getting that process started and supported, it also makes sense from a business standpoint—galleries need exposure and magazines need funding. New York art publications dont cover Chicago generally, which is why we need to support at home publications like the ones mentioned in your article. The more writing about Chicago that occurs, the more focus we can bring to the communities across the Midwest that are often overlooked, and the better things will get for everyone.

    Which I guess brings me to my main point, which is that, to me, things are really looking good. The sole fact that there are these publications (and so many of them) doing this work, should be recognized as an achievement within itself. Us art magazines are offering what we can with limited budgets, but the fact that Chicago Art Magazine is even able to pay staff and freelancers is an improvement. If writers and photographers continue to support these publications (and themselves) by contributing and local galleries and businesses support these publications (and themselves) by funding… Well, god damnit, we just might have something here. As the overall support rises, so will the pay scales.

    In conclusion, readers need to read these publications, contributors need to contribute and businesses need to provide funds. If we can do that, we can make the digital print revolution a renaissance.

    Matthew Hendrickson
    Editor in Chief
    Jettison Quarterly

  7. Steve Ruiz says:

    Great article Ania, here’s a big reply:

    First, @Lauren, I think Ania was referring to the Art Talk Chicago blog, which in 2009, under by Kathryn Born, organized many student or volunteer bloggers to cover art events in what was called the Friday Night Army. It was an interested approach, but it only lasted a few weeks and wasn’t very effective.

    Speaking of Kathryn Born, and with no malice in my heart nor spite in my words, I’m going to respond to this article by picking apart Chicago Art Magazine. It is an art blog which I think has produced very little useful content; however, I still follow the site closely, as even its worst problems are important for anyone interested in online art journalism to think about.

    One such problem would be Chicago Art Magazine’s funding by way of sponsored posts. Sponsored posts are still a contentious issue among all bloggers, and while they’re personally very hard to swallow, I also believe that they, like live reads in radio, can be properly done without detracting from surrounding content.

    But let’s look at CAM’s posts in November. There were 38 in all, and roughly 25% (9/38) were sponsored posts. Based on advertising figures provided by CAM, those posts generated an estimated income of $3,600 in that month alone. Given the prices CAM pays for articles ($50/700 words, $35 for short features), this $3,600 could buy a lot of content. In fact, assuming no over-head costs were taken from this amount, it could buy seventy-two(!) articles at 700 words, or an even greater number of combined long and short articles. However, I understand that there is some costs associated with running Chicago Art Magazine, so I’ll take away half. That’s huge for a blog, but we’ll let it go for now. At 50% overhead, and with only $1,800 from the sponsored posts to spend on writers, we would still expect about 35 full articles. Not bad!

    In reality, there were only 14 articles written by freelance writers published in November; with the rest of the material posted either editorial blurbs, re-posts of earlier content, or straight press releases. Even if the writers for all 14 of those articles were paid the full-article price of $50, the numbers still indicate that $2900 of the $3,600 generated by the sponsored posts went to costs other than the production of new content, giving us an overhead ratio of about 80%. Because many of those 14 posts weren’t the 700-word/$50 articles, and as other advertisements also ran during that period, the overhead is almost certainly above 80%.

    This data teaches can demonstrate three lessons for art blogs:

    The first is that the overhead needs to be low. CAM’s overhead is way above what can be reasonably expected for anything, especially a quality, sustainable art blog. If a site intends to create enough content to stay relevant, it should be squeezing as many words out of its income as possible. I don’t think anyone would complain about a blog running 10 sponsored posts – even really bad ones – if it meant that, during the same period, 70 articles at the quality found in NewCity would be funded/published. If we have to turn to sponsored posts to generate income, we should buried them in the excellent content they fund. Keep in mind, however, that we’re talking about blogging, a medium which has liberated millions of authors by nearly eliminating associated overhead. Costs are so ridiculously cheap for blogs that most people can afford to publish without relying on advertising or sponsored posts, so it wouldn’t take much to fund a blog with low overhead.

    The second lesson, and following on the first, is that in order to flatten overhead, a good art blog must be initially treated at a side job; even with active sponsors, a blog should not be forced to support a full-time income until such time as it can do so without sacrificing the amount or quality of its content. For artists, this is deep-structural knowledge, and the reason why we all prefer to make weird shit part-time rather than paint pet portraits full time. The same philosophy should be applied to art blogging – if you care, pay yourself last.

    The third and final lesson from CAM is that relationships between blogs and advertisers can and do exist within Chicago’s art community. I might not consider the spaces which advertise on Chicago Art Magazine very relevant to our city’s art scene, but I’m excited as hell that they’re out there and buying ads. If we can’t expect a great nonprofit like Threewalls to pay for advertising (especially when we’re going to hype all their shows anyway), why shouldn’t we shift our focus to spaces which are better funded, but less known and less likely to receive attention through their exhibitions? Not only will this fund our coverage of the nonprofits and alternative spaces, but it’ll serve the other spaces in a way that our critical focus and reader relationships aren’t currently providing for. I’m not supporting payola reviews or shill posts, but if this is the financial framework onto which successful art blogs can be built, we should figure out how to utilize it appropriately. Chicago Art Magazine is ahead of the game here, and Kathryn should be commended for building advertising relationships with art spaces and institutions.

    Again, sorry to come down hard on CAM at points – you’ll have to take my word that it wasn’t out of spite, just interest in the subject.

  8. Andrea Berggren says:

    Ania and F:

    Congrats on publishing a well-written and extremely relevant piece! I know that my former colleagues in professional journalism are horrified these days by the exploitation of young and/or inexperienced writers. Writers, just like any other professionals, need to be compensated for their work, plain and simple. The idea that “established” writers should, effectively, donate their time and talent is just wrong. Does your doctor donate his services to you? Certainly, under certain philanthropic circumstances, it could be conceivable that a writer (or a doctor or a lawyer) would donate his or her services, but otherwise, people need to realize that it is not anymore an obligation on the part of an artist or a writer to give away their work than it is for anyone else! Word to the wise: Never, ever give away your work! For an example of what can happen when you’re too generous with your work, check out this NY Mag article and have your barf bag handy:

  9. InterestingObserver says:

    I can remember when art blogs first started making waves. Many of the art bloggers who are now big names in the blogosphere started out railing against print art magazines by suggesting that ad sales influenced reviews and criticism. Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City is a perfect example. However, since those early year Art Fag City has been involved with two art ad blog networks, Culture Pundits and Nectar Ads respectively.

    Nectar Ads states clearly that ad clients can pay to have posts written about them. Is it me or does it appear that core art bloggers, especially in NYC, are becoming the very thing they spoke out against just five years ago? Hyperallergic is another influential blog connected with the Nectar Ads blogging network. I find that overly amusing because the founder of Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian, has openly spoke out against commercial bloggers in the past. Art Fag City and Hyperallergic are both commercial blogs no matter how you try to slice it. I question their integrity.

  10. […] This article is part of a series on arts writing in Chicago. Click here to read the preceding article, Getting Paid: Chicago Art Critics Talk Money. […]

  11. […] Speaking of poorly-compensated labour… While specific to the cultural conditions of Chicago, F Newsmagazine’s examination of unpaid and underpaid art criticism provides an essential look at an unspoken issue that makes life difficult for art writers everywhere (including yours truly). Also be sure to check out the second part in the series looking at fiscal models adopted in New York; they may be right in saying that only a market like NYC could allow these initiatives to work, but it still gave me a lot to think about this past week. […]

  12. […] produced by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to address such topics: see “Getting Paid: Chicago Art Critics Talk Money” and “Getting Paid, Part II: How They Do It in New […]

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