The Fund Raisers’ Blind Spot

Grave Returns - Robin Baird LewisOnce upon a time, I was tempted to become involved in a local fundraising event run by a well-known organisation that distributes it’s collected pot to a wide variety of good local causes: school lunch programmes, social clubs for all ages, food banks etc.

The location was in a large airy foyer of a huge government building with many tiers of well paid employees who had no where else to go for a coffee break or lunch hour in that dark pre-Christmas season. It had all the promise of being a good idea at the time.

But then family tragedy struck and I had to pull out. All I lost was my registration fee and I felt fortunate that was all when my arts and crafts colleagues who stayed in the two day event, revealed to me later what it cost them: a substantial registration fee, a fee for their table, 20% of their table’s take, and a surprise contribution to a silent auction as a Grande Finale being held in an adjacent room. Auctions attract bottom feeders. And typically any work contributed is and was (in this case) obtained with far less than the actual value of the piece in materials, labour and creative talent. In actual dollars, a participant paid out at least $70 even before any sales and their auction ‘contribution’ was pressured out of them. In maximum terms of lost income the price point was higher: in some cases up to $400.

Promises of large hoardes of solidly employed eager purchasers descending from their offices and conference rooms never materialised. The viewing public was a steady but very small trickle. Lots of lookers and few buyers. The goods offered were typically various but not junky: some retiree jam maker, a needlework kit table, right up to professional photographers, potters, wood workers and jewellry makers. But this “Fair” was not the rural autumnal variety…it was touted as a first class event by the organisers who simply did not deliver the crowds promised. Two weeks later a grand announcement appeared in the local media about how many thousands were raised by the Fundraiser Who Shall Not Be Named. Yah right, I thought.

Months on that winter, I met one of those very talented colleagues who had tried to make a buck at the FWSNBN event back in November. He seemed down and I was concerned enough to ask how things were with him. He replied he was on his way to the Food Bank…the very charity his own creativity had contributed to only four months earlier. How ironic is that?

Steamed by this insult, I returned home and fired off an email to the organisation responsible for this debacle and clearly spelled out their hypocracy with a copy to the local media. If a naive caller invites me these days to contribute to their money raising event, I inquire as to how many dentists, lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, and financial hedge-fund advisors they have signed up to contribute in kind. There is usually silence. And so I hang up.

I don’t get many appeals from local fund raisers to participate in their ‘Craft Shows’ anymore thank goodness. I guess my crankiness is better known…but I also do all I can to dissuade rookies in the field to avoid the pitfalls of the promoters who either knowingly or ignorantly raise funds on the backs of the working poor artist.

It gives greater momentum to the Basic Living Wage movement which would, oh wait…. eliminate the middle man: the fundraisers themselves. Too bad.

Versatility vs Specialisation: Making a Living vs Starving in a Garret

The box room mystery. Robin Baird Lewis

Once upon a time, in order to ‘join’ the local arts community I submitted a portfolio of work to a juried art show touting itself as an open public studio tour with venues available in the downtown core. While I did not expect to get accepted the first time (due to the inevitable “earn your dues” syndrome) I wasn’t surprised but disappointed at the jury’s expressed opinion that “my work lacked focus”.

Lacked focus. Tiresome attitude. An ironic comment as well…since my strengths lie in the ability to focus on a wide range of subjects and media enough to enjoy working there temporarily and respect those who dwell there constantly. Yet my temperament is ever curious and my character is a creative yet practical one.

But to this jury variety was nothing apparently. I just lacked focus. Period.

As I later discovered, this comment originally came from a person who, at that time, specialised in photographing only pregnant women in black in white: viz. eternal motherhood with a retro treatment. I was already accumulating clients barely into my second decade of my disparaged versatility when this person was still wrapped in Huggies. But ya know…maybe my response was just due to a simple disgust with such a tiresomely vapid and naive observation.

I guess there will always be a bottomless niche of pregnant women whose natural biological self-involvement thankfully preserves the planet’s procreation. One could exploit that as one’s focus. Or one could respect another’s level of skill in other media on other subject matter and not be such a snotty juvenile about it.

Just my take: difficult as it may be for those biased by decades of art college charlatanism (don’t get me started!) the element of versatility in a world of instant change is the way to adapt and survive. I was raised in a family preaching this years before the tech world started to dominate the globe.

Make no mistake. Ya wanna make a living? Get out of your garret and try using your God given talent to meet the public’s needs. Get off your high conceptual horse. Schmooze a little. That’s not selling out…that’s building a bridge to contribute to a greater financial respect for the arts community in general.

It also helps when you know that what you really want is to eat, fully clothed, in a warm shelter…and stuff like that.