Friday, October 16, 2009

Myth #1: Money gets in the way. It’s better not to talk about it.

Our conversation went something like this, “So, I just started this new line of petwear with matching furniture and of course I thought of you and your art prints. I mean, I wouldn’t think of anyone designing these things except you! You could make tons of money and of course your style is totally perfect and the fact that you’re a Leo and we’re friends makes us a perfect match as far as working with one another and I could pay for your flight out here and of course you could do the work here at my house and I would feed you and you could stay here because my kitties love you…..”  

She never took a breath and I never had time to get a word in. I wrote an estimate for what it would cost for me to paint the whimsical images of cats and dogs on her new line of pet furniture, e-mailed it, flew to the west cost, and did the work (all on my friend’s good faith).  Three years later, I was still staring at an I-O-U. 

We talked minimally about the “business stuff,” but there was no formal agreement about specifics, especially what we might do if she failed to pay me or return my phone calls or any of the typical business things that comprise a business transaction. Neither of us overlooked it. It was just that we felt too awkward to acknowledge the reality. We were just artists participating in the cliché of myth number one. 

If you think it feels too weird to talk about money now, it’ll feel even weirder to talk about it later. When I finally got a hold of my friend, our conversation was extremely uncomfortable. If you’re doing business and the weirdness comes knocking, it’s most likely Mr. Clarity just saying, “Hey, did you forget about me?”  Clarity, not emotions, is key when it comes to the business of art.


  1. Hi, Slash.

    Thought-provoking post and right on target with conversations I've been having with a friend who is a videographer. She's currently doing a hybrid of pro bono and tight-budget not for profit jobs. Even with her paid contracts, she often does more work to ensure portfolio quality than the contract price really covers.

    Here's what I've recommended:

    (1) No matter who you're working with, create a paper trail. It can be written in friendly language. Even an emailed letter of understanding helps have difficult conversations later. Explain by saying "I always put something in writing so I'm clear on the scope of the project so let me shoot you an email to make sure we're on the same page."


    If you're asked upfront to give away your services for a non profit or friend, consider talking about the $ value in terms of your "outreach budget." If you want to do it, e.g. "Sounds great. And luckily I still have room in this year's outreach budget."

    If you want to paid at least something for the project, consider, "I'm almost maxed out of my outreach budget but I can offer a significant discount."


    A tax trail and a reminder that your work has value.

    Do you do this already? It works just like it sounds -- you itemize your services like you would for a paying client and then in the "Owed" column, you put "No charge."

    If this is an invoice where you're not charging at all, you can explain that it's just your paper trail. The key is to keep things friendly so it's nice to add at least a Post-it note that says, "Just catching up on paper work. This was a fun project!"

    This also leaves you open to better react to a request for additional services (see #2 above).

    If it's an invoice that includes services you are being paid for, it just looks like your customer is getting more for his/her money.

    BOTTOM LINE: Doing work for $0 is okay as long as everyone knows that doesn't mean zero value. (And don't think it's only in the arts where friends/family/nonprofits benefit from free services!)

    More than anything else, these suggestions mean you talk about money issues with yourself!

    Hope this helps further the "money" discussion.

    Your thoughts?

    Robin Fox

  2. Hey there Slash!

    Unfortunately, I've learned this lesson a few times over. Due to it being awkward, perhaps even dollar amounts are agreed to - but timeline for paying isn't, or other important details. My recommendation is to always have a contract - even if it's written in nice, friendly terms, spell everything out that's important to you.

    If it's with a friend, talk through it item by item, so you compose it together, which can alleviate the awkward "sign this formal contract now" experience. A good line is, "Let's just write it all down so we're clear on everything, to take care of both of us."

    And with pro bono work, be clear on what you'll do, the number of hours or revisions (for graphic design or other artwork), so that you're not taken for granted and spend too many hours than the schedule allows.

    Hope thats helpful to some folks!

    Jonathan Bender - Express your whole self.

  3. Thanks guys, I think you filled in the blanks really well. I know from experience the money talk becomes easier with practice, but it's still a balance of tactfulness, courage and awkwardness for creatives the first few times.