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Free (for a price): Artists talk the poverty of poor fundraising design in Kelowna

The Kelowna Capital News Close-Up - Capital News Staff
The Kelowna Capital News Close-Up
— image credit: Capital News Staff

When Craig Cardiff arrives to play the Streaming Café this weekend, there won’t be a tour bus in sight.

He flies to do his tours, small stints he books in areas across the continent and Europe where he’s sparked demand for his music.

As an independent singer/songwriter he plays, packages, sells and markets his music—and talks to his fans via social media on the side.

Along the way, he’s become a media go-to for perspective on so-called free music.

Rather than lamenting download-happy scalpers, his philosophy is to encourage the world to share his art and “support it if you like it,” suggesting the only caveat be those who opt to pay send their dollars the artist’s way, rather than let iTunes skim its profits off the top.

Craig Cardiff“Things have changed. Just as bowling alleys and horseshoe manufacturers had to roll with the times, this is how things are and it’s exciting,” he said, in a telephone interview from his Ontario home.

To his mind, he is “open-sourcing the problem of touring.” What he loses in sales, he makes up for in requests to play.

It’s a small business model for the music industry. While the bigger acts might want artists to quit giving product away without a price, he figures there’s nothing wrong with a medium-income earning musician opting to trade direct profit for the notoriety and the touring dollars it will bring.

“I think it’s a mistake to apply the big model into an independent artist’s career and then be disappointed when it doesn’t work. There’s no shame in running a great small business as an independent artist,” he said. “Music is one of the magical things still left in the world. It’s the best non-medical medication we have for each other to help fall in love or get through hard times. To limit access to it based on the fact someone doesn’t have $10 at the time feels silly to me.”

Whenever someone tells him they’ll download his music later because they don’t have any cash, he hands over an album, asking the fan to just send along the funds. About 85 per cent pay up.

“Once people know your story and can connect the dots on how you make a living, it’s rare they won’t step up to pay,” he said.

This is what Kelowna’s Tim Fehr is banking on.

Over the last two months, he’s given away an estimated $10,000 of his work for free.

His entire collection of CDs is walking out the door without profit in the hopes that it will build his name and yield a few gigs.

“This is off the side of my desk. I’m not a formal master of fine arts, I’m just the master of my own destiny, I guess,” said the landscaper by day, artist by night.

“If I give it out, then there’s more of a chance for everyone to enjoy it.”

On Saturdays, Fehr sells heirloom tomato varietals at the farmers’ market and at night he plays gigs from Vancouver to Calgary, occasionally hanging with the Alternator Centre for the Arts crowd, cartooning images for his albums and videoing his dance parties.

Tim Fehr“Being a young artist in Kelowna, there’s not a lot of ways to make money,” he said.

“I figure, if we give it away, then if you like it, you could donate. And if you don’t, you don’t have to.

“There’s not a lot of money in CDs now anyway.”

But the theory begs the question, what if the exposure doesn’t pay off? With freebies flooding the market, is it possible to earn a living directly off an artistic product? It’s a question that has the arts community preparing for battle as several artists resent being asked to give away art in exchange for publicity.

The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation recently released its call to artists for their Have a Heart Radiothon, asking that anyone interested in having their work juried for the chance to have their art used as that year’s thank you gift for the Foundation, submit a matted, framed piece of art, free of charge.

“A print (of the winning selection) is then provided to those who choose to donate (to KGHF) monthly and the piece of art is hung in the hospital,” said Doug Rankmore, KGHF chief executive officer.

“The artist is provided with a full value tax receipt for the value of the work, matting and framing.”

Rankmore said the foundation has received about 15 submissions per year in the first two years.

He believes the idea to conduct a juried show came out of the arts community itself, although he’s aware there are mixed feelings about it and has heard opposition to the matting and framing requirement.

“Because it’s juried, the standard expectation is that the work be presented matted and framed.

“It’s certainly not an expectation that now we be responsible for those costs…We’re providing an opportunity for exposure,” he said.

Distinguished Canadian painter Rod Charlesworth and watercolorist Bill Litman sit on the jury. But local figurative artist Julia Trops is still incensed with the call.

Julia TropsTrops says she went to the foundation to express her concerns, but received no response. (For the record, Rankmore said he had not been contacted.)

So she took her battle to Facebook to try and put the breaks on a system that, in her view, demands far too much of small-town arts communities.

From shows like this Radiothon to the non-stop requests for silent auction donations, Trops says she’s easily donated more than $50,000 worth of “free” art in the last decade; and she can ill afford to do it.

Looking at the average income of the non-profit directors making the requests and the total value of the dollars donated, all she can do is shake her head when the free art queries come rolling in.

“It’s completely unacceptable,” she said. “No more calls to artists for free art. The best way you can promote my work is by word of mouth. Buy it, hang it on your wall, tell your friends about it; but don’t ask for it for free.”

These calls to artists are damaging on multiple levels, in her view. First, it asks an artist who has not built a big name to give away needed income. Then, it asks that the artist pay to do so as the framing and matting costs are out of pocket expenses for the donor artist.

And with the plethora of requests, the mere existence of these fundraisers also undermines the market for artists’ work. Knowing that a given artist typically donates to a given show, patrons will often opt to wait for the auction and pick up a deal rather than take their business to the artist’s gallery and pay full price.

Trops believes fundraisers that generate $100,000 should be able to build paying for the items they auction off into an event budget.

When Michael Loewen served as executive director for the United Way, the organization heard similar grumblings and decided to act.

“It was actually Mel Kotler who brought us along this path,” said Loewen.

Kotler, who recently passed away, was a businessman and past chair of the United Way fundraising campaign in the Central Okanagan.

“Mel had heard that collectively our expectations of artists were getting a bit out of hand. We were asking them to donate art as if it was water. We were asking for their contributions, we weren’t thinking about what we were asking.”

Kotler realized the practice was diluting the market for art and decided it was time for a business approach.

The charity partnered with a framing gallery, which offered its services at a discount, and then started putting minimum prices on all silent auction items and sharing the cash proceeds with the artist.

“In effect, we functioned as a gallery for them,” said Loewen, noting they received so much more art the plan bolstered funds raised as well. “There aren’t too many artists in our community who are making too much money,” he added. “To ask them to be constantly donating their work for free is great acknowledgement, but not a great deal of appreciation.”

Trops has spoken with a number of local artists and all of them told her they will be boycotting the KGH Foundation’s request.

The calls for free art issue will be raised at the next Central Okanagan Arts Council meeting in effort to get a handle on the demands local artists are facing.

Local Instagram whizkid and longtime artist Carrie Harper couldn’t be happier. She reposted Trops’ open letter to her own Facebook account, saying it astounds her with its brilliance.

“People asking for donations always say, the exposure will be great for you,” she said. “But after a while you get tired of starving from what you do for a living.”

Harper says she no longer gives away original work as she doesn’t believe she’s ever received any benefit from donating, short of a thank you.

“It’s kind of ironic,” she said. “We’re probably one of the lowest paid sectors in our society, so a tax receipt, even when you get it, doesn’t real do you much good.

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