Only cash is as good as cash

Earlier today I met with artist and teacher Eric Keller, a librarian who is also a writer, and a vice principal about the school fine arts magazine we are trying to get off the ground. We talked about potential issues like giving the students too much editorial control and thereby putting the school at risk and not engaging the teachers who we need to help support the magazine. These things have solutions, and we are working through them.

One of the things I brought up was that it would be nice to entice students to submit by offering a cash prize. The vice-principal warned us against that approach. Publication would be prize enough, he said, and offering prize money could cheapen what we are trying to do with the magazine.

Eric and I, people who very much like to be paid for our creative work when it’s an option, disagreed. We both noted we no qualms about submitting work when there is prize money on the line. Contests and prizes, of course, have a well-established precedent in arts and literature magazines, but I cannot blame the vice-principal for not appreciating that fact.

When I was an undergrad, I submitted to my university lit mag mostly because I needed the $50 I would get if I won the fiction prize. Although the prospect of publication was lovely, the money was the incentive I needed to submit my work. Since grad school and the approximately $50,000 I dropped there, the only payment I’ve received beyond contributor’s copies is the $500 I won from a contest at descant I didn’t even enter (all submissions were considered). When I found out that I won $500, it made my week. I laughed aloud, then cried. Even though a 1% ROI is terrible, I felt much more validated than I would have with the honor of publication alone.

It’s a problem when we assume creative work should be its own reward. It’s akin to the argument that “exposure” for someone is as good as cash. It is not. Only cash is as good as cash.

We spend my money on things we value — books, clothing, food, art, music, furniture. When people are willing to spend money on something another person has created, it is acknowledgement and appreciation for the fact that someone produced something of real value to someone else. I think offering money or other incentives to students for creative work produces that sense of value for what they can offer.

I know a woman, a visual artist named Hollie Chastain, who steadily produces work that she sells to movie productions, musicians, magazines, festival coordinators, individuals. She does custom pieces as well as her own designs, and I have long admired her pragmatic creativity. She wanted to be an artist for a living, but not a starving one, so she coupled her art degree with a business degree. She knows the value of her work and wants to spend her days doing what she was made to do. For her, art may be its own reward, but the cash helps feed the family and buy more art supplies.

I know another woman, a wonderful photographer, who shrivels up at the thought of being paid for her photography or other art work. She says it’s not good enough, or that she just does it because she loves it, or whatever. That’s fine, of course. But I want to tell her (have told her) — your work has value. Celebrate that. Lean into it. Let someone else handle the business end if you must, but you are an artist and what you produce has value.

I say all that to say this: We need to pay for what we value. We need to value what we produce. And we need to keep reminding each other and ourselves of these things.

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