In discussions about developing Norristown as an arts community, I've heard people talk about the need to attract artists to come and settle in our community. I've heard this from lovers of the arts, speaking in a vague way, as if all we have to do is put out fishing lines with the right bait. When you ask what kind of bait they mean, you get equally vague ideas of creating work spaces for artists, or even simply that artists would just want to hang out together 24/7, and that once a few settle here, that would be enough to bring more in.
I've heard it also, from developers, who bandy around the term "artists' lofts," implying that building the right sort of nests for artists will bring them in droves. In truth, these developers could care less who forks over money for their condos and apartments. They use the term because that's what they think our politicians and planning people want to hear. Sure, maybe housing in N-town is relatively inexpensive, but that's not enough to attract artists.
I think most people, when saying the word "artist," picture visual artists, but really, it needs to cover all the creative arts: music, dance, theater, design, architecture, prose and poetry, as well as painting and sculpture. The thing is, we already have artists in all these disciplines here, you just don't see them doing art openly in town. You might have a fashion designer or a novelist living in your neighborhood--how would you know?
Our artists have begun to come out of the woodwork, thanks to venues like Jus' Java and Coffee Talk, that hosts poetry and music open mic nights, and book signings. These venues and the library are offering gallery space for visual artists to show their work. But artists can't make a living doing open mics, or selling a few bits of their creativity now and then.
The truth is, very few people have any clue about how artists make ends meet. Half the people I've ever met assume I make tons of money writing books. I remember one man once trying to convince me that I should let him be my publicity agent. I told him the reason I wouldn't hire him is that he knew so little about the business, otherwise he'd know that his percentage of my earnings per month wouldn't buy him a cheap meal.
Most artists earn nowhere near minimum wage for the hours they create. From what I've observed in the writing world in the last 2 decades, earnings have been decreasing. I just read an article about an author with 19 novels under his belt, one of which was a bestseller, yet he's facing retirement unable to make ends meet on his royalty payments alone. And he's in England where he doesn't have to pay a mint for health insurance.
A friend of mine posted the cartoon above to Facebook last week. It's true, artists in our society are often asked to give away their work for free, for "exposure." Often artists are even asked to pay a fee to display their work or perform or to have something published. That's just plain wrong.
So, if you want to attract artists, Norristown, you need to offer two things. First, part-time day jobs, where enough can be earned to at least pay the big bills, like insurance and rent. Second, paid gigs or fair commissions. If there's hope of making a living here, and of being treated like their creativity has worth, artists will come.