I have gotten into a lot of trouble with fellow artists for giving my work away. They argue that it demeans their own work’s financial value, lowers expectations of payment, and worse, creates a cultural attitude that artists should work for free, or at best, for a pittance. Unfortunately, these arguments are too valid.Artists are taken for granted. But we don’t need to be, and shouldn’t. Look around you. What would the world look like if there were no artists?And most professional artists do not, in fact, work for free.
There is a place for smart volunteering with one’s art, however, especially if one is trying to develop a portfolio or would like more exposure. Disclaimer: I really enjoy volunteering for different organizations and have done so for most of my adult life! It nourishes the spirit and you can meet people you never would get to know well any other way.
Through my ongoing volunteer work at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I had the opportunity to exhibit one of my botanical watercolors in an exhibit that was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and which traveled to Kew Gardens, London, and four other prestigious venues. That piece led to two newspaper and four magazine articles on our work, a feature spot on several web pages, and more recently an invitation from a Field Museum botanist who asked me to do a few spot illustrations for their new website, Keys to Nature. Around the same time, I was asked to do a perpetual calendar for Friends of the Forest Preserves, a local not-for-profit which advocates good conservation practices and recreation in Cook County's forest preserves, and a few drawings for educational materials for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
The downside is that time spent doing pro bono work could be time spent doing paying work. I rationalize my time investment as follows: These are causes or enterprises that I believe in, and there is a lot of mutual community goodwill built into the effort, in addition to valuable networking time. Instead of donating money to a favorite cause, I am donating artwork, which ultimately will be more valuable in the long run to everyone involved.
Budding artists need to build community or tap into one already existing in order to promote their work, or be very creative in self-promotion. Or… risk hard-earned monies on advertising such as fliers, postcards, and print spots online or in magazines. And there are a LOT of behind-the-scenes up-front costs involved for those that often are never recouped: scanning the artwork, laying out the ad, printing the pieces, postage. It adds up very quickly! My forest preserve work was printed at no cost to me, and I had a number of samples sent for my portfolio, so it was a win/win for everyone.
It is also important to learn when to say "no, thank you!" I do not donate work to every charitable cause that asks, especially gala fundraisers. There is very little professional exposure from these, I feel, and usually the request is for attractively (read: expensively) framed work, so I usually decline, unless it’s a cause I feel real passion for. When it's money out-of-pocket for mat and frame, instead of just time and base materials, look a bit more carefully at the request. What do you feel your hourly time is worth? How much was that mat and frame? Is that an amount you would in a heartbeat donate to them anyway? If not, don’t. I have never received a commission request from any silent auction donations. Early on, I was talked into a few of those. Never again, unless it’s something I would donate anyway. The calendars and educational materials were an exception—conservation education is something I believe passionately in. My work ended up in hundreds of local homes and I had the joy of knowing I was supporting an organization whose mission was important to me.
So, to volunteer or not to volunteer? If it’s your time and talent and it’s for something you feel passion for, do it. If not, keep at your work and find ways of connecting to others through common interests. What can you do with your work to support the "big picture," whatever that means to you? The energy you will experience in this will do great things for your career!
Kathleen Garness came to natural science illustration through the certificate program at Morton Arboretum. While she had drawn and painted watercolors of tropical orchids for many years previous, her classes at Morton along with 10 years of volunteering for the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plants of Concern program, refined her skills and fueled her interest in learning about and documenting local native species. She is also a volunteer natural areas steward for an Illinois Nature Preserve, helping to restore habitat for almost 300 species of native plants, several of them rare or state-endangered. In 2008 she received a Chicago Wilderness Grassroots Conservation Leadership Award for her work in developing educational materials as part of the national Leave No Child Inside initiative. She had served as board member and president of the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, and is currently active in several local and national arts organizations. Her work has been shown in many galleries and exhibits, most recently in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens, London, as part of Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World and in the 2011 edition of Smithsonian in Your Classroom.