Working for Free and Getting Exposure

Sophie Ploeg Studio

If you are a creative you must have heard it before: work for exposure. Or to be blunt about it: work for free. Many artists are asked to work for free on a regular basis. Some more than others, I imagine, but we've all heard the 'it will get you great exposure!' pick-up line. So is working for free always a bad idea? Are there any circumstances in which it is worth doing? Does anybody actually ever get 'exposure' out of it? 

Photo by Antonio Francisco

Different Scenarios

As far as I can tell offers to do work for free happens at all levels of an art career. When I was just starting out I sometimes got offers from charities to donate work, or from cafés and shops to exhibit on their premises. Sometimes it was me asking them, other times it was them asking me. 

I have heard many other artists tell me stories where they provided work for free. Most famously was a case where the giant British supermarket Sainsbury's put an ad in the paper asking artists to come and decorate their canteen walls 'for experience'. As it was a canteen for employees only, they could not even offer 'exposure' and ended up apologising publicly for this disrespectful way of approaching artists. But it is not uncommon. In my local town a similar thing was advertised not too long ago. 

Should we say yes to every exhibition that is offered to us? Even if it is just the walls in the lavatories or the basement of a big restaurant? 

Stuff like this happens a lot. And especially when I just started out I probably fell for quite a few of them. Was that stupid of me? Well, sometimes yes, I was naive. But at other times, no, it taught me stuff. So how do you figure out when to say yes and when to refuse?

When to Say No

I think that most requests for free work are either charities looking for donations to auction off (for example), public art commissions ("your work wiill be seen by thousands!"), or exhibitions on non-arty premises such as restaurants, shops and offices.

Charities

I have been asked by charities to donate work which would then be offered as a raffle prize or put up for auction. I have offered portrait commissions as auction lots.  Were they good experiences? Hm, well yes and no. When you are asked to donate art work to a charity I think there are a few things to think of:

  1. Can you afford to work for free right now?

If you are struggling for money then working for free is not the way to go about it. You might think it will lead to more (paid) work but unless you are sure about that, you are probably better off focussing on stuff that will actually make you some money. 

  1. Do you love the charity and want to donate to it?

If you can get past point 1, then the next question to ask yourself is 'do you love this charity and what it stands for?'. At the end of the day, whether you donate work or money, it translates into money for them. You would never donate money to a charity you don't love so why would you donate art. 

But if the auction ends in disappointment and the follow-up is rubbish, if you are struggling with the paintings and they take much longer than you envisaged, if you never got any paid commissions out of it; you must make sure you don't feel like it was all a waste of time. If you love what the  charity does, you will not mind doing the work, even if it does nothing for your art career. Make sure you manage your expectations.

  1. ​Will it get you anything in terms of exposure?

Do you research and figure out whether you will get anything out of this at all. Will your work be shown to potential collectors? Will there be an active marketing campaign, how many people will come and see this? Even if you get nothing out it, you might still want to go for it if you love the charity and you just want to support them. But it will help to answer these questions so you know where you stand and what to expect.

My experience with charities is that it works best when you love the charity and you want to help them. An auction or raffle ticket winner might not be that interested in your painting and only wanted to support the charity. So as long as you have that same goal, it won't hurt your feelings. And most charities are over the moon with even the smallest contributions so don't disregard a small gesture. Even donating a percentage of a sale can be highly appreciated and you are not foregoing all your earnings.

Commissions

I am much less positive about commissions where you put in lots of work and in return you get 'exposure'. Imagine they ask you to paint the mayor and in return you get 'exposure' as the painting will hang in the local library. That is definitely not something that anyone should do for free. The exposure you are promised is not guaranteed. They can never promise you something that they cannot provide. Visitors to the library are not going to help you further your art career. A piece of art that will be seen by many is not a reason to work for free. The 'payment' is too vague and cannot be delivered.

Sophie Ploeg Studio

Sophie at the easel

Magazines/Websites

Popular art magazines print artists' works all the time. Artists are generally over the moon if their work gets published and do not expect payment for this. This is quite normal as well-known art magazines DO provide quantifiable exposure. They have a proven track record of subscribers and sales and your work will indeed be seen by many. Many who see the work are other artists, collectors and gallery owners as these people will seek out these types of magazines to find the right works for them. 

So if a lesser-known magazine or website offers to publish your work, make sure you do your research first. If you have never heard of them, then that will be your first red flag. Check out their social media profiles and see how many followers they have. A popular publication will have thousands of followers. Google them and see if they come up a lot. Double check who they claim to be. There are liars around that are just after some free content. 

It is different however, for small (perhaps local) publications (often run by volunteers), or online magazines, blogs and other publications that exist on the website of a charity such as a museum, art society or club. They will exist off donations, membership fees and such, and will have a limited budget. Their audience is the audience you want to reach so not only do you help out a charity, but you get something back as well: exposure to the right audience. 

Gallery Exhibitions

Most galleries will expect you to deliver work to them and they will try and sell it for you. You pay them a commission for their marketing and sales work on every sale they make. Often that commission is quite steep but a good gallery works hard to get you your sales. But sometimes there are situations where the deal simply doesn't work.  

When a gallery is on another continent it might be enormously exciting to be asked to provide works for an exhibition, but you must consider what you will get out of it.

I remember a fellow artist wondering exactly this when she was asked to provide 50+ small paintings for a show in the US (she is in the UK). She was excited to be able to conquer new worlds, however she did wonder how much it would cost to get 50 paintings across the pond. And who would pay for the return of the unsold pieces? How big is the chance that none or only a few sell? What does this gallery do in terms of marketing, publishing and how big is their client list? Some of these things are hard to figure out, especially if you live on the other side of the world. The danger that you end up out of pocket is very large. But the chance that you will open doors to a new market is real as well. Do your research and make an informed decision instead of an over-excited jump.

Providing work for an exhibition is not really working 'for free', I know. But I wanted to include it because it is all too easy for artists to end up losing money instead of making it. Another scenario where this happens is when you exhibit your work in places that are not galleries:

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Exhibiting in Offices and Restaurants

Many of us have been there or are there right now: restaurants and cafés kindly offer their wall space for an art exhibition. I have done this a few times in the distant past. But is it a good idea?

Although exhibitions are always 'free' (nobody pays you to provide works for a show), if the venue is not actually in the business of selling (your) art there is a freebie element to it. After all, the business is getting free wall decoration and they can keep concentrating on the selling of food, drinks, homewares or whatever else they are selling. Nobody is going to make an effort to sell your art. And probably nobody will especially visit the place to see and buy your art. The customers are there to eat, drink or buy a new scatter cushion. So this sort of exhibiting falls under the 'for exposure'. 

Sophie ploeg Working for Free

Is it a good idea? I think it can be. But you have to be very alert to what is happening and what you are trying to get out of it. I think it is important to always keep in mind that the business you are exhibiting at is getting free wall decoration. They probably like to come across as quite 'arty' to their customers and want to show them they 'support the arts'.

I am not against showing in these places at all. But do your research and try and figure out how much 'support' a show in a restaurant will really provide you. Are their customers an art loving crowd? Is the restaurant popular and busy? Can you organise a private view? Is it located in a busy and perhaps even 'arty' area of town? How is the art presented and will anyone actually notice the art on the wall? Do they want a commission? Will they keep your art safe and under whose insurance will it fall? Is there a high risk of damage by people bumping into the art works, spilling drinks, or smoking? How much will it cost you to do all the framing, travel, pricing labels, etc?  You must weigh up whether this is worth it. If you sell nothing, will it still have been worth it?

If you are in the early stages of your career it might be worth to do a restaurant/café show as it might give you good experience in setting up a exhibition. You will need to organise framing, pricing and come up with a coherent group of artworks. For this reason it might well be worth the effort.

But! I think you can get the same experience by joining a local art group or open studios network and there you will reach the real art lovers, not just diners who only have eyes for the menu.

When to say Yes

So working for free can be tricky stuff. All too easy we happily say yes and ignore our professional voice in favour of our overly eager amateur voice.  If you want people to take you seriously, you don't work for free very often. The plumber won't work for 'exposure' and the lawyer works pro bono for charity alone. And that is where you are on the safest ground, I think: charity. If you care about a charity's cause and you can afford to work for free, it makes all the sense in the world to say yes to their request.

But, it does not make sense to do this too often as you'll end up being known as the artist that works for free and you will struggle to earn a penny. You must do your research and figure out what you can realistically expect in return. That can be nothing, it can be exposure, it can be sales. Make sure you know what you are doing. 

If at all possible make sure both sides are clear on the deal. Either draw up a contract or at least write it all out in an email so the other side can agree or raise anything that is not as they like it.  A purely verbal agreement can easily be denied or misunderstood.  Make sure you trust each other so you can work together. If you suspect untruths, then dig a little deeper. 

Working for free is not something that should feature in your accounts often, if at all, if you want to establish yourself as a professional artist. It is perfectly alright to say no. You have a career to build and you won't build it by doing stuff for free. But there is nothing wrong with being kind now and then and helping others out. It's all about balance - just like most things in life.

Check out this epic flow chart by Jessica Hische made for freelancers who are wondering whether they should work for free. It's brilliant. Especially the 'is it for your mom' line....

Good article by Marloes de Vries on working for free, on her blog

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