A Question of Ethics

by Timothy Garrett and Michelle Kraft

The following dialogue is an exchange of emails that took place in the summer of 2002 on the Madison Artist’s Alliance email group. Although the events described here are already past history, I thought the ideas contained in the exchange might still be of value for artists facing similar decisions. The emails are reprinted in their entirety (with the permission of the authors), although several emails on the same topic with similar content were omitted.

Hello Madison artist’s,
I have a question regarding a professional matter and would appreciate anybody’s input.
The situation: I’ve been commissioned to paint a mural for $200 at a house near Door County. (Green Bay) Obviously, to get there I would have to drive. The man who has hired me could provide a car, but it needs some serious work in order for me to feel safe while driving it. Or I could work it out with my partner and drive the mini van that we share. Here’s what I’m wondering: Who should pay for the gas if I drive his car or our van? $200, I feel, is not a lot of cash if the gas money is taken out of it. Normally, the employer compensates his/her employees when they travel. I realize this is not a normal situation, but does that apply here? (The client is not willing to pay for my gas.) Should I tell him, “No gas, no mural?” What would you do?
Any response will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you,

Timothy Garrett.

Dear Timothy,
I am touched by your letter, and would like to give you some kind advice based on my years of experience with people who have work such as this done in their homes. I was a housekeeper for years while I was in art school, (I’m a painter too, and now a contract web designer as well) and also did odd jobs for my housekeeping clients like furniture repair, painting, babysitting, etc.. There was a lot of mixed notions in there, some of my clients were motivated to help me out by giving me the work, others were motivated by their own greed, trying to squeeze as much out of me and my abilities as they could, with the idea that I aught to be grateful for any crumbs they may spill in my direction. So here goes.  
First off, let us get something straight. You are being asked to perform a skilled trade job. This is not about you making art for art’s sake, or for your own sake, or for the sake of getting a message across in our culture. This is not about personal expression, or any thing else. You are being hired to do a job that only a limited number of people in the world could do. Personally, I think you aught to tell them that $200.00 + travel expenses is a steal, take it or leave it. How much time are you going to put into this mural? If you spent only 2 eight hour days on it, that means you’re talking 12.50 an hour. Who is paying taxes on this? As an independent contractor, the government will take at least half of that, so now you’re looking at $6.25 an hour. Plus your travel time. Plus materials. Plus re-dos. “I like the giraffe better over here” etc. 
Please do not feel obligated to do this work just because someone is waving what seems like a lot of money in your face. If they paid professional wall painters to paint that room I am quite sure it would cost more than $200.00. Artists have been seen, in our glorious culture, as desperate people who should humbly accept jobs like this, and that is a load of crap. We are people with a talent, providing enrichment in people’s lives, and the more we give away our skills like this, the more it enforces the notion that “starving artists” should stay poor and humble. Do not let them take advantage of you. Any other skilled trade contractor would laugh at $6.25 an hour, and I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t drive all the way to Door county in someone’s beat up jalopy to do it either. 
Also, very importantly, if you do decide to this job anyway, write up a simple contract stating the scope of work to be performed, what you’re including and not including, and have them give you a retainer (portion of payment) before you start work. Any contractor would require this, and if they baulk at your business-like attitude, well, let’s just say that aught to give you even more to think about. This is a business transaction, and should be treated as such. Make a drawing of what you will create on their wall, and have them approve of it in writing by signing it, just as an architect would, or a builder or what have you.

IF, on the other hand, (and this is a big “if”) for example, this were a mural that you’re doing because it’s going into the room of a child you know and love, and you’re doing it with the express purpose of a labor of love for that child, or you have some other strong, personal motivation for doing it, like wanting to build your portfolio, or you would be painting anyway and so you may as well do it on someone’s wall, then go right ahead. Just be sure you understand why you are doing it. Keep in mind though, that they are very likely going to feel as though they can be critical of what you’re doing, ask you to re-do things, change things, etc., all at no extra charge. I think you are devaluing yourself and your dignity unless you make it clear to these people that the money involved is not compensation for what they are receiving, you are knowingly giving away this job for free so that you can get more experience, or what ever your motivation is. You must still at least get a written agreement in any event, believe me, you’ll be glad you did, it will help clarify everything in everyone’s mind, including your own. 
I have seen a lot of horror stories in my day. Protect yourself. There is nothing wrong, immoral or fattening about keeping your best interests in mind.
Good luck! Keep the faith!

Michele Kraft

Hello everyone,
Last week I sent out a question in regards to a situation involving myself and a mural that I had been commissioned to paint, for $200, for a man. (Who, for now, I’ll call “Joe”)I was wondering who should pay for the gas to take the trip to get the job done. I received quite a number of responses. They ranged from, “You should have all your expenses covered,” to “You could write it off at tax time.” I loved the description of “Joe’s” old car, which he was willing to provide, as an “old jalopy.” (I thought of it as a “death trap”. So it could also be described as: “An old jalopy death trap.”) Anyway, thank you very much to those of you who took the time to respond. I feel supported and prosperous by you. After looking over what was written, here are my thoughts and decisions in regards to the project. Between the time I first met “Joe” and the “Question of Ethics” e-mail, my fiancé had the good sense to suggest a contract. I presented it to “Joe,” he made copies and said that he would show it to his lawyer. He said that he would provide $100 in supply for paint, which is fine with me, but the gas issue came up later. Since the contract has not been signed, by either of us, and there are still blanks to be filled (With a section for expenses) I feel that things are still open to negotiation. Including the chance to not only ask that the expense of gas be covered, but also for a higher price than $200. This is an outdoor mural which is being painted onto the side of a garage which could last for a very long time. I don’t remember the exact dimensions but it’s by several feet. In comparison to one of my paintings (46” x 32” for $300) to me, $200 hardly seems fair. I’m trying not to be greedy, but it would be nice to put something into my bank account. Where things stand as of now: I’m thinking about going back to school to study either graphic or interior design. I thought about putting it off for the semester to not only do the mural but other things for “Joe.” After getting to know him a little better, I think I’d be better off to go back to school. Or at least to find a better paying job. At first I felt that it was an honor to be doing a work of art on a commission basis, no matter what. (This was my second one, the first being a little over 10 years ago.)So it’s hard for me to let go the notion of painting this mural. We have yet to work out the timing (Going back to school being a factor) and to renegotiate a better price and the rest of the expenses. If the price and the timing is right than I could do it. Perhaps even next summer. But if we don’t agree, well, no matter what, this was quite a learning experience.

Timothy Garrett.

The Madison Artists Alliance email group is a place to post announcements and discuss art related topics. If you are interested in subscribing to the Madison Artists Alliance email group go to yahoogroups.com and search for madison artists alliance.