Can You Buy At The Price You Are Selling?

I often have arts professionals in their late 30s-early 40s ask me for comp tickets or ask me to request comps on their behalf at another performance space. Their whole decision to attend is based on whether they can get the comps. Since the ticket prices have been in the $10-$30 range and some of these people have stable incomes, on a couple occasions I have opined that this sort of request is to be expected when you are a poor college student, but didn’t they think that at this stage in their career and level of success it wasn’t time to start paying for tickets and free up those comps for starving college students.

This post isn’t about deadbeat mid-career artists who should have long ago started attending shows to support the arts and not because they get comps. As fun as ranting on the subject might be, I am pretty much done now.

I started with that little gripe to catch attention and segue into my real topic of wondering how many artists actually can’t afford to attend/buy the sort of art for which they are being paid. The thought occurred to me as I was wandering through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art and I saw a couple notations about some of the artists owning pieces by other notable artists. I wondered if that were still the case. More to the point, are artists, who sell one of their pieces for a certain price, buying the works of other artists at comparable prices. If not, is it because of an unwillingness to do so or because they can not afford to do so.

Following the latter train of thought, it isn’t news that people in the arts don’t get paid very well–especially those producing the art. (Drew McManus’ recent Compensation Reports illustrate this for orchestras.) I am sure some people are eager to liken artists to third world sweatshop workers who could never afford to buy the clothing they make, but I am pretty sure things aren’t that bad. Many performing artists can probably afford to see a couple shows at the level people are paying to see them perform, but perhaps not as many as they might like or would be helpful toward advancing their craft.

I have no idea where visual artists stand in this regard. My guess is that for the time it takes to create a piece, many probably make below minimum wage and have many mundane bills to pay before they can think about acquiring works of their own. But honestly, I have no idea about the art acquisition statistics for visual artists. Does anyone have any insight or links to research on this matter?

Actually, while I am thinking about it… I have seen a lot of surveys being done about engaging audiences, marketing to audiences, measuring how involved the general public is in the arts (and the need to redefine what activities count as engagement), and even the SNAAP survey which tracks the “lives and careers of arts graduates.” But as far as I know, no one has really surveyed artists to see how involved they are in attending/purchasing the work of others.

I think it would be especially interesting to see the results in terms of cross-disciplines– how often do theatre people attendance dance, how often to dancers go to museums, how often do sculptors go to the symphony? I would also be interested to find out if that changes as a person gets older and advanced in their careers. Do arts people only go to see stuff from other disciplines when they are young and poor and their friends are doing a thing in an abandoned warehouse or do they continue throughout their lives and consume a wider variety?

There would probably be elements of the results that were satisfying as well as some that were depressing. In any case, they could be used to mobilize action. At the last National Performing Arts Convention, people had so many ideas about what to do but were paralyzed about how to do it. Maybe the first, best and simplest step would be to look at the results of a cross-discipline survey mobilize a grassroots support effort by either saying, “Hey, you guys don’t support each other enough in your communities, get out there and see stuff,” or “You guys are really supportive of each other. Now we are are going to train you to advocate to your neighbors for your disciplines and those of your colleagues of the other disciplines. We succeed when we all stand together.”

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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