Design Ain’t Free

Last week Hyperallergic ran a piece asking why the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) with a budget of $1.9 billion was asking artists to submit proposals to decorate their trucks for free.

While the artists will supposedly retain all rights to their work,

…artists will receive no compensation, and that they will grant both DSNY and partner organization the Sanitation Foundation the “royalty-free, non-exclusive right to use and/or reproduce the designs for non-commercial and/or educational purposes.”

Artists will have three, seven hour work days to execute their design on a truck at the end of September.

NYC based artists, who face the city’s high cost of living are concerned about the lack of compensation in return for helping DSNY realize their goals.

A few weeks earlier I saw a similar conversation occur in response to a call by an arts advocacy group for submissions of images to be used in a national ad campaign. The winning designer would be compensated for their work. The issue was that artists were being asked to design for a major project on spec without any compensation.

If a designer is doing a logo for a local company, there is a significant amount of work they invest in research, multiple design iterations, etc,. If they are working on spec, that is a lot of time and energy invested that could be spent on other projects with guaranteed payment. For something that would be used nationally in a promotional/awareness campaign, they would likely invest that multiples more effort into research and design with the goal of making it as perfect as possible.

This is something to keep in mind when running poster contents or similar projects in relation to your arts organization. The goal of raising awareness and engagement with your organization is often a worthy one, but evaluate whether it is being done with full consideration of the time and effort that will be required to complete the task to the apparent standard. It is probably best to consult with someone who does similar work before soliciting submissions because what you imagine is a 20 minute effort may actually require two days at minimum.

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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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.


1 thought on “Design Ain’t Free”

  1. Hi Joe – I love reading your posts – I just want to chime in on this one as this issue is near and dear to my heart. We’ve been working for about 8 years now with our downtown business development office, Downtown Dayton Partnership on a series of murals and other art “intersections” as we call them, to enliven our city streets. Dayton was hit hard both by the recession and the pandemic and we’ve made public art a priority in bringing back some color – and dignity. In EVERYTHING we do, we have and will continue to, pay artists for their work. We actually also pay for all RFP finalists’ specs – and, as the city’s art center, we use requests for art (for festivals, lobbies, walls in blighted areas), to teach community leaders (and the folks who ultimately write the checks) that we have a culture of and expectation to pay artists – and we actually will not help promote or support any project that does not. Our artists have learned to champion themselves and their work – and have passed that expectation along to most projects for which they are invited. Here’s the latest example – through a state grant and some corporate gifts we just paid 15 artists $750 ea for their design that we then paid 800 ea to our locally-owned vinyl sign shop to create artwraps for downtown electric boxes – Like many Midwest cities, we are working towards artists having access to opportunities to stay in the area.

    Thanks again,
    Eva Buttacavoli, ED, The Contemporary Dayton (OH)


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