As is probably no surprise at all, most of my friends are makers of things. We work full time jobs and then burn the candle's other end at performances, galleries, open mics, and our desks and easels, These long, long unforgiving (though often quite personally rewarding) hours of work are not unique to us. There are plenty of people, especially in our country's financial state, who work two and three jobs to support themselves. But for us, the reason lies in the troubled economy of art.
Naming a price for a hand-crafted item that seems reasonable to a non-maker is a very loaded game. How many hours did you spend on your painting? Is that effort visible and reflected in the virtuosity of the end product? How highly do you value your time, your materials, your vision? How do you put a price on a slice of thought or an hour of performance? These questions come up every time anyone is asked to do a show "for free." I put "for free" in quotes because oftentimes, venues offer some kind of nominal payment or pass the hat or suggest donations, and the modest take from that method of compensation is often split between multiple performers or artists. That amount money is rarely proportional to the amount of time spent on preparation. Some venues don't even practice that bare bones approach, preferring to say that though the show is unpaid, it offers "great exposure," a phrase that makes me think more of real estate buzzwords than of success in the arts world.
I am wholly against the "for free" model that seems to be one of the few constants in the art world. Art, for those of us who work hard every day at our crafts, is a second job. The hours I spend traveling to and reading or performing or showing work at your "for free" arts event are hours I could've spent on another painting or poem or story or sculpture or workshop. Your "for free" arts event is a time sink where I will rarely sell product because people are not there to spend money, but to experience art "for free." I used to have a hard time turning these kinds of gigs down, because the promise of "exposure" or a fatter resume was seductive and seemed like just another rung in the ladder to artistic success. But as my days get ever-smaller and my time becomes more and more precious, I just can't justify doing something for nothing.
Materials cost money--paper and paint, printer ink and pens, guitar strings, recording studio time, practice space and costuming--and that cost is too rarely offset by the money made on an art event. Beyond the cost of the actual making, there is the cost of self-promotion. Do you think the website you found your chosen artist on is free to maintain? There are domain fees, hosting fees, design fees. To be present and marketable costs money too, a cost that is essentially an upfront payment to legitimize your art business. To spend all of this time and money seriously cultivating your art practice and your presence in your sphere of the art world, to only be met with these free-for-the-organizer "opportunities" is deeply frustrating.
Now, to play devil's advocate, I have done and will continue to do favors for friends. I worked two months at a series of paintings for a boozy business launch, made prints of those paintings, and sold nothing that night. But that show was a goal I needed to motivate me into painting seriously again. I edit poetry at a magazine that cannot pay me, but offers a lot of fantastic hands-on experience and a forum for my personal essays on alternative routes to publishing success and the particular demons of making art when you have to think about how to price your time.
It makes me deeply sad when I overhear someone dismissing some gorgeous, handmade thing as "too expensive." No matter how large or small the end product, a piece of art is the culmination of so many hours of time--the physical representation of a thought from the moment it was born until the moment it was fully realized. The price of art varies so greatly, because people value their time differently, and, unfortunately, sometimes artists are told that their time is not as valuable as they think.