It’s Beef Week at Voice of San Diego. We’re explaining some of the region’s long-running tensions — and the characters behind them — to help you understand civic affairs in San Diego.
Where there are artists, there’s usually beef. It’s inevitable when your line of work pits your heart and vision against other people’s bottom line.
For Beef Week, I asked the hundreds of artists in my Facebook network whether there’s Taylor Swift-levels of bad blood  with any person, organization or gallery in San Diego. One rose to the top: Artists were ready to brawl with the arts organization RAW: natural born artists .
RAW is an independent arts organization that holds quarterly events in cities around the world. At each RAW event, artists from across different mediums showcase their work in a nightclub-like environment. Its mission is to “provide independent artists within the first 10 years of their career with the tools, resources and exposure needed to inspire and cultivate creativity.” Showcases usually take place in large downtown nightclub venues, like Fluxx and House of Blues.
But members of the San Diego art scene I heard from derided RAW for a model they described as pay-to-play. Others feel the model benefits artists who are having a hard time breaking into the scene.
Here’s how it works, according to the group’s website, artists who have worked with RAW and a local member of RAW’s team: Members of RAW’s outreach team approach artists via email and invite them to take part in a RAW showcase. An artist can also contact RAW directly if they’d like to participate. If an artist chooses to take part, they are given 20 tickets to sell for $20 each. Every ticket must be sold. If they don’t sell all the tickets, the artist is expected to pay the remainder out of pocket to the organization. Artists are not compensated financially by RAW at any point, but they get to keep the full amount from art they sell during the showcase.
There is little-to-no curation involved in putting these showcases together. Anyone willing to pay the amount can become a RAW artist. Once they do, they become members of the RAW community and can participate in showcases in other cities at no additional cost and become part of an online community where they can connect with other artists, promote their upcoming shows, view job opportunities and hopefully gain the attention of someone who can advance their career. RAW’s biggest selling point is exposure.
RAW did not immediately respond to emails. I’ll update this post if they do respond. I did, however, speak with Gill Sotu, who hosts RAW showcases and is a former RAW artist (Disclosure: Sotu and I are colleagues at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation). He sees RAW as the type of event that’s in line with all kinds of situations facing artists trying to break through, and he played up the exposure angle.
“The way [the events are] set up, it’s impossible for people not to see your stuff. People are going to see your stuff,” he said. “If you’re not selling well or if you’re not getting any attention or emails or anything that can help you later on, part of it is on you. I hate to say it. Your marketing strategy, your price points, the content of your work, that’s on you.”
Here lies the problem with members of the arts community.
Artists have long battled with individuals and organizations that ask them to not only work for free, but also ask to be paid for showing the artist’s own work. If a group or artist thinks an artist’s work is good enough to share, it stands to reason the work is also good enough to pay for, artists believe. Most artists struggle the hardest during this period in which they’re expected to sacrifice pay for exposure.
“As artists, we go through the same thing, when you first start off in art, that is the nature. I don’t care who you are or if you’re a prodigy; you have to start off doing it for nothing,” said Sotu. “They always say that adage, if you’re doing this for money then you’re in the wrong business.”
Sotu said RAW showcases serve as a “wake-up call” to see if artists have a dedicated following and the business chops to gain more. The RAW showcases enable people to test their mettle, learn the importance of marketing themselves as a business and gain materials like high-quality videos and photos they can use on their personal websites, he said.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone thinks the benefits outweigh the whole non-pay thing.
“I’m not saying it’s never a good deal for artists, but I’ve yet to see any instance that seemed like a good opportunity for artists,” said Johnny Tran, co-owner of Thumbprint Gallery who also co-curates regular arts events at bars around the city. Tran and his partner Paul Ecdao do not charge artists to participate in events but do take a commission from any work sold.
There are three types of demand for artists, said Tran: artwork for personal collection, artwork for investment purposes and artwork for event entertainment. The latter usually doesn’t “align with the best interests of the artist,” said Tran. Tran said he has never directly worked with RAW.
Adam Murillo, a visual artist, has worked with RAW. He participated in a showcase in June of 2011 at the former Ivy Nightclub at the Andaz in Downtown San Diego. He said he wasn’t happy with the pay-to-play model, though he agreed to it beforehand.
“The bands overpowered the venue, so there was no chance whatsoever for the artists to make connections with patrons. I found my voice raspy the next day from trying to talk to people who were very interested in my work,” he said.
The club atmosphere isn’t hidden from artists, though – RAW’s website makes the style of the events very clear.
Murillo called RAW a “pyramid scheme,” because it requires artists to act as promoters and ticket-sellers.
Sotu said that characterization was unfair.
“They’re not doing anything shady. It would be being taken advantage of if yours were the only 20 people that showed up,” he said. “But if you know there’s gong to be at least 300-400 people, you know where it’s going to be at, you know it’s going to be a club-like environment, if you know all those things going in and you know how many tickets you have to sell and you’re still upset, then that’s kind of on you, in my opinion.”
“I think emerging artists feel that [the pay-for-play model] is part of paying their dues,” said artist Ricardo Islas. “It takes a while to call oneself an artist and to say, ‘My art is worth something.’ So I can see how artists are vulnerable to the pay-to-play deal. I can see an argument can be made about time spent organizing the show but that goes with picking artists that you think can sell work. That’s what commissions are for.”