RAW: Natural Born Artists, a Los Angeles-based outfit that throws art parties or fairs across the country, has come under scrutiny of late in the alternative press, including a purple prose-laced cover story in Cincinnati's CityBeat that describes the outfit as a "dubious pay-to-play operation" and a more temperate piece in Madison, Wisc.'s Isthmus that compares the company's business model to a Girl Scout cookie drive.
With the next RAW Indianapolis showcase coming up Wednesday at Old National Centre, I figured it was time to wade into the slough of controversy. And because much of the negative coverage of RAW centers around concerns that the organization isn't truly grassroots or is feigning its community-mindedness, I figured it might be salutary and instructive to take a step back and look at the business models of similar organizations in the city.
I reached out to five organizations, including RAW, to ask about more or less behind-the-scenes facts like exhibitor fees and operating costs. Because RAW invites a wide variety of artists and professionals to its parties, ranging from visual artists to hair and makeup stylists to performance artists, I tried to pick a cross-section of art fairs and parties that serve similar constituencies.
Oranje was included as a multi-disciplinary art party whose laid-back, late-night, fusion-oriented approach resembles RAW. The Broad Ripple Art Fair appears as a representative of a traditional art fair (and also because I wanted to remind readers that it's taking place this weekend). INDIEana Handicraft Exchange made its way here because it's an unconventional art fair, a space for crafters and artisans whose work might not make it past the Broad Ripple Art Fair jury. And because RAW has emphasized fashion design in the past, I included Midwest Fashion Week as an established local showcase for designers, models and other figures connected with the fashion scene.
The results are on the following page (or see the image below), but I'd like to pick out a few key findings.
a) It's not unusual to charge exhibitor fees to artists and other professionals...
With the caveat that there are plenty of opportunities for local artists to submit work to group shows or vie for a solo show at number of local galleries without cost, we can say the obvious: If you want a booth in a fair or party-type situation, such that you can showcase your work, and only your work, and try to make a concentrated impact, you're probably going to have to pay for it. Of course, artists are welcome to consider whether or not the cost is worth it, given attendance numbers, the makeup of the crowd and other intangibles, but the five organizations considered all charge for square footage at events. Note that RAW does offer artists the "Girl Scout cookie drive" model mentioned by the Isthmus, where exhibitor fees are reduced according to the number of tickets the artist sells to the event.
b) ...though it is unusual to charge musicians or other performers to play.
Here's where RAW departs from the norm, and CityBeat's "pay-for-play" moniker becomes more germane: While up-and-coming bands can expect to be paid very little or absolutely nothing as an opener for a crowded show, they're far less likely to run into situation where they have to pay to get to that stage in the first place. Both Oranje and Broad Ripple Art Fair host several stages of music, and while both organizations certainly charge their artist exhibitors, they either pay their performers or ask them to volunteer their time.
c) RAW is the sole non-local organization on the list.
RAW was incorporated in Los Angeles, but it had a local representative until last year, when RAW Indianapolis founder Amy Ward stepped down (she remains both involved with RAW and very much based in Indianapolis; an earlier version of this article incorrectly reported she had moved). Its current showcase director Dayna Melton - who directs showcases in both Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio - is based in L.A. Asked how she stays engaged with the city from afar, Melton answered: "We are constantly reading articles, keeping tabs on local shows and press. We also are in town twice per show so I have become friends with our RAW artists and stay connected within their circles." Melton added that Oranje's Ryan Hickey is RAW's resident DJ and Angel Burlesque's Lola LaVacious has become "our official RAW Indianapolis host."
d) Transparency is wanting when it comes to the bottom line and other money questions.
Only Broad Ripple Art Fair fully answered my questions about operating costs and revenue — and as a non-profit, it's required to report those numbers by law. None of the for-profit businesses on the list are obligated to tell me or anyone else anything about their bottom line. But I'd argue it's more difficult to emotionally invest in an organization — particularly ones that have volunteer opportunities and street teams and other "grassroots," community-powered elements — without at least a sense of what they're doing with their money; whether or not exhibitor fees are just high enough to cover costs, if corporate sponsorships are a necessary evil to keep the thing running or pay salaries, if they're doing an above-board, legitimate job of celebrating and advocating on behalf of our creative class. (One note: INDIEana Handicraft Exchange was theoretically willing to share such numbers but weren't able to provide them by deadline because of personal issues.)