The San Francisco-based artist Dana Hemenway has gotten not one, but two parking tickets at UC Santa Cruz this school year.
As an adjunct faculty member, she has a parking permit that should prevent such fines, but she also carries around placards for CSU East Bay and SF State. And after driving the 60 miles between Hayward and Santa Cruz from one adjunct faculty gig to another, she forgot to hang up her Santa Cruz placard. Twice. Hence, the tickets.
The irony isn’t lost on her. “The whole reason why I got the parking permits at all three places was so I wouldn’t have worry about finding free parking!”
Her current teaching schedule would mess with anyone’s sense of parking placard awareness. She teaches two days a week at SF State, two days at both CSU East Bay and UC Santa Cruz. All in all, she drives around 380 miles a week between the three.
Nothing left to cut
Little expenses like those parking tickets add up for Hemenway, who carefully balances her income from teaching, grants, commissions and art sales against the expenses of living in her $1,700-a-month one bedroom in San Francisco’s Mission District, owning a car, renting a studio and paying for health insurance, among other everyday necessities.
In 2017, she spent $6,000 in studio rent, $5,000 in art-related travel (including a month-long residency in Iceland and trips to NY and LA), $1,700 on art supplies, over $600 on the artist-run space Royal NoneSuch Gallery, where she was co-director for over two years, and almost $450 on “advertising,” which is how she classifies application fees and website costs. It adds up to around $18,000 spent on her art practice.
But she also made money from that practice: about $11,000 in art sales (she’s represented by Eleanor Harwood Gallery), a $11,250 grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and $14,000 from teaching.
This year, because of the SFAC grant and a commission for a piece in SFO’s Terminal 1, Hemenway, who works primarily in sculpture, will earn more than half her yearly income from her art practice. But that kind of success comes with its own costs: she’s hired a studio assistant one day a week to meet deadlines in the midst of her busy teaching schedule, she will likely hire an accountant to help her manage the $350,000 budget for the airport piece, and she still has to be extremely regimented about her spending.
In her words, “The New Yorker subscription went out years ago.”
And last year, she came out just $8,000 ahead. “In terms of trying to figure out how to save money, I can’t get rid of the car because the car allows me to have the jobs at all the schools where I have to drive,” she says. “And I couldn’t get rid of my studio, because a big part of my income is actually coming from my art now.”
One of her biggest unavoidable expenses is health insurance, which went up 50 percent from last year to about $400 a month — her income grew and her subsidy went down, but plan prices also increased. That’s almost as much as Hemenway pays for her studio at Minnesota Street Project. And because of her position as adjunct faculty, she’s ineligible for coverage from any of the three schools where she teaches classes like intro to sculpture and professional practices.
“They’re very careful not to get you past a certain place where they either have to contract with you or give you health insurance, because it costs the department so much more money,” Hemenway says. “It’s this chain effect of no one finding a way to resolve the issue and going through the loopholes as a result. I don’t fault the departments so specifically for that, but it is kind of like ... oof.”
Path of instability
Hemenway has juggled multiple roles within the art world — and patchworked together a living — ever since she graduated from Mills College’s M.F.A. program in 2010. An experienced art administrator (she worked at the SFAC Galleries for four years before grad school), she had two paths in front of her: take a full-time administrative job at California College of the Arts, or work part-time for interactive video artist Camille Utterback as a studio manager.
“I very consciously chose to take the path of instability,” she says. “I knew that based on my experience prior to grad school that I couldn’t have a full time job and go to the studio afterwards. I like making art during the day. And I had to come to terms with that.”
That experience as a studio manager, watching Utterback receive, negotiate and execute public art commissions alongside her daily art practice, taught Hemenway valuable lessons about how to be an artist in the world. When she received the SFO commission, she negotiated a slightly higher artist fee than the contract initially offered.
“I had seen how much work is involved in public art. I knew that if the fee was too low, that the hourly rate for the amount of time I was going to put into the project would be almost nothing,” Hemenway says. “I should just try it and get as much as I possibly could for the fee part of the project identified and allocated, given that track record in public art.”
This is a piece of wisdom Hemenway imparts to all of her students. Even if you’re over the moon about an opportunity offered to you — to be in a show, to give a talk, to have your art featured somewhere in some way — you have to ask for compensation.
“We’re trained as artists — and perhaps even more so depending on your class, or gender or race background — to not ask for things,” Hemenway says. “Always ask.”
‘Investing in your future’
The New York-based Working Artists for a Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a nonprofit dedicated to establishing sustainable economic relationships between artists and institutions, makes the exact same argument, expanding the rationale beyond the individual artist. “In providing unpaid labor we not only exploit ourselves, we exploit each other,” W.A.G.E. writes. “When we participate in a race to the bottom we deny the participation of those who can't afford to work for free.”
Organizations like W.A.G.E. and the Bay Area-based Compensation Foundation are part of a growing movement within the art world to make the financial workings of arts institutions more transparent and exhibition practices more equitable. W.A.G.E. provides an online fee calculator where artists can measure the total operating budget of an institution against what W.A.G.E. argues they should be paid for various services (solo exhibitions, lectures, performances of existing works, etc.).
The Compensation Foundation’s Bay Area Artists Report offers a more bottom-up approach, creating a database of charts and graphs based on self-reported artist fees received from various local institutions. Interestingly, the Compensation Foundation also tracks non-monetary benefits, like “creative freedom” and “stimulating peer environment.”
These are factors Hemenway also takes into account when making decisions about her art career. The trick, she says, is to commit to the mindset of running a business — a business the greater economy tends not to recognize.
“As an artist, there’s no way you could ever get an investment loan for your business,” she says. “Restaurants are known for being wildly unsuccessful, but you can go to the bank with a business plan and ask for a loan. You can’t do that as an artist. You have to be your own bank as you’re starting out, investing in your future as an artist.”
When it comes to deciding whether or not to be in a group show, for example, she suggests weighing the financial burden (fabricating the work, possibly shipping it to and from the venue) against the potential benefits (showing with artists you respect, getting your artwork seen by people who might help you later). In this way, participating in an art exhibition, even without pay, can be an investment in your practice — and the future of your business. But you should always, always ask for more than you’re offered. “If you don’t ask for it, you’re not going to find out if that person’s willing to do it,” says Hemenway. “And people are so afraid to lose the opportunity that they won’t even ask.”
Artists should be paid for their labor, Hemenway says, and “pointing that out to people in a generous way is not a bad thing.”
‘Next to impossible’
Even though she’s savvy enough to negotiate for higher fees, carefully lines up her expenses in spreadsheets and packs her breakfast and lunch every morning, living in the Bay Area puts Hemenway in a precarious situation.
“This lifestyle that I’m doing right now is only sustainable for so long,” she says. “I could not have a kid in this budget. I could not have any long-term financial security in this budget. Giving to retirement is fairly limited in my situation. And those kinds of bigger life things you’d want to attain seem next to impossible in this current situation.”
The timeline for figuring out whether she can stay in the Bay Area as a practicing artist depends on a variety of factors. Hemenway is looking into San Francisco’s affordable housing program. (The SFAC recently provided a grant to the Mission Economic Development Agency to provide free coaching to artists and cultural workers navigating the city’s below-market-rate rental and purchasing options).
She also applies to tenure-track sculpture faculty positions wherever she can. None of those openings, thus far, have been in Bay Area schools. She’ll also keep applying to public art opportunities to raise her income and hopefully put more in savings.
Despite what many would deem as her success, Hemenway is anything but relaxed about her finances. “I constantly question if I’m making the right trade-offs,” she says. She moved to San Francisco in 2004. “Your rent and all of that is one thing. But then all the little expenses that have increased feel like the harder part. Because you feel like you can’t have a chill interaction with your finances.”
“You can’t be like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get that cookie because I want it.’ You’re like, ‘Should I get it?’”
To see more of Dana Hemenway's artwork, click here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.