THE 1999 ILLUSTRATION CONFERENCE
The "Woodstock" of Illustration
October 24-26 1999
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A long winded viewpoint from Paul Mirocha
to the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators list serve
and local artist friends
The purpose of the conference, and these notes, is to plant seeds and
generate discussion among thoe in business as creatives.
I missed the national GNSI meeting this year, something I've been
attending for almost 20 years, and decided to break out of my little
specialty, walk out of my minor world, close the door, lock it, and go
to the first national illustrators meeting in Santa Fe. It is a day's
drive from Tucson through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the
world. If the conference bombed, I would still be guaranteed a great
The meeting was organized by an ad hoc group of 8 or so well known
illustrators, major dudes, who got together informally to discuss
changes in their industry. Some felt these trends and changes threatened
the future viability of illustration as a career. This developed into
the conference as a forum or "town hall" for this profession of
individualists as a whole, aimed at forming a consensus of some sort on
at least what the issues are. We were all there because we made our
living through making art in some way. There was little discussion of
techniques or media. Although some really good art was seen in the slide
shows, the focus was on defining the place of the creative producer in
society and business and legal issues.
I was especially motivated to listen and learn this year since my art
agent in NY went out of business last summer in a panic, still owing me
and many of her illustrators thousands of dollars. What is going on? I'm
sure everyone has had some personal experience opened their eyes and
said it was time to get out of our studios and compare notes. No one can
be exploited without their consent. If we lack power over our work, we
may have given it up willingly.
It was described in the literature as the first congress of American
Illustrators. This was, according to some speakers, the first time
they'd seen 500 illustrators get together in the same room; and I heard
at least four or five different foreign accents, so there was an
international flavor. The crowd was diverse. As one speaker commented,
there doesn't seem to be a stereotype of "illustrator". I'm not sure
what I was expecting, but I found the speakers and attendees aproached
each other with good humor, openness, humility, and professionalism.
It was significant that they decided to hold the meeting in centrally
located Santa Fe to signal that that this was for everyone, not just a
core group of insiders who lived in the traditional artistic centers.
The name tags gave gave first names in big type with tiny last names
underneath. Another significant detail, I thought. You might meet "Jim"
and later see the "McMullan" if you squinted hard. I didn't have my
reading glasses. I didn't know anyone there, except by reputation. I
mostly kept quiet and listened more carefully than I did to any preacher
in my church-going days.
SUMMARY OF MY MEETING NOTES
The meeting started with a forum modeled after the "Donoghue Show": A
moderator asked questions of a panel, sitting at a long table like
appostles at the "Last Supper" who each gave a short homily. The panel
members had been in the business for 30-40 years, and you can see their
work every year in the CA and Society of Illustrators Annuals. Many had
gray hair! Others had none at all. Some men had very Christ-like beards.
Many of the most brilliant were even female! When they talked, everybody
listened. Others walked around with microphones to take comments and
testimonials from the "audience". It was like a mass vulcan mind meld.
Nobody was saved, that I am aware of.
Here are the issues that came out of this and dominated the next 2 days
• Most creatives are, by nature of the work individual free lancers:
small business scattered over a wide geographic area. If they were
employees, their employers would own the copyrights to their work. Yet
individuals are prohibited by law from unionizing or price fixing. In
contrast the clients are usually large institutions and big businesses
with lots of clout and a legal department.
• Milton Glaser set the tone (on huge video screen), stating that " in
the war betwenn business and artists, business won." Prices are set by
the client's willingness to pay. Creative work is driven by its economic
implications. The rules come down from marketing departments and focus
groups. Less decision-making power is even in the hands of the
designers. Some designers have been told to use less illustration--focus
groups say it disturbs them. To save money the client will look to stock
art before commissioning original work. In this climate, creativity and
innovation decline. So do fees for artists. Art work becomes generic,
imitative and mediocre. Artists should be competing on quality of their
work, NOT price. Deals are made for short term interests of business,
not the longer term interests of all artists and society in general.
• Creatives make an essential contribution to society, culture, and
global humanity. Their work is personal and it is collective
communication. Illustration is art. We need to value our work in this
light so others will do the same.
PROBLEMS, CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES:
• The proliferation of stock illustration houses and royalty free art on
CDs, the declining number of original art commisions, and the fact that
fees for art haven't risen for 30 years. Each low fee stock image sale
is seen by many as one less original art commission where the artist and
client have a creative relationship and negotiate a fair contract.
• Computers. They are an artist's tool. The current fad is designers who
just know the software and use manipulated images and photoshop filters
without necessarily creating good quality art. There is good and bad
computer art, just like with any other media. ( note that most of the
speakers worked only in traditional media, but there was a strong
presence also of illustrators using 3d imaging, animation, and computer
painting and collage to the highest artistic standards.)
• The internet is a new arena which levels the playing field. Now is
the time to set standards before someone else does it for us. It can be
used by artists to "syndicate", communicate and market.
• There is no sense to doing royalty-free art. Applause. End of that
• Selling stock art to another party who controls the price, rights and
where you work ends up is a bad idea. Art is sold at discount and
profits are consentrated within the stock house owners. The artist loses
control of their work and ultimately the work you give away may end up
competing with you. But there is good stock. A better model to describe
stock art is "resuse", where the artist controls everything about the
deal, just as with a new commision. The value of this art may be equal
to that of a new commission do to added value of immediate availability
and seeing the finished piece up front, etc. In fact, a case can be made
that over time, an image become more valuable, even in "reuse". Note the
fact of Microsoft starting Corvus Inc. to buy up all rights to
historical stock images as cheaply as possible and sell them on the web.
Stock art proliferation promotes speculation, a bad investment for the
artist unless they sell it themselves.
• Photographers got together to deal with identical issues back in 1964,
resulting in the ASMP, a collective organisation that sets business
standards, stands behind the individual artists negotiating their deals
and defends their rights. The GAG recently joined the United Auto
Workers. I thought this was a joke, but it is not. The feeling was that
artists and photographers join together for the common good.
DESIRABLE ACTIONS AND NEW METAPHORS:
• See yourself not as an illustrator, but as " the owner of an
• Creatives get out of isolation from each other and from increasing
distance from the client. Good work is done from within a professional
relationship between artist and client.
• The artist maintains control of their own work. Write your own
contract form. Control is the critical word.
• In order to truly make a living from one's work, the artist will want
to be receiving a steady stream of royalties thoughout their life.
• "COLLECTIVITY" and "CONTROL of one's work" is the solution, according
to IP lawyer Bruce Lehman, acknowledged as the most pivital speaker of
the conference. He recommended forming a "collective licensing society"
not necessarily a "union", which is formed by consensus of all in the
industry. This is yet to be defined as a new entity, or the evolution of
an existing organisation like the GAG ( now a non-prifit labor
organisation) or ASMP (a non-profit business organisation). We can't
collectively bargain like a union and probably don't want to. But we can
set standards for rights ownership and fees, which still gives each
individual artist/photographer the power to make their own deal. He
pointed to the similar situation of musicians and composers who formed
ASCAP and BMI decades ago in respomse to identical pressures. Geaorge
Gershwin wrote "Beautiful Dreamer", sold it for $50, then had to write
and sell another song the next week if he wanted to make his rent.
• Dugald Stermer pretty much expressed his dream (actually his reality)
this way: I love the situation in which I am doing what I want to do and
would be doing anyways for my own pleasure, yet getting paid for it and
paid well. And why not? This was a continuing discussion throughout the
conference. At one point Gary Kely said that he was in it for the
challenge of doing new art. If the first question he asked when a client
called him was "what is the budget?" he would feel like it was all over
for him. Brad Holland answered later that sure, we all felt like that,
but the only reason Gary could say that is because he had a great agent
who asked about the budget for him. Nice interaction.
The conference close with Stermer's saying, "applause is nice, but how
many would donate $200 toward hiring Bruce Lehman to study and draw up a
legal plan based on the issues brought up this forum in the coming year
for us to study and discuss next time?" Most people raised their hands.
I also went to break-out sessions on source book advertising, pricing
for profitability and negotiating techniques ( the best talk I've heard
on the subject ), web site design ( also the best), and creating new
markets (same). Other full group of 500 discussions went into business
sense dealing with stock art, professional ethics, copyright awareness
So those were the major issues brought up by all present. By no means
did they all agree on the answers. Enough for now. I'm still digesting
this stuff. I have almost all the handouts and info from the talks and
table dispalys if you are interested in more detail. Got to get back to
PS. See "What's Up?" at theispot for continuing discussions.
Talk to me,
Paul Mirocha Design
425 East 17th Street
Tucson, Arizona 85701
"Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work,
from illuminating the fog that surrounds us."
-- Henri Matisse