Carolina Miranda is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where she writes the Culture High & Low blog. In this post, she covers art, architecture, design, and music—from racial conflicts at the Whitney Biennial to the urban design of Los Angeles to the rock en español grooves of Café Tacvba. Prior to joining the Times, she was an independent magazine writer and radio reporter producing stories on art, culture, and travel for Time, ARTnews, ARCHITECT, Art in America, Fast Company, NPR’s All Things Considered, and PRI’s Studio 360. Miranda has also been a regular contributor at public radio affiliates KCRW in LA and WNYC and WQXR in New York. She has been named someone to follow on Twitter by the New York Times. Find her at @cmonstah.
I know we are here to talk about models of art writing. I feel a little bit like a fraud in this area because I have not come up with any models I’m simply a writer.
I don’t run a publication, I haven’t launched a platform and I work at a newspaper, which is, you know, definitely a legacy media throwback. I do have a unique position at the Los Angeles Times in that I have a new type of role which is considered digital first, so I can do bloggy items, I do full feature stories, I do Q&As, I do photo essays, and then whatever the paper is interested in, they pick it up from my blog, so it’s more about sort of being online and being a digital journalist and then sort of, by osmosis, I end up in the paper. So the way I work is a little bit different than the way Christopher works, but I’m still a throwback to legacy media but I’m really here to talk about sort of my time as a freelancer.
I just did this story where I illustrated the entire Marina Abramovic/Jay-Z fight using media from the Getty and I’m really into it, I think we should illustrate all stories with artwork from museum collections and I think this is more interesting than any photos of my website which you can go and see at any time. That’s St. Matthew, by the way. So before I joined the Times I was a freelancer for almost 8 years, I wrote for Art News, Time magazine, Architect a lot of work for public radio. And I managed to make a career out of writing about art and culture, which is why I’m here, but before I get into the mechanics of that, I just wanted to give you a little bit of background on my professional trajectory.
People—that’s St. Lazarus, by the way, from the 16th century. People come to art writing in so many ways. There are curators who create records of their shows, academics who publish their research, there are essayists who want to add to the body of knowledge and the economic models are all different it’s not a one size fits all profession, so I really think it’s important to acknowledge where we all come from in this and I come to it through journalism. I am not an art historian, I didn’t major in art. I didn’t take a single course in art history class in college so I’m a complete and total fraud. I don’t teach and I don’t do curatorial work. I really approach this as a journalist. And actually as a storyteller so sort of the art and architecture and culture are where I happen to tell my stories and it was really—I got into it in my 30s when I was a reporter at Time magazine, I was a general assignment reporter where one week you might be writing about Al Qaeda and the next week about FEMA and the next week it’s Scarlett Johansson so it’s kind of all over the place.
And my first art architecture assignment—all this kind of happened by accident, I’d been very happy at a general assignment reporter. I thought it was very interesting to be able to write about all these different and weird things. I’d always been an aficionado of culture, a big reader, a big museum goer, I always loved going to galleries, I read books about artists but it wasn’t something I had considered writing about professionally a lot and then one day at Time magazine I’m walking down the hallway going to get a Coke and I happened to walk in front of an editor’s office right as he debating who to assign this architecture story to and so I happened to step in front of his office and he saw me and he gave me the assignment. It was kind of that sophisticated was the assignment process at Time magazine sometimes. But it was a story, it was a story about architecture and skyscrapers and how architecture pedagogy is changing because of skyscrapers and architecture itself.
That really got me into the idea of writing about these topics for a mass audience. I was really interested in this idea that it could go beyond the sinecure of the art world. So it was really Time that fed this bug. The idea of Time magazine was that grandma in Peoria has to be able to read it and I really loved the idea of doing that for culture stories. So when I left Time, I really got seriously into culture writing. At the time there wasn’t always a lot of opportunity to do it. And that’s when I started freelancing about art and architecture, but also other topics that I had been familiar with, travel, food, the occasional opinion piece, and bizarrely, neurological development stories, because that was something I had covered at Time magazine. So during this time that I’m just starting out as a freelancer, I also started a blog called C-Monster.
There we go. I don’t know if they’re sea monsters, but they kind of look like it. These are from the 15th century. I did this blog for almost seven years, it was not designed as a platform, it did not generate a lick of revenue, I didn’t make a dime from it. It really was a place for me as a writer to go and be able to play. And not have to have an institutional voice, not be writing for an editor, not be writing for a giant publication, not have multiple layers of editing, so it was where I could really sort of work out my own voice as a writer and in the process, it ended up being this great sort of piece of visibility for me.
I didn’t make any money off of it, but I think a lot of—I know many of you, through that site, but because I didn’t make a dime from it, it means that it’s always been really important to me to make a living as a journalist and which means that any writing that was not on c monster, it was really, really important for me to make money on it. Now, I come from a relatively privileged position in all of this, in that when I started working as a freelancer, I was already an experienced journalist, I could already sort of command a certain level of payment. It wasn’t payment that I was getting rich from but it allowed me to survive as an arts writer, and because I was a general assignment reporter, it also allowed me to occasionally write stories about things outside art. So if things in art were a little slow, I could do a travel story, I could do a neurological story and I think that’s generally good for writers, have other things that you can write about, too, because this is a shaky business.
So I’ve had the good fortune of finding a steady stream of paid work both inside and outside the world of culture that allowed me to work as a freelance writer for almost 8 years, but in my time as a writer in those 8 years, I’ve seen the landscape change. You know, I’ve seen pay rates decline, I’ve seen magazines close, I’ve been asked to write for free more times than I can count, you know, and I’ve been offered fees that once I sort of factor in the amount of time that goes to producing the work, they probably violate all kinds of minimum wage laws, and so that’s something that I wanted to address here today, because I think questions of payment and more specifically nonpayment, and how to get by in this economy, are really important. You know, so often I feel like the writer’s contribution it’s treated as so expendable. So I think my main advice for folks who are trying to get paid to write is to not give it away.
Now, by not giving it away, I don’t necessarily mean immediately reject all unpaid work, tell that editor to stick it where the sun don’t shine, that’s not what I mean, I mean in an ideal world we’d all get paid for everything we write and that minimum rate would be a dollar a word, because that is a liveable wage for a writer as we talk about liveable minimum wage, a dollar a word is a liveable wage for a writer. But we all face situations in which we choose to work for free or for little pay and I want to highlight the word choose here because I really think it should be choice. When I get these offers part of the exercise that I go through in order to determine whether this is something I really want to or need to be doing is I ask myself three questions: And so the first question I ask myself is, somebody’s offered—you know, asked me to do something for free, the first question is how can I improve the terms of this?
So you know, if the pay is zero, can they give me 50 bucks? If the pay is 50 bucks, can they give me 100. If there’s no money for a writer’s fee, can they purchase a couple of books for me to do my research that I can then retain in my library? Does the sponsoring organization have access to databases that maybe me as an independent journalist does not have? Can they give me access to those databases? I feel like so often this is approached as a one-way relationship as you know, an organization coming to you the writer and asking you to write for free, but it’s a negotiation, it’s a collaboration and we are allowed to ask for things back and we might not get money but we might get other things and I think it’s important to ask for them so that this becomes more of a relationship of barter than one of unpaid labor.
So question No. 2. That I ask myself is, what does the publication and its staff look like?
So is this a commercial site that makes a profit? Does the publisher get paid? Does the editor get paid? Do the marketing people get paid? Does everyone except the writer get paid?
Or are they paid 25 bucks for a thoughtful, well reported thousand-word blog post? You know, if that’s the case, then the writer is subsidizing that enterprise, and it’s unsustainable and usually in those cases the answer to myself is no, that that’s not a piece I want to do. However, if the publication is a nonprofit with tiny budgets or a project supported by a passionate group of people who are volunteering their time, if it’s a forward I’ve been asked to do by an artist for their book and I’m really passionate about their work but I know that the budget to produce the book is microscopic, I’ll set aside the concerns about money because there are stories I want to tell. So in those kinds of questions I ask myself, am I the collaborator? Is this part of a creative endeavor or again, am I simply functioning as unpaid labor? I think if I’m going to be doing something for free, I want to feel that I’m a collaborator.
The third question I ask myself is how much of a burning desire do I have to write about this topic? There are times I have written for free or for low pay because I felt a sense of urgency about the subject, because I was really moved by an artist’s show and I just wanted desperately to get the word out about it or there was an idea that I really wanted to express and that particular platform, even though it might not have been ideal in other ways in terms of pay or structure it was the most appropriate place to tell that story so in that case I’m willing to do it because I’m not just a paid writer, I feel like I’m also somebody who traffics in ideas and sometimes you know, ideas just aren’t about money.
So I think that’s such an important question of if you’re going to write something for free and you’re not going to be 100% enamored by it, it might not be worth doing it.
Now, for writers who are new to the field, who are trying to make a go as a freelancer, free or low-paid work is probably going to be part of the deal initially. That’s a little different than how I started out.
But I think again, think critically about what you’re going to be getting out of it. Does this job give you a portfolio of worthwhile clips? Is it improving your reporting skills are you getting good editing so that you’re improving your writing? Are you getting something that you wouldn’t get just by writing your own blog? So I think those are important questions to ask if you’re starting out.
But I think at the same time it’s important to set limits on sort of how much and for how long you’re willing to do that, because by having everybody write for free, it devalues what we all do to some degree, but I also recognize that writing is an art and it’s not any one thing and so people are going to do it for different reasons.
Now, to finish out, I wanted to bring up a question of sustainability that has nothing to do with money, but more about the way we communicate. We live in a society where art seems to hold little cultural capital. According to the national center for education statistics, only half of American high schools require any kind of arts coursework for graduation, we are not a culture that calls on artists or architects or philosophers or playwrights to understand the world around us. When I watch TV on Latin America I’m always kind of wowed, there will be like a policy maker and a poet describing like the week’s news, because in Latin America what a poet has to say about something is important and I agree. Here in the US when art does make it into mass media it so often has to do with auctions or scandals or you know, the San Diego professor whoever wants his class to get naked so it turns into that, which is a little bit about I want to talk about asking ourselves who we write for and why.
So do we write for the caravan of people who jet from a fair to fair, biennial to biennial? Is it for the people who buy the 150 million-dollar paintings? Is it the fellow egg-heads who like to use words like recontextualizing and hybridity? Every choice, every choice we make as a writer of the subjects we choose to cover and the language we use to cover it and the publication we choose to disseminate it can narrow or expand our audience.
And I think the art world can—it can be such an echo chamber and sometimes a very small one at that and so I think it’s important given the state of art in this country for every writer to find ways to get outside of that world, at least some of the time. To cover stories that aren’t aren’t fairs and biennials to do essays that aren’t all jargon. To explore topics that take us into the myriad areas of daily life. In whatever we write, I think it’s important to keep ideas concise and language simple, to invite people in rather than keep them out, to continuously make the case to the broadest possible audience that art is a rich part of life and not just something for the rich.
It’s a really big world out there, so let’s write for all of it. Thank you.