Art/Money Ratio Conundrum

by Anne Flournoy

12.13.09  Two days ago,  Ann Convery forwarded an astonishing email about art, criteria and money.

As an artist more excited about making things than promoting them, I’ve suffered my share of anguish at the difficulty I’ve had supporting myself with my work. I can’t seem to shake the belief that if it were good, it’d rise to the top. And especially now, with the internet and the potential for virality, if you’re doing really good work how can it not go viral? How can you not gather fans and (eventually) make a living? 

Here’s the email:



Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007


Joshua Bell playing a violin worth $3.5 in the D.C metro

Joshua Bell playing a violin worth $3.5 in the D.C metro

A man with a violin (pictured) played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:

The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

The conclusion made by the sender of the email was: if we can miss out on this, how many other things are we missing because they’re not framed in time and place as ‘important’ or ‘great’ ?

My conclusion is the flip side: context and promotion are still king. People are inundated. They’re still looking to the gatekeepers to tell them what’s good, what to spend their time and money on. 

So take heart. (talking to myself here. . .) Modest notoriety-and-income from creative work are not (necessarily) a measure of worth or potential. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. 

The next blog here is going to be the first in a series on everything I’ve learned and am learning about ‘going viral’. 

(For a more current blog, please check HERE for new posts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)