I’m a fan of free. We all are. There’s been more than one event I’ve attended just because I received a free ticket. Likewise, I’ve worked more than once for various groups in Charleston without compensation. It happens.

The problem comes when the free mentality becomes the rule rather than the exception, and this city can’t operate for much longer unless we stop expecting free and start not only paying for culture, but paying to support Charleston’s fledgling progressive initiative.

The entire scenario is a little bit baffling when you break it down. You walk into a store. You see an item you like, check the price tag, then ask the store clerk if you can just take it with you. Not likely.

So it becomes a little confusing when people expect to attend a cultural event continuously without giving any sort of financial support. As Eye Level Art’s resident gallerina, it’s an embarrassment how many people expect an open bar at every art opening and free tickets to concerts. Let me be the bad guy by saying this: You’re not supporting the arts by showing up and drinking for free.

Yes, attending an event shows support for a talent. Having a warm body in a room, beaming at an artist’s new work or applauding when the musician finishes a set, is a wonderful feeling. But at the end of the day if that warm body doesn’t offer any kind of financial support, they aren’t helping pay rent, they aren’t purchasing new guitar strings or paint brushes, and they certainly aren’t helping to push Charleston’s talent further.

Now, here’s the part that might get me blacklisted: Charleston, you have to pay your talent. Charleston’s cultural talent — and here I’m talking about the musicians, artists, DJs, models, writers, designers, and other members of the community who add cultural depth — are the most over-worked and under-paid set in a town that prides itself on being a “progressive” city. But what is progressive about this universal expectation that those individuals will work for free?

I’ve modeled in Charleston for the past two years, and in that time I’ve seen a fantastic boom in Charleston’s creative spirit. The sheer number of designers and fashion events has grown exponentially. But what I’ve yet to see are any models banking on this style evolution. To work without compensation is not an exception to the rule — it is the rule. And if you’re not willing to work for free, you can sure bet there will be five other models willing to take your place.

But this plague certainly isn’t limited to models. The disgusting expectation that talent will work just for ego-stroking pervades every level of the creative community. Far too often I hear a DJ agreeing to play an event for free. Let me clarify here, I’m not shooting arrows at small events — say a free show in a coffee shop — I’m referring to some of this city’s largest cultural events. Events that pull hundreds or occasionally thousands of patrons. It’s one thing to do what you love and quite another to be taken advantage of for an event where nine times out of 10 somebody associated with it is taking home a paycheck at the end of the day.

Yes, strong talent must pay their dues to earn a reputable standing within the community. But only to a certain extent. When the collective creative community allows it to be the standard to work with no pay or qualified trade, it devalues the worth of that entire group.

If Charleston’s mentality doesn’t change, all those people the city relies on to bring something different to an otherwise traditional Southern town are going to leave in hopes of a market that pays for talent. I realize this isn’t a transition that will happen anytime soon, but we must make a collective agreement to change our mentality over time. Charleston culture-goers: Buy art. Purchase a concert ticket. Pay your photographers, writers, models, and DJs.

This progressive boom doesn’t run on love alone.

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