Working Artists and the Greater Economy - An interview with W.A.G.E.
W.A.G.E. was formed in 2008 with the writing of the wo/manifesto by a group of visual artists, performers and independent curators (http://www.wageforwork.com/about/1/womanifesto). W.A.G.E. is dedicated to advocating for the implementation of artist fees at U.S. non-profit arts institutions. In 2010, the group set out to gather data about the economic experiences of visual and performing artists who had worked with New York City art non-profits between 2005 and 2010. Included in the survey were questions about artist fees, coverage of exhibition costs, and travel expenses for shows, screenings, lectures, and performances at over 67 institutions. The results gave insight into the economic uncertainty connected to the terrain of artistic success in New York. The most conclusive information is that 58 percent of artists invited to work with small, medium, and large non-profit arts institutions and museums received no form of payment, expense reimbursement, or artist fee at all. Larger organizations and museums were 10 percent more likely not to pay an artist fee than small- to medium-sized organizations.
AWC How was this investigation perceived by art producers and institutions? What kind of political effects have you noticed so far?
W.A.G.E. Soon after the survey results were announced in April 2012, W.A.G.E. experienced some pushback from an organization that was not favorably represented. They called into question the validity of the survey’s methodology, which we chose to use as an opportunity to enter into dialog with them. One of our conditions was that they allow us to look at their operating budget, to show us whether they had paid fees or not, since that was the real issue. Transparency is a cornerstone of our work – we expect it retroactively and we demand it going forward. This may have deterred them because we’re still waiting to hear back.
We were questioned about how widely the survey had been disseminated and if it provided an accurate representation of the demographics it purported to represent. It was also suggested that people who were inclined to complain about non-payment were more likely to take the survey and therefore skewed the results. It’s not clear if this criticism is valid since over 40% reported that they did receive payment. From the point of view of data analysts the survey was sound, but either way, it’s all vital feedback that we’re using to develop a second survey that will collect data for 2010-12 (where the first one left off), and it will also gather information on an ongoing basis - in real-time. We’re thinking of this as a watch-dog, a third eye, a big sister of the art institution that, together with W.A.G.E. Certification and funders holding arts organizations accountable for paying fees, will apply enough pressure to break the resistance to regulating artist compensation.
AWC You started W.A.G.E. at the beginning of the economic recession in 2008. How does “the crisis” effect your political work? Do institutions use it as an argument to reject your demands?
W.A.G.E.Conditions in New York are anomalous, both in relation to other regions within the United States and in relation to other countries. Foundations, corporations, investors, philanthropists, industrialists, collectors (private equity) and non-profits (public institutions) are more intertwined than ever before, decreasing accountability and autonomy for non-profits and increasing the potential for compromise and/or corruption of their programming. Government funding for public institutions has been in a steep decline over the past three decades and now largely accounts for no more than about 15% of income for many medium sized non-profits. As W.A.G.E. stated in 2008, at the intersection of our formation and at the beginning of the financial crisis: even when the economy was booming, the institutional landscape was inequitable; the crash merely highlighted that inequity, and it’s time for it to be rectified.
As long as the art market economy continues to thrive it will remain difficult for art institutions to claim poverty in the face of so much prosperity and unregulated insider trading amongst the wealthy, which currently comprises the world’s strongest trading economy (http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2012/02/29/the-worlds-strongest-economy-the-global-art-market/).
But the crisis can – and is — being used in defense of non-payment. The remuneration of artists is not implemented as policy, and exploitation continues without repercussion or accountability. We’re developing W.A.G.E. Certification with a provision that makes the ‘crisis’ defense impossible by positioning the artist fee in relation to an organization’s other expenses (i.e., staff, production, development, overhead, marketing, etc), and inextricably linking it to them in two ways: first, establishing artist compensation on par with the payment of an organization’s employees and subcontracted workers (director, curator, graphic designer, web designer, custodian, etc.); and secondly, asserting that the fee cannot be eliminated or cut, and reduced only in direct relation to the reduction of other expenses— particularly the highest-salaried.
AWC What can you tell us about your organizational group structure? How can other art workers participate in W.A.G.E.?
W.A.G.E. Our organizational structure was consistent for the first few years but is starting to shift in relation to the nature of the work we’re doing. In its early formation W.A.G.E.’s organizational structure was necessarily larger because W.A.G.E. was an open-ended proposition that primarily did consciousness-raising and that required more voices, more energy, and more organizing in order to extend its reach as far and wide as possible. Horizontal, non-hierarchical, consensus-based process worked well. Now W.A.G.E. is working toward policy change that involves sustained, internal work. It means developing models through writing, research, correspondence, making presentations, as well as meeting and organizing together with others who are making similar or compatible efforts through groundwork and investigating the possibilities of institutional change.
W.A.G.E. needs and values the participation of all cultural producers. This means standing with us in support of our work and informing ourselves, and each other, about the institutional landscape. In 2012 Printed Matter invited us to produce a pamphlet as part of their Artists & Activists series and the result is ‘W.A.G.E. FAQs’, a 14-pg printed and downloadable PDF that details our history and strategies. We’re trying to build a visible coalition using the ‘Coalition’ page on our website, where you can add your name. Here, size really does matter: the more pledges of support we gather, the more powerful our voices are and the more visible our needs are within the arts community. You can also add a W.A.G.E. signature to your email correspondence when you work with an arts organization: Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a group of artists, art workers, performers, writers and independent curators fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting. www.wageforwork.com) to demonstrate solidarity, an understanding of inequity and, most importantly, an expectation of compensatory negotiation. We need all of these strategies to be shared, discussed and utilized.
AWC Is there anything like a union for artists in the US
W.A.G.E. Currently there isn’t an artist’s union in the United States, although there have been efforts to organize art workers, particularly since OWS (Occupy Wall Street). The functionality of a union, guild, association etc. remains in question – particularly the viability of applying a traditional organizing models to a post-Fordist system that is defined by precarity and opacity, whose members hold multiple jobs in the context of an industry that is defined by competition within which solidarity is nearly impossible. Paradoxically, there is now a great deal of interdependency between artists and exhibitors, since many cultural producers double as arts administrators and art handlers to support ourselves, which makes speaking out or advocating for change sometimes very difficult and risky.
AWC Are there other political organizations you actively collaborate with?
W.A.G.E. We’ve been in dialogue/solidarity with OWS Arts & Labor since it’s inception in 2011, and our participation in the Truth is Concrete festival this past September at long last brought us together with Art Leaks and the Precarious Workers Brigade. We began a discussion about an international formation or action of some kind but it’s in a nascent stage. Over the years, we’ve collaborated with Artist Bailout, F.E.A.S.T. Brooklyn, Temporary Services and many other groups dedicated to equity, sustainability and the implementation of consciousness and ethical structures within the arts community, and continue to do so.
On another front, we’re working toward developing a second survey that could be “franchised” by other groups looking to gather similar data about conditions in their own regions. For this we need to make a template whose questions are flexible and easily augmented - questions that are not too broad to be ineffectual in gathering usable data, and not too specific to be inapplicable to the particular conditions of others economies, funding structures, etc.
AWC Have you seen any political connections to non-artistic working conditions in- and outside the art institutions?
W.A.G.E. This is becoming an important consideration within W.A.G.E. Certification as it is being developed now. We are looking at each arts organization as its own entity by understanding its particularities and contingencies. For example, its relationship to real estate: does it rent or own? Its age: is it long established or newly formed? What are its long-term and short-term investment and funding strategies? What is its mission? What is its total operating budget? Does it have an endowment? How many exhibitions does it produce each year and how many cultural producers tend to participate annually? Once we have a complete picture of how an organization derives its income and chooses to spend it based on these kinds of contingencies, we can begin to consider what fairness and equity are within that context – within the context of what is essentially a micro-economy, and that means looking at all of the workers within its organizational structure, including non-artistic labor. W.A.G.E. has taken on quite a big job…
AWC Has there been any attempt of collective art strikes in New York? Do you consider an activist closing of art institutions as a realistic option?
W.A.G.E. Relatively recently here was an effort to organize around the Whitney Biennial. Going back much further to the Art Workers Coalition there have been many such efforts. It would require a cause that cuts across class lines within the art world – that affects artists on multiple levels. Finding solidarity within a structure that thrives on, and is driven by, competition is challenging. Before any such action could be considered, we have to understand that we’re talking about the withdrawal of labor and production, and then ask the most basic questions: Withdrawal from the studio, the marketplace and/or the public sphere? Are there demands? What are the leverages? Who is striking and who/what are we striking against?
AWC It sounds contradictory to demand "wage" for artistic work that is not based on any contract of employment - why do you think it is useful to consider artists as wage workers?
W.A.G.E. W.A.G.E. isn’t demanding wages for labor; we’re demanding compensation for the content that we provide within the non-profit sector. Without the contribution and participation of cultural producers, arts institutions would cease to function, nor exist.
We’re not looking to be compensated for the work we may have done prior to entering into a relation with an arts institution, we’re looking to be compensated once it – and we – enter the marketplace, and non-profits are certainly part of the marketplace. At this point, the machinations of the non-profit institutional arts sector are completely intertwined with valuation within the commercial auction and sales markets. So, when cultural producers collaborate with an arts organization to participate in an exhibition, performance, lecture, screening etc., we are entering into a transactional, contractual and recognizable work relationship.
Through our participation in Truth is Concrete (http://truthisconcrete.org/about/) we developed this concept into a statement. In the process of trying to W.A.G.E. Certify the festival, we worked closely with its managing director, Artemis Vakianis, who posed a very important question to us: “What does equity mean to W.A.G.E.?” The answer has become our ‘Equity Statement’:
“Equity begins with recognizing that the contribution made by cultural producers is integral to the functioning of an arts institution. Financial compensation for this contribution acknowledges its value. Payment must be conceived and established in direct relation to what an institution chooses to pay its employees and subcontractors.”
AWC How exactly should this equitable compensation be determined?
W.A.G.E. The next phase of work on W.A.G.E. Certification is focused on exactly that, and on developing Certification into a comprehensive policy and regulatory tool. Some preliminary thoughts on how to determine equity have included a relatively simple formula, such as: Taking the Director’s salary and dividing it by the number of exhibitions produced per year. If for example, the salary were $100,000 dividing it by 5 exhibitions would mean that each artist would get a $20,000 fee for their work. $20,000 would almost amount to a living wage for an artist working over the course of a year to prepare an exhibition. But since we’re using the artist fee as a starting point to think about all of the labor in an organization, compensation for other employees or subcontracted labor would also be included For example, it might be more equitable if the Director’s salary were $50,000 instead of $100,000 and the security guard earned $30,000 annually instead of $15,000.
- Art Workers Council Frankfurt/M.