As part of a series of public forums taking place January-September at Artists Space in Soho, on Monday January 9th I attended W.A.G.E.: Feeling the Shape of the Arts Economy. Billed as a "Think Tank Coalition/Agenda Formation/Alliance Building Marathon" the event was organized by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and included a presentation by artist economist Hans Abbing, audience Q&A, soup social and open forum for alliance formation.
Hans Abbing (born Utrecht, 1946) is a visual artist, economist, and Professor Emeritus in Art Sociology. Much of his presentation came out of his book Why Are Artists Poor (University of Amsterdam Press, 2002). At the outset, Abbing's presentation seemed to be a series of outdated statistics we all want to disbelieve – a sort of hodgepodge of collective thoughts about the art world that reinforce problematic stereotypes and conditioned ways of thinking. Bullet points like: Artist Parents are higher educated. Artists are usually single and evade taxes. 40-60% of artists' incomes are below the poverty line. Artists come from wealth and privilege. Artists prefer working in the studio to consumption. When artists with second jobs begin to earn more income than they need to live on they cut down on hours worked. For artists the economic goal is to maximize autonomy. Artists are reckless with money. Artists deny the economy. Galleries go out of their way to deny and/or evade the appearance of commerce. Artists are individuals on a path of existential self-actualization. Unionizing is associated with mediocre skill.
Images courtesy W.A.G.E. www.wageforwork.com
At surface level, Hans Abbing's ethos seemed to be in direct opposition to the mission of W.A.G.E. He seemed too white, too male and too prone to generalization to appeal to what I understand as a radical collective founded by prominent figures of the LGBT community. Formed in 2008 by artists K8 Hardy, A.L. Steiner, and A.K. Burns, W.A.G.E advocates for a working wage for artists and curators working within the art market in the aftermath of the post-culture wars turn to allocating government arts grants to institutions rather than individuals. W.A.G.E. is a collective for the mandating that artists be compensated for their work as 'cultural producers' within arts institutions
The catalyst for the evening was W.A.G.E.'s newly formed partnership with Artists Space, expressed as a cooperative series of public symposia about payment practices in the arts open to artists, activists, curators, grant makers, administrators, economists, sociologists and the general public. Over the course of nine months symposia, the criterion for W.A.G.E. Certification will be collectively developed. W.A.G.E. Certification, the collective's latest initiative recognizes and 'certifies' organizations that voluntarily adhere to a best practices model and pay artist fees in relation to the conditions under which artists are involved in their programs. Artists Space will become the first organization to receive Institutional W.A.G.E. Certification at the conclusion of the partnership in September 2012 if found compliant. W.A.G.E. will provide printed and downloadable resources for artists including a fee schedule template, best practices model, and sample contracts once W.A.G.E. Certification has gone into effect.
When grappling with the economic framework proposed by Hans Abbing, the premier guest speaker of W.A.G.E./Artists Space joint symposia, it's important to recognize how Abbing's having hailed from a small European country in which artists receive government subsidies similar to what we call welfare in the United States informs his work. In fact, he's against the subsidies and sees them as a barrier for the collectivizing of artists around demanding a living wage for their work. This is where Abbing's insight throws a fork in the utopian, radically theoretical and unwieldy philosophies of the quotidian arts event – the interjection of cold hard economic facts. Yes, these 'facts' are based on statistics that generalize and draw over arching conclusions, some of which may be shaped by cultural views and biases.
That said, what I ultimately gleaned from Abbing's analyses was that it's not just the art institutions that are our enemies (in fact, as W.A.G.E. will tell you, they're not). Artists are their own enemies because we still somewhat or wholeheartedly subscribe to the Modernist notion of singular genius. We continuously reinvent a grammar that enforces our peerlessness, meanwhile maintaining the abject poverty of our peer group. It's no surprise W.A.G.E., which began as a consciousness raising group, has nearly four years after its inception only begun to develop a working language to describe an economy in which artists get paper.
Here I am a young, motivated, smart, talented free spirit prone to magical thinking and risk taking, over $100,000 in educational debt plus my credit cards, sailing away on some dystopian dream of my exponential feminist post-capitalist fame and fortune. At W.A.G.E.'s prompt, I recalled my first exhibition at a non-profit gallery for which I received an artist fee. At the time, I was shocked and honored to receive over a thousand dollars, what I basically misconstrued as 'passive income,' for work I would have done for free!! Needless to say, I had to take off time at my day job, hire help, transport my art, curate the show, write the press release as well as organize and lead an educational workshop. Years later, having received my MFA, my lingo suggests I am large and in charge while my behavior indicates that I'd still jump off a cliff, poison my hamster and choke my best friend to show my work for no payment. Especially, when I'm asked to increasingly prestigious venues. I don't have health insurance, and although I'll spare you the precancerous details, when you start nearing thirty it actually matters. As W.A.G.E. founding member K8 Hardy expressed in her 2008 consecutive speech at Creative Time's Democracy Now:
Images courtesy W.A.G.E. www.wageforwork.com
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE GLAMOR OF BEING AN ARTIST IN THIS CITY. The glamour of not being able to eat well. The glamour of not being able to go to the museums. The glamour of not even being able to make the work you want to make because you can't afford it. The glamour of not being able to go to the doctor. The glamour of not being able to get your teeth cleaned. The glamour of moving every year or two further and further away from the city. The glamour of not having a home. The glamour of being made to feel idiotic when you ask to be paid. The glamour of not being able to get a well paid part time job. The glamour of needing surgery you can't afford. The glamour of having a landlord who won't turn on the heat in the winter. The glamour of sleeping in your coat and hat. The glamour of spending your last dollar every month. I FEEL LIKE A PROSTITUTE WORKING IN THIS CITY, I REALLY DO.
And a clown.
My landlord doesn't turn on the heater until Christmas rolls around, over 2 months after the legal date. I have a terminal degree in my field which makes me a professional. With the professionalization of the artist must come a living wage for all artists, period. And yet not only do institution's not account for the labor of artists in their budget structure, as expressed in a recent issue of The Guardian by Art Group's Kit Friend, "Right now the first criterion for participation in the arts is an ability to work for free." Headed "The creative industries need to focus on talent rather than free labor", the article discusses the extended period of unpaid work up ahead for graduates of the arts working in any career related capacity.
And yet as Abbing's presentation emphasized, artists have a historically self-sabotaging, fickle relationship to money hinging on the appeal of the artist identity as anti-capitalist and bohemian. In Abbing's terms, some degree of commerce is good and necessary (Wild West behavior, ala "Fuck y'all I'm the next Julian Schnabel!!" or, perhaps, "Fuck y'all I'll live in a basement and eat lentils all year long…and then make everyone in my life miserable because of it!!") behavior is bad. Refusal to work for ridiculously low incomes is a less egocentric model in which as individuals we serve the whole; we serve the future well being of artists. What's the downside? Less money for the Schnabels. Less money for me, the next Schnabel. As Abbing reminds us: If artists successfully earn higher wages, the value of art decreases. That's economics.
After Abbing's lecture and a break for soup, the group reconvened for a roundtable discussion with prominent professionals working on both sides of the fence. Over the courses of several hours, we drudged through the art economy's proverbial sewage. Is the W.A.G.E. Certification a form of contemporary unionizing? How can we change the fact that 1% of Arts Institutions control 80% of the resources? Can we use Canada as a model, a country in which artist fees are mandated? Can we look to musicians, who have historically been ahead of visual artists in terms of demanding payment via royalties? How can W.A.G.E. enter institutions to provide sensitivity trainings for board members? How do we ensure that 'exposure' no longer be the common currency by which artists are compensated? How do we reach young artists and raise consciousness so there won't always be an excess of privileged-poor creatives whose freedom and naivete causes them to beg to work for free?
Photo courtesy of Katerina Llanes
Artists aren't the only folks playing hardball with their liver. W.A.G.E.'s website, the backdrop of which is splattered with metallic tins of metaphorical pie empty but for one seductive slice, suggests that artists are just another weary faction of the 99% of Americans suffering from overwork, compulsory consumption, major debt and no access to healthcare. So why limit the work of W.A.G.E. to leveraging a piddly symbolic sum? In an interview in ARTFORUM conducted by Creative Time's chief curator Nato Thompson, W.A.G.E. maintains that though they applaud the broader agendas of some of their predecessors like the Art Workers Coalition, whose radical 1970's agenda included pressuring the city's museums into more inclusive practices as well as labor issues, protesting Vietnam and racial inequality – W.A.G.E. is leveraging a battle with one focused goal.
And although it may be slow, the group is making progress. Leading up to their recent partnership with Artists Space, W.A.G.E. was successfully able to obtain artists' fees for the Free exhibition at the New Museum curated by Lauren Cornell in late 2010. States the group in ARTFORUM, "The commercial art market operates through speculation, and nonprofits should exist as a parallel system that can provide income that's not afforded by speculation, but in general they don't." Although the New Museum did not submit to W.A.G.E.'s demand that the exhibition budget be made public, after the group obtained their artists' fees there was a notice posted at the entrance of the show stating that the exhibition was 'W.A.G.E. Certified,' a precursor of their current initiative.
We've always known as artists that there is a lot in this world that needs fixing, and that art may not be the remedy. It may be even the case that we thrive on the cycle of guilt we perpetuate against ourselves for choosing to engage in work that has largely 'symbolic' rather than real time political, social and economic consequences. But why on top of that should we undervalue our contributions so much we're shooting ourselves and all of our artist peers in the foot?
Through September 2012, the forums at Artists Space will continue to look at a range of approaches to organizing art workers around alternate economic models. To a large degree W.A.G.E.'s success thus far is based on the successful collection of data through the W.A.G.E. survey they conducted asking artists to report details of the payment practices of non-profit art institutions they have worked with. Now at the next level of negotiations, W.A.G.E. needs you and I in their coalition building. Check out the W.A.G.E. and Artists Space websites for a list of upcoming meetings.
This article was originally published online on the Native Shout Blog www.nativeshout.com/ 2012