The Group of Artists That’s Winning Fair Pay By Targeting Nonprofits

Organizing artists can be like herding cats. That hasn’t stopped WAGE from fighting for fair pay for art.

Tom Ladendorf

Dean Daderko preparies a “complaints, suggestions and donations” box for WAGE. (Courtesy of WAGE)

I’m a vet­er­an of scores of muse­um shows around the coun­try and haven’t received pay­ment from a muse­um … since 1987. In fact, most of the muse­ums who’ve acquired my work in the past 25 years have demand­ed it be donat­ed for free or [less than] the cost of materials.”

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, has a total annual operating budget of more than $250 million but paid surveyed artists for only 14.3 percent of exhibitions.

This sto­ry comes from an anony­mous sur­vey of near­ly 1,000 artists about the com­pen­sa­tion they received for exhi­bi­tions and per­for­mances at non­prof­it arts insti­tu­tions (cho­sen on the basis that for-prof­its very rarely pay for exhibit­ing work). Of the shows artists list­ed, 58.4 per­cent were com­plete­ly unpaid, with­out even expense reim­burse­ment. Even some of the largest insti­tu­tions got low marks: New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, for instance, has a total annu­al oper­at­ing bud­get of more than $250 mil­lion but paid sur­veyed artists for only 14.3 per­cent of exhibitions.

These results were no sur­prise to the group that con­duct­ed the 2011 sur­vey: the New York-based Work­ing Artists and the Greater Econ­o­my (WAGE). Artists formed WAGE in 2008 over shared frus­tra­tions with non-pay­ment. Core orga­niz­er Lise Soskolne says pro­vi­sion of free labor in return for expo­sure was the pri­ma­ry mode of exchange between the peo­ple that found­ed WAGE and the insti­tu­tions that they had been work­ing with.” While many work­ers strug­gle for fair pay, Soskolne says, We’re try­ing to con­vince peo­ple that artists should get paid, period.”

The ini­tial group of about sev­en mem­bers, includ­ing such New York artists as K8 Hardy and A.K. Burns, turned first to con­scious­ness-rais­ing and research­ing prece­dents. They found par­tic­u­lar inspi­ra­tion in the Art Work­ers’ Coali­tion, a New York group active between 1969 and 1971 that mobi­lized around issues such as the need for dia­logue between muse­ums and artists; under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mar­gin­al­ized groups in the arts; and the Viet­nam War. But WAGE mem­bers felt the Coalition’s mis­sion was too dif­fuse and decid­ed to pare down their focus to a sin­gle goal: pay­ment for artists.

WAGE laid out its philo­soph­i­cal moor­ings in a wo/​manifesto” that con­demns the orga­nized irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty of the art mar­ket and its sup­port­ing insti­tu­tions, and demands an end of the refusal to pay fees.” It notes the inequity of an unpaid labor force with­in a robust art mar­ket from which oth­ers prof­it greatly.”

Besides attack­ing the struc­tures that pro­mote inequity, WAGE also address­es artists’ self-per­cep­tion: Soskolne writes in her essay On Mer­it” that one of the rea­sons non­prof­its do not pay fees is because artists don’t think they deserve them,” due to con­cerns that the rad­i­cal social or polit­i­cal poten­tial of art is com­pro­mised by its com­mod­i­ty or mar­ket sta­tus.” While acknowl­edg­ing that the issue is com­plex, she main­tains that when artists func­tion as work­ers, they should be com­pen­sat­ed as such.

The fraught psy­chol­o­gy of art as labor was among the fac­tors that dis­cour­aged the group from start­ing with a tra­di­tion­al col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing mod­el. It’s very dif­fi­cult to build sol­i­dar­i­ty among artists,” Soskolne tells In These Times. We tend to be high­ly indi­vid­u­at­ed and com­pet­i­tive with one anoth­er, which is not sur­pris­ing when you con­sid­er that the con­struc­tion of val­ue in the art field is based on the suc­cess of a few at the expense of the many.” She adds that the time com­mit­ment orga­niz­ing requires is dif­fi­cult to ask of artists, many of whom also work full-time jobs.

Instead, the mem­bers of WAGE decid­ed to tar­get insti­tu­tions that osten­si­bly exist to sup­port artists, pri­mar­i­ly focus­ing on non­prof­it, visu­al arts orga­ni­za­tions. Three years of plan­ning, research and pub­lic dis­cus­sion went into devel­op­ing a non­prof­it cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram—launched in Octo­ber 2014 — to estab­lish guar­an­teed min­i­mum fees for artists.

The pro­gram hasn’t need­ed a ded­i­cat­ed recruit­ing dri­ve: Word-of-mouth, press and social media have drawn in a steady flow of appli­ca­tions for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, at times chal­leng­ing WAGE’s abil­i­ty to process them. So far, WAGE has cer­ti­fied 24 non­prof­its in cities around the coun­try. Soskolne explains the program’s suc­cess by not­ing that WAGE cer­ti­fi­ca­tion has become a rep­u­ta­tion­al badge of hon­or” for orga­ni­za­tions com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing artists.

At the core of the pro­gram is a fee cal­cu­la­tor based on an organization’s oper­at­ing bud­get and the nature of the artist’s par­tic­i­pa­tion — exhi­bi­tion, lec­ture or screen­ing —as well as the num­ber of peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing, whether the work is com­mis­sioned or exist­ing, etc. For a solo exhi­bi­tion at an insti­tu­tion with annu­al expens­es of less than $500,000, the min­i­mum fee is $1,000. That fee scales up to $10,000 when oper­at­ing expens­es top $5 mil­lion. WAGE board mem­ber Andrea Fras­er notes that the goal is not only to cer­ti­fy orga­ni­za­tions, [but to] edu­cate artists to feel enti­tled to compensation.”

Artists are already ben­e­fit­ing from the pro­gram. New York artist Noah Fis­ch­er received $450 for exhibit­ing in a group show at a WAGE-cer­ti­fied non­prof­it in Hous­ton. While he acknowl­edges that he didn’t make a lot of mon­ey,” he main­tains that not los­ing mon­ey is a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment over work­ing for expo­sure and much more sustainable.”

While WAGE’s approach to artists’ fees is nov­el, the Cana­di­an Artists’ Rep­re­sen­ta­tion/​Le Front des Artistes Cana­di­ens (CAR­FAC) pro­vid­ed a use­ful tem­plate. Found­ed in 1968, CAR­FAC also cen­tered its ear­ly work around a fee sched­ule. Though adopt­ing the sched­ule was vol­un­tary, mem­bers of CAR­FAC applied pres­sure with a 1971 artists’ boy­cott of insti­tu­tions that were not abid­ing by its require­ments. Thanks to CARFAC’s con­tin­ued lob­by­ing and orga­niz­ing, Cana­da now requires artists’ fees for all non­com­mer­cial shows. Those fees must meet CARFAC’s min­i­mums for insti­tu­tions to receive fed­er­al art grants.

WAGE and CAR­FAC are now work­ing togeth­er to advance leg­is­la­tion guar­an­tee­ing roy­al­ties to artists for works resold. While dozens of coun­tries have such laws, and Cal­i­for­nia has a resale statute that applies to intrastate com­merce, the Unit­ed States and Cana­da lack such pro­vi­sions at the fed­er­al lev­el. A pend­ing Sen­ate bill, spon­sored by Wis­con­sin Sen. Tam­my Bald­win, would enshrine the right in fed­er­al law, but WAGE and CAR­FAC are con­cerned the bill has too many restric­tions (includ­ing a lim­it­ed scope that only address­es works sold at auction).

WAGE’s pri­ma­ry focus, how­ev­er, remains its cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. WAGE is now devel­op­ing a ver­sion such that WAGE-cer­ti­fied artists will com­mit to only engag­ing their labor if they get paid accord­ing to WAGE’s stan­dards,” Soskolne says, so that insti­tu­tions would be under pres­sure … whether they’re cer­ti­fied or not.” Artist and film­mak­er Eliz­a­beth Orr plans to join the pro­gram when it launches.

While I could just use the fee cal­cu­la­tor on the WAGE web­site,” she says, there’s some­thing [excit­ing] about stand­ing your ground and ask­ing for exact­ly what you want.”

Tom Laden­dorf is an Amer­i­can writer and musi­cian who lives in Cologne, Ger­many, and a for­mer In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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