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Working Artists and the Greater Economy at the Park Avenue Armory

W.A.G.E. at Democracy in America
W.A.G.E. at Democracy in America, still image from documentation video produced by Creative Time.

Late last September, Working Artists and the Greater Economy, or W.A.G.E., a group composed of artists A.L. Steiner, K8 Hardy, and A.K. Burns, took the podium at the Park Avenue Armory during the Democracy in America, an exhibition and event program curated by Nato Thompson and organized by Creative Time. Like the rest of the country, they were speaking about money; but more specifically, about how artists weren't getting their fair share. While hearing artists complain about the market isn't surprising, W.A.G.E. isn't exactly comprised of marginal figures. These artists are frequently invited to exhibit their work in major institutions and likewise curated into important and highly visible exhibitions.

All of this success (or visibility) isn't what all that it seems. Artists like Steiner, Burns, and Hardy aren't getting large checks for the exhibition of existing art works. In fact, they may be getting nothing at all. For W.A.G.E., the grass is greener up north, in Canada, where artists have been entitled to royalties on exhibited works since the late 1980's -- something the artists in the United States have gone without. Founded in 1968 by a group of artists, the Canadian Artist's Representation (CARFAC) lobbied for nearly 20 years until its efforts resulted in an amendment to Canadian copyright law in 1988. The result, the Canadian Artists' Representation Copyright Collective, has since entitled artists to royalties whenever their art is exhibited. These royalties are doled out on a sliding scale depending on the scope and size of the exhibitor. An artist exhibiting at a small space could expect a few hundred dollars for the showing of a a single work, whereas a solo show of "international scope" could net them ten thousand dollars plus -- Canadian, of course.

There's been a noted lack of progress for anything similar in the United States. "The Artists' Contribution to American Heritage Act" -- a bill whose sole purpose was to rewrite a 40 year-old gaffe in the tax code -- appeared on the floor of the House in the spring of 2000, where it languished for nearly two years before disappearing completely. The bill, which changes the current policy of materials-only deductions for donations of art, would have allowed artists to obtain tax deductions equal to the work's market value upon donation to a museum, library, or non-profit institution -- a benefit which collectors already enjoy.

This wasn't always the case. Both artists and collectors were entitled to market-value deductions on donations before changes were made to the tax code in 1969, when artists (not collectors) were excluded in an effort to stem abuses of the code (allegedly, artists had been claiming inflated prices for their works). Even if this managed to save taxpayers a few dollars, it also gave serious incentive for artists to look elsewhere when donating major works. (Months after the code was amended, Igor Stravinsky reneged on a planned gift of his papers to the Library of Congress, instead opting to sell to a private collector in Switzerland).

Donations aren't the only things that are moving overseas -- it's artists too. As collector Michael Hort told Artillery Magazine earlier this year (and quoted by W.A.G.E in their speech late September):

We don't find the art, the artists in New York; it's in Europe right now...Twenty years ago it was the exact opposite, but it's very difficult for a young artist to make a living in New York and do a good job. If you graduate from art school, to have a studio and an apartment in New York, it'll probably cost you $3000, $4000 a month. You have to have a full time job, in which case you can't do your art. Or you have to sell at a gallery — in which case you're selling your soul. And your art will never change, because if you have a mortgage, you know if you make your black paintings that you dream of making, and they don't sell, you're dead.

Which is where W.A.G.E. comes in. Working on a grassroots level, as CARFAC did when it was only a few disgruntled artists clamoring for pay, W.A.G.E hopes to move past the legislative barriers and get an artist's fee schedule implemented in the U.S. in the hopes of making life a little bit better not only for artists, but for art-lovers as well. ArtCal emailed with Burns, Steiner, and Hardy to talk about money, museums, and the possibilities of an artists' artist's fee schedule in the U.S.

A.L. Steiner, Untitled (C.L.U.E., White)), 2007, lightjet print, 18 x 24 inches. Via Saatchi.
A.L. Steiner, Untitled (C.L.U.E., White)), 2007, lightjet print, 18 x 24 inches. Via Saatchi.

AC: What's W.A.G.E and how did it start?

W.A.G.E.: Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) formed in Brooklyn, NY in 2008. We're a group of artists, performers, and independent curators who believe that we should be paid for our labor by U.S. art institutions. The group is open to anyone who would like to join that cause.

AC: Do you have day jobs? What's the split between your studio time and work hours?

W.A.G.E.: The group is open to art workers, whose economic situations are all varied. Most artists have secondary and tertiary 'day jobs' as assistants, writers, graphic artists, teachers, construction workers, waiters, art handlers, personal gofers, bartenders, non-profit administrators, massage therapists, stylist assistants, administrative assistants, etc. Many float from one odd job to the next. It's quite challenging to carry a consistent full-time or part-time job, as the demands of being an artist often requires the ability to not work at the 'day job' for a week, or two, or three, or more at a time, while having made enough money to 'float'. Many artists 'binge' work, both for their art and their day job. Even 'successful' artists are constantly hustling. There's a tiny, finite number of artists who can actually live solely off the sale of their artwork. Artists who take their work seriously are artworking at whatever moment they're not meeting their personal fiscal requirements at another job. The idea that exposure provides a livable income for anyone is a farce.

AC: Have you had to dim the ambitions for certain works for lack of funds?

W.A.G.E.: Yes, of course. Artists consistently have to alter the scope of their work based on economic concerns.

AC: How do you see W.A.G.E.'s goals and organization in relation to like CARFAC, the Canadian Artists' Representation Association; the National Artist's Equity Association; and The Artists' Contribution to American Heritage Act of 1999?

W.A.G.E.: We view the national implementation of an artists' fee schedule throughout Canada in 1988 as a rational, ethical structure, spurred by CARFAC's formation in 1968. No one would openly argue that workers should not be paid. Cultural workers in the U.S. are exploited by an economic system that is supposed to pay for services rendered but, in an underhanded agreement in a competitive market, refuses to do so. In the U.S., arts advocacy organizations haven't been successful in implementing any basic economic fee schedules or legal oversight for cultural workers. Even the minimum wage isn't applied to artists, performers or independent curators if they are hired to create and/or exhibit work in a for-profit, not-for-profit or non-profit U.S. art institution. As in Canada, the construct of these fee systems should not be based on the artist's income, but rather on the institution's budget. The fact that the Artists' Contribution to American Heritage Act of 1999 is still some sort of pipe dream is evidence of the unethical, extralegal micro-economic system applied to cultural workers -- our work is not even legally recognized by the U.S. government as having any intrinsic value, even though it has created an approximately five billion dollar trading market among the wealthy. Additionally, living and/or studio space is now a "luxury" that many artists can no longer afford. In the five boroughs of New York City, artists are still consistently kicked out of the dwellings they refurbish once the neighborhood rent values increase due, ironically, to their investments in these dwellings. U.S. art institutions never advocate publicly on behalf of artists regarding these live/work spaces, perhaps partly due to the connections of their board members to the real-estate development community. These are only a few examples of the multi-layered conflicts of interest within the unregulated institutional arts community.

A.C.: Would you be able to broadly speak about the sort of treatment an artist can expect if they work with an institution--financially speaking and otherwise?

W.A.G.E.: In almost all cases with U.S. art institutions, an artist, performer, or independent curator is expected to work for free and the payment is in "exposure". Sometimes an expense budget is offered, or expense coverage is promised, but this isn't always guaranteed, and often this expense money is considered the "fee", or traveling to the institution is placed on the burden of the materials expense. So the monies we spend on materials and/or expenses (i.e. travel, assistants, etc.) to make the work are often considered our "payment". Relatively small art institutions often have an ethical economic & political understanding of the cultural worker's position in society, and will offer to cover production expenses, even sometimes offer an artist fee, per diem and/or travel expenses (i.e. Yerba Buena in SF). The larger, wealthier institutions (MoMA, Whitney, The New Museum, etc.) might or might not offer an expense budget; if so, it isn't based on the artist's needs but rather is determined randomly by the museum. Artists fees, travel, per diem, or accommodation monies aren't offered to artists on any consistent, transparent basis and often the artist's gallery is asked to find funds to pay for the artist's participation and/or commission. In these cases, we're talking about museums with multi-million/billion dollar budgets and endowments. These institutions could easily create budgetary allocations for artists fees & expenses but because they feel that they don't have to, they choose not to. There's no internal or legal oversight of how these institutions are dealing with freelance cultural workers. This is all painfully ironic when one reads Lisa Phillips [Director of the New Museum] state in Time Out "We have to make sure that artists and cultural creators and a mix of income levels are supported by the city," because The New Museum has no policies concerning the payment of artists fees and expenses. The directors, staff, and advisory boards perpetuate these practices because they believe that they're exempt from the financial responsibility of supporting cultural creators--that we should rely on other aspects of the art & job markets while producing cultural work for them for free. Additionally, they charge exorbitant entry fees to the viewers. These institutions unfortunately have followed in the footsteps of their corporate-styled directors and advisors, since public funding of the arts has been reduced to almost nothing. They refuse to take part in ethical practices of financial distribution and are subject to little or no oversight, choosing to support the aims of the staff, board members, investors and real estate developers while refusing to compensate or advocate on behalf the cultural workers they're dependent on for their livelihood. We see this scheme also applied to the American worker, in general.

AC: Since your stump speech at Democracy in America, how has the response been from the artistic community and elsewhere?

W.A.G.E.: Very supportive. People from all over the country have contacted us and we're having our first public meeting in NYC on Thursday, December 11th @ 7 PM at the Judson Church, Assembly Hall, 239 Thompson St. Many people felt they were alone in the nonsensical/unethical experiences they've had with U.S. art institutions. Their suspicions, unfortunately, were confirmed in our speeches and many people we've spoken with want to develop ways to effect change.

AC: The quote pulled from the Horts during your speech was very interesting. How integral (and how cooperative) do you see collectors and curators to the fulfillment of W.A.G.E.'s mission?

W.A.G.E.: Institutional staff members, advisors and collectors are our community. They must serve as our advocates rather than our adversaries in maintaining a robust arts community, instead of focusing solely on the trading of objects. Commercial galleries should not collapse under the pressure of these corrupt and detrimental policies, but must rather employ methods to champion their needs, as well as the needs of their artists. The current economic system must not succeed in erasing the art worker from U.S. communities, and we can look to other countries' institutional models to know that W.A.G.E.'s demands aren't some crazy, untenable dream- they're based on the solid fact that art workers, elsewhere in the world, get paid by the institutions that request their services.

AC: Where do you see W.A.G.E. in one year?

W.A.G.E.: We see the group involved in the big picture of clamoring for change, nationwide, on behalf of all visual and performing artists, as well as independent curators.