Have you ever been to a museum that shows work by contemporary artists and wondered how much the artist gets paid? Yeah, me neither.
Not being an artist, I’ve never thought much about equitable pay in the art world. But, there is something fishy going on. According to artist/activist Lise Soskolne of the New York-based nonprofit artist advocacy organization W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), the surprising answer to the “How much?” question is too often: Nothing. Many museums simply expect artists to be grateful for the exposure they get by showing work in their spaces.
Fortunately, Soskolne has been thinking about how museums should pay for the work they display and for artists’ labor—and now she has helped implement a standardized guideline for artist fees.
Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art earned the distinction this past March of becoming the first museum to receive certification by W.A.G.E. The ICA adds its name to a list that includes 56 other organizations—artist-run galleries, smaller nonprofit spaces, and several specific museum exhibitions—across the country that have pledged to adhere to the minimum payment standards established by W.A.G.E.
The ICA, unlike many other museums, already has a history of paying the artists whose work it displays. “We pride ourselves on being an artists-first institution,” says the ICA’s director of curatorial affairs and interim director of public engagement, Robert Chaney. “Even before we were aware of W.A.G.E., we have always tried to decide what we thought was proper compensation. We were pretty close to the W.A.G.E. guidelines—sometimes we paid slightly less or slightly more.”
But by signing up with W.A.G.E., the museum has gone a step further: It has committed publicly to paying artists and is sending a message to the art world. “It was definitely done to make a statement,” says Chaney. “We came close financially to begin with, but there’s a lot to be said for publicly committing to an initiative.”
The saying goes that art imitates life, or is at least a reflection of it. But if artists aren’t compensated as a matter of course, then only those with means and privilege can afford to pursue a career and life as an artist. The contemporary art field has become so elite that entering it is often only possible for those from expensive arts schools—and even they are not likely to remain in the field long enough to establish a sustainable career.
“We can’t do what we’re doing without artists,” says Chaney. “We depend upon their creativity and hard work, so to not want to compensate them for that is just unfair.”
That means museum-goers get a skewed view of the world: Instead of art reflecting a wide variety of values, ideas, and opinions, it draws from a much narrower channel of creativity and experiences.
“The barriers to entry are so high at this point that only those who can afford to work for free can afford to participate,” says Soskolne. “This precludes the participation of most working people, which means that the kind of art that is being produced and supported is representative of an elite and predominantly white constituency. The question then becomes: Whose art world is this?”
W.A.G.E. commissioned a survey in 2010 that looked at what visual and performing artists in New York City were compensated between 2005 and 2010. Compiled by the Survey Research Institute at Cornell University, it concluded that, on average, the majority (58.4 percent) of respondents did not receive any form of payment, compensation, or reimbursement for their participation, including the reimbursement of any expenses.
The ICA’s fee schedule is based on its $4.8 million annual operating expenses for fiscal year 2018. For example, the ICA paid artist Suki Seokyeong Kang $10,000 for her Black Mat Oriole project that is currently up through August 12.
“The founding of W.A.G.E. just before the financial crisis in 2008 was a reaction to a growing frustration,” says Soskolne. “The market was expanding rapidly in the mid-aughts, and it was a visceral response to that inequity… The art field is flooded with money, yet the work of the very people it is organized around goes unpaid.”
Soskolne underscores that this longstanding labor injustice in the art world is rooted in a complex knot of systemic issues. Contributing to the accepted practice of unpaid labor are myths about artists: they work for exposure; they work for the love of it; getting paid compromises the integrity of their work. With only nominal support from the government, the nonprofit art sector is becoming increasingly privatized, often coming with strings attached; donors may have favorite artists or may have an agenda to push to increase the value of their own private collections. Or they may simply not have the expertise, interest, time, or will to spot and promote emerging or under-recognized talent.
“A reliance on private wealth means that nonprofits are beholden to funders in new and compromising ways,” she says. “For example, when donors, collectors, and art advisors sit on nonprofit boards, they provide access to financial support from a donor class, but they also influence programming on the basis of their taste and the artists they collect, thereby increasing the value of their own assets.”
In 2014, W.A.G.E. officially began to certify nonprofits that were compliant to the fee schedules outlined by W.A.G.E. based on an institution’s total annual operating expenses. Essentially: smaller organizations, smaller fees; bigger organizations, bigger fees. The ICA’s fee schedule is based on its $4.8 million annual operating expenses for fiscal year 2018. The fees address 14 categories, including, solo or group exhibitions, and artist’s talks. For example, the ICA paid artist Suki Seokyeong Kang $10,000 for her Black Mat Oriole project that is currently up through August 12.
The ICA is a natural fit with W.A.G.E., according to Chaney. “We want to support artists,” says Chaney. “We find ones who aren’t yet famous and well-recognized.” That dates back to the ICA’s earliest days, when it was the first museum to exhibit the works of Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson and Robert Indiana, among others. Even now, it has a reputation—as The New York Times’ Roberta Smith has put it—for being “among the most adventuresome showcases in the country where art since 1970 is concerned.”
That can often mean exhibiting artists who don’t command huge sales on the commercial market. Because the ICA has no permanent collection to promote, but does have significant resources allocated towards curatorial travel and research, it is in a position to discover and champion lesser known artists making significant work. “We see our museum as a laboratory,” says Chaney. “Not only do we support under-recognized artists, but we also seek out artists who are early in their careers and haven’t been able to realize projects they want to do but need support to complete.”
Discussions between the two organizations took about a year to make sure everything could work, and that all scenarios had been considered. Chaney gives the example of the ICA organizing a traveling show. Was the ICA responsible for making sure W.A.G.E. standards were being used when their show went somewhere else? They decided, yes, it was. When the ICA organizes a show that will travel and proposes a partnership with another institution, it now includes with the financial implications—besides items such as shipping, packing, equipment, etc—artist fees.
“In this political and social climate,” explains Chaney, “everyone is reexamining what is fair treatment. We can’t do what we’re doing without artists. We depend upon their creativity and hard work, so to not want to compensate them for that is just unfair. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do something other than what’s equitable.”
W.A.G.E.’s fee guidelines won’t immediately revolutionize the way the art world conducts business with artists, but it has the potential to shift the way the art world thinks about equitable pay. Artists paid once will more likely expect to be paid subsequently. Once the minds of decision makers are opened to this question of equitable pay, it’s hard to dismiss the concern.
“Non-payment is possible because the work artists do isn’t considered labor,” says Soskolne. “W.A.G.E. doesn’t claim to be more than an attempt at reform, but the incredible resistance to paying artist fees that don’t even remotely resemble anything close to a living wage—and which usually only constitutes one to three percent of an institution’s budget—speaks to a much larger systemic problem. The demand to be paid is the first step in reordering an industry that like so many others is designed to benefit a comparative few at the expense of the many.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the timeline of W.A.G.E.’s artist fee survey. It asked about compensation from 2005-2010.Visit Philly