Giving artists a fair shake

Anyone who has had a conversation with me about art in the past couple of months has probably heard about what I will euphemistically describe as a bit of a quibble. It is a quibble about institutions -- and it can be ascribed to an incredible number of institutions nationally and globally. It's been increasingly on the minds of artists, performers, and people who, you know, like to get compensated every once in a while for the work they do.

Fair warning: I call out a specific example, but I've not named any names in this piece as it's meant to balance both a general complaint in terms of a specific one, but those who live nearby will probably know to what I refer, and that is enough.

There is an outmoded mentality in the arts which presumes that artists create whatever it is they create because they are somehow compelled to, and not because it's work. Sometimes it is the former, sometimes mostly just the latter, but usually the two things work in tandem. 

It's up to the artist to negotiate the value of their time, and it's a constant juggling act. Creating the work itself is only part of the equation. Once the work is made, it's up to the artist to sell their work, or at least work in other ways to fund the artwork they want to make, such as teaching. They do not to get any sort of royalties for their artwork if it ever goes to auction. Galleries typically take a large percentage of any sale. It's up to the artist to market his/herself, or pay someone to market their work for them. Museums often expect a performance artist to work for free or for very little, and many artists--especially young and less experienced--work in exchange for "promotion" or "exposure." Artists typically "pay to play" to have their own work so-called promoted in an exhibition or a show.

Well, I say that mentality could use a swift kick to the ol' posterior.

Only every so often do the voices of disgruntled artists rise above a murmur when it comes to "the system." But over the last several years, with student debt at an all-time high, and independent Millennial creatives trying to make a go of it out there, there's an increase in awareness and initiatives to change the system. One larger and impactful example is W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), based in New York, which states in their manifesto (read the whole thing here): 


To be fair, and to back up just a little bit, part of the system does work in younger artists' favor, as internships and volunteer experience available through museums can be valuable. They should be utilized to the fullest extent that it is mutually beneficial. The museum shouldn't look for free labor, or try to ply anyone else's labor (such as "borrowing" interns, or taking on volunteers when a paid skilled position is actually necessary), however, in the arts, learning from and furthering one another's goals can be a very positive thing, and should continue. But it's a fine line, and the larger fish in the pond all must be aware that they can easily slide into taking advantage of others.

My complaint is with institutions--with museums, galleries, and so on, that employ people--can afford to employ people--that charge admission, can pay caterers and break out the booze for events, can renovate their buildings, maintain a membership pool, and have a board of directors consisting of some of the richest, most influential people in the city. If these institutions do not set the standard for how artists should be compensated, and what constitutes fair labor in the arts, then nothing will change.

Here's a recent, albeit small-scale example: I had a meeting with the director of a local art museum regarding community supported arts. The conversation dovetailed into something resembling a casual consultation about how to help draw a younger audience to the museum. In the spirit of sharing information with like-minded individuals, and creating a "community arts environment," I've usually been very forthcoming and positive about steps that any of us can take to connect with one another and help one another out in order to create a cohesive arts community. I left the meeting (and rushed back to my day job as my lunch break wound down) feeling a bit like a popped balloon.

More to the point, I was asked whether I knew any young artists who were looking for a resume-building opportunity (who incidentally already know how to hang large-scale gallery exhibitions to museum standard--what?) who would be willing to work as-needed for a handful of days throughout the year, to "gain experience." Frankly, I said that someone who is already skilled in museum-standard exhibition hanging is not going to stay put in order to get a small job every three or four months; they're already in, or at least on their way, to something more worthwhile. I suggested that it would be better if someone on staff could manage a core of volunteers and could train others, but be responsible for this level of task. This, mindbogglingly, was out of the question. To put this into perspective, during another segment of the conversation, we had discussed how the mortgage on the very building that the museum was in had just been paid off due to very keen fundraising efforts. In this respect, it was made clear: money is something that can be gotten. 

I sat through that meeting with someone who wanted my opinion and information, who was getting paid as we sat there, while I was not. And in practically the same breath, the community supported arts project was dismissed with little to no fanfare, because the type of art that people actually like to buy is in places like Chicago or New York anyway, so why bother? There is something wrong with any organization (or individual) that derides the perceived lack of engagement from other organizations or project spaces in the community when, a) they expect others to do the legwork for them, and b) they expect artists and young people to work for free or for very little, relative to the skill set and time needed to actually do these tasks, with the expectation that promotion or experience is a fair exchange. 

What this museum fails to understand is that the arts are not about buildings, or finances, or marketing schemes, or membership, or the board of directors. That is the basis of an institution, and not necessarily a good one. That arts are about people. It's about community. If you don't have people willing to make the arts happen, then there are no arts. And what you get is a marginally well-funded shell of something that fails to materialize: real value. I'm talking about real opportunity, resources, a people-centered mission, a goal of being a part of the community, where other arts folks will come to you if you reach out to them too. So to be a good institution, and by extension an effective one, it's got to be about the people. This means understanding how your programming relates to other institutions, organizations, and trends in your market. This means lending a hand without the expectation that someone else must do so first. And it means giving the younger and more inexperienced a fair shake.

It's a tough notion to swallow when, one moment you're being told that money is something that can be raised, but a few minutes later you're being told that the museum is not interested in hiring someone to manage the exhibitions or collection. Is it too much work? Is it viewed as a waste of capital? Is this work for some reason not viewed as skilled labor? This is an art museum that has never had a curator; why does it see no value in having one? Or recognizing how much work its hourly staff puts in to getting exhibitions off the ground? The emphasis is not on art here. The emphasis is on revenue-driven, large-scale, crowd-pleasing, totally incongruous programming. An art museum needs someone on staff who has a background in art management or curating. Shouldn't this go without saying? Yes, this institution has done some things well, and I respect many ideas they have tried. But there must be a balance.

I'm using this recent experience to illustrate a point, but it's certainly not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I encounter this prevailing attitude at an institution. Money speaks volumes. It can be so loud and distracting that we miss out on how it could be best utilized. I understand that the perceived lack of it can shape how an organization is run, but it has zero impact on what is considered work and what is not. I've experienced this in my own work, in internships, in volunteer work at various institutions, as an art student, as a graduate student, as an independent curator... It's exhausting.

I'll sum this up briefly here, but I'll save the bulk for another post. "Community" is a buzzword that has been corporatized, to my chagrin, like "placemaking" or "creativity." (Don't even get me started on what an "artist loft" is.) But community (and I mean the art community here; not the general sense of an entire city, etc.) though I may cringe at the word, is the single most significant and valuable asset that the arts have. Community is people doing their own projects and then reaching out to one another and networking. It's the big, traditional art museum creating a dialogue with the tiny nonprofit gallery around the corner. It's the performing arts center building a relationship with the little comedy club across town. Scale is a big, big deal. Your community might be your school, your neighborhood, your street, your city, your like-minded cohorts, your club that meets on Saturday afternoons. Whatever it is -- it's about people. 

You cannot be a part of any community, however small or specialized, if you separate yourself from it and presume that people will do your work for you, or reach out to you, if you don't ever reach back. It's a two-way street. One can't play on the pretense of having ascended to a higher level and look down at what's going on, on the ground, and get upset that it appears no one is making an effort to connect. How can anyone see you way up there? An institution must earn the respect of its community, and must be a part of it, or the community will, quite simply, ignore you.


*** I understand that anyone who reads this, and knows that I curate or organize art exhibitions in real life, is going to know that I have charged artists to participate. The recent Young Space call for art required a $10 fee to offset the costs of renting a space for a month, covering things that visitors rightfully take for granted, like catering and music, and so on. But that small and manageable fee (in comparison to prize shows and entry fees that rate upwards of $35-50 these days, not to mention art fair jury fees which go into the hundreds) doesn't begin to cover the expenses. I also charge a small commission on sales (25% -- still less than a typical gallery, especially in a large city, which is closer to 40-50%). And that's because I personally have to invest my own hard-earned cash to make a go of it.

My hope is that I break even or make a couple hundred bucks so that the next time I want to do a show, I have something--even just a crumble--to work with. Artists who sell their work are the ones who come out ahead. That's the hope anyway. Sure, I could fundraise. I could solicit sponsorships. But I don't. I'm in the same league as the artists I work with.

I feel obligated to get that out of the way, because the last thing I want to be is a hypocrite in this argument (and I would appreciate anyone honestly telling me if I am). 

2016 Young Space pop-up art show finalists

On identifying as an artist (or not)