On the Crazy-as-Kim-Jong-Il Economics of the Art World – part two

This article is the second of a two-part series on fair wages for artists.  The first part addressed labor practice inequalities when it come to artists.  You can read that article here.

While writing this post I had thought of local shining examples in artist compensation and others I would like to see improve.  After some consideration, though, I decided to leave out any specific names of organizations to avoid undue attention or embarrassment.   

In my previous article I made the dumb assumption that everyone is aware of how artists generally get paid.  There’s a number of ways an artist’s pay-day comes around.  To pretend I’m not generalizing would be irresponsible (I’m admittedly not getting into grants, residencies, etc. here).  For the most part, artists don’t get paid to exhibit their work.

Typically artists produce and exhibit work free of charge.  Artists are usually only compensated with the actual sale of a piece.  A commercial gallery will commonly receive a 40-50% commission on the sale.  Expecting commercial galleries to be benevolent, though, is not only naive but unfair.  That’s why I’ll be leaving them out of this conversation.

In regards to getting paid as an artist, non-profit spaces are much more variable.  Some non-profits expect commissions comparable to commercial galleries while others don’t charge any commission.  In fact, there are many non-profit spaces that do award honorariums, stipends, etc. that pay artists to produce and exhibit art.

However, the group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) have produced studies that show 58% of artists in New York City do not get paid to exhibit their work in non-profit spaces.  In the state with the highest per-capita arts funding in the nation, over half of artists do not get paid to exhibit their work at non-profit spaces.  You can imagine what the same statistic would look like in Florida, the state with the nation’s second lowest per-capita arts funding.

With that in mind, calling out our local non-profits on unfair artist compensation when those institutions themselves are being unfairly under-funded gets morally complex.  A director for an area arts center once related to me that the bulk of their funds must unfortunately be directed to very inartistic expenses such as rent.  However, the difficulty of providing fair wages doesn’t warrant abandoning it altogether.  The art blog Hyperallergic quotes W.A.G.E presenter A. K. Burns as saying “nonprofits get money from different sources for public education, and the artist is the educator. We are wondering why the artist isn’t being paid?”  Consider our local non-profit art centers and spaces: don’t the art and artists presented at these centers/spaces furnish as much cultural value as their paid instructors?  Answering ‘yes’ to this question produces an obligation to similarly compensate artists.

Paying artists fair wages doesn’t necessarily mean increasing an institution’s budget (by very much, at least).  I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of budget planning for non-profit art institutions, but feel free to research how this has already been done at various venues.  Basically, fair artist compensation can be achieved when an institution shifts its focus to viewing artists as educators with cultural value.  While institutions would need to reduce the number of exhibits per year to offset costs, the exhibits would become more culturally valuable.  When artists are fairly compensated with capital rather than “exposure”, the nature of the artwork changes: rather than choosing art that is market-pandering, art is chosen on the merits of its cultural value.

I won’t doubt that this issue is controversial.  The idea of compensating artists for their cultural services rather than the commodity they produce is contrary to a very old arts tradition.  The art world is now a place where a very small number of artists are paid a wildly high amount of money while most get paid nothing to very little.  With serious prioritizing of funds and values perhaps the art world can be a place where most artists make a decent living.

For further investigation:

  • I couldn’t have entirely addressed this issue without reading three articles from the art blog Hyperallergic.  You can find them here, here, and here.
  • W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) are a New York based group working for fair artist wages.  You can find their website here.
  • CARFAC is a Canadian organization that acts as a voice for and in the socio-economic interests of visual artists.  A great example of an organization that could serve American artists well.  Check out what they do here.  Also, have a gander at their minimum fee schedule here for an idea of what artists should be getting paid.
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