W.A.G.E. discuss their certification projects

A shirt made during a W.A.G.E. teach-in at Bard College, April 14, 2009. (Photo: Katerina Llanes)

W.A.G.E., or Working Artists in the Greater Economy, is a group of cultural workers advocating for the implementation of fee schedules within cultural institutions that contract their work. Here they discuss their first certification project at the New Museum and their upcoming work at Artists Space in New York, which commences with an event on January 6, 2012.

THE PROJECT WITH ARTISTS SPACE will be very different from our first certification at the New Museum primarily because we are now focused on certifying institutions rather than single exhibitions. Last fall, curator Lauren Cornell invited us to participate in the group show “Free” at the New Museum, but because we're not an art-making collective but rather an arts advocacy group, our participation involved negotiating artist fees for everyone in the exhibition. W.A.G.E. also submitted several other requests––some were met and others were not. Achieving the most important component––the payment of artist fees––made it clear that this was possible if mandated by the curator, and this became our first experimental platform for W.A.G.E. Certification. However, the museum administration refused to meet with us regarding the inclusion of artist fees in their budget as standard practice, and they still have no policy on this matter.

Our latest collaboration began with a discussion initiated in March by Artists Space’s director Stefan Kalmár and curator Richard Birkett about the payment of artist fees, among other hot button issues. Once we started talking, it became clear that paying fees and providing production support is very much a priority for Artists Space. We decided to work toward W.A.G.E. Certifying them but didn’t know what that would mean in practice: How much would a minimum artist fee be? Would it be different for solo and group exhibitions? Would it be relative to the size of the institution’s budget? Would fees be mandated by funders or by the organization’s board? Would there be oversight? Clearly, answering these questions was going to take time, investigation, and discussion, so W.A.G.E. proposed a temporary partnership with Artists Space to help us in that process.

In January, we’ll begin the first in a series of public forums and think tanks at Artists Space involving artists, activists, grant makers, arts administrators, curators, sociologists, and the public in an extended conversation about the economic practices of arts organizations. Each event is designed around a specific set of concerns relevant to W.A.G.E. Certification––and to the economic health of the community as a whole––in service of our goal of having fully established the tenets of W.A.G.E. Certification at the conclusion of the partnership. And if compliant, Artists Space will become the first organization to receive Institutional W.A.G.E. Certification.

Artists Space and W.A.G.E. will host and participate in this critical dialogue, but the equal participation and feedback of the community is also essential. How the discussion takes place is still a question that we’re going to answer with the help of the exponentially expanding arts activist community coming out of Occupy Wall Street.

But we can tell you about a few of the subjects: The first event, a presentation by artist and economist Hans Abbing, author of Why Are Artists Poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, will take place at Artists Space on January 6th at 7 PM. “Unionizing and Other Models” will bring together international artist-activist groups to look at ways of organizing art workers around alternative economic models; “Funders Talk” will be a discussion between key government and foundation funders about the viability of establishing a verification process to ensure that funds are indeed being redistributed to artists in the form of fees and other support, essentially creating a system of accountability between nonprofits and their funders; and “Profit Sharing” will be a discussion about the problems of support and exploitation between commercial galleries and nonprofit organizations in the commissioning and production of artworks.

We’ll organize and facilitate viable and productive activism among statistical researchers of artist communities, legal advisers, institutional directors, alternative economy activists, artists, performers, independent curators, and union organizers. Artists Space is being very transparent with their budget and institutional structure, which helps us to enter into dialogue with their staff and board members to develop strategies that will increase pressure on––and implement necessary change within––the arts community.

We’re also going to release the 2010 W.A.G.E. Artist Survey results as part of our work with Artists Space. An important hard fact is that 58 percent of the 577 survey respondents who exhibited at a nonprofit organization or museum in New York’s five boroughs between 2005 and 2010 did not receive any form of payment, compensation, or reimbursement––including the coverage of any expenses. These conditions are unacceptable to us.