Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Gathering

Frances Phillips

The struggle to ensure that art work is recognized as real work and compensated accordingly is an essential one, and it continues through the efforts of art collectives and organizations, the actions of artists, and countless individual decisions to accept or reject engrossing but unpaid jobs.

— Elyse Mallouk, “On Laboring for Love”

Twenty-plus years ago, when I directed an alternative arts space in San Francisco, I remember dark moments when it seemed as if the work we did took place in a parallel economic universe — one in which the amount of effort we expended and the quality of the product we produced had no bearing on the money we could earn or raise. Of course, the purpose of an alternative space is to produce challenging work — the product was supposed to be anticommercial. Yet, I believed that what we did had value.

The conundrum we faced as an artists-run organization mirrored the weak connections among labor, effort, intellectual contribution, aesthetic value, and money that hobble many artists. And while paying artists’ fees was a stated organizational value, we also asked artists to contribute performances to our fundraising benefits and their artwork to occasional auctions. We were guilty of asking artists to give away their labor.

Earlier this spring, the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, tackled Valuing Labor in the Arts through a special issue of the online journal Art Practical ( (introduced and edited by the center’s director, Shannon Jackson), and a practicum on the topic spearheaded by graduate student and artist Helena Keeffe. We have reproduced here “Standard Edition,” an overview (with graphics) of some of the themes investigated by the journal and event.

I attended the practicum because I wanted to look at money and artists anew — through the lens of artists and labor rather than the lens of artists and fellowship amounts or awards.

Further, in the course of managing the Creative Work Fund, I am asked all the time how to value artists’ labor. The program supports new work by artists who are collaborating with nonprofit organizations. We ask that artists be paid from these grants — specifically that two-thirds of the grant awards be dedicated to artists’ fees and artists’ direct expenses (e.g., materials, equipment, and travel). The Creative Work Fund asserts that artists’ work has value and artists should be paid for making that work.

But monitoring that ideal is a challenge. I am frequently asked by nonprofits how to estimate artists’ labor, and those questions are not just from medical facilities or environmental policy groups; they also come from arts organizations who do not know how to estimate fees outside of their disciplines or do not want to disrupt their usual pay scales by paying a Creative Work Fund recipient more than they normally allocate. I remember one conversation with a musical ensemble that was collaborating with a painter and assumed she did not need to be paid her for her work because when the project was over, she might be able to sell the painting.

Sadder than those conversations are the many calls from artists who are at a loss when trying to value their own time, and who are afraid to ask for more than a very low norm because they think it will seem greedy. Often the proposed collaborations are works in which an artist is involving members of a particular community — in essence managing marketing and external relations for their partnering nonprofits — and they do not know how to value that part of the work. And what about those community members whose contributions are essential to the piece? Should they be paid? How much?

The Publication

The Valuing Labor in the Arts issue of Art Practical contains a rich array of articles and manifestos that I highly recommend. Among other highlights, I was intrigued by “Appropriate Technologies” by Abigail Satinsky, and her discussion of new entrepreneurial roles for artists, including art subscription programs that draw ideas from community-supported agriculture (CSA). Just as CSA links farms to people living in the same region, many of the art subscription programs are locally focused, connecting art collectors to artists in their communities and offering affordable new ways of collecting. Their dependency on replicable products tends to pull artists away from making risky work, but some well-regarded arts nonprofits and artists are testing them with success.

The Art Practical issue also looks back at artist organizing and protest efforts from the recent and distant past. Among links provided is one to an eloquent epistle by choreographer Sara Wookey, who in 2011 wrote in protest to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, after having been offered $150 to perform as one of six female nudes in a reenactment of Marina Abramovic´’s work Nude with Skeleton. Wookey compared the pay and working conditions in museums and galleries to standards for performing artists’ compensation in other countries. Her protest was intended “to prompt a shift of thinking of cultural workers to consider, when either accepting or rejecting work of any kind, the short-and long-term impact of our personal choices on the entire field.”

Yet another Art Practical piece, “Occupational Realism,” looks at the “interconnection of contingent labor, artistic value, and precarity.” Precarity is an apt term for the unstable employment situation of many artists, though author Julia Bryan-Wilson defined it as representing broader contemporary phenomena: “the reorganization of employment to accommodate the spread of service, information, and knowledge work. It designates a pervasively unpredictable terrain of employment within these conditions — work that is without health care benefits or other safety nets, underpaid, part-time, unprotected, short-term, unsustainable, risky.”

The Practicum

The Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum offered eight workshops on topics ranging from “Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.)” — an effort to establish living wage standards for artists — to “Collective Actions/Moving Thought,” which used a movement-based process for examining labor and value in the arts. I chose “Gauging the Gray Area: Standards for Artistic Labor,” a workshop, organized by Lauren van Haaften-Schick and Helena Keeffe.

Van Haaften-Schick led us in a group reading of letters collected through her project “Non-Participation,” featuring “letters by artists, curators, and other cultural producers, written to decline their participation in events, or with organizations and institutions which they either find suspect or whose actions run counter to their stated missions.” This shared reading from van Haaften-Schick’s trove warmed us to the notion that not every opportunity should be embraced. As a group, we then devised a decision tree and survey for artists to use in contemplating different invitations. We brainstormed questions, which included the following:

  • Is this project exciting on a creative level? Does it contribute to the inquiries I’m interested in?
  • Do I like the people or organization involved?
  • Is the up-front cost in money or time?
  • What financial or other risks does this opportunity pose to my well-being?

We then tested our questions against several scenarios. In one, pay to the artist was poor, but the small museum did good publicity and would publish a catalog. In another, a commercial entity offered possible sales to an emerging artist through a booth at an international fair, but the representation came with a steep up-front cost charged to the artist, who had recently graduated from art school with significant debt. The workshop was playful, but the scenarios were quite real. Later, when I read the W.A.G.E. manifesto, two demands underlined themes from our group’s conversation:

W.A.G.E. refutes the positioning of the artist as a speculator and calls for the remuneration of cultural value in capital value.
W.A.G.E. believes that the promise of exposure is a liability in a system that denies the value of our labor.

I came away from the day’s events wondering what grantmakers could do to encourage better treatment for artists as workers. Of course, we can always ask applicant organizations about their policies for paying artists — both in the course of ordinary business and when they produce benefits and auctions. How do they protect artists from harm? Apart from fees, what other benefits and protections do they provide? Do artists retain control over how their work is presented or displayed?

What if we looked at our own practices and talked with artists about the questions they might ask themselves when deciding whether to pursue a grant or fellowship? The list might include:

  • How much will I have to spend out-of-pocket to complete this application?
  • What percentage of applicants receives these grants?
  • Would this funding allow me to pursue a line of inquiry that intrigues me, or am I adapting my practice to the guidelines?
  • If I receive the grant, will it cost me more than the money awarded to complete the project?
  • Will these grant decisions be made quickly enough that I’ll still be interested in making the work I’m proposing?

Further, what if we, as funders, agreed to a set of practices for how we engage with artists? Below are four ideas, and I invite others to help create a meaningful list:

  • factor in costs to applicants when devising application forms and procedures
  • always pay for advice
  • always pay for CDs, catalogs, and DVDs
  • reimburse artists for documenting their work for reports

Standard Deviation” contains an even fresher idea. What if artists issued a “call for funders,” and invited us to complete competitive application forms, seeking the opportunity to support them? The artists could pick and choose among us for those who are most generous, sensitive to their time, and suited to their interests. We could sit back and wait for the rejections to roll in.

Turnabout is fair play after all.