Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Artists Getting Paid

by Robert Boyd

Hyperallergic has a couple of really great posts about artists not getting paid. The main article is by art provocateur William Powhida. The title is suggestive: Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor? But the post doesn't address this question in a general sense, but rather discusses a small but obvious part of it. In this article, he talks about a survey of artists who displayed work in New York non-profit spaces between 2005 and 2010 by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the General Economy).
On Friday evening W.A.G.E. presented the results of its 2010 survey of payments received by artists who exhibited with nonprofit art institutions in New York City between 2005 and 2010. The survey found that 58% of artists who responded received “no form of payment.”  The audience, including Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár, asked questions critical of the survey methodology, but did not refute the group’s findings. W.A.G.E. has partnered with Artists Space to explore the development of a self-regulatory model, mandating the implementation of a fee schedule within the institution. Presenter A.K. Burns explained one of the rationales for artists fees, “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?”  That artists should be remunerated for their cultural value in capital value is one of W.A.G.E.’s positions from its statement and one that remains controversial. [William Powhida, "Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor?", Hyperallergic, April 23, 2012]
When you think about this, it's kind of weird. I am on the board of Frenticore/Frenetic Theater. I've looked at our books in great detail. When we put on a show (for example, the Houston Fringe Festival), we pay the performers. We are a non-profit, so we get our money from donations, grants, and charging folks to see the shows we produce or charging folks to use our theater space for their own shows. Why would an art exhibit at a non-profit space be different? (By the way, if you have an act and want to be in the Houston Fringe Festival, the deadline for submission is May 1, so get to it!)

But a theatrical or dance performance is different. First, it's expected that the theater will charge people to see it. And more important, with a performance, the performance itself is the work. And so we pay for the work. A visual artist, by contrast, has something physical to sell (I'm not going to get into the issues around installations or other temporary/immaterial artwork). So the theory is that for an artist, being in a show at a non-profit space gives you exposure with which you can then leverage to sell physical artworks. An exhibit at such a space is like a really long television commercial for your work. And there is some truth to this. Greater exposure in high-profile venues makes selling work easier, on average.

The question is whether this justifies no payment at all from the non-profit venue. I don't think so. Sure the artist gets a small, indefinable benefit, but so does the institution. They aren't showing this work as a favor to the artist. So in a way, they are like any other venue for creative work. If a magazine or newspaper publishes your work, they pay for one-time rights. A non-profit venue should do the same.

Why Are Artists Poor
Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor?: the Exceptional Economy of the Arts. I have no idea if the contents of this book, which I have not read, are relevant here, but it seems apropos.

One argument that a non-profit might make is that they don't have a lot of money. And with certain exceptions, this is true. I don't expect non-profit art spaces, as a class, to suddenly conjure thousands of dollars out of thin air to pay artists. But they should pay artists, and the money needs to be taken from within the institution. Maybe this means fewer shows per year, or a smaller staff or less marketing. It would be a real sacrifice. I'm not denying it. But as someone who sits on the board of a non-profit that pays its artists, I know it can be done.

One wonders how it got to this state. But the answer is economically obvious. More people want to be artists than there is demand for art. In fact, people are willing to be poor if that's what it takes to be artists. It's one of those professions that attracts way more people than can be reasonably paid. So this makes it a buyers market--and non-profit art spaces are, essentially, buyers of art. I don't mean that that they have collections, but they do essentially rent art for six weeks or so at a a time. And right now, the rent they pay is close to zero. That should change.

To see a bunch of infographics put together by W.A.G.E. on this topic, see this post.

(Fair disclosure. The Great God Pan Is Dead doesn't pay a piaster. Dean Liscum is being totally exploited by me. I am an utter hypocrite. Just thought I should point that out.)



  1. Thanks for tackling this difficult subject. Regarding performance art, there are some very reputable organizations that don't pay performers, but the quality of the work is sometimes not as high. I personally think it's a question of fairness, whether it's performance or visual art, and I'm glad the issue has been raised regarding visual artists.
    It's kind of like the guy who said, "College football players are generating a ton of money for schools. It's time for them to get paid." And most people thought, "He's right, I just hadn't thought of it before."

  2. The issue of paying college football players is one being widely and passionately discussed right now. I think they should get paid as well!

  3. Even deeper into the issue, and a factor that is seemingly missing so far from the discussion is the fact that artists are often expected to pay for entry into exhibits. So, not only are artists expected to work for free, or on spec, they are very often expected to pay for the privilege of showing their work publicly. Often, the fees go toward the costs of the exhibits themselves, or to help with awards or other perfectly valid expenses. However, the question remains; if this is a job, and artists are not only expected to work without payments, but rather expected to pay to do the job, rather than be paid, how is this a feasible career path? It's no wonder that the dropout rates among educated and skilled artists are so dismal, because at its heart, this goes well beyond a simple matter of compensation or competition. On the whole, the system is literally stacked in opposition to the financial solvency of working artists.

  4. @ Robert Jones : "artists are often expected to pay for entry into exhibits"

    Seriously, that reeking bullshit always pisses me off. Fuck those gallery bitches. They have nothing.

  5. Robert Jones and anonymous: Are you guys talking about "pay-for-play"-type commercial galleries (which I think personally prey on the desperation and unrealistic expectations of wannabe artists in much the same way the Lottery preys on the desperation and statistical illiteracy of many poor people)? Or artists' co-ops, where each participating artist helps pay for a space (which can be good but can also be a deceptive deal. Or juried art shows at non-profit spaces which often have an entry fee? I have mixed feelings about the latter. The fee has several purposes--it often helps fly in a juror; it is a fundraising tool; and finally, it helps to limit the number of entries. But at the same time, the artists who enter juried competitions are typically "emerging artists" (at best), who are not known for having a lot of spare cash.

    1. It's the latter, open calls with fees attached, that I was specifically addressing. Like I'd stated, there are legitimate uses for the money, to be sure, but it also tends to be the entry level for most artists, who usually to have to gain some show experience before they'll be considered for more permanent venues. It's funny that you would mention the effect of limiting the number of entries, because that's something that is both felt in the short term as well as the long term. The paradigm is that artists aren't even paying for a guarantee that their work will be shown; if there is a jury, then there is usually a rejection pool. So, what we are left with is a two-edge blade. Young artists have to budget limited funds toward the prospects of getting their work in shows, but getting work shown is not a given. Even if their work is shown, there is no promise of a prize or a sale from the showing, so then it becomes a matter of financial loss, leveraged against what, good fortune?

      It really is kind of a predatory system that few make it through. And then what do they have to contend with, but still showing-- providing the content that draws people to the venues-- without any compensation. If one is treating art as one's profession, then one needs to treat one's work as a business. Businesses that work at a loss go under. Artists aren't exempt from that. So, the hierarchy of success in this system starts with artists paying to get their work shown, and then if they're lucky or masochistic enough to move up a rung, they might have the privilege of showing their work for free, then maybe someday they might start getting paid. In the meantime, they're still expected to make all of the necessary investments to keep producing more material.

      Like I'd stated, the dropout rate for career artists is phenomenal, and given the system of non-compensation that exists for artists, it's no wonder why.

    2. Well, I don't totally approve of such practices for juried shows, but they aren't the worst. I think a slightly better system would refund the entry fee if you made it into the show (but only if the juror was an out-of-towner with no connection to the local scene), along with cash prizes for the best-in-show and runners up.

      But I think the attrition rate is due in part to the fact that there are so many artists in the first place. How many newly minted visual arts MFAs appear in the USA every year? So naturally some will burn out trying to make it. The country doesn't need that much art. But as the inevitable weeded out occurs, people should get paid for work that is displayed. After, being displayed--getting a show at a non-profit art space--is part of the weeding out. It shows that some curator or director likes you work. And they should show it with cash!

      I looked followed up on several years worth of University of Houston MFAs to see how many were still active artists. The further back I went, the fewer I could find (which doesn't mean they weren't still artists, but if they were exhibiting they would probably leave some kind of electronic trail...). But one thing I found was that several of them had ended up becoming high school art teachers. Which I thought was a pretty nice ending to their story--maybe they couldn't make it in the art world as a art maker, but teaching kids is a damn noble thing to do.

      In any case, I agree with you that juried shows should be set up differently. The ideal way to do it is with no fees, but if that is not possible due to the cost of the show (and they aren't cheap to mount), some kind of rebate system or something should be considered.

  6. Imagine if the government spent as much on arts funding as it did on prisons & wars...
    I think that people who care about this issue should 1)Support artists and arts venues, and 2)Vote for politicians that fund the arts.
    And I agree that teaching kids is a damn noble thing to do!

  7. I'd offer a contrary thought to the juried shows model. Perhaps the entry fee should be refunded to those who did NOT make it into the show? That assuages the sting of paying the fee to be rejected, as well as frees up some cash to pursue a different venue/show which may be a better fit. As we've seen from the Big Show/Salon des Refusés dynamic, it can be anyone's guess.

    I'd be the first to say that artists should be paid. At Fresh Arts, we get calls from realtors, designers, party-planners, and restaurateurs every day asking for artists to show or perform...and the first thing we ask is whether the artists would be compensated. On the other hand, whether a nonprofit pays the artist depends upon the organization's intent. Using Lawndale again as an example, their residency program provides both a modest stipend, studio space, and finally, an exhibition. That seems win-win all the way around. At the same time, I imagine Lawndale receives funding for that program.

    We currently take a slightly different approach at Fresh Arts. Our space functions as not only a gallery space, but a rehearsal and meeting space, as well as a classroom. We hear it echoed from every direction that artists should not wait for permission or invitation to present their work, so we create a space for underrepresented artists may experiment and exhibit. We place virtually no artistic restraints on these artists, we shepherd them through the production and promotion process (including reaching out to targeted collectors and gallerists on their behalf), and we underwrite the promotional and event costs. We do not (yet) offer a stipend to the artists, but we also receive no support for the exhibitions and therefore, spend organizational resources to create this opportunity. So, the question is: is it better for us to pay artists something very modest and limit this opportunity to fewer artists? Or to create as productive, nurturing, and supportive environment as possible for artists while they're showcasing their work, while augmenting their professional skills, media relations, and network? I don't claim to know the definitive answer, but judging from the feedback we've received from exhibiting artists, as well as an overwhelming increase in the number of quality proposals we receive, it seems the community is making a statement. While I want to reiterate that we'd love to offer exhibiting artists a stipend, I do believe many nonprofits at least endeavor to earn their keep.

    And I do think the dynamic is entirely different than that of a performing arts space. You mentioned that Freneticore charges rental fees to those using the space for their own shows. (I'm assuming that means that renters take all the door proceeds.) But riddle me this: how is renting the space to performers who may or may not sell tickets so different than renting the space to artists who may or may not sell work? Let's take it one step further and assume the nonprofit is charging the artist rent. See where I'm going with this? My point is that the issue of artist payments really depend on the nature of the nonprofit, the nonprofit's mission, and whether the nonprofit is using the artist to further its own aesthetic or brand. That is not always so cut and dry.

    PS: I explored this issue from a different angle here: http://blog.chron.com/heavyartillery/2011/10/time-talent-treasure/

  8. I imagine one might understand without this clarification, but the sentence in the last paragraph should read: "Let's take it one step further and assume the nonprofit is NOT charging the artist rent."

  9. I think it's a matter of convention. Not all dance companies or theater companies have their own theaters, so they necessarily must use someone else's. The convention is to rent it--this arrangement can work a bunch of ways. The theater can charge a flat fee. The theater can charge a portion of the gate receipts. The theater can charge a deposit that is an advance on a percentage of the gate.

    If we take a percentage of the gate, we are basically doing what you describe--we are not charging rent and only succeed if the play or dance performance succeeds (in selling tickets).

    The problem is that historically, pay-for-play has not been such a good deal for artists. But even there, there are exceptions! All those exhibitors at the Bayou City Art Festival pay for their booth space.

    So right--there's no one right answer. But in every case, the thing is that the relationship shouldn't be exploitative. If there is a power imbalance, the side with the power shouldn't use it to extract what are called "economic rents" from the less powerful side. I think that's often what happens when an art space shows the work of an artist without compensation.

  10. Thanks for speaking on this important topic, Robert. The relationship between money and the performing arts is an old one, which grows in relevance with each generation. One thing that I have noticed as an American, who has lived and worked outside of the US for the past 4 years, is how the notion of doing your creative work for free, including theater, is considered bizarre by the majority of the performing arts sector internationally (I am talking about Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia). Whereas in the US, it seems that it is 'a given' that you 'do your art for free,' this does not seem to be shared internationally. Is this because culture is considered an inherent part of society outside of the United States, and therefore just as worthy as any other profession, and thereby deserving to be paid?

    In the US, it seems that the thinking goes something like this: do your work for free, because it will give you 'exposure'. You'll make money down the line. somehow.

    This seems to be a very old model, and one that just doesn't work anymore (has it worked in the past 50 years?). Besides, 'free' is inaccurate, given that performing artists rarely recoup the money that they invest into a production--rehearsal rental, venue rental, salaries for all of the creative contributors on and off stage. What's more, many festivals or residencies--resources meant to 'give exposure' for the work of the artists--tend to require a fee from the artists themselves, and they tend to gain no 'cut' of any box office revenue or other sources of income from the event.

    Unlike other art forms where there is a fixed object or 'product', theater and other performing arts are ephemeral. American artists especially need to make sure that they are finding resources to make their art self-sustaining. It should not be made into a 'hobby'. People will easily not pay for something, if given a choice. But by the same token, people spend significant amounts of money for a good meal, or a Broadway show; why not demand the same for your work? Because it is WORK; it's not an avocation. And if the current resources and material structures are not there, we need to get together and create new ones. All artists should get paid for their performance, their dancing, their painting, their writing, whatever they make. We can begin by not selling ourselves short by constantly 'donating' our services pro bono, ad infinitum.