Monday, October 27, 2014

People Should Get Paid for Their Work

Robert Boyd

People should get paid for their work. That's the basic premise behind Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). Their mission is a little less blunt:
Founded in 2008, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a New York-based activist group whose advocacy is currently focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable model for best practices between artists and the institutions that contract their labor. 
The labor of artists for nonprofit art institutions is different from other kinds of labor. It's freelance instead of on-going. But it's not work-made-for-hire--the institution doesn't own the work unless a specific purchase agreement is made. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that when an artist puts on an exhibit in some non-profit space, some work is done. If it's a show of paintings, most of the work is embedded in the paintings themselves, which the artist can subsequently sell. If it's a site-specific temporary installation, the artist has no hope of gaining future income from the work. Given this, it seems fair that these two artists be paid different fees. But the question is, how do you determine the fees?

In the world of commercial art, the Graphic Artists Guild publishes a book called Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Commercial artists are in a similar situation as fine artists--they are freelance and they usually have many clients.This book gives them an idea of what they should charge for their work. Without this, they'd just have to guess what a fair price is and be more vulnerable.

Now the presence of the Graphic Artists Guild and the Handbook doesn't mean that artists don't get ripped off or exploited. But it helps artists understand when they are getting ripped off and provides tools for artists to avoid it.

How is W.A.G.E. approaching this issue? Mainly be going straight to the non-profits (501(c)3 tax exempt arts organizations) and providing a certification program. It involves changing their budgets (both annual and for specific exhibits/events) to reflect ethical pricing, as defined by W.A.G.E.'s fee calculator. So if a non-profit is W.A.G.E.-certified, an artist knows that there is a certain floor for her fee (and visitors know that the artists got paid fair fees). The fee calculator is based on the organization's total annual operating budget. I wish W.A.G.E. had defined this better. For example, would G&A expenses or depreciation count in your operating budget? I suspect it's different for non-profits than for commercial enterprises, but I'm not sure exactly how.

My problem with certification is that it only really provides a binary tool for artists--either the institution that may host your exhibit is certified or not. So it occurred to me that the expenses of any given 501(c)3 organization are public--they report them on their 990 tax forms, which anyone can access via Guidestar. If you look at the "Total Expenses" line of an organization's 990, the vast majority of that should be operational expenses. (If it's not, then I suspect that there's something wrong with the organization.) So I thought, let's use reported 990 expenses as a stand-in for total annual operating budget. Given this, what should artists be getting paid by various Houston area art non-profits? (In reality, the W.A.G.E. minimum fee will be slightly lower for some of the institutions once you take out the non-operational part of the expenses.)

W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator Applied to Annual Expenses of Houston-Area Art Non-Profits

* Assumed the written piece was 1100 words
** Assumed 3 hours of labor

There's a lot of information here. The left hand column are the institutions in question, in descending order by total expenses. The second column is the source of the total expenses number. The third column is the total expenses for each institution. The remaining columns are the minimum level fees for a variety of artistic activities recommended by W.A.G.E. using their fee calculator.

Some institutions are not shown because they are not 501(c)3s and therefore do not publish their 990s (the Station Museum and the Art Car Museum, for example). Some art institutions are part of larger institutions so I can't separate out their finances (the Rice Gallery, the Blaffer Museum, the Contemporary Art Gallery and the Fine Museum at HBU, the University Museum at TSU and the various galleries at HCC and Lone Star Community College campuses).

W.A.G.E. also has a maximum level of pay: "At the maximum rate, or 'Maximum W.A.G.E.' compensation at the Solo Exhibition rate is capped at the average salary of the institution's full-time employees." But since I don't have that information, I have left those figures off.

The first thing you notice is that for any institution with less than $500,000 in annual expenses, the fees are all the same. This is W.A.G.E.'s floor level. For operating expenses between $500,000 and $5 million, the fees are generally a percentage of the operating expenses. Above $5 million, the minimum is capped (as you can see for the HAA, the Menil and the MFAH). These fees do not include expenses such as travel, lodging and shipping. The institution is expected to cover such expenses above and beyond the basic fee, and W.A.G.E. provides guidelines for that.

I think this could be a useful took for artists. Even if an institution is not W.A.G.E. certified, it at least gives an artist an idea of what they should be asking for for their services.

Are their problems with W.A.G.E. and their approach? Yes. I had a long conversation the other day about this and several issues arose. To simplify, here are the questions that came up and here's how I (obviously not a spokesman for W.A.G.E.) would answer them.

1) Doesn't this commodify a relationship that is about much more than money?

Yes. This is always a cost in labor agreements. The question has to be what is lost versus what is gained.

2) Doesn't the floor price mean something different in different places? $1000 in New York City is different from $1000 in Houston, for example.

I think this is a serious issue. Was W.A.G.E. thinking primarily of their home base in New York when they came up with the floor pricing? If so, maybe there should be a scale based on relative cost-of-living for a given location. Obviously doing so would make the fee calculator much more complicated--and therefore less easy to use. But perhaps W.A.G.E. believes that this floor should be national in the same way that, say, the federal minimum wage is national.

3) Isn't W.A.G.E. too militant? Isn't their tone off-putting?

The history of labor rights won is not a history of asking politely. That said, for all of W.A.G.E.'s radical bluster, they don't suggest any consequences for 501(c)3s not getting certified. For example, are they suggesting that artists boycott especially egregious institutions? Picket them?

4) Doesn't this turn non-profit organizations into "the Man"?

Yes, in the sense that it formalizes the freelance relationship between artist and institution. But 501(c)3s are already formalized institutions in a legal sense. They aren't ad hoc spaces--they've gone through the trouble to become tax-exempt organizations with charitable purpose. We hold them to account, and asking that they pay decent fees is just one more example of this public accounting. The details of the fee calculator can be argued, but expecting everyone to come through in at least some minimal way doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

5) Doesn't the fee calculator, and particularly the "floor," penalize very small art organizations?

I think so. Box 13, with its annual budget of $85 thousand, is not in a position to pay every artist with a solo show $1000. This small artist-run institution exists mainly to provide inexpensive studio space (it was founded by artists who were evicted from the original CSAW). As far as I know, they have no paid staff. But they host some of the most interesting shows in Houston. Is it reasonable to expect the same pay rate from them as from Lawndale, which has more than five times Box 13's budget?

These issues will, I assume, be open for discussion at charge, a two-day practicum at the Art League. on November 8 and 9. Alas, I will be traveling that week, so I'll miss it. It will feature a variety of speakers and seminar leaders from both the local scene and from around the country, including Lise Soskolne from W.A.G.E. If you're planning to attend, think about spending some quality time with the 990s of Houston's various art non-profits. I know it sounds boring, but if you are thinking of exhibiting with any of them, you owe it to yourself to know something about their finances.

Have you had an exhibit with any of the institutions above? How much did they pay you? If you're willing to come forward, I think it would be very useful for other artists to know. Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. This should include those writing as well.

    1. They covered catalog essays and any other writing that a non-profit might commission in theur fee calculator.