Citizenship, Meta-Practice, Values

Just say no

Stop asking artists to work for free.

And artists, just say no to working for free.

That’s what Tim Kreider called for in “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” a funny, bitterly-laughing-because-it’s-true, op-ed on NYT (Oct. 26, 2013). (Recent grads and emerging artists are the most guilty.) Krieder included a form letter:

Here, for public use, is my very own template for a response to people who offer to let me write something for them for nothing:

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

“In this economy” implies the recession, and that working for free might be OK in abundant times. But in this capitalist economy, where artists have no protections, I don’t think we can’t really afford it, recession or none.

The Graphic Arts Guild has been preaching to freelance illustrators and graphic designers to ask for decent compensation for the good of their fields, and it’s about time for fine artists and freelance writers to take up the mantle.

W.A.G.E. has been agitating for artists to get paid for our labor—such as exhibiting our work. I’ve added my name to the list of supporters, and you can too.

Their latest project is W.A.G.E. Certification, in which non-profits in NYC can sign up to be certified as organizations that equitably pay artists’ fees. I love the idea; nationwide requirements like CARCC would be ideal, but short of that, this model, sort of like a Better Business Bureau of art nonprofits, is a huge step forward.

I hope it spreads like wildfire around the country.

I hope foundations take it up as a grant requirement to nonprofits.

Basically, W.A.G.E. Certification requirements stop organizations from asking artists to work for free:

1. Artist Fees must be paid.

2. The Artist Fee is separate from, and must not be used to cover travel, lodging, installation, shipping or any other expenses associated with production.

Though W.A.G.E. Certification is currently in progress, it’s already helped me think through certain artist’s opportunities.

For example, a Brooklyn art nonprofit has a current call for a fellowship program. Successful applicants will receive a solo exhibition along with the requirement to stage a public program. No funds are promised.

In fact, not only will artists not receive an artist’s fee, nor any production expense reimbursements, applicants are required to submit a budget and a plan for external funding for the public program. So in addition to unpaid exhibition labor, Fellows will undertake fundraising and project management labor, too.

The organization’s only monetary outlay, according to the application, is the printing of postcards. That’s like, what, $75 to $300, a pittance compared to artist’s expenses incurred in a solo show. I could easily spend $1-3k on materials alone, whereas the greatest financial burden is incurred by the time it takes to conceptualize, prototype, procure, produce, pack/crate, transport, install, and de-install a show.

(Think about this: I work as an art installer at a nonprofit gallery. They pay me to handle artworks. This other nonprofit gallery would have me take time off from a paid job to do the same exact labor, but will not pay because the artwork is by a different artist: me.)

This nonprofit receives support from state, city, and borough funding agencies, as well as corporations and foundations. Yet not one of those dollars will go directly to individual artist Fellows who will take on the lion’s share of creating a gallery exhibition and public event. In exchange for a venue and access to the organization’s audience, Fellows arguably take responsibility for a fraction of the gallery’s annual programming, not for a fraction of its annual budget, but zero compensation.

Sometimes interactions that should be little to no work still amount to working for free.

I recently contributed images to a nonprofit organization’s printed curriculum, which, despite their good intentions and my attempts at self-protection, still ended up backfiring.

They didn’t have money for reproduction rights (always suspect to me, as publication budgets usually account for design and printing). 

I did it as a favor to friend, though I asked for a contract. (Again, artists, get the GAG handbook if you haven’t already!) The organization’s lawyer drafted one that specified artworks, and I submitted images with full caption information.

The publication included images that I didn’t permit them to use, as well as incomplete and incorrect captions (which would have duly credited the art organizations that did support me with actual money). I sent the organization a list of ways they overstepped their own agreement. They were sincerely apologetic and pulled the curriculum to revise it, which I appreciate.

Zero compensation is bad enough; further time and frustration expended is worse.

Kreider should be paid well for his skill. I admire his ability to write about this topic humorously. To me, arguing such an obvious point makes me smack my forehead in exasperation.

Organizations can be very ironic in how they characterize their own labor. An artist’s residency program posted this recently on

We are tired of artists not getting the support and time they need to move forward with their artistic careers. So, we want to offer artists a space to rest, experiment, and create – and to do so with ease.

The note of frustration is pretty hilarious, because what this organization does—charge about $850 USD after tax for a one month rental of a bedroom and semi-private studio—doesn’t qualify as artists “getting the support and time they need” to me.

For that amount, you could rent a small studio in Brooklyn, the second most expensive urban area to live in the US, after Manhattan.

What I am really after is the normalcy of transactions. Artists provide a service and undertake labor. Nonprofits who purport to support artists should then funnel their funds to artists. It’s pretty simple.

I was once hired by a nonprofit to design an appeal letter for their direct mail campaign soliciting cash donations. I finished the job and sent an invoice for my services, extending a nonprofit discount to them.

A week later, I receive an envelope in the mail. Expecting a check, I opened it, only to find the very appeal letter I designed.

“Oh!” I thought. “You’ve got it turned around. I don’t pay you. YOU pay ME.”

I need to bring that clarity and certainty as a designer to my approach towards opportunities as an artist.

Despite this rant, I am glad that nonprofits exist. They’re part of a legacy of social change and transformation in this country that I’m very proud of. Lots of amazing and ethical arts nonprofits exist and support countless artists. Nonprofits are spaces in which alternative futures can be played out in the present… until the time when better alternatives will become more viable.


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