Thought Experiments in Agency

Wages Among Art Worker Coalition Members

On the value of an hour.

In Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, three hourly wages are described: $2–3, 4, and $25.

$2–3/hour

Lucy Lippard got her master’s at NYU so she could raise her hourly rate for doing research from $2 to $3. She graduated in 1962. In 2015 dollars, that’s $15.65 and $23.48, respectively.*

$4/hour

Slightly better paid were a few art handlers. Sol Lewitt paid four assistants $4 per hour for four days to fabricate his wall drawing in Kynaston McShine’s Information show at the Museum of Modern Art. Four 1970 dollars adjusts to $24.91 in 2015.* It’s decent; it’s close to a common freelance art handler rate in New York now.

$25/hour

This is Robert Morris’ wage in The Peripatetic Artists Guild, an performative art project in which he placed ads offering his services in a range of political, artistic, and construction projects. (He also stipulated that “all travel, materials, construction and other costs to be paid by the owner-sponsor” and that any subsequent sales require a 50% return of funds.) Twenty-five dollars in 1970 amounts to $155.71 in 2015 dollars.*

This is an art project, so it’s economically irrational, to the extent that Bryan-Wilson acknowledges that “in retrospect it appears to offer a remarkably good deal.” I assume that she’s comparing that hourly wage to the cost of purchasing Morris’ artworks now.

Still, I think there’s something fishy about this project as an exercise in wage labor. With such a high rate, all expenses paid, and resale rights that most artists today still don’t enjoy, the ‘guild’ is operating more like a hard-negotiating consultant. When you can make in one hour what others make in eight, you’re afforded more choice and autonomy. It’s not a precarious or proletarian position, so Morris’ identification with “workers” and “wage labor” is questionable.

As Patricia Maloney asserts in a recent op-ed on Art Practical:

“We cannot perceive artistic compensation as an end goal abstracted from the strata of support that precipitate that payment. We need to reinforce the infrastructure that enacts that labor.”

Building upon that, I’d ask what are the infrastructures that afford and determine compensation? How are these infrastructures shaped? Art handlers at large museums usually receive a decent wage and working conditions, mirroring the affiliation of museum workers with a union—one of the lasting accomplishments of Art Worker Coalition agitation.

How are these infrastructures biased?** Do they fall into the trap of equating administrative labor with women’s work, rendering it less visible and less likely to be well-remunerated? When I interviewed Elizabeth Travelslight this spring, she noted,

“I think administration—often because it’s gendered female—it’s not considered noteworthy.”

Yet administration keeps collectives, coalitions, and movements together. Indeed, one of the factors in the dissolution of the Art Workers Coalition was the defection of women—including its administrators—to feminist groups where they felt they could be heard.

*Inflation adjusted via dollartimes.com.

**The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s new study of diversity on museum staffs provides quantitive evidence to what many museum workers already know: women are well represented in curatorial, conservation, and education, and people of color are often employed in low-growth departments in maintenance and security.

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