Meta-Practice, Values

Middle grounds

Grappling with how to find a middle ground in an art career.

In the Bronx Museum AIM program, about a third of us don’t necessarily aspire or expect to be represented by a blue chip gallery, or run an art studio as a vertically-integrated business with permanent staff. At the same time, we do want something more—I think we would like to avoid still working as adjunct professors or art handlers when we’re 50. These jobs are too demanding and precarious for artistic growth and financial viability.

I’ve also spoken to undergrads about professional practices. I advised them to devise their own self-concordant goals and to be wary of adopting conventional success models not their own.

How to find a middle ground—where artists can flourish in an expensive city and an economically polarized art field—seems to be the puzzle we’re all trying to solve.

In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream….

The middle — that place where professionals do their work in conditions that are neither lavish nor improvised, for a reasonable living wage — is especially vulnerable to collapse because its existence has rarely been recognized in the first place. Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.

A. O. Scott, “The Paradox of Art as Work,” N.Y. Times, May 9, 2014

Actually, there’s a small but growing contingent of us “almost nobodies” that would claim otherwise, such as the #payingartists campaign by Artist’s Network in the U.K.

For me, the issue is crystal clear: if a non-profit organization receives funds to hold exhibitions, some of those funds should go to the artists who contribute the actual artwork—without which an exhibition would not be possible. And, when artists contribute to exhibition-making with our time and labor—registration, transportation, installation, curation, writing, photo documentation, administration, etc.—we should be compensated with a fair and living wage. Larger institutions pay staff, freelancers, or outside service providers to do these tasks; funders should enable and require organizations of all sizes to pay the providers of the labor required by the institution’s programming, regardless of who it is.

Fair compensation would be a start in creating a middle ground for artists. It’s not an outlandish, and I think it’s rational and appropriate.

[Buddhist economist E.F.] Schumacher calls for economic solutions to globalization that are founded on principles of self-empowerment, self-reliance and decentralization, and local control. He advocates for decentralized working methods, or “smallness within bigness,” in which interrelated but autonomous units work together toward a greater goal. Furthermore, he presents the philosophy of “enoughness,” a Buddhist approach to economics that advocates for self-sufficiency: producing from local resources for local needs at a modest scale, appropriate for a balanced life.

Abigail Satinsky, “Appropriate Technologies,” Art Practical, April 3, 2014

Addendum: See Christian L. Frock’s “Beyond the Studio: What Do Artists/Writers/Curators Need?” (KQED Arts, May 12, 2014).


Book Idea: Seven Days in the Art Underworld

Reading Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World* makes me want to read about who’s stories aren’t being told.

I’m enjoying Thornton’s stylized writing and insight into major institutions, but a few quotes hit a nerve with me:

Gallerist Jeff Poe:

“Takashi [Murakami] worked so hard on this painting that several staff quit.”

(What’s wrong with this sentence? What are the implications of making “Takashi” a metonym for a vertically-integrated art production empire?)

Artist Phil Collins, while a Turner Prize nominee:

“…the commercial art world … is there anywhere you could possibly feel smaller?”

(If Collins, who has significant recognition, can made to feel small in the art world, what are the psychological effects for everyone else with less power?)

In response, I envision a restorative book to tell the stories of marginalized figures in the art world, make their invisible labor visible, and reveal the fullness of their humanity denied in their roles propping up the art world, its power dynamics, ethics, and etiquette. Here goes:

Profiles would shadow subjects at their day jobs, as well as in their commutes, homes, their own art studios, and communities.

In general, I’d like to know: What is it that they do? How do you explain what you do to non-art people? What attracts about this job? What are the disadvantages of this job? How does it rank against other jobs? What are the physical tolls? The psychological or emotional ones? How much security does it offer? Where do you see yourself in 20 years? How does this job lend you power/insight/connection/meaning, or not? What is the value of interfacing with the art world in this way? Do you see yourself as part of the art world? What are your contributions? Are they adequately recognized? Does your family and community/communities participate in the art world; how, why, or why not? Ideally how would you like to participate in an art world? In the world at large?

The seven chapters would profile:

  1. Gallery Interns/Sitters: Young art students, their debt and their privilege, what they are learning in exchange for their unpaid labor—explicitly, and implicitly.
  2. Museum Guards & Custodians: Profile two or three at different museums, unionized and non-unionized. Who are they are as a group? How do they interpret the art or interact with artists? What they would recommend about museum policies and practices, such as admission, curation, engagement?
  3. Museum Preparators: Expose what they do. What the risks are, and how the hierarchies in museums work, and what is the gender distribution. How many are artists/musicians?
  4. Artist’s Assistants: Including former assistants who’ve walked off the job, and a survey of Murakami/Koons alum for example.
  5. Fabricators: What type of skills are required, how they feel about producing artists’ work, how they became fabricators, assuming that many went to art school for their own practices.
  6. Art Handlers: On a truck, in a private home collection, service entries, bars. Profile a young upstart and an old timer. Investigate the nature of male cynicism.
  7. Museum construction crews: Who are they, where are they from, what are their working conditions, and what they will do at the end of their contract?

Also, a section of data visualizations, including CEO vs average worker type comparison charts, and maps of art-related labor migration overlaid with globalized art fair/biennial circulation.

This would clearly take a year or more in the making. It could be a standalone book, or a series of long form essays in a periodical. I don’t have this kind of capacity, but I’d love to see this in the world‚ so I encourage others to take this idea and run with it!

*Thanks for the book trade, CLF!

Meta-Practice, Values

Only in an obfuscating art world does transparency seem radical

Some generative, collective thoughts for transparency and against competition.

Thinking about all the things that are supposed to go unspoken in the art world, and artists’ self-preservation, and how even a teeny bit of transparency can seem risky or radical in the obfuscating art world. Our battles seem so hard won, why share any insight with others? Exactly because none of this is easy. Info and access are the easy bits, relative to good work, persistence, and longevity.

“Every interaction involves a choice between collaboration and competition, and to what degree. Eventually you have to choose the world you want to live in.”


“So much of the way that the art world is structured favors competition. Grants are competitive. … Artists compete with artists–stealing ideas instead of sharing them, or using copyright laws to guard against thoughtful re-use. Artists compete for shows in a limited number of exhibition spaces instead of finding their own ways to exhibit outside of these competitive venues. Artists conceal opportunities from their friends as a way of getting an edge up on the capital-driven competition. … This is a treadmill made from decomposing shit that is so devoid of nutrients that even its compost won’t allow anything fresh to grow. We need something better to run on. … Working toward a global network where one creates opportunities and, in turn, can respond to limitless opportunities without the pressure to compete, allows for a more generous, diverse and open art practice.”

Marc Fisher (Temporary Services), “Against Competition,” Blunt Art Text #2, April 2006 via Stephanie Syjuco/Free Texts



Author and museum director Tom Finklepearl in conversation with artist Rick Lowe:

“Rick, quite frankly, you may look at things ten or fifteen times a day and see potential, but that is a tremendously optimistic outlook. Others might look ten times a day at the problems… and get depressed. But even for the most optimistic and active person, as you say, there is a difference between seeing potential and activating it.”

Tom Finklepearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Collaboration (2013)

Optimistic thoughts and actions

Meta-Practice, Values

Recommended Reads on Public Sculpture and Self-Criticism

On Public Sculpture

“Best of All Possible Worlds” by Mark Lane
The Believer (Nov/Dec 2013)

Public sculpture, a well-intentioned art competition, Richard Florida-inspired development, class, gentrification, a NYC artist and an Evansville, IL neighborhood collide in this report of a true and impolitic debacle. I highly recommend it.

Implicitly, it suggests how not to redevelop a neighborhood, run an art competition, and instrumentalize public sculpture. At the same time, it offers one way an artist could ethically interact with locals.

On Self-Criticism

“Four Ways to Constructive Criticze Yourself,” by Juliana Breines
Greater Good Science Center, January 9, 2014

These suggestions are fantastic. Artists can benefit from them, especially when thinking about what we can and can’t control in the art world, our own practices, and networks. It’s easy to get down in the dumps when we’re hungry for more, or get poisonously resentful that we’re not the recognition that you deserve. For people who are really hard on yourself, take this as a reminder to practice self-compassion.


Julia Bryan-Wilson on artists’ privilege and power

About a month ago, scholar and critic Julia Bryan-Wilson delivered a short, affirmative, and electrifying speech about artists’ professionalization, political capacities, and privilege. It is beautiful in its erudition and alacrity.

She presented the talk in a recent conference, “Institutions By Artists—Debate 2: Should Artists Professionalize?”on Vimeo (Bryan-Wilson’s talk starts at 38:40). A segment has found its way onto YouTube as “Julia Bryan-Wilson is totally badass.” I didn’t click on the cheap meme title until only recently, and I can’t help but mull over her points, especially in relation to other references. Here’s are some excerpts of her talk:

First, on ethical behavior and relations:

If there is a space for art outside of the state and market…, it is … the space of embodiment that is separate from the total administration of everyday life. It’s within this space that it makes sense to redefine professionalism so that it does not denote walking lockstep to the beat of the neoliberal, entrepreneurial drum, but rather, managing yourself, practicing an ethics of care when you engage with others. We might call this ‘minding your business,’ and I don’t mean ‘business’ in the white-collar sense, but the inter-relational ways in which we move through the world….

[I’m all for art world ethics.]

Then, meeting realism with artists’ wiliness:

[The question of ‘Should artists professionalize?’ is, rather,] “How do you want to acknowledge your own production within a highly compromised economy? Let’s be strategic about how we contribute to those structures and be tactical about how we might interrupt or stall its ruthless logic….

[Earlier today, our book club reading Martha Rosler’s Culture Class discussed whether artists should make political art or take to the streets. Rosler concluded that artists don’t have to choose. And even though works of art may be eventually rewritten (co-opted), the process takes time, an in that gap, critical art works can efficaciously speak to present conditions. I love that note of optimism, the quick-footed juking out of false dichotomies.]

Instead of, ‘Should artists professionalize?’ we should ask, ‘How should artists profess?’ Profess, of course, has many meanings. One of them is to declare oneself skilled or expert—to assert knowledge. But it also means to lay claim to something falsely, insincerely, or deceptively. I think artists should profess, by accepting their expertise as well as their wily ways. I call for the professing of professionalism, ironizing and making strange professionalization, turning it upside down to curdle it, to estrange it from itself….

She concludes with this powerful embrace of paradoxes inherent to discussions about artists’ political agency:

Let’s reframe the question:

Should artists and critics profess what they believe in? Be more transparent about the stakes of their making and how they support themselves? Yes.

Should artists and critics be self-aware of their own circulation within frameworks of power, of their own implication in larger systems of financialization and self-management? Yes.

Should artists advocate for themselves, and for social justice more broadly, with an understanding that their fights might have some surprising resonance with other questions of inequity? Yes.

Should artists also organize with an awareness that they have certain class privileges, due to cultural capital, even if that cultural capital does not always easily translate into actual political power or long-term financial security? Yes.

[Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses outlines that artists’ autonomy means that we’re more like middle class workers than the lower class we may feel like.]

Should artists fictionalize rather than financialize? Make shit up? Falsify? Infiltrate? Yes.

Should artists with art school educations realize that just because they are underpaid does not mean they are underclass? Yes.

[This is a huge point. On the one hand, I sympathize with art school grads with huge debts, who are struggling to make ends meet in expensive cities like San Francisco and NYC. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to come from a working class background, and can’t help but feel that calls for, for example, art school debt forgiveness are myopic and entitled.]

Should art historians and critics acknowledge our profound privilege as tastemakers? Yes.

Should we all take more risks, but all the time acknowledge that the risks we take are not equivalent to many other people’s and the risks they live? Yes.

Bascially, JBW brings some perspective: that the art world is not the world, indeed, the world is much bigger than the art world, and yet artists can contribute positively, cannily, to both. Fantastic.

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.