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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Art Worlds

Workers Are People, Too

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Art labor and working conditions have been on my mind lately–perhaps it’s because I installed at the recent art fairs, where art handlers get access without influence.* For example,  installers at Frieze receive exhibitors’ class “C” passes—which are good only for entry before or after public hours.

A recent op-ed on NYT (Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, “Why You Hate Work”, May 30, 2014) states what many managers, HR people and executives seem impervious to (but anyone with a shitty job already knows):

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

…Put simply, the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.

This seems so obvious to me, yet some excel in failing to consider that workers are people. (In a particularly dense example, I’ve had to explain why “feeling valued and appreciated for [one’s] contributions” means not treating workers as interchangeable and
replaceable by firing them willy-nilly.)

…Partly, the challenge for employers is trust. …many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.

The worst example of this is requiring some workers (but not white collar staff) to use a fingerprint scanning time clocks. (Workers were allowed to choose which finger to scan in with. Guess which one it was?)

Of course, many supervisors get it, and are generous and humane. Their employees are happier and more productive for it, and likely so are they.

* “[Preparator] work gives the perspective of an insider without the credibility of one,” Torreya Cummings, as quoted by moi in “Portrait of an Artist: Wily and Engaged,” Art Practical, May 4, 2011.

 

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Values

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!

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Community

Bay Area GOOD-BAD-GOOD

Ripple effects of negative affects and positive actions from the San Francisco Bay Area.

[GOOD] Finally, a critical mass of media attention on San Francisco’s tech-boom/gentrification crisis

 

[BAD] …which means constantly hearing news that is sad (or bitter, angry, antagonistic, mournful, etc.)… and sometimes relating to that news:

“People ask me, ‘Aren’t you going to miss the Bay Area?’ And I say that I already do. It’s not the same Bay Area it once was before.”

—Walter Robinson, as quoted by Christian L. Frock, “Priced Out: San Francisco’s Changing Values and Artist Exodus,” KQED Arts, April 3, 2014.
Edward Ruscha,  OOF, 1962, Oil on canvasDimensions, 71 1/2 x 67" // Source: Moma.org.

Edward Ruscha, OOF, 1962, Oil on canvasDimensions, 71 1/2 x 67″ // Source: Moma.org.

[GOOD / GET EXCITED] There seems to be a funneling of energy into thinking about art as it relates to economics. Get excited for this:

Michele Bock // Source: arts.berkeley.edu. I am an artist.  This does not mean I will work for free.  I have bills just like you do.  Thank you for understanding.

Michele Bock // Source: arts.berkeley.edu.

Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum
April 19, 2014

…ARC will present Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This event will include a series of artist-led workshops that develop exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics; it will also include a series of commissioned writings by critics and researchers whose work focuses on artistic labor and cultural economies. …ARC will host artists, curators, and writers from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, to stage an intimate yet wide-ranging exploration about art and labor, about alternative economies in the arts, and about strategies for working in ever changing “art world” landscapes….

I’d totally go to this if I were in the Bay Area… In fact I’m sort of kicking myself that I’m not there for this. But alas, I’ll make do with reviewing the materials online at the special issue of Art Practical, and on the forthcoming Compensation Foundation,

“a public, online, open-source platform for collecting, sharing, and analyzing how contingent workers are compensated.”

Bay Area Art Workers Alliance.

And…. I’m thrilled to help promote the Bay Area Art Worker’s Alliance‘s call for participation, for preparators, art installers, and art handlers  to contribute to an exhibition in YBCA’s Bay Area Now triennial. These invisible roles in the making of art exhibitions, which are on-call, part-time, financially and sometimes physically precarious, are finally getting some much-needed recognition from this institution. Deadline: May 15. Spread the word!

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Citizenship

Via e-flux: Sotheby’s: offer your art handlers a fair contract

Don’t be jerks, Sotheby’s. Do the right thing.

Art handlers lift things that are heavier than you want to lift, handle things that you’re too nervous to handle yourself, and pack and unpack things that you’re not skilled to handle. If you want workers to handle art and antiques with care, treat your workers with dignity.

Sign the petition at change.org.

For the past eight months, Sotheby’s has locked its 43 unionized art handlers out of work. Rather than negotiating a fair contract with its employees, the company has issued a set of demands: the gutting of the art handlers’ union, the elimination of health insurance and other benefits, and the replacement of full-time skilled workers with temporary unskilled laborers.

Sotheby’s has decided that the handling of priceless artworks is an easy job; that low-paid temporary workers with little training or incentive can manage the constant stream of artifacts into and out of the world’s largest auction house. The 43 locked-out workers who have made art handling their career know this is not true.

There have been no negotiations. Read on.

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