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.


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.*


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.


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

**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.

Thought Experiments in Agency

Artists, Self-Care, Psychology and Politics

In thinking about psychological resourcefulness, and how artists might view ourselves, this struck a chord:

“I think of self-care as a political position, which one must take when one is vulnerable to a system that doesn’t recognize and care for you.”

—Shannon Stratton, as quoted by Zachary Cahill, “Exquisite Self-Reliance: Zachary Cahill talks with Shannon Stratton,” The Exhibitionist, August 10, 2015

It was great timing to come across this quote, as I’ve been thinking about artists’ power this past week-and-a-half in LMCC’s Process Space studio program.

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era

Julia Bryan-Wilson: Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era // Source: UC Press

I read Julia Bryan-Wilson’s “Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era” (2011), a look at the ‘art worker’ identity vis á vis the Art Workers Coalition and four key figures: Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke. The book has deepened my understanding of AWC and each of these individuals’ practices, especially how their politics influenced their artistic development and vice versa (rhetoric and a soapbox for Andre, risk and a cynical turn for Morris, public evolution of perspectives for Lippard, and a lost Guggenheim solo show and reinforced beliefs for Haacke).

Hans Haacke, On Social Grease (quote David Rockefeller; one of six panels) 1975. Photograph: Walter Russell. © Hans Haacke/VG Bild-Kunst // Source:

Hans Haacke, On Social Grease (quote David Rockefeller; one of six panels) 1975. Photograph: Walter Russell. © Hans Haacke/VG Bild-Kunst // Source:

I especially appreciate the extensive historical context, from the Vietnam War (and burgeoning anti-corporate ethos), the strategy of non-participation in the context of mass strikes and slowdowns, the New Left and the writings of Marcuse, and the rise of second wave Feminism (which ultimately bore the alternative culture the museum-targeting AWC aspired to create). I enjoyed Bryan-Wilson’s embrace of practice-as-rehearsal; ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are criteria too blunt for these shifting developments. She’s a fastidious thinker, using clear language to nimbly explore contradictory aspirations and actions.

Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation // Source: Duke University Press.

Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation // Source: Duke University Press.

I’ve also recently re-read the introduction and conclusion of Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2013). The introduction is a thorough history of social and relational art, the social history that influenced it, and the books and exhibitions that mark its evolution. It’s a fantastically researched chapter, and if it were up to me, I’d make it required reading.

Finklepearl, formerly of the Queens Museum, profiles a refreshingly diverse set of artists. The conclusion draws upon American philosophical pragmatism, and social relationships and actions as productive fields of practice. It’s an energizing read, which left me thinking about how individuals contribute to groups, and how, in turn, individuals achieve more agency, individuation, and autonomy. A lot of writing about cooperation is based on evolutionary theories, which strikes me as a bit too transactional and calculated. For Finklepearl, the benefits of mutualism extend beyond corporeal or material gain to intrinsic reward and personal growth among participants. The optimism is contagious.