Citizenship

WAGENCY: What I Would Wish for Every Artist

Why artists should empower themselves with a low-cost artists’ fee structure.

When a writer asked why I joined WAGENCY—an artist-run fee structure for negotiating fair pay from non-profits—I wrote in depth about why WAGENCY supplies sorely-needed information and professional standards. The article was recently published and it focused primarily on British art activity. Since WAGENCY was only briefly mentioned, I’m posting my writing here. 


 

I signed up for WAGENCY because for years I’ve been waiting for such a well-considered, much-needed advocacy tool. 

I’ve been obsessed with artist’s agency, even creating projects and conducting surveys asking artists about how they feel about the art world, how they exercise their own agency as artists, how they interdependently support and receive support from other artists, and if they use the tactic of non-participation. 

Too often artists see themselves as lone, powerless individuals hoping to gain power, money or influence by way of more powerful, more established entities in the art world—non-profits, galleries, museums, curators, collectors, foundations, etc. Artists are often marginalized when actually our artworks are central—none of these spaces or staff would have anything to show or see without the legions of hardworking artists making art. Many institutions and artists perpetuate a system that exploits artists’ hunger for exposure and justifies offering little to no compensation.

I have exhibited with non-profit organizations for years. The experiences have been good and bad. Some non-profits have a culture of scarcity and offer little to no compensation or support. When that is paired with a small audience reach, it makes you wonder what your efforts amount to. Why am I paying for a studio, a storage space, materials, a website? Why am I using my “free time” leftover from income generation away from friends and family, subsidizing my labor for the very organizations who should be my allies and champions? How long can I sustain a life as an artist? Should longterm sustainability be a privilege? Is an art world that rewards privilege an art world I would want to participate in? 

When either party in a partnership feels the rewards don’t justify the effort, that’s a poor partnership. Why should artists continue to engage on these terms?  

I also think, generally, there is a lack of transparency in the art world. This has been born out especially in my interactions regarding money with non-profit organizations as well as commercial galleries and museums. Many partner organizations avoid contracts like the plague. In any other business or industry, the art world’s lack of contracts, invoices, and timely payments would be completely untenable. A few partner organizations have sent me clear, thorough agreements detailing fees and payment plans, offering stipends and increasing them according to additional talks or writing, and those are—by a huge margin—exceptions. 

This leaves artists in the awkward position of asking, sometimes repeatedly, for information or money, when many artists feel that broaching money is taboo, or they don’t want to seem pushy, or that the amount they are asking for is subjective or speculative. It can feel like the amount given to artists is based more on the programming staff’s whims, the organization’s “budget”, and the clout of artists, perpetuating emerging artists’ emergent status.

Compare this to my experience supplementing my income as a freelance illustrator and designer. From the beginning, I based my illustration fees and hourly design rates on the fee structures outlined in the Graphic Arts Guild’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines handbook. I’ve cited the GAG Handbook countless times over the years to educate clients on industry standards around pricing, payment terms, cancellation fees, rights transferred, deliverables, and more. I also embraced NO SPEC: designers should decline any job on speculation, such as open calls where clients solicit designs and only choose and pay a designer upon finding a design they like. Spec work is unfair and unethical, and it undervalues the work of designers. I have declined working on spec and explained why, linking to NO SPEC’s site. 

When design clients have asked for free or discounted design work, the logic always seemed faulty to me. They will pay printers for printing and paper. They will pay the shippers for shipping. The value of those services and goods are self-evident to them. It should also be self-evident that if they want a designer’s services, skills, and labor, they should pay for it. This is exactly the same principle that artists must embrace. Museums pay their employees, contractors, and suppliers. They should also pay artists—whose work is central to their mission of exhibiting art—a fair, non-exploitative fee that represents all the labor that goes into making or supplying art for an exhibition, giving a talk, or writing. 

Nothing like the GAG Handbook or NOSPEC has existed for US artists until WAGENCY. Only CARFAC came close—for Canadian artists and organizations with Canadian funding. I looked forward to a fee structure like CARFAC for US artists for years, and now WAGE has finally created one. 

I have just signed up to be a WAGENT this week, so it’s too soon to say what any disadvantages are. 

I think it’s fair and ethical that WAGENCY asks WAGENTS to pay assistants a fair hourly rate. I don’t hire assistants, but when I do, I’ll have to think carefully about whether I can ethically afford it or not. As an artist who has also worked as an artist’s assistant, I certainly wouldn’t want an assistant to feel undervalued, nor to perpetuate a culture of scarcity. Fair is fair.

WAGENCY doesn’t require artists to decline all substandard opportunities. Artists can remain WAGENTS  if they accept fees below WAGE standards (though they will lose WAGE certification). This gives artists a degree of autonomy and flexibility that allows artists to consider their current financial status or the intangible benefits and personal rewards of a partnership. It also compels artists to use the tactic of non-participation when they can. It clarifies that artists are agents and have choices. Artists don’t have to feel that they need to accept every “opportunity” that comes their way. They can, and should, decline unfavorable conditions. Doing so reinforces the value of their labor, as well as all artists’.

For me, the benefits of WAGENCY are obvious. Having a clear fee structure helps shape a more objective and fair dialogue, beginning negotiations with a reasonable starting point. It shifts the conversation from, “What scraps are leftover in your budget for me?” to “How will you fairly compensate me for my time and labor?” Being a WAGENT states at the outset that I expect to be treated as a professional. My enthusiasm to be a WAGENT—to advocate for fair compensation and to decline unfavorable terms—is a direct result of my experiences as an exhibiting artist over the past twenty years. 

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Sights

See: Denim @ the Museum at FIT

Three garment exhibitions.

Lately, as part of a larger project, I’ve been researching garments, especially workwear. The more I learn about sewing, the more I realize what I don’t know and can’t yet do. Though I’ve sewn flags and banners, I’m thinking about more complicated items and garments. I have a long way to go, but it’s nice that even my modest experiences help me appreciate construction better.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell's "Popover" dress, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit, as women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell’s “Popover” dress, complete with a matching oven mitt, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit from when women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier @ the Museum at FIT
Through May 7, 2016

Though it’s less than two blocks from the Center for Book Arts (where I’m a current resident; learn more about the AIR program at the 2015 AIRs’ exhibition, which opens tonight), I first visited this museum yesterday. They have good spaces, quality shows, and strong exhibition design; I look forward to seeing more shows there. I went for their exhibition on denim—one of the workwear fabrics I’ve been printing on. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The show is composed of garments from the museum’s collection arranged in chronological order. I was most intrigued by the earliest garments. The curatorial statements insisted that denim has been used for workwear for men and women since its earliest days, exemplified by a women’s skirt-set for work from 1912-15.
  • There’s a great video (though the audio is too quiet) about a pair of cotton pants with denim patches. A conservator explains the clues in the garment’s construction that helped her deduce that they were probably made in the 1840s. I love it when invisible museum work is made visible in this way.
  • Chambray became an official union shirt in the 1940s. The blue in “blue collar” probably comes from that. (Growing up as the daughter of a car mechanic, I’d associated work with stain-resistant synthetic blends that were dyed blue.)

The rest of the exhibition reviews how jeans became symbols of rebellion, and emerged as leisure, popular, and luxury goods. The connection to work became symbolic at best. Cheers to MFIT for providing an online exhibition.

Fairy Tale Fashion @ the Museum at FIT
Through April 16, 2016

Coming from the denim exhibition, with its theme of women’s labor, I couldn’t help but see this show’s content in an unfavorable way. The fairy tales here are Eurocentric (maidens with fair skin, gold hair as symbols of gold) and hetero-orthodox. (It’s 2016. I want heroines who kick ass like Ronda Rousey or Rey, who change the game like Missy Elliot and Awkwafina. Also, what’s up with the ageism of fairy tales? Why aren’t there ever evil maidens and heroic middle-aged women?) This show is not for me.

  • If you want to see beautiful gowns, dramatic capes, and nice beadwork, have a look.
  • I was impressed by the exhibition design. The space is underground, with very high ceilings. The exhibition designers did a great job using scrims and dramatic lighting to set a slightly menacing tone.
  • I noticed the use of the word, “sculptural,” to describe functionless elements that diverged from the silhouette or body. Coming from an art/sculpture point of view, it’s interesting to think that a three-dimensional object is not inherently sculptural, but becomes so after adding superfluous parts.

"Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro," at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center,  Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: http://www.newschool.edu/

“Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro,” at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source: newschool.edu

Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro @ The New School/Parsons
Through April 18, 2016

This was also my first visit to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center’s Kellen Gallery. While the FIT museum had carefully calibrated the lighting to preserve the garments, this space is an airy white cube with dramatic windows and plentiful natural light. I will visit again, as they’re clearly interested in pushing boundaries (check out the concurrent exhibition on mass incarceration).

  • I was intrigued by this exhibition of “garments for hypothetical, invented, coveted, imaginary jobs.” Unfortunately I felt underwhelmed by how little creativity was on display, how the speculation sometimes only made small leaps from present reality. These garments evinced whimsy, not reinvention. I am not sure that this is a valid critique—I think it comes out of an expectation that designers are technologists, and thus futurists. But sometimes designers are just designers. (I love the name of AIGA NY’s “monthly series of provocations where practitioners and critics discuss the changing nature of design and visual culture.” It’s “We used to ____, now we ____.” It’s a worthy prompt for designers and artists to consider.)
  • I was struck by how many garments were simply garments in recognizable silhouettes and forms—size o dresses, suit-shirt-slacks-tie—that were embellished to fit a theme—’girl who picks carrots,’ ‘girl who picks strawberries,’ for example. (Maybe I shouldn’t expect fashion to be less gender-binary, but I can’t help but feel disappointed.)
  • There was an outfit for a “Post-Fordist,” comprising of ready-made vacation separates, a laptop, and a Blackberry in a vitrine. I get that the banality of immaterial labor is what makes it so insidious, but that doesn’t mean creative work about it can’t be more interesting artistically.
  • Men’s ties suggest an outfit of rags under a shabby jacket—a garment for “a migrant”—in a particularly fraught misstep.
  • OK, I liked the exhibition design. An aluminum I-beam was suspended from the ceiling at an angle. Clamps on the beam held up monofilament, which allowed the garment to spin. It signaled the work theme and avoided a static display well.

Other observations:

The Garment District

One of my favorite things about living in NYC is access to all the garment district shops. The district near Hell’s Kitchen is so vital that shops can specialize in selling only one type of thing: linen, spandex, notions, textiles for men’s wear, textiles for quilting, etc. On occasion, I’ll stumble into a building full of garment industry services. Earlier in the week, I got to peek inside a huge embroidery studio. I felt so grateful that so much industry still happens in Manhattan. I hope these small businesses—and the workers doing such skilled labor—keep going strong.

 

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Meta-Practice

The simple answer is that you should get paid when someone is profiting from your labor.

…However, providing content or services to a friend without being compensated does not mean that one is being exploited. If the terms of the exchange are mutually agreed upon, and if one person isn’t immediately monetarily profiting from the labor of the other, then it may well be a fair exchange, and one that is part of how solidarity and community are built within the field. W.A.G.E. advocates for equitable compensation, not for the total monetization and commodification of every aspect of our lives; we leave that to neoliberalism.

—W.A.G.E. as quoted by Bean Gilsdorf, Help Desk: Support for Artists, Daily Serving, May 25, 2015

 

 

How will I know if I am taking artists’ energy in exchange for an exploitative promise of “exposure”?

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Citizenship, Meta-Practice

A Declaration of Principles (for artists, cultural workers and supporters thereof)

By Justin Langlois:

By posting this page, we submit that we are an artist, cultural worker, or a supporter thereof and declare the following: we are no longer interested in participating in consultancies, asset maps, or activities that offer us “promotional opportunities” in absence of clear financial or strategic gain. We will not support the exploitation of artists or other cultural workers or their works for the sole purpose of further municipal or economic planning, fundraising, or marketing. We refuse to acknowledge the existence of the politically-invented term, creative economy, which lumps together practicing artists with video cassette duplication services. We can no longer participate in activities that knowingly disadvantage artists with less experience and we vow to make accessible opportunities that we have to these same artists. We hereby decide to stop playing prescribed games and to start making it up for ourselves. Henceforth, we will support one another by adhering to this declaration.

By posting this page, we submit that we are an artist, cultural worker, or a supporter thereof and declare the following: we are no longer interested in participating in consultancies, asset maps, or activities that offer us “promotional opportunities” in absence of clear financial or strategic gain. We will not support the exploitation of artists or other cultural workers or their works for the sole purpose of further municipal or economic planning, fundraising, or marketing. We refuse to acknowledge the existence of the politically-invented term, creative economy, which lumps together practicing artists with video cassette duplication services. We can no longer participate in activities that knowingly disadvantage artists with less experience and we vow to make accessible opportunities that we have to these same artists. We hereby decide to stop playing prescribed games and to start making it up for ourselves. Henceforth, we will support one another by adhering to this declaration.

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Impressions

Frieze Art Fair: 2013 prowl-through

N and I were able to attend the Frieze Art Fair thanks to O (whose pass spared us each $42 entrance fees). I convinced her and M that the cross-Triboro Bridge walk would be lovely. It was, but I neglected to consider that once we got to the fair we’d be on our feet another 2.5 hours. Weary-legged and short on cash on an island where a bottle of water costs $4, I had little time or attention to really engage the artworks.

(When I used to go on long runs, I’d carry hydration and fuel—AKA water and snacks—with me. I should have the same mentality when visiting fairs can take as long as an endurance race.)

Mostly, as in past fairs, I looked at methods of display, uses of materials, and forms related to upcoming projects—which now are banners and textiles.

Andrea Bowers, in both booths housing her work, shared this useful statement that sheds light on Frieze’s use of non-union labor. (One thought about the lack of mass response to OWS Arts & Labor’s call might be attributed to this: NYC’s unions are very active in picketing non-union business. In fact, it’s common enough that one might see the inflatable picketing rat a few times a week. New Yorkers just keep walking.)

Bowers’ drawings on cardboard of Victorian icons of liberation were quite lovely, and much looser than her photo-realist graphite drawings, interestingly.

Open letter from Andrea Bowers regarding Frieze's use of non-union labor.

Open letter from Andrea Bowers regarding Frieze’s use of non-union labor.

Photolithographic etching on copper-clad plastic by Sam Lewitt at Miguel Abreau Gallery (NYC). Having just worked on a vinyl sculpture, I thought this way of displaying floppy plastic was really smart.

Photolithographic etching on copper-clad plastic by Sam Lewitt at Miguel Abreau Gallery (NYC). Having just worked on a vinyl sculpture, I thought this way of displaying floppy plastic was really smart.

Handmade crochet by Servet Kocygit at Rampa (Istanbul). This is just pretty and in-your-face. Though I'm not sure what it means, I thought it was useful for thinking about how to frame textile text works. The crochet looks like it was treated with a glue, such as a matte medium, and pinned in place to a (removed) substrate, so it lays flat. The substrate it's now on is a woven fabric.

Handmade crochet by Servet Koçyiğit at Rampa (Istanbul). This is just pretty and in-your-face. Though I’m not sure what it means, I thought it was useful for thinking about how to frame textile text works. The crochet looks like it was treated with a glue, such as a matte medium, and pinned in place to a (removed) substrate, so it lays flat. The substrate it’s now on is a woven fabric.

Cameron Platter's monumental wood text at Whatiftheworld/Gallery (Cape Town). Another puzzle in terms of content, and yes, the scale suits the obviousness of fairs. But it is pretty smart to appeal to people's love (or fetish?) of wood type, and use condensed gothic typography.

Cameron Platter‘s monumental wood text at Whatiftheworld/Gallery (Cape Town). Another puzzle in terms of content, and yes, the scale suits the obviousness of fairs. But it is pretty smart to appeal to people’s love (or fetish?) of wood type, and use condensed gothic typography.

Amir Mogharabi at Ibid Projects (London). Things. On shelves. This is like a little poem, with mother-of-pearl.

Amir Mogharabi at Ibid Projects (London). Things. On shelves. This is like a little poem, with mother-of-pearl.

Maybe the collection of works where I could have spent a lot more time and gotten a much richer experience: Catherine Sullivan and Valerie Snowbeck's installation of texts on laminated fabrics and sculptural works at Galerie Catherine Bastide (Belgium). The materials and typography were so unusual, and I suspect the works told a well-conceived narrative. I regret the momentum that propelled me to march onward, instead of lingering and looking more closely.

Maybe the collection of works where I could have spent a lot more time and gotten a much richer experience: Catherine Sullivan and Valerie Snowbeck’s installation of texts on laminated fabrics and sculptural works at Galerie Catherine Bastide (Belgium). The materials and typography were so unusual, and I suspect the works told a well-conceived narrative. I regret the momentum that propelled me to march onward, instead of lingering and looking more closely.

Lily Van Der Stokker's installation at Kaufman Repetto (Milan). This is just kooky and happy. The chest in plaid is so humorous. In working with fabric I've been wondering how to distinguish my work from craft—more specifically, something crafty, cute and consumable from Etsy. Van Der Stokker seems to tackle this distinction head-on with these works. What makes a painting on canvas art, a textile design, and a painting on a cabinet any less a painting?

Lily van der Stokker‘s installation at Kaufman Repetto (Milan). Kooky. Happy. The chest in plaid is so humorous. In working with fabric I’ve been wondering how to distinguish my work from craft—more specifically, something crafty, cute and consumable from Etsy. Van Der Stokker seems to tackle this distinction head-on with these works. What makes a painting on canvas art, a textile design, and a painting on a cabinet any less a painting?

Mmm, banners. Matthew Brannon's banners at David Kordansky Gallery (NYC). With their stylish design, Brannon's screenprints on paper were always charming; it's interesting to see larger works in textiles that are also a bit more open-ended.

Mmm, banners. Matthew Brannon‘s banners at David Kordansky Gallery (NYC). With their stylish design, Brannon’s screenprints on paper were always charming; it’s interesting to see larger works in textiles that are also a bit more open-ended.

I like Peter Liversidge's conceptual practice. His work appears in a lot of fairs, but every project is unique to the fair, which makes the encounter a little more special for audiences. Liversidge typed the letter at left describing the work to be produced, adjacent. That this type of conceptual practice still exists is great. The fact that it appears commercially viable is interesting; it's one of those questions that perhaps better remains unasked. At Sean Kelly (NYC).

I like Peter Liversidge‘s conceptual practice. His work appears in a lot of fairs, but every project is unique to the fair, which makes the encounter a little more special for audiences. Liversidge typed the letter at left describing the work to be produced, adjacent. That this type of conceptual practice still exists is great. The fact that it appears commercially viable is interesting; it’s one of those questions that perhaps better remains unasked. At Sean Kelly (NYC).

Rudolf Polanszky's vitrines of decrepitude at Ancient & Modern (London). These, on purely emotional levels, worked for me.

Rudolf Polanszky’s vitrines of decrepitude at Ancient & Modern (London). These worked for me, formally and emotionally.

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Art & Development

Labor and Time

As posited by Art Monthly (#356: May 2012):

In a western world dominated by immaterial labour, and where scientists and philosophers have thrown into doubt our understanding of physical objects, how have artists – from John McCracken and John Hilliard to Wood & Harrison and Andrew Dodds – questioned and defended the nature of things?

‘Sculpture, of all the arts, must surely be responsible for mapping the various journeys of thinghood. “What is a Thing?” – the question Heidegger asked in the 1920s – turns out to be a question that we have to keep asking.’

As I help M prepare his exhibition, the challenges of working with materials become instantiated everyday. In contrast to clicking “undo” and swiping screens, sourcing, handling, manipulating and displaying materials—not to mention lending them the illusion of perfection and timelessness so often desired of art objects—is complicated, expensive, and risky. Entropy constantly threatens. Nothing gets done without physical energy and attention; things take time and skill. Labor has become, as Art Monthly put it, immaterial—and I wonder how this shifts how art objects are perceived and understood. So many of my recent art viewing experiences have conjured thoughts about production values, for better or worse. The drawback, for me, is over-emphasizing how something is made over what it accomplishes in content or concept. For those who are disconnected from materials and labor, perhaps the work triggers thoughts unencumbered by human and environmental costs, at best looking with “deadpan” eyes (as Rosalind Krass described of Minimalism) at form and form alone, and at worst, with the Like/Dislike, Instagram-worthy consumer browsing. In that mindset, to register visually, to click and upload, is the power to put a thing in a shopping cart, pay for it, bring it home, and store it in a vast garage, all in one instant.

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