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.

Art & Development

Points of Reference

Assorted sources of gratification, amusement, and inspiration.

Sol Lewitt at Dia:Beacon

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1085: Drawing Series-Composite, Part I-IV, #1-24, A+B, (detail), 1968/2003. Photo: Bill Jacobson.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1085: Drawing Series-Composite, Part I-IV, #1-24, A+B, (detail), 1968/2003. Photo: Bill Jacobson. Image Sources: Dia:Beacon

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1085: Drawing Series-Composite, Part I-IV, #1-24, A+B,, 1968/2003. Photo: Bill Jacobson.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1085: Drawing Series-Composite, Part I-IV, #1-24, A+B, (detail), 1968/2003. Photo: Bill Jacobson. Image Source: Dia:Beacon

Learn why this combo rocked my world in the previous post, “Good New for Art Lovers.”

Designer and happiness evangelicist Stephen Sagmeister’s TED talk videos

Graphic designer Sagmeister wants to promote happiness. He’s compiled some advice on living in an exuberantly designed book called “Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.” In his TED talks, he presents his ideas in a very elemental, approachable style. At the risk of making a huge generalization, I found his demeanor self-possessed in a European way—dry wit and nonchalance just short of indifference. (It makes American enthusiasm—wide eyes, big smiles—seem like ostentatious over-sharing.) Presenting simple, innocent gestures with such unconcerned confidence can sometimes come off with a whiff of entitlement, but for all his success—which is evidently abundant—he is modest and gracious, always using the pronoun “we” to share the authorship of his work (but never naming names).

Anytime designers can break free from the conventional corporate path is great; Sagmeister’s direction—happiness—is an interesting choice.

Some of Sagmeister’s projects look like art. He makes installations, photographs and other creative gestures, often on his sabbaticals. Some of the appropriations of contemporary art techniques seem a bit apparent. At one point during his slide show, I winced, because a text made of shadows so recalled the work of Fred Eerdeckens. I haven’t got a problem with designers, or other artists, trying creative approaches that have been done before. It’s just that designers’ images aren’t held to the same critical standards that the works of contemporary artists—the creative risks are not the same. With Sagmeister’s office located in Chelsea, it’s safe to assume that he sees lots of art; a nice gesture, if he does borrow from what he sees, would be to collect art, rewarding those whose inspiration has enhanced your life (if not also your firm’s bottom line).

[On a related note, M is currently studying design that moves beyond visual style. I’m eager to see what he discovers. As designers generate content, and become authors and researchers, with what criteria should their work be judged?]

Designer Ed Fella charms and confuses young ‘uns with talk of photostats and Letraset at the Walker

Ed Fella is an interesting counterpart to hip Sagmeister. Fella, known for his handmade design work and typographic doodles, has a cult-like following among art and design students. His work is delightfully old-school. He’s also completely transparent about his appropriation of styles, and of the insignificance of the content of his work beyond the design community.

In his lecture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he’s got a kindly conversational style, both grandfatherly and professorial. With his quirky hoarding of images of vernacular signage, his pursuit of offbeat methods, his unapologetic borrowing of historical styles, and his insistence on making room for young designers, Fella is generous and forthright.

[Can I just say how great it is to be able to access museum lectures online? It’s a proper extension of museum’s purposes.]

Chris Duncan
Eye Against I
Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions, San Francisco

Chris Duncan, Eye Against I, installation view

Chris Duncan, Eye Against I, installation view. Source: Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions, San Francisco, CA.

Chris Duncant, Obstructed Image 14, 2010  Found paper and tape  14 x 20 inches

Chris Duncan, Obstructed Image #14, 2010, Found paper and tape, 14 x 20 inches. Source: Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions, San Francisco, CA.

This show manages to be sparse but massive. In encompassing and altering the gallery’s architecture, it brims with Duncan’s ambition. It places the viewer literally within his vision. The smaller works look brilliantly simple and expertly executed. I think the tape-out pieces are sublime.

Wish I could be in San Francisco to experience it firsthand.

Art & Development

Good news for art lovers

I had a revelatory experience looking at squiggles on a wall today.

For the first time, I gained a deep appreciation for Sol Lewitt‘s work. Though I’ve seen a few of his works in person and many in reproduction, the innovation, technique and phenomenological experience did not become reified to me until my visit to Dia:Beacon today.

There are eight rooms dedicated to Lewitt’s early wallworks at the Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. While all the works followed instructions, and often consisted of no more than pencil line on white walls, they resulted in myriad visual experiences. They were immense, immaculately executed, and beautifully situated in one of the best buildings for viewing art that I’ve seen in the US.

The drawings brought to mind ideas about order, grid, variation, geometry, the human hand and authorship. I thought about the attention to detail that the executors brought to their tasks, the roots of our associations between abstractions and whimsy or gravitas, the simplicity of the materials, and the ingeniousness of Lewitt’s efficacy.

The works grounded me at Dia:Beacon. I was flooded with gratitude. I felt lucky to be able to see the works in person in such a lovely setting. I was also grateful to the Dia Foundation for allowing so much space to individual artists. I never saw anything like this in California. This dedication was complimented with a commitment to direct, uninterrupted viewing experiences. Didactic texts were minimal; perfect, indirect sunlight filtered in from the building’s northern windows; guards were sparse, demure, and inconspicuous; and there was plenty of space and peace.

It might seem strange to admit, but standing in a room with only pencil lines and squiggles on a grid, a dopey smile spread across my face. This the quality and scale of the viewing experience and the stellar collection re-energized my excitement about being in New York. At the risk of hyperbole, Dia:Beacon elevated my expectations of what is possible in art.

Also on view are breathtaking “negative sculptures” by Michael Heizer, and many fine examples of Fred Sandback’s yarn installations and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs. I also loved the cool basement full of uningratiating works by Bruce Nauman (including his recent studio-mouse-surveillance videos, complete with shop stools), Louise Lawler’s humorous bird calls-based outdoor sound piece, and a room full of On Kawara’s date paintings. Robert Irwin’s landscape design formed a soothing contemporary art idyll. I didn’t want to leave.

Photographs were not allowed, and in any case, my snaps would not do any justice to Lewitt or Dia. You’ll just have to see it with your own eyes.

Beacon, NY