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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Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activisim for the 21st Century
Art & Development, Citizenship

Points of Reference (or Orientation)

Navigating art and activism, and the necessity of both.


Art seasons are a real phenomenon, and I’ve been racing to keep up with this one. I’ve been extra busy since mid-August, working my seasonal, full-time museum job, and preparing for three group shows opening this month—not to mention falling sick for a week. M called me “Pigpen,” the messy Peanuts character, and I couldn’t argue with that. I kept it pretty together in art, by sacrificing in life, like housekeeping.

Messy desk

This pretty much sums it up.

I have a lot of thoughts I haven’t been able to process. Like all the crap on my desk, I’m throwing everything down to sort out, at least into little piles for now.


Adapting Aptitudes

A few things happen over the course of a changeover at my seasonal museum job. I lose fitness and get sore in my knees and back. I become unusually extroverted, even starting conversations with strangers outside of work. I’m sharper and faster working with my hands, but a bit slower intellectually. It’s harder to recall artists’ names or to talk critically about art. It’s weird observing how quickly you adapt to your environments.


A Bit of Orientation

Something I wrote resonated with curator Susannah Magers. She quoted me in her curatorial statement for Political Birthdays (on view now through November 3 at Dream Farm Commons in Oakland, CA):

“My courage as an artist is low right now. The news is so overwhelming part of me just wants to turtle up. I’m not sure what the right track is, but I know when it feels right. … In lieu of a clear direction, I’ll take a bit of orientation.”

The past two weeks have provided countless reasons to want to turtle up and avoid the onslaught of bad news and injustice.

Sometimes a good strategy is just to keep moving. Susannah wrote:

The exhibition is one such offering—an orientation, in response to the aforementioned quote by participating artist Christine Wong Yap—that emphasizes visibility, agency, and collaboration as resources, sites of inquiry, and tools.

There can’t be too many reminders to shift focus from dumpster fires back our own sources of power. What can we do to see and be seen? What can we do with our resources, networks, and skills? In this time that feels so alienating, disempowering, and dispiriting, how do we provide the sense of community and solidarity to ourselves and each other?


Politics and Projects

The projects I’m working on right now relate to inclusion, amplifying voices, and belonging. They’re not expressly about civic engagement or advocacy. Partly that’s because I’m invested in psychological wellbeing, which I see as an expression of freedom, dignity, and agency.

Two of the three shows I’m in directly address activism and the midterm elections. The organizers invited me to supplement my project with ideas for taking action or performative events to encourage activism. At the pace I’ve been moving, I didn’t have the time or brainpower to come up with many ideas. But I have been thinking about how I have—or haven’t—been politically engaged.


Activism Is Not Easy

Given this recent emphasis on activism, I have been thinking about a post I wrote two years ago, “Resources for Becoming an Activist.” I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t taken more of my own advice and been more active.

I connected with many local social justice orgs at the Forward Union Fair in 2017. I signed up for tons of mailing lists. Aside from calling representatives, few opportunities to get involved or contribute my art skills presented themselves. I joined an group of artist-allies for an immigrant rights org, but logistics—timing, geography, my schedule—have prevented me from pitching in much. When I did contribute a postcard design, I never heard anything back from the point person.

I’ve had tunnel vision for the past two months thanks to my projects and shows, but I’ll try again in the coming months.

Yesterday, I signed up for a monthlong printshop studio rental. I’m thinking about printing more posters, like the one I printed the day after the election. This is something I can do that activates my skills and resources.


WAGENCY

One thing that artists can do to take action is to join WAGENCY. If you haven’t seen it, read my Instagram post about why I signed up, and why I encourage other artists to become WAGENTS, too.


Belonging on Stolen Land

Yesterday was Indigenous People’s Day. I spent the day letterpress-printing Belonging activity sheets.

In 2016, I developed my Belonging project, using open calls and workshops to ask people about how they feel about belonging, and where they have felt belonging. I asked countless people to participate and invite others. I shaped my approach with inquiry and openness. I protracted the period of research and dialogue, even though it was stressful for me to delay production. I thought I limited my agenda and perspective in the final signs and zine in order to highlight participants’ voices.

An hour before the opening of Belonging in Albuquerque, I received feedback that indigenous people may not appreciate the message that “we all belong here” on colonized land. Anytime anyone thoughtfully offers honest, critical feedback, it’s valuable, though the timing of the message was a challenge for me.

On Monday, curator Adriel Luis posted a reflection about the struggling with the paradox of immigrant and indigenous perspectives:

As an American I recognize that I live on occupied land. Coming from a family of immigrants, it’s a constant struggle to find balance between insisting that we have a right to be here, while at the same time acknowledging that we really don’t. The past couple of years I’ve had the honor of learning what it means to be welcomed here as a guest…I can tell you it feels so much better than barging your way into somewhere! Still, it’s a learning process to understand how I continue to contribute to the legacy of how this land was stolen.

I’m also trying to evolve my understanding of belonging, by considering Brené Brown’s writing: belonging is not merely being embraced by others—true belonging is actually the courage to stand alone in the wilderness. What that means for future iterations of the project is that belonging should not be limited to places; belonging can be something you carry with you.


Jeff Chang on Art and Race

Probably the best thing to help orient me right now in this moment before the midterm elections is this: historian Jeff Chang’s keynote speech at the Art and Race Conference at the Impact Hub in Oakland (H/T the Making Contact podcast episode, “Jeff Chang on Revolutions in Seeing and Being”).

In this moment, privilege shows up as disengagement, the refusal to take a stand, and the refusal to show up.

As in, ‘I refuse to see how anti-black racism gives me privilege.’ As in, ‘I refuse to see the inhumanity that leaves so many homeless and unsheltered.’ As in, ‘I refuse to see the humanity of the refugee or the migrant.’ As in, ‘I refuse to acknowledge the ways that state violence is inflicted on black bodies, on women’s bodies, on queer bodies, on Muslim bodies, on poor bodies…

Privilege is the choice to isolate, to draw the line, to build the wall. To say that all that matters is my solitary sovereignty, and what I can accumulate before death claims me. As artists, as people in community, we have to choose, in this moment. …

 

We believe in art because we believe in life, in all its variations, in all of its beauty. We’re here because we also believe the ugliness—the violence of inhumanity—can be transformed. We’re here today because we believe art and culture change things. That cultural change might even precede—might even make—political change. …

 

Racism is drawn from a specific kind of refusal. It’s a denial of empathy. It’s a mass-willed blindness. … Inequity shows up in three ways: in representation, in access, in power… Here’s where art may become a remedy… In its mimicry of life, great art helps to close the distance between the self and other; it helps us to come together….

…The movement for black lives has reminded us that the way out of this historical cycle of crisis is to begin to see each other in our full humanity. To find and feel that we are all connected. To move beyond empathy to action. Empathy is empty without action.

Jeff goes on to talk about what it means to not make art nor to engage culture, by exploring technocrats’ luxury apocalypse bunkers.

Perhaps the saddest thing is what this way of thinking reveals about them. They find it so hard to imagine generosity, they can’t see it at all in the world. So that’s probably what is meant when folks say, ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’

 

Art … inflames the imagination. And we need the imagination in order to see through and past our blindnesses. Gotta be able to see each other, imagine what we can do together to increase representation, access, and power. This is the real beginning of transformation and community.

…Grace Lee Boggs… argued that revolution is not—as we think of it—something to be won in bloodshed, in which there’s a replacing of one group in power with another group in power. She said that the next revolution might be better thought of as advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social and political responsibility. Her revolution will require us to find new ways other than to divide and rule, to consign some to death and instead pivot all of us towards life, to honor and transform our relationships to each other and ourselves. She insists that we rethink how we see each other, how we choose to be, and how to be together. So we have to move beyond empathy towards mutuality. Beyond relationships that are about exploitation and extraction, towards relationships that are about exchange, support, generosity, and trust. That we start from truly seeing each other and move towards acting for each other. Past resistance and into transformation.


Point of Orientation: Grace Lee Boggs

Thanks to Jeff’s orientation, I’ve ordered this book. (From an independent bookstore, obvs.)

Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activisim for the 21st Century


In the same vein as moving from resistance towards transformation, I’d rather be for positive emotion and affirmation, and than to promulgate negative emotion and opposition.

It is the deforming nature of anger to blur the boundary between unjustified and justified; if it weren’t, only the righteous would ever be angry. Instead, rage is most often forsworn by those who seem most entitled to it, and civility is demanded by those who least deserve it.

…Anger is an avaricious emotion; it takes more credit than it deserves. Attempts to make it into a political virtue too often attribute to anger victories that rightfully belong to courage, patience, intelligence, persistence, or love.

Casey Cep, “The Perils and Possibilities of Anger,” New Yorker Magazine, October 15, 2018

 

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