WAGE War: Artists' Hard Battle for Nonprofit Compensation
Although I've developed a near-pathological fear of making absolute statements, I feel totally confident saying this: You'll always be more popular if you tell people that things will change for the better than if you warn them about the status quo's staying power. But since most problems also can't be solved until they're fully acknowledged, let's have a head-on confrontation with the prospect of fair pay for artists commissioned by nonprofits, specifically via a recent proposal made to the New Museum by New York-based artist-advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE). Because as worthy a cause as it is, art-industry economics have built one hell of a fortress against the revolution.
First, the background: Like seemingly every other major arts institution in the US, the New Museum just embarked on a large-scale capital campaign to fund a significant expansion of its physical size and programming. In this case, the museum's magic number is $80 million––a payload it will use to nearly double its exhibition space, with the current plan being to join its existing galleries at 235 Bowery with a renovation of its neighboring property at 231 Bowery. According to published reports, donors have already contributed $43 million toward the effort. So the hardest part of the fundraising surge is already over, and the odds are very good that the New Museum will plant its flag in its fiscal target soon enough.
Twice as much exhibition space may not mean EXACTLY twice as much art, but it definitely means a serious scale-up. And considering that the New Museum is a non-collecting institution––meaning it has no permanent collection to exhibit––the expansion also means that its curatorial team will need to collaborate with more living artists than ever to provide enough new work to fill out the annual calendar of shows and public programs. Which in turn should mean that the museum will need to fairly compensate more artists than ever for their contributions.
But as many artists know too well, there's an IED waiting on the roadside to that destination. Arts nonprofits have become notorious for offering meager, late, or nonexistent payments to the talent who supplies their actual artwork. No industry standard for fair compensation exists, and no regulatory body exists to establish or enforce one. As a result, It's not uncommon for artists to work for free––or even worse, to actually lose money––on nonprofit projects, even when the particular nonprofit in question qualifies as a major brand in the sector.
Enter WAGE. As its 2008 "wo/manifesto" makes plain, the group's members don't just want to raise awareness about this imbalance in the art ecosystem. They want to correct it. Which is why WAGE responded to the New Museum's fundraising announcement by firing off an open letter to its leadership, urging the institution to do what few nonprofits have done yet: earmark a small fraction of its incoming pledges for Artist Fees, and thus become WAGE Certified.
WAGE Certification means more than just committing to pay artists SOMETHING. To earn the designation, nonprofits must agree to a set of specific, pre-determined price tags for artists' many possible contributions to its exhibitions or public programs. WAGE's prices also change depending on an institution's total annual operating expenses, with $500,000 being the boundary between two cost structures. (You can see the detailed breakdown on the group's Fee Calculator page.)
In either case, though, the costs are eminently reasonable. As WAGE states in its open letter, the New Museum's certification fees from fiscal year 2014 to the present would have totaled $301,000––just 0.7 percent of the $43 million already pledged to the capital campaign, or about half of the annual salary of the institution's highest-paid staff member. By WAGE's standards, that amount would have fairly compensated 164 artists: 16 of whom were the subjects of exhibitions, 148 of whom contributed to public programs. Average it out, and we're talking about $1,835 per artist, which hardly seems extravagant for a world-renowned museum whose most recent Spring Gala was sponsored by DKNY.
Unfortunately, this is the point where reality roars out of the cannon. As any hard-charging entrepreneur or bloodthirsty mergers & acquisitions attorney will tell you, negotiations ultimately come down to leverage. The side who has more of it usually ends up getting more of what it wants. And if one of the combatants involved has no leverage whatsoever, its odds of prevailing are about as bad as my odds of winning Olympic gold for powerlifting this summer. (I don't post many selfies, but I assure you I don't look like this.)
The issue in WAGE's case is that it's extraordinarily difficult for artists to gain any real leverage over the New Museum, let alone major arts nonprofits sector-wide. On paper, the group has formed a Coalition of artists, industry professionals, and other empathetic parties (which I encourage readers to join by clicking through the link). But the strongest counter-punch would be to convince artists approached by non-certified institutions to boycott their offers, similar to the way multiple nominees for this year's Vincent Award spontaneously withdrew from consideration to protest recent collector-driven shenanigans on the part of the award's organizer, the Gemeentemuseum.
As much as I hate to say it, this kind of sweeping embargo is unlikely at best. As WAGE correctly points out in its FAQ, arts nonprofits tend to justify their fiscal delinquency by way of what I call the Exposure Economy. The underlying concept is that under-recognized talent should accept pocket lint––or possibly even pay their own way––to work for entities able to meaningfully expand their audience. Why? Because gaining that expanded audience will (allegedly) result in subsequent opportunities that generate actual money. And over the long term, that money will more than offset the near-term sacrifice of being "paid" in exposure by the commissioning entity now. No pain, no gain.
While reaching a wider and/or higher-value audience can certainly pay off for artists in all disciplines, the Exposure Economy is pushed to its absolute "You'll Get Nothing and Like It!" extreme far too often, especially in contemporary art. The problem here isn't just the absence of accepted industry standards. It's also the lack of a formal artists' union to stand against exploitation, as well as the abundance of talent for nonprofits to solicit. Because of this Bermuda Triangle of incentives, every artist knows that if he or she turns down a commission––no matter how unfair, insulting, or fiscally damaging the terms may be––it's almost a mortal lock that the very next artist who gets the offer will accept it. In an industry where so few entities wield so much influence and present so few opportunities, the potential is too great for most young and mid-career artists to dismiss on principle.
Arts nonprofits, particularly elite museums, therefore remain free to use the Exposure Economy the same way professional wrestlers use steel chairs, with virtually no fear of retribution. And the list of WAGE-Certified nonprofits reflects as much. Currently, it counts only 26 members scattered across nine US states. Some of those institutions certainly pack some prestige among connoisseurs, including Artists Space, Locust Projects, and the Soap Factory. But none of them reach into the museum sector, let alone its upper tiers. Instead, they're all smaller entities more likely to be simpatico with WAGE's mission––especially since some of them are artist-run––and/or more likely to tangibly benefit from WAGE Certification, by virtue of enticing artists who might otherwise consider themselves too high-profile or too in-demand to exhibit there.
Neither of those idea applies to the New Museum. It has too much leverage to bow to an abstract sense of fairness, and too much brand equity for most artists to big-time it over compensation. So until or unless WAGE can figure out how to arm its Coalition with real firepower, I fear that it's fighting a losing battle against economics.