Valuing Labor in the Arts: Prompts for Eight Workshops

5.4 / Valuing Labor in the Arts

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Prompts for Eight Workshops

By ARC Invited Artists April 3, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center (ARC) at the University of California, Berkeley will stage a daylong practicum entitled “Valuing Labor in the Arts.” The gathering invites registered participants to select from the eight artist workshops listed below; each is a small-group practicum devised to spur dialogue, action, and art making about the issues of art, labor, and economics. All registered participants will also spend some time working with Eleanor Hanson Wise, Oliver Wise, and Catherine Powell to develop a Bay Area cultural survey and to expand their ideas in relation to the Bay Area’s broader labor history. In the early evening, all registered participants will convene at the David Brower Center to debrief, to share insights, and to share a meal. 

Accompanying these prompts is a selection of images from the exhibition The Possible, courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, where the workshop will be held.


Gauging the Gray Area: Standards for Artistic Labor

Helena Keeffe and Lauren van Haaften-Schick

When is it okay to work for free? Why is remuneration a concern for artists and arts workers? What perpetuates the devaluation of artistic labor? How have artists confronted these challenges? Can we devise a scheme for artists to follow during negotiations for compensation? Is it possible to create a shared standard of artist needs?

Artistic labor is often assumed to be unquantifiable, difficult to define, existing solely within a gift economy. At the same time, we live in the era of the presumed professional artist, in which art practitioners are expected to be hyper-performers, on the clock, and giving it all for the promise of exposure. Both assumptions about art work have positive aspects: a gift economy encourages collectivity and mutual exchange while the professionalization of the arts presumably elevates the artist to a more respected role in society. Yet the collision of these contradicting assumptions has instead cast artists as precarious workers, in which they are expected to give and to perform endlessly without any established standards for remuneration.

The workshop “Gauging the Gray Area: Standards for Artistic Labor” consists of a conversation and exercise through which participants will consider the ways that we value our artistic labor and attempt to formulate a set of standards for answering the above questions in our professional and daily lives. We will discuss examples of artists who have refused work for the lack of payment and who have turned these conflicts into opportunities for teaching or encouraging change. We will consider tools that artists have devised to evaluate situations: when to work for free, when to demand more, and how to better define the myriad gray areas of artistic work. Such tools include Helena Keeffe’s project Standard Deviation, Jessica Hische's Should I Work for Free?, Lauren van Haaften-Schick's Non-Participation, data collected by WAGE and CARFAC, and legal tools such as Seth Siegelaub's Artists Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement. Workshop participants will discuss their experiences with such negotiations and will be asked to formulate their own standards for when and why to say yes or no to unpaid—and sometimes paid—art work.

At the conclusion of the workshop, we will devise a tiered system of standards for determining whether or not to accept paid and unpaid work within the arts, taking into consideration the personal, social, and practical circumstances behind each decision. Rather than seek a collective standard, we will recognize that personal needs and ethics regarding payment for artistic labor will vary among participants. Our considerations and conclusions will be printed as a broadside for conference attendees to take with them and reproduce or edit for themselves. We hope that this broadside will not only be the spark of many future conversations, but will begin to be used as a concrete tool among artists for measuring the value of their work

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Yoga for Adjuncts: The Somatics of Human Capital                                                 

Christian Nagler

Greetings, practitioners!
Let's begin by balancing on one leg. Good. (Or if you can, try balancing on zero legs!)
Feeling shaky? Remember: Falling over is all right. Precariousness is the greatest teacher.
Let me start off with a simple fact: Art schools—which employ at intermittent, patchwork intervals a large number of urban cultural workers, teaching artists—have led the way toward loosening the rigid idea of the educator as a wage-earner.
Another fact: The private art schools are quantitatively assessed and overseen by tech-entrepreneur trustee boards and investment bankers with teams of consultants to translate their risk-management strategies into administrative policies.
Let's accept this situation—let it sink in. Let it quiver under the fasciae.
We can't go home again. We can't go back. We have only what is now.
Or, to put it another way: Let's find a new home in the floating world of today’s institutions, of managed, interlocking slots of short-term labor.
Let's take some deep breaths.
Let go of attachment—drop in, log in to a few hours of contact time.
Let's call the teaching artist it. Short for spirit: a transparent crystal of self, a clear bridge between worlds.
It has the ancient wisdom of the one who dwells at the margins of the institution, one who plays at the edge of stability—no past, no future—alive and vigilant in the shimmering present.
… …
Still standing on one leg? Give in to the wobble. The wobble, if accepted, will help you to stand tall or to fall, if you need to.
Trust in the abundance of the universe to manifest an infinite supply of labor just like you. No demands—only supply!
You, the divine worker, love your free time (time to create!) but you know there could never be enough time for the expansiveness of your visions. This is wisdom. So you abide by your time of conceptual freedom, a space where you work for no pay.
Instead of clinging tightly to your time of freedom, you let the institution imagine this free time for you.
The work of the divine institution records the infinity of your time of conceptual freedom!
In this way you, the divine cognitive worker, are supple and selfless, letting your imagination become one with a greater force.
You're still balancing? Amazing. Don't worry if those around you fall over. Failure—to have a career, a house, a guaranteed income—is the greatest teacher.
Remember: The universe, the institution, doesn't need you. All it asks is that you show up. Or not.
Aspire to this simplicity of need. Identify with a higher force, which knows more about larger flows than your limited body.
Throw out the rigidity of contracts. Not contraction—expansion! Not positions but poses to move through.
There is juiciness to this angle of flow.
How to hold this paradox in your inner expanse:
That you are beautifully extra, that this excess, this abundance, composes you, down to your cells.
And yet you compose the institution. You are three quarters, or more, of its actual being!
You are its perfect face!

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Appropriate Technologies

Abigail Satinsky

Artists and other creative people who organize their lives around the arts have long dealt with the problem of the lack of money by utilizing the very same resourcefulness they apply to making art. They have formed cooperative living and studio arrangements; started their own businesses; become grant-writing virtuosi; begged, stolen, borrowed, and even invented currencies. This situation is nothing new, and yet artists face a new existential crisis.

Thinking about one’s artistic practice as an entrepreneurial venture to be branded and marketed is becoming the default for today’s aspiring professional artist, when there is little public support for governmental (i.e., tax-based) funding for the arts on a mass scale and individual giving is increasingly a transactional relationship based on reward systems like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Supporting an artistic practice has long been difficult, but with the meteoric rise of a speculative art market and its consolidation of capital, as well as the crushing debt awaiting those aspiring to get into the game, the many different kinds of art careers, art worlds, and art lives aren’t being considered, particularly as models with which to debate, challenge, and improve the current state of affairs.

Appropriate technologies is a term coined by the Buddhist economist E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful, first published in 1973, in which he called for economic solutions to globalization that were founded on principles of self-empowerment, self-reliance and decentralization, and local control. This idea has been foundational for much thought today on sustainable development and environmental preservation. Schumacher’s idea of decentralization involves the concept of “smallness within bigness” in which interrelated but autonomous units work together toward a greater goal, such as an ecological approach to production or “Buddhist economics,” a spiritual approach that (among other ideas) advocates for self-sufficiency and local resources allocated for local needs at a modest scale, appropriate for a balanced life. Can this idea be relevant toward sustaining a wide range of cultural production?

This philosophy is utilized today in a growing network of art initiatives that commission art works specifically for subscribers, using the models of community-supported agriculture (CSA) or magazine subscriptions. Creating artist editions for sale is a not a new idea, but the link to the CSA model—which also emphasizes decentralization, community control, and ethical, small-scale production—can spark a new conversation about what sustainability means as well as bring us closer to the “enoughness” that Schumacher advocates. This workshop will be a critical discussion of how these community-supported art projects succeed, fail, or offer new possibilities; we will conduct a series of thought experiments regarding how to build from there. Participants will also develop speculative plans for an appropriate technology pertinent to their personal circumstances.

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Defining Value, Labor, and the Arts

Lise Soskolne, for W.A.G.E.

Nothing can easily be defined within the perpetually expanding and liquifying field of the arts. This is particularly true of its economy, in which the lack of parameters and transparency enable the exploitation of cultural labor. Without the ability to precisely define the labor supplied, the monetary value it creates, or the criteria used to determine its compensation (usually inadequate or nonexistent), artists and cultural practitioners will continue to accept exploitation as a requirement of participation in the arts.

Conceived in 2010 by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) as a key tool in its efforts to end this state of indeterminacy, W.A.G.E. Certification is a program that recognizes and "certifies" nonprofit arts organizations and museums that voluntarily pay artist fees meeting a minimum standard. This past January, A.K. Burns, Howie Chen, Andrea Fraser, Alison Gerber, Stephanie Luce, Andrew Ross, Marina Vishmidt, W.A.G.E., and Artists Space staff—representing the institution and the organization as a test case—came together for the 2014 W.A.G.E. Summit in New York City to establish the policy for this program.

Over the course of two days, we considered, debated, negotiated, and arrived at a fee schedule and a revised set of principles that now constitute the W.A.G.E. Certification. This involved a granular analysis of value and labor within the context of the nonprofit arts sector and beyond—in other words, defining the nature of the field, the nature of the work, and placing a dollar value on it.

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Participation Compensation

Stephanie Syjuco

The theme of this workshop is: Participation does not equal compensation.
Or: Towards the collective production of a best-practices handbook on offering compensation to others, formulated by artists for artists.
Or: How to involve other individuals in your projects, to not take advantage of them, and to make informed and ethical decisions about how you compensate them.

With the rise in participatory (or socially engaged) art practices and their recognition within institutions and exhibition venues, how do artists formulate methods of ethical compensation for the people involved in creating their works: other artists, participants, collaborators, volunteers, paid workers, and interns? This workshop is for artists who create projects that rely on other people’s labor for their production; its focus is on artists becoming ethical compensators in developing these projects. From DIY, low-budget events to major museum shows, artists are increasingly faced with slippery questions of how to negotiate and define compensation. In many cases, they are struggling to find real-world, candid examples that others would be willing to share. Budgets, funding, and the role of uncompensated labor can be taboo discussion topics when a project relies on a gift economy. Stories abound of mishaps, misunderstandings, and even mistreatment due to trial-and-error navigation of ethics and ideals. Hard questions and frank answers are needed in order to begin to formulate how participation in a project does, or does not, equal compensation.

This workshop aims to produce a set of questions and thought experiments in order to collectively generate an outline for a best-practices handbook on compensation for artists who are lead instigators of participatory projects. Attendees will shape the dialogue and provide real-world scenarios, and I will share examples of projects that attempted to analyze or complicate the definitions of compensation. The questions posed will help artists develop their understanding of what they deem fair and ethical in a field that constantly demands negotiation of the terms author, artist, participant, and subject. The best-practices handbook will be a working document that grows as it travels to different discussion groups beyond the ARC colloquium.

Sample questions and discussion topics include: How do you compensate others if you can barely pay yourself from your production budget? When does the structure of a gift economy and the idealism of working outside of monetary exchange positively feed your project’s concept, and when does it become potentially abusive to others? When should a participant be credited for involvement in your project? How do you define and value cultural capital versus economic capital for compensation? How can institutional funding problematize compensation for your participants, potentially creating a tiered system? Is it possible to create transparent compensation for everyone involved in your project? How does interrogating oneself as an artist-producer positively contribute to a larger ethical worldview of valuing labor in the arts?

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Big Soft (BS) Contract

Cassie Thornton, of the Feminist Economics Department (the FED)

Do you want money, or do you want to be alive? Do you want a wage, or do you want support and attention? Do you want to mark your hours down and hand them to someone, or do you want that person to love you—or at least to like what you do? As an artist or worker, do you believe a wage is the best way to value your work, or does it seem to be the only way to value it? In this workshop, as an experiment, we will act as if money is not the missing ingredient in the arts but rather a decoy that turns attention towards accumulation of material wealth and away from the art itself.

The value of money is a Big Soft (BS) social contract that is not backed by commodities. Its value is instead backed by our emotional, psychological, and physical attachment to it. If we train ourselves to see money for what it is—a state-enforced mutual agreement about what we must value—then other financial concerns such as debt and wages could potentially lose their power over us. Can we use art to untrain ourselves, to reject money and to articulate what we really want? Again, what do we really want?

In this workshop, participants will articulate what money represents to them and explore the possibility of more direct paths of exchange that lead to desired outcomes and values. Using somatic and verbal challenges, participants will experiment with talking about money and performing exchanges. As a group, participants will explore what types of contracts shape their lives and how they might take active roles in redefining those contracts. We will discuss how not to write grants and how not to throw a fundraiser. We will explore an example of an artistic reinterpretation of a contract, the recent work Fedora Archive, in which an artist’s labor is the material on loan to an institution, debt becomes interpersonal, and the institution commissions a critique of itself. We will ask: to whom do we owe the most, and what should we give them? What happens when we consciously deprioritize money? How might written and social contracts be softened when we do not play assumed roles of purely economic self-interest?

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

The Exchange Archive

Caroline Woolard

This workshop will consist of a short presentation on the Exchange Archive, followed by a discussion about the conditions and contradictions that make gifts, bartering, and/or monetary payments feasible. Like the projects in the archive, I practice exchange-based work: rather than outsourcing labor and exploiting interns to produce art, I work with my hands, swap labor for labor, and demand a percentage of every budget. For example, if the budget is zero dollars, as with any social movement, I work for free.

My interest in exchange practices comes from living and working in New York City for the past decade. While rent continues to rise and wages stagnate, I find hope and support in daily practices of barter, cooperation, and wisdom from the solidarity-economy movement. Scouring the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) archives of the 2013 “Artists Experiment” initiative, I found a history of exchange projects from the past forty years, from Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set (1963–69) to Ben Kinmont’s I Need You (1992). I decided to include in this archive exchange projects that have not yet been collected by MoMA, for these works offer an expanded notion of embodied exchange. From Jose Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa (2006–10) to Carey Young’s Mutual Release (2008), these projects reveal the reciprocal labor, production, and distribution of artworks as integral to the meaning of the works.

Some qualities of EXCHANGE WORKS:
1. They should be touched/used/activated.
2. They connect two people in a reciprocal encounter or agreement.
3. They are bigger than an event or object (production and lifecycle are parts of the work).
4. They move between art and nonart spaces (as actions/tools/instruments).
5. They should be replicated, existing as multiples or as open-access ideas, available to remix.

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Collective Actions, Moving Thought

Sara Wookey

This workshop is titled after a research project centered on the dialogue between improvisational movement, writing, and critical discussion. Utilizing a movement-based process, this workshop aims to be an experiential platform for collective practice, for understanding shared and differing views on labor and value in the arts, and for creating dances.

This workshop is inspired by and operates in the tradition of dance collectives such as Grand Union (1970–76), Lower Left (1994–ongoing), and LIVE (2007–ongoing). It is informed by my 2012 “Open Letter to Artists” and by my experiences as a subsidized artist in Europe, in my work with Yvonne Rainer, and as a founding member of the Choreographers Working Group (2008–12).

Workshop structure:

  • 20 minutes: move together (no speaking)
  • 10 minutes: writing
  • 15 minutes: discuss and mind map
  • 15 minutes: break
  • 20 minutes: move together (with focus from mind map)
  • 10 minutes: writing
  • 15 minutes: sharing
  • 15 minutes: wrap up

Workshop goals:
• Engage in experiential structures that articulate the labor of dance making.
• Prompt a discussion on value, labor, and the arts through exercises in dancing and writing.
• Highlight collective processes as a means of moving forward the definitions of labor and value in the arts—in particular, the performing arts.

The Possible, 2014; installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Peter Cavagnaro.

Sharing Knowledge is Sharing Power

Catherine Powell, the director of the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University, will offer historical insight on strategies for organizing that have led to empowerment for workers. She will relate this history to the arts, explaining how a survey that makes the realities of remuneration more transparent can empower artists.

Eleanor Hanson Wise and Oliver Wise, codirectors of The Present Group, will present the beta version of the Compensation Foundation, a platform for collecting, sharing, and analyzing how contingent workers are remunerated. This beta test will focus on visual artists’ reports on Bay Area organizations, businesses, and alternative spaces. The Wises will cite inspirations for their project and address the delicate nature of getting people to talk about and share information about money. Participants will be asked to complete a survey, to give feedback about the platform’s structure and design, and to discuss the effort to create transparency in a field where financial information is most often kept secret.

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