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W. A. G. E. Against the Machine: Art and the Business of Gettin’ Paid

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Photo by Christian Frock

If you can read this, you are complicit in determining the value of artists. Perhaps you are an artist who has given your work away for free — and/or a writer, mea culpa — or a curator/editor/producer who has solicited free labor or a consumer who has enjoyed the fruits of unpaid efforts. Everyone is complicit. The upside, of course, is that there are also enough of us to create change.

Recently New York-based activist group W. A. G. E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), an advocacy collective focused on establishing best practices for artist remuneration, debuted the W. A. G. E. Certification Fee Calculator, an interactive resource for determining fair compensation for artists participating in various activities, including exhibitions, talks and screenings. Calculations are based on a sliding scale, determined by institutional operating budgets of varying size.

W. A. G. E. also offers certification for organizations that voluntarily provide documentation that meets their standards for fair pay for artists’ work. These initiatives don’t offer a blanket solution to the question of getting paid, but they do advance the conversation.

The impetus behind the collective organizing of W. A. G. E. dovetails with several recent local movements, as talk around the value of labor in the arts has escalated this year. Progress has been concrete in some arenas, specifically with the movement to unionize adjunct professors at several local private art schools. When I wrote about the union push last spring it was unclear how things would proceed; in recent months Mills College, San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts have all voted to create unions for adjunct faculty. Of these unionizing efforts, artist and organizer Christian Nagler said by email, “The generations of art students coming up need to know that artists don’t have to work in competitive isolation; our creativity can accomplish things collectively; aesthetic innovation can further the goals of equity and labor rights, and vice versa.”

Photo by Christian Frock
Photo by Christian Frock

At the national level, New York-based working group OWS Arts & Labor, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street, is predicated on a similar ethos, collectively organizing to address intern labor rights, alternative economies and urban place-making and gentrification policies.


Another shift was evident in the inclusion of the Bay Area Art Workers Alliance (BAWAA) as featured artists in this year’s Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a triennial exhibition that has historically served as a significant survey of relevant movements in the Bay Area art community. BAWAA’s contribution, titled Invisible Labor, presented a collaborative project engaging more than 100 of its members in the production of installations that alluded to the often-unrecognized manual labor of art workers behind the scenes.

Collective bargaining in the arts is gaining prominence at a time when a number of high profile projects dependent upon unpaid labor are also on the rise, promising the uncertain collateral of “exposure,” “experience,” and “community building.” Last month I wrote about the call for volunteer production labor involved in For-Site Foundation’s $3.6M budget project with blue chip Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.

This summer San Francisco also saw the debut of Way Out West, a series of billboard and bus ad interventions by local artists produced by The Art City Project, a newly launched public art presenter-cum-corporate art consulting firm aimed at technology companies. (See KQED Arts’ overview of the project for more details.) Though Way Out West garnered high-profile press for its striking urban images, likely driving healthy interest to The Art City Project’s consulting arm, none of the participating artists were paid, according to organizers. As corporate interest in artistic “product” becomes more visible within and beyond the Bay Area, the need to establish best practices around getting paid becomes more pronounced.

Though there is a historical precedent for this kind of self-regulatory activity in the arts, the W. A. G. E. fee calculator is one of the most recent sets of guidelines based on the current economy. In 1971 the visionary curator Seth Seigelaub worked with then-lawyer Robert Projanksy to create The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, an open source document “to remedy some generally acknowledged inequities in the art world, particularly artists’ lack of control over the use of their work and participation in its economics after they no longer own it.” This document is still widely used by many artists in major institutions around the world.

In creating its fee calculator, W. A. G. E. is responding to the need to recognize the intrinsic value of artists as contributors to popular culture. The challenges facing artists in asking to get paid are numerous: there are no standard fees, the art world is opaque when it comes to money and, because competition is fierce, transparency is rare. Often the suggestion of being a “supportive community member” is leveraged to get artists to work for low or no pay, but this argument only really holds true if everyone is participating as a supportive community member. The “community” argument falls apart when some are paid and some aren’t, as does the promise of exposure.

“I’ve been working as a professional artist for almost 20 years; I can’t tell you how many times the promise of ‘exposure’ has been held out to me as a reason to participate in an exhibition in lieu of any payment or honoria,” said Anthony Discenza in a conversation about his participation in Way Out West. “It’s a meaningless promise — it’s just what institutions like to tell artists who have the temerity to ask for compensation. In some ways, it functions more like a veiled threat: Play ball or be left out. But unfortunately, exposure doesn’t pay your rent.”

For the W. A. G. E. payment scale to work a number of factors need to also happen: Artists need to stop working for free and need to have frank conversations about remuneration. Administrators, curators, editors, et al need to actively participate in advocating for better fees constantly, while simultaneously reconsidering the best ways to expend a budget. Everyone needs to become more comfortable with talking about and negotiating fees. It should be considered a straightforward conversation, not a personal attack on values just because someone asks to be paid. Case in point: Way Out West featured projects on 18 paid advertising sites — what if fewer artists had been involved but they, like the billboard and bus shelter ad space owners, had been paid?

Anthony Discenza's billboard featured in Way Out West
Anthony Discenza’s billboard featured in Way Out West; Courtesy of the artist

Sometimes in the arts there simply isn’t much money to be had and opportunities might be few and far between, then it makes sense to consider other factors. Discenza, for example, concedes that while he did not get paid for Way Out West, being provided access to a 50′ billboard represented an unusual opportunity to create a large-scale public work, something that he would not pursue on his own. Ultimately, this was why he accepted the invitation, despite having serious concerns about the project’s failure to provide any compensation for participating artists. In keeping with his dry humor, Discenza’s commentary about the nature of such invitations is self-evident in his billboard contribution.

Illustrator and designer Jessica Hische’s online diagram Should I Work For Free? provides pathways for determining the best course of action in a variety of scenarios with or without pay. An artist-centric version of this diagram was adapted by artist Helena Keeffe in her publication about art and labor titled Standard Deviation, available to download on Art Practical; earlier this year, Keeffe also organized a symposium in collaboration with the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley titled “Valuing Labor in the Arts.” In Standard Deviation, Keeffe additionally suggests artists consider and budget for volunteer and unpaid labor as a matter of practice.  Artist Christine Wong Yap also provides a self-designed Decision Table on her website to help rank and consider exhibition opportunities based on various factors, including financial resources.

None of these tools, including the W. A. G. E. fee calculator, are comprehensive or definitive. Each offers a place to consider the value of art labor in monetary terms and a way to begin the conversation around valuing artists. Art isn’t always a product, but there is a whole business built around art — and in business, as it is widely known, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. As businesses increasingly call on artists to produce content aimed towards making money for someone, somewhere down the line, the first challenge for artists is to recognize their own value and ask to be paid in kind. Or as my father, a brass knuckled businessman if there ever was one, has always said, “Save the praise, where’s the raise?”


[Editor’s Note: This post was modified at 8:15am on Oct. 22. The number of Way Out West billboards was changed from 19 to 18, the name of The Art City Project was corrected. The Art City Project responded to our questions late last night, so a note reflecting lack of comment was also removed.]

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