Help Desk

Help Desk: Support for Artists

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I espouse fair labor initiatives like W.A.G.E. to pay artists.[1] However, my own projects are often un- or under-funded; if a stipend covers a significant portion of my expenses, that seems like a success, even if I take a loss on my own time and labor. As a consequence, I’m unable to pay myself, much less collaborators, contributors, or volunteers. In return, I try to offer sincere thanks and credit lines, as well as social media links. First, how do I navigate this paradox? Am I being a hypocrite? What more could I do to support fellow artists? How will I know if I am taking artists’ energy in exchange for an exploitative promise of “exposure”?

Sigmar Polke. Untitled, 1971. Paint on fabric.

Sigmar Polke. $-Bild, 1971; paint on fabric.

Nearly every artist I know navigates this ambiguous and complex territory in some way or another. The paradox you experience operates on a tacit, institutionalized presumption—that artists’ work is a “labor of love” and consequently our primary goal is to have that work “exposed” to the world. This logic dictates the primary model of success and failure within the art world (cf. Melanie Gillman’s “If Other Professions Were Paid Like Artists”). It also plays into the affective conditions of being an artist, namely that a legitimate artist should have an obsessive impulse to create that suppresses all other drives (including the ones to pay rent and eat); ergo, if you care about compensation, you must not be a real artist.

To combat conventional thinking, you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity. To start, each time you are offered a gig that doesn’t mention payment up front, you can ask, “Is there a stipend?” Importantly, the act of asking raises awareness of the problem. You can take this further: “Thanks for inviting me to be part of this exhibition. As you may know, I work with collaborators. Is there room in the budget to compensate them for their time and labor?” The answer may be “no,” but you’ll have shined a light on a dark and oft-unspoken issue.

Since you mention W.A.G.E. specifically, I thought it would be best to to see what they would say about your question (they requested to be named as a bloc). But before I move on to their thoughts, I want to point out that an uncompensated exchange can still be ethical. I acknowledge the irony of asking arts workers to contribute their time and energy to this column for free and, in fact, should note that in the three years that I’ve been writing “Help Desk,” I’ve never paid a contributor for a quote (likewise, no one has ever asked for a stipend). Like you, I offer my gratitude; obvious credit in the column text; and, links, tags, and write-ups on social media. And similarly to arts work, writing an advice column isn’t famous for being a path to considerable profit, but I’m willing to put in my time and labor because I sincerely want to help artists and the art community, and I suspect that the contributors have felt the same. As W.A.G.E. notes below, “that is part of how solidarity and community are built within the field.”

Now on to the thoughts from W.A.G.E.:

“To answer these questions, it first has to be recognized that the art economy and its inherent exploitation of the labor of artists makes peer-to-peer exploitation both inevitable and necessary.

“Without the provision of funding for individual artists from government or private foundations, artists naturally look to art institutions for material support in the production of their work. However, because there are no standards and guidelines for compensation, the support artists might receive falls profoundly short of what is needed not only to make the work, but more importantly what is needed to survive in the most fundamental material sense.

“It should therefore come as no surprise that artists turn to their peers for support, and in doing so they may inadvertently replicate the practices of institutions by enlisting friends and colleagues to work for the promise of exposure. For those artists who don’t have access to the kinds of resources enabled by class privilege, there are very few other options available.

“But it must also be understood that in their failure to provide adequate or consistent support for artists, nonprofit institutions themselves replicate the funding practices of the grant makers that support them. Institutions receive funding as charity and on the basis of whether their programming merits the gift of the funder. In turn, institutions arbitrarily dispense fees to artists on the same basis: as charity and on merit, instead of as subcontracted labor and for the content and services that artists provide, and without which these institutions would cease to function.

“An art institution may argue that it doesn’t receive enough funding to cover all of the costs incurred by its operations and that is why it can’t pay fees. W.A.G.E. asserts that if an institution can’t afford to both compensate artists and maintain the scope and ambition of its programming, then its programming should be scaled back and slowed down—paying for artists’ labor is part of the cost of doing business.

“So if the question being asked is about how artists can resist replicating the practices that result from a broken system that increasingly has little interest in even appearing to redistribute wealth equitably, perhaps the same logic and expectation should be applied to artists within their own practices. Maybe artists should also scale back their production and ambition if either necessitates practicing the same forms of exploitation that institutions can and should be held accountable for.

“There is a very simple but important question behind the equally important question of when it is wrong to exploit one’s peers, which is: When should I get paid? This question regularly arises in relation to institutions, but also in relation to anyone with whom one engages in a labor relation. It’s another way of asking: When is it work? The simple answer is that you should get paid when someone is profiting from your labor. If you’re not getting paid, then you’re being exploited.

“However, providing content or services to a friend without being compensated does not mean that one is being exploited. If the terms of the exchange are mutually agreed upon, and if one person isn’t immediately monetarily profiting from the labor of the other, then it may well be a fair exchange, and one that is part of how solidarity and community are built within the field. W.A.G.E. advocates for equitable compensation, not for the total monetization and commodification of every aspect of our lives; we leave that to neoliberalism.

“How much you should get paid is another matter, and one that W.A.G.E. takes up through W.A.G.E. Certification, a program that recognizes those nonprofits voluntarily paying fees that meet minimum payment standards, as established by W.A.G.E. This program provides hyper-definition and clarity around the questions of artistic labor, and offers a model for a more equitable means of resource distribution within a multi-billion-dollar industry that profits from the unpaid labor of artists, as well as from the many others who work within its supply chain.”

You can take all of this into consideration the next time you’re dealing with a project that will require the work of others. Even when you can’t provide a stipend for your collaborators, you can have an honest conversation about the transaction. Be transparent about the funding that’s available to you and what it will cost to produce the work. If you can’t give your fellow workers a stipend, then offer a trade. If someone volunteers their labor, pay that good energy forward for a worthy project when you can. And if some artists turn you down because you can’t remunerate them, thank them for their honesty and respect their opinions on what constitutes exploitation. Good luck!

[1] Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is “a New York-based activist organization focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions, and establishing a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that subcontract their labor” (see