Help Desk

Help Desk: Culture and Compensation

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public—and today we’re celebrating our 100th installment! Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

The problem: sincere offers, from sweet, well-intended people, to show my work without compensation. The result: My polite refusal is taken as a slight and I’m sometimes thought of as ungrateful. These people often think they are doing me a favor and are confused when their request is turned down. What I’d like to have access to: an article written for the layperson that elucidates the situation. Ideally it’s a New Yorker-style article that my mom will understand and talk about with her friends. The next time she is sitting on a board or organizing an event and “art for exposure” is mentioned, she’ll pipe up and say, “Let’s put an honorarium in the budget, and here’s why…” The reason I want this article to exist and point people to it is, 1) I’m not very eloquent, 2) the subject is too close to me, and 3) I’m tired of repeating myself.

As far as advice columns go, I’m not sure how customary it is to request that someone write an article for you, but I’m happy to compose this editorial on the condition that you concede that yours is a position of privilege; many artists do not feel empowered to turn down opportunities, and certainly most don’t have a family connection that could influence the policy of an institution. I want to make it clear that I’m not writing this article solely for you, and you’re going to agree to not just hand it off to your mom to bypass the tedium of repetition. What we’re doing—together—is using our relative positions of power to advocate for economic parity.

Now cut on the dotted line and hand this to your mother. Good luck!


In October, the Creative Capital blog published an article titled “4 Myths about Artists’ Finances” and the first two read, “Artists are bad with money” and “I am lucky to be an artist and thus don’t need to be paid well for my work.” Winkingly, we might acknowledge that somewhere in the stereotype of the creative character there may be a grain of truth about being mathematically challenged, but without a doubt the second assertion is a tiresome old chestnut of the artist-as-toiler who sacrifices her own well being for a higher purpose, willingly nailed to the laissez faire cross of the art world. The article goes on to refute these fictions, stating, “Most artists are incredibly adept at managing their revenue, they just don’t have enough of it. […] Artists imagine a thing that doesn’t yet exist, develop a plan to bring it into existence, implement that plan and deliver it to the world, on time.” They go so far as to call this labor “the executive-level work of the art world.”

However, the case isn’t just that most artists aren’t paid well for their work, it’s that they aren’t paid at all. The majority of exhibiting artists self-fund the creation of their work and then loan it for free to contemporary art centers and museums. Everyone else, from the director to the curator to the coat-check staffer, receives a paycheck, but the artist—the person who makes the thing for which these careers exist—often goes without compensation for her time and materials.

So how should these paradoxically subordinate executives be treated? The question has been raised in the past and gone mainly unanswered, but a recent resurgence of interest has produced a number of collectives and councils that are working toward an equitable system of remuneration for arts workers, outlining fee schedules and guidelines for institutions that care to enact economic parity. And these are not solely American concerns: As far back as 1968, the Canadian Artists Representation Copyright Collective has set minimum recommended rates for the use of artwork and artists’ services. The National Association for the Visual Arts in Australia also advocates to pay exhibiting artists, and they affirm the policies set by other countries: “In 2009, the Swedish government adopted a new agreement for remuneration to artists for the display of work. In Norway, artists receive a two-fold ‘compensation’ for the exhibition of their works, one for exhibiting, and the second to compensate their lack of access to using or selling their artwork during the time of exhibition. […] Poland’s artists are also paid a fee linked directly to the average working wage and can negotiate from there.”

Here in the United States, the activist organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) was formed in 2008 to regulate “the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions” and establish “a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that contract their labor.” They also provide a schedule of fees to be paid, and institutions committed to remunerative equality can apply to be W.A.G.E. certified; the first item in the requirements for certification is, “Include ‘Artist Fees’ as a line item in both operating and exhibition budgets.”

Similar proposals are being introduced in the United Kingdom. The Paying Artists Campaign works to obtain remuneration for artists who exhibit in public-funded galleries. Further, the campaign extends the argument of remunerative integrity to the broader issue of art’s cultural and economic value, and the systemic issues of economics, class, and race:

“There is currently no agreed guidance or framework for exhibition fees to artists. Our research indicates that, both in the existing economic climate and in the longer term, fewer and fewer artists will be able to sustain their practice. If there are fewer artists, the UK will lose the diversity and innovation that is fundamental to its visual arts scene, and the corresponding tourism benefits and the £1.9 billion investment that visual arts brings to the UK economy. […] Eventually art will only be made by artists that can afford to work for little or no pay. Ensuring artists are paid will ensure the public continues to see art work that is drawn from and reflects the whole of our society.” [emphasis mine]

There’s a fundamental question that lurks just underneath all the rhetoric about money: Who is empowered to create culture? If only the affluent are able to take on the unpaid labor of artmaking, then art will only reflect the concerns of the affluent. Moreover, in the United States the wealthy are overwhelmingly white. This year, the public-policy organization Demos published a report titled, “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters,” analyzing data drawn from the nationally representative Survey of Income and Program Participation. According to the data, in 2011 the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, the median Latino household had $8,348 in wealth holdings, and the median black household had $7,113. If exhibiting artists remain uncompensated for their labors, only the wealthy will be able to afford to make art; if only the wealthy can commit their resources to artmaking, the pool of exhibiting artists will be almost entirely white—creating an arrangement that disregards the value of diversity and rejects the belief that art should explore the continuum of human experience. In effect, to not pay artists is to abet systemic racism.

Whether an artist is self-taught or educated in a classroom, her work is a product of years of training and hundreds or even thousands of hours spent in the studio refining ideas and technical skills. Some artists don’t feel able to turn down unpaid opportunities due to the demands of increased professionalization—building notoriety and a convincing CV might lead to future opportunities that do pay. Others who are less inclined to worry about fame fret that exhibiting their work without compensation tacitly endorses (and even promotes) the view that artists are willing to work for “exposure.” Both sides agree that exposure does not pay rent or put food on the table, and perhaps most importantly, it does not provide funding to make more work. Anyone who cares about culture will recognize that the best way to advocate for artists is to aid their future endeavors, and no mere encouragement can match the provision of resources that allow artists to pursue their work. Institutions that don’t allocate funds for exhibiting artists might find themselves more and more often on the receiving end of an email that reads something like this: “I’m sorry to hear that there is no compensation budgeted for my work. As a result, I must decline your offer. I hope to work with you in the future, when your policy changes to support artists in the way that they need it most.”