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Artists’ campaigns for better pay are picking up pace – but will museums take note?

12 November 2018

In 2013, the London-based body a-n The Artists Information Company commissioned a study into artists’ income in the UK. The findings showed that more than 70 per cent of artists generated an annual turnover of less than £10,000. For many, the image of the penniless aesthete working for a pittance is clearly an economic reality. And it seems that at least part of the blame can be ascribed to public institutions: the study found that the same percentage of artists were not paid a fee when exhibiting in publicly funded contexts.

Tim Schneider, a New York-based art industry analyst, sums up the dilemma for artists: ‘The benefits of bypassing the private sector and adding hallowed or forward-thinking institutions to your CV are often tainted by low or non-existent compensation.’ The wheels are turning, though; organisations and lobby groups dedicated to helping artists in the US and UK have recently begun to devise best-practice models to guide practitioners exhibiting in publicly funded venues and seeking to secure payment.

Lise Soskolne, an artist, is fighting for better remuneration. She is the core organiser of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), an activist project founded in New York in 2008 to campaign for fair compensation for artists. By 2014, it had launched W.A.G.E. certification, a programme for certifying non-profit institutions whose fees meet W.A.G.E. standards. In March, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia became the first museum to be certified by W.A.G.E. The move was a game-changer, proving that some major public institutions will opt into a model that holds them accountable for paying artists. However, the only other museum-affiliated project to sign up so far is the Carnegie International, the biennial held at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.

Undeterred, this September W.A.G.E. launched WAGENCY, an online service that, for a $5 monthly subscription fee, helps artists to calculate and request fees for a range of activities at public institutions, from lectures to exhibitions. Following the standards set out by the W.A.G.E. certification programme, the fees are calculated according to organisations’ yearly operating expenses – MoMA in New York, for instance, has an annual budget of $249m according to the data collected by W.A.G.E., so artists should request a fee of $10,000 for a solo show.

Artists who register as ‘wagents’ use WAGENCY to determine how much to charge for their labour and subsequently request their fees via the platform; organisations can choose to accept or negotiate the rate proposed. ‘Artists are contracted workers. We supply content and produce value in the gig economy just like millions of others,’ says Soskolne, who stresses that hundreds of artists have signed up. The New York-based artist Christine Wong Yap is one of these. Yap says she has been waiting years for such an advocacy tool, citing a lack of transparency in the art world. ‘In any other business or industry, the art world’s lack of contracts, invoices, and timely payments would be completely untenable,’ she says.

Organisations in the UK are also taking a stand for artists. These include Artists’ Union England, a trade union founded in 2014 and certified in 2016. The union offers comprehensive artist pay guidelines, which were last updated in August 2017. Labour by the hour or day is calculated according to experience: £21.04 per hour for a new graduate artist, £32.47 for five years’ experience or more. These rates are intended to apply to a range of activities, including exhibition planning and installation. But the Turner Prize nominee Dexter Dalwood says that they ‘do not even correspond to what one would be paid to give a lecture in education, such as an artist talk at an art school’.

In 2014, a-n’s research findings prompted the organisation to launch the Paying Artists Campaign in 2014, and the Exhibition Payment Guide in 2016. Artists use the payment guide’s framework to identify appropriate remuneration for an exhibition. Fees range from £100 to £6,000 based on the size of the organisation, whether it is a solo or group show, and if new or existing work is presented.

There have been breakthroughs; since 2017, organisations applying to Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and Arts Council of Wales are expected to provide evidence of fair payment to artists. ‘This is driving more organisations to seek out guidance about paying artists,’ says Julie Lomax, the chief executive of a-n. The organisation hopes to extend its guidance further, to encompass live art, performance, sound, moving image and open studio contexts by 2020. Dalwood stresses, meanwhile, that auction houses should not be surprised if artists request a fee for studio tours.

Meanwhile, a-n is working on joint case studies with seven organisations in the UK that are working to improve exhibition payment. These include Modern Art Oxford and Nottingham Contemporary, which has increased its artist fees by around 20 per cent since its current director, Sam Thorne, joined in 2016. ‘For solo exhibitions across two galleries, we pay artists around £2,500; for a larger solo show across all of our galleries, the fee is around £5,000,’ Thorne says, adding that Nottingham Contemporary has consulted the a-n and W.A.G.E. fair pay models. He adds that production costs are another key aspect of the costing process involving artists: ‘Where we cover production, we typically aim to recoup if works are sold within three years.’

Institutions may choose to follow external guidelines but they ultimately abide by their own rules, deciding themselves how artists should be reimbursed. Sally Tallant, the director of the Liverpool Biennial, says that her organisation offers artists a £2,500 fee for a commission proposal (artists receive £1,000 for a proposal and the remainder when the project is agreed). These costs are factored into the biennial budget, adds Tallant. ‘It is relatively rare for biennials to offer artists a fee. I want people to feel good about working with us,’ she comments. Less transparent institutions should take note.

From the November 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.