Opinion

W.A.G.E. Calls Out Documenta for Not Paying Artists

Everything sounds worse taken out of context, but a new video released by New York art activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) starts with a pretty damning quote from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of art mega-exhibition Documenta (also known annoyingly as dOCUMENTA).

“If you were an artist, you didn’t get any money, no, because you were already invited to the exhibition and you got to produce your work, so we didn’t pay the artists,” she says, at a panel discussion in New York. And then she laughs — maybe nervously, but still. Ouch.

The video is an “infomerical-dramedy” produced by W.A.G.E. to highlight the subject they’re continually highlighting: the fact that many artists don’t get paid by nonprofits where they show their work. It picks up on the sentiment behind Christov-Bakargiev’s statement and creates a what-if scenario, speculating on how the curator herself would have reacted if she had been approached by Bernd Leifeld, the CEO of Documenta, and asked to curate the show just for the power and fame of it, without get paid. “There is no financial compensation because you have already been invited to the exhibition,” the fictional Leifeld says at the end of his speech. “Are you interested?”

The video suffers from a screenplay premise that doesn’t totally work and an extremely creepy, slowed-down voiceover for the fictional Leifeld. It also ends with this line from W.A.G.E. — “We demand payment for making the world more interesting” — which I’m not sure is really the strongest argument they could make here. (“[A]rtists are workers,” from a 2008 NEA report, seems a better bet.)

Data from the 2010 W.A.G.E. survey showing that larger nonprofits are less likely to pay artists (image courtesy W.A.G.E.)

But it does call attention once again to W.A.G.E.’s survey from 2010, the results of which were released last year and show that more than half of artists who exhibited at nonprofits in New York between 2005 and 2010 didn’t get paid to do so. It also seems to reinforce the data from the survey suggesting that larger organizations are actually less likely to pay artists, which is really troubling, because if they’re not, then who the hell is? (One of our writers found the same story at another Important Survey Exhibition, the Whitney Biennial.)

What’s most disturbing for me, though, is the attitude that comes across in Christov-Bakargiev’s statement — the idea that just being invited to make work for Documenta is enough compensation in itself. Some might say that’s not surprising coming from a woman recently billed as the most powerful person in the art world, but is it too much to expect curators, of all people, to do (or at least think) better? That’s like a publisher saying to a novelist, “but we’re giving you the opportunity to even write the book!” — er, which I guess is more and more likely to happen these days. Still, it’s both obnoxious and unsettling. The art world — like any bubble or sector that has a lot of money, I suppose — can’t (or won’t) shake the fantasy of trickle-down economics, leaving the people in power free to continue screwing over the ones who are the reason the art world even exists. We’re lucky they’re such a stubborn, inspired bunch.

h/t Artinfo

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