Last Friday, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (aka W.A.G.E.) announced that they will be rolling out their new W.A.G.E. Certification program, which promises to be a “paradigm-shifting model for the remuneration of artistic labor.” Along with the news release, they indicated that Artists Space, an influential arts nonprofit in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, is the first nonprofit to sign onto the program.

W.A.G.E. has long been working to change what they perceive as an unfair payment structure for artists, and in discussions I’ve often heard them mention that they’d like to emulate the Canadian CARFAC model in the United States. On the topic of compensation, we had a few practical questions about the new proposed system, so I interviewed Lise Soskolne, core organizer of W.A.G.E., about it via email. I was curious what this could mean for artists and arts nonprofits. I also asked Soskolne to clarify the group’s definition of “artist,” since it’s used throughout our conversation, and she replied:

“Artist” refers to all those who supply content and services in a nonprofit visual arts presenting context, including visual artists, performers, dancers, poets, filmmakers, writers, and musicians among others. W.A.G.E. does not distinguish between individual and collective/collaborative providers of contents and services. All are covered under the term “artist.”

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Hrag Vartanian: You announced that Artists Space is the first “W.A.G.E. Certified” organization. Are there other organizations scheduled to be certified in the near future, and if so, when?

Lise Soskolne of W.A.G.E.: W.A.G.E. is in discussion with other organizations, and we hope to have more certified in the coming months.

HV: How do you calculate artist fees at organizations, and what are the factors you take into consideration? For instance, how much will Artists Space pay exhibiting artists, and is it per work, per exhibition … ?

W.A.G.E.: In addition to calculating fees, W.A.G.E. has established a set of guidelines and requirements to define precisely what the fee is compensation for — as well as what it is not for. An artist fee is compensation for time-limited content and services provided by artists to nonprofit arts organizations as contracted by nonprofit arts organizations in the course of mounting programs, as defined by their mission. The artist fee is distinct and separate from basic programming costs and services, production expenses, and the purchase of artworks or copyrights. Payment of an artist fee does not imply the transfer of ownership or rights from artist to organization. Any transfer of ownership or rights must be negotiated between artist and organization under a separate agreement.

W.A.G.E. determines fees using a fee calculator. Ours is a three-tiered model that determines fair compensation using two mechanisms: it establishes a sector-wide minimum or ‘compensation floor’ for fees in 13 fee categories, and it scales these fees up from the floor using a fixed percentage of an organization’s total annual operating expenses.

The compensation floor or ‘Floor W.A.G.E.’ applies to organizations with expenses below $500,000. Taken as a minimum payment standard, Floor W.A.G.E. is appropriate to smaller organizations with limited means, but it is inappropriate to those with larger budgets that can afford to pay higher fees.

If an organization’s expenses are above $500,000, W.A.G.E. requires it to pay minimum fees calculated as a fixed percentage of its expenses. In this way, equitable compensation is determined in direct proportion to the actual financial means of each organization — which vary greatly within a philanthropic economy that is also steeply stratified. This scaling mechanism enables precise distinctions to be made between organizations, and through these distinctions to hold each proportionately accountable. For organizations with expenses above $5M, W.A.G.E. recommends a continued scale-up until about $15M, but requires fees to be paid at a rate consistent with expenses of $5M.

A chart from the W.A.G.E. Certification documents annotated by Hyperallergic (via wageforwork.com)

A chart from the W.A.G.E. Certification, annotated by Hyperallergic (via wageforwork.com)

If the objective of a compensation floor is to stop the freefall in the race to the bottom, W.A.G.E. has included a compensation ‘ceiling’ that is likewise intended to stop the race to the top. At the level at which artists can leverage their market prices to command higher fees, W.A.G.E. has incorporated a ceiling to insure that nobody unduly profits from the redistribution of wealth — including artists.

Institutions with expenses over approximately $15M must not exceed a specified maximum rate of compensation. At the maximum rate, or ‘Maximum W.A.G.E.,’ compensation at the Solo Exhibition rate is capped at the average salary of the institution’s full-time employees. For example, the most recent data we have for the Whitney Museum is from FY 2013, during which its operating expenses were $40,428,000. If Jeff Koons’s exhibition had taken place during that year, the museum would be required to pay Jeff Koons at least $10,000. If Jeff Koons tried to negotiate a rate of $60,000 and the average salary of the Whitney’s full-time employees was $40,000, W.A.G.E. would require that the Whitney not pay Jeff Koons more than $40,000. Maximum W.A.G.E. rates for 9 of the other 12 fee categories are calculated as a proportion of the Solo Exhibition rate — so if Jeff Koons were also doing a Q&A, he would be paid at least $1,000 but no more than $4,000.

In addition to requiring the payment of fees, certification requires organizations to provide ‘Basic Programming Costs and Services’ to artists, as mentioned above. These are the baseline costs associated with mounting or executing programs as articulated by the organization’s mission statement and constitute the basic services that artists can expect nonprofit organizations to provide, irrespective of specific content. As contemporary conditions of precarity increasingly necessitate that workers supply the infrastructure (laptop, phone, mobile office) W.A.G.E. asserts that in a visual arts presenting context the opposite is true: the organization, if nothing else, is the infrastructure that cannot be provided by the artist.

Basic programming costs and services are not negotiable — they are the responsibility of the host organization and are required for certification. Criteria for organizations supporting non-material practices that are not exhibition or program-based, and whose presentation or execution does not utilize physical space, are currently in development.

A detailed explanation of Certification’s requirements, including floor fees and a list of basic programming costs and services as well as production costs, can be found here, and we encourage people to read all of the certification material at www.wageforwork.com.

Artists Space will pay fees according to a fixed percentage of its total annual operating expenses for the current fiscal year (FY 2015). Artists Space submitted its projected expenses to W.A.G.E., and we calculated a set of fees based on that number using the Fee Calculator. After the close of the fiscal year, we will require Artists Space to provide documentation of having paid fees meeting these standards.

HV: Will performance works be paid/calculated/scaled differently from paintings versus installations, etc.?

W.A.G.E.: W.A.G.E. does not distinguish between painting and installation — both are classified under ‘Exhibition’ for which fees are paid irrespective of specific content. There are four categories that qualify as Exhibition:

  1. Solo Exhibition
  2. Solo Project
  3. Two-Person Exhibition
  4. Group Exhibition (3 or more)

Performance constitutes its own distinct fee category and is scaled up using the same mechanism. Performance is broken into two categories:

  1. Performance of Existing Work and Performance
  2. Commission of New Work
The proposed fees for the newly W.A.G.E. Certified Artists Space nonprofit (via wageforwork.com/calculator)

The proposed fees for the newly W.A.G.E. Certified Artists Space nonprofit (via wageforwork.com/calculator)

HV: Do you see any challenges in ensuring that all arts nonprofits become W.A.G.E. Certified? 

W.A.G.E.: We are anticipating that this will be a challenging and lengthy process. Working with organizations to certify them involves a high level of transparency through which W.A.G.E. can continue to build on its understanding of the financial and programmatic contingencies that impact the functioning of an organization. It also presents an opportunity for us to continue gathering information and applying it to honing the program over time.

What we have offered is a model that we believe to be a solid foundation from which to start changing the terms on which artists engage with organizations.

HV: Are there any artists who have indicated that they plan to only work with W.A.G.E.-certified organizations? Is that your goal?

W.A.G.E.: We have not directly heard from artists who indicate that to be the case, and that is not our specific goal. Our specific goal is to establish and guarantee standards of minimum compensation and organizational support for artists in the nonprofit arts economy. Our broader goal is to work toward the fairer and more equitable distribution of resources in the contemporary art field and in society at large.

It is not our goal to use the program as leverage to punish organizations not meeting its standards — we are aware that it has the potential to impact on smaller organizations in precisely this way, and for that reason we were careful to set required floor fees at what we believe are reasonable and achievable rates.

The inclusion of a compensation floor is necessary; it is intended to benefit those who struggle in closest proximity to the bottom and is a way of opening up the field to artists for whom the risk of non-compensation is not an option. It both guarantees a minimum income and provides them with the agency to advocate for themselves. Artists can refer to these standards if they are in a position of having to negotiate fees with an organization, and conversely, organizations can refer to them if they are unsure about what equitable fees should be.

W.A.G.E. Certification is a voluntary program, so if an organization has chosen to be certified, it has made a commitment to operate ethically in relation to artists and wishes to have this commitment acknowledged by its community. A W.A.G.E. Certified organization signals that it stands in solidarity with artists as part of an equitable community no matter what their material practice or reputation might be. Our goal is to provide the guidelines and requirements to make this possible, and we welcome feedback from organizations to aid us in doing so.

HV: How do you respond to arts organizations that say that this might put an unfair financial burden on their work?

W.A.G.E.: Our response is that the practice of non-payment, partial payment, and overall inadequate compensation has placed an unfair financial burden on artists for far too long. What might at first seem unfair may in fact be the beginning of a challenging process of reordering institutional priorities — it is within and because of this process that the paradigm will begin to shift.

We anticipate that changing entrenched perceptions of the nature of artistic labor will be an uncomfortable exercise for some organizations. For others it will be a natural extension of what they are already doing.

HV: Have any large arts nonprofits, like major museums (MoMA, Whitney, LACMA, etc.), demonstrated any interest in the W.A.G.E. Certification?

W.A.G.E.: Yes, some larger institutions and museums have expressed interest in being W.A.G.E. Certified.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

24 replies on “How Much Will Artists Be Paid Under the New W.A.G.E. Certification Program?”

  1. It would be nice to get some kind of monetary compensation for being part of an exhibition. It’s hard to justify making work sometimes after all the expenses and demands on time with no financial benefit.

  2. This is why I denounce art as a benefit to society. Art doesn’t feed, clothe or in any tangible way benefit the common person. It’s disgustingly pompous of artists to expect a “minimum wage” for their trite masturbatory nonsense. What? You don’t get paid 2 grand for your bullshit solo project? Maybe you should help dismantle the art world that pays you so poorly.

    1. You denounce art as a benefit to society? Maybe not hollywood movies though. Or Da Vinci’s paintings and some others you don’t know the name but recognize!?
      Art can challenge you into thinking differently from the apathy your consumer life can pull you torwards. It can reflect on some of our many differences;…
      I agree that not all people claiming to be artists are; and it will be a dificult struggle to separate subjective works as these can be. But don’t call a dancer that pushes his/her body to their limit 6 hours a day, aswell as emotionally a masturbator – this is but ONE example.

      1. by and large the programs in the calculator aren’t especially dance-oriented. One gets the impression that there’s a specific kind of art that w.a.g.e. wants to “protect” and your example isn’t it…

        1. dancing is performing and it is included in the calculator. i feel sorry that you have not fund art to be enriching to your life. i suggest trying more of it, maybe you are not finding the right kind of art for you.

    2. Art is a basic human need. People have been making art since our species began walking upright. To accuse art of being worthless only demonstrates that you live a joyless, empty life. A life without art is a life not worth living. You can feed the body as much as you like, but art feeds the humanity in all of us and gives life meaning.

      1. Well mostly I’m accusing the commodity of art to be of no benefit to society, not the act of creative expression or the enjoyment of others creative expression. For me, the humanity and life affirmation that comes from art as commodity is nullified by it’s corroboration and support of capitalist strategies that starve and torture the masses. The art world is merely a eurocentric, misogynistic, wealthy, elite pastime.
        And really you think that because I criticize art I must live without joy or meaning? It’s called thinking and having opinions! Isn’t it great that we can both do that? 😉

        1. Don’t you think it’s worth supporting the “act of creative expression and the enjoyment of others creative expression”? Should art be exclusively the domain of weekend dabblers rather than professionals?

          Paying artists for their contributions to art organizations probably does more to fight the commodification of art than anything. It reduces the need of artists to sell their work to “capitalists” in order to make a living. After all, most institutions probably justify their non-payment to artists by the increased marketability the institution confers upon the artist.

          1. No, I don’t think it’s worth supporting. I think it’s best not to treat art as a commodity or a domain, and it doesn’t need to be bought and sold to be a benefit to anyone.
            Your comment is thought provoking – can you expand a little more? Especially on the second part. How does paying artists fight the commodification of art?

          2. This proposal isn’t about the buying and selling of art, it’s precisely combatting the need to treat one’s own art as a commodity in order to make enough money to have time to make more art, buy materials, etc. The commodification of art depends on the direct relationship between the act of creation and the hope of the sale. The issue of bad art in a capitalist culture derives from the incentive to make different kinds of work based on what is easy and popular to sell. This proposal muddies the link between art and money. It could be compared to funding for publishing research, as opposed to a system where researchers are paid based on how popular and valuable the public deems their work to be.

            Unfortunately perhaps for you, innumerable institutions believe some art should get seen, many of which are non-profits, giving us good reason to assume that they too are disinterested in the money motive. So it’s safe to assume that they believe the work SHOULD get seen by others, and regardless of what you or I think, isn’t that reason enough for them to compensate the artists for their cultural contribution?

            There’s a more complex argument to be made about the value of art culturally, which I vastly disagree with you about.

          3. I really don’t see how the proposal combats the need to treat one’s own art as commodity. Can you explain a little more?
            The way I see it, goods (art works) are produced and sold through an established market place, which affords the producer revenue to further produce goods. As romantic as I would like to be about art and fair compensation for artists, the reality is that the art industry is not really that different from any other industry, and artists and art industry professionals have proven to be some of the most savvy industrialists (not a compliment). I mean, the profit after expenses on some of these works is astounding and obscene.

            Non-profit corporations are absolutely motivated by money. Nonprofits are not by definition bastions of culture or beneficial to the common person. The NFL is a nonprofit. I wouldn’t assume that an institution that has nonprofit status is worthy of your support just because you enjoy the art inside the building.

            So what would you say is the cultural value of art?

          4. You’re right, there are some nonprofits that are in it for the money, but my understanding is that the nonprofit status is supposed to apply to institutions whose primary motives are non-monetary… in any case I have personal experience with non profit arts institutions that cost their owners money, yet stay open thanks to personal passions on the parts of the investors.

            There’s no escaping the over arching capitalist structure of American society… so I don’t understand the villainizing of artists for their “savvy industrializing.” Sure, plenty of art sucks because of a money motive, but it seems more fair to be impressed with the artists that are still making interesting work, despite lack of financial incentive.

            So often the alternative to the art market is a total absence of funding (like galleries that can’t afford to help you make or ship the work). At least from the artist’s perspective, the certification program seems like one nice workaround, where money is offered without the art being sold, and without the art needing to be sellable.

    3. You create and make things so you can learn and experience all life has to offer. Culture in general is the fruit we get to enjoy because of our hard work, our scientific progress. If we are not allowing ourselves to really explore the more interesting parts of existence, then the leisure we have won through time is just thrown away on trite superficial stuff.

  3. The premise here is well intentioned, but it would only be within a galleries or museums best interest to show artists that are guaranteed to be smarter financial investments right? And I guess that’s okay. But is that all the art you ever want to see?

  4. at the very least, this policy might make gallerists and curators stop and think what they ask artists to do for an exhibition. promises of press, collectors, future shows, and sales are useless to pay the bills when these promises are broken with impunity. i recently pulled out of an exhibition because i was being extravagantly mislead. but my realization came too late, and i’m out almost $2000.

  5. although the intention is good, this may be problematic. Why still pay an artist for a solo show if his/her works get sold? And wouldn’t this system dry up the gallery’s income?

  6. I would think this sort of thing would further credentialize and thus ossify the environments it affects — if that were possible in an era when big-ticket art is already just another corporate-state business. Meanwhile, people with anything original or lively in them had better keep their day jobs.

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