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.
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:
- Solo Exhibition
- Solo Project
- Two-Person Exhibition
- 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:
- Performance of Existing Work and Performance
- Commission of New Work
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.