The New Museum (image via Wikipedia)

Artist advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is calling for the New Museum to receive certification to ensure all its artists earn fair pay as the building plans for expansion, funded by an ongoing $80 million capital campaign. In an open letter, the New York-based group expressed concerns that the museum will not properly compensate the people “upon whose work [its] existence is predicated,” the letter reads, as its programming naturally also grows. W.A.G.E. Certification is a voluntary program that signals an organization’s commitment to fees that meet a minimum pay standard.

The $80 million will pay for the takeover of the neighboring building, currently home to museum-led incubator New INC, but it will also triple the New Museum’s endowment. The museum has so far raised over half its fundraising goals thanks in part to a gift from collector Toby Devan Lewis, who provided an undisclosed amount that represents its largest single donation in its history, as the New York Times reported. W.A.G.E. is also asking the museum to request that Lewis provide the funds to make certification possible.

New Museum Director Lisa Phillips noted that the millions of dollars is intended to present an opportunity “to do things that museums haven’t done yet or maybe even imagined,” according to the New York Times. W.A.G.E. cites her statement as reason for its confidence that the New Museum will be open to certification; if the museum accepts to join the program, it will become the first WAGE-certified museum. The next application deadline is June 1. Hyperallergic has reached out to the New Museum but has not received a response.

Somewhat ironically, the museum was actually where the very first W.A.G.E. certification took place, in 2010, when curator Lauren Cornell invited W.A.G.E. to participate in the group exhibition Free. The group, standing not as an art collective but as an activist organization, negotiated fees for all the artists involved, which qualified the New Museum for a temporary “Exhibition Certification.”

A detail of William Powhida and W.A.G.E.'s "“Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor?” (2012), graphite on paper (click for the whole image)

A detail of William Powhida and W.A.G.E.’s ““Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor?” (2012), graphite on paper (copyright W.A.G.E. and the artist) (click for the whole image)

According to W.A.G.E.’s numbers, if the museum had been officially certified in fiscal year 2014, it would have spent around $301,000, which it notes was 2.2% of its total operating budget of $13,971,884 that year. That sum, according to W.A.G.E., would have paid 184 artists, “16 of whom supplied [the museum’s] exhibitions and 168 of whom provided the content of [its] public programs.” It is also apparently almost exactly half of the salary of the museum’s highest paid employee and equivalent to just 0.7% of the money raised so far for its capital campaign.

The last time the New Museum heard directly from W.A.G.E. was in 2010, when the group addressed the institution as “Dad” in a written “intervention” that implored it to better allocate its funds — to refrain from spending money on white, straight, and/or male artists.

“You offer nothing to artists whose work your institution-corporation depends on. You have yet to recognize your mimicking and worship of a failed, corrupt system, where profits trump people. You’re binging and purging at our family’s expense,” W.A.G.E. wrote then, before signing off as “Your deeply concerned friends and family.”

The group’s latest open letter reads, in full:

Dear New Museum,

You recently announced expansion plans that will double the amount of space you currently occupy on the Bowery and that you have already successfully raised $43 million of the $80 million needed to do it.

Congratulations – that’s big news. It could also be big news for the hundreds of artists who supply the content for your programs each year. After all, if you plan to double in size, surely there will be a significant increase in the number of programs being produced, which would surely provide income to more of the artists upon whose work your existence is predicated.

If you were W.A.G.E. Certified that would certainly be the case, since you’d have committed to paying artists according to minimum standards of compensation.

However, since you have not yet chosen to become W.A.G.E. Certified we recognize that you may not yet have considered how much it would cost to pay for the additional content that this new space is presumably intended to accommodate. Which is why, on the occasion of your recent announcement, we’d like to share with you some projections of our own. We hope these numbers will put in perspective what the cost of your expansion means relative to the cost of paying artists for their work.

If you had been W.A.G.E. Certified in fiscal year 2014 (July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014) and had paid minimum fees according to W.A.G.E. standards, you would have spent a total of about $301,000.

$301,000 is 2.2% of your total operating budget of $13,971,884 in FY 2014.

$301,000 would have paid 184 artists, 16 of whom supplied your exhibitions and 168 of whom provided the content of your public programs.

$301,000 is almost exactly half of the salary of your highest paid employee.

$301,000 is 0.7% of the $43 million you just raised.

New Museum, do you remember the letter we wrote you back in 2010? At the time, we were so concerned that we even attempted an intervention to get you to change.

Today we write to you again with a simple suggestion. We are confident of your openness to it since your director Lisa Phillips was just quoted as saying that the expansion is “about trying to do things that museums haven’t done yet or maybe even imagined.”

We suggest that you imagine becoming the first W.A.G.E. Certified museum. We also suggest that you consider asking collector and philanthropist Toby Devan Lewis, one of the museum’s longtime supporters, who just provided the biggest single donation in the institution’s history, if she would be willing to provide the funds that would make it possible for you to get certified. We believe that as a collector and a philanthropist she is invested in providing direct support to working artists.

We’re here whenever you’re ready.

Most sincerely,
Working Artists and the Greater Economy

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

4 replies on “W.A.G.E. Calls for New Museum to Fully Compensate Artists”

  1. New Museum doesn’t even pay for shipping. Solo shows there put the artists and their respective galleries in the negative.

  2. There is something infinitely disappointing and backwards about a system that leaves artists out of pocket while providing ‘free’ content to venues, especially venues that profit on viewer entry. To claim to support the arts while asking artists to foot the bill right down to shipping, is egregious. Artists need to speak out against predatory practices such as requests for donations of work for charitable auctions, and pay to play groups like RawArtists.

    However, as long as artists are willing to be used, this system will continue to thrive. Art is work, it takes incredible investment, skill and talent to produce but it seems to be the only industry where the talented are consistently expected to work for free.

  3. All those things are true and truer yet in the Comments section but the sad fact is that people are going galleries and museums to see the real estate, not the art.

  4. Very interesting issue. I’ll be disappointed if the New Museum doesn’t respond to WAGE or you guys at Hyperallergic. Please, keep trying and let us know if they do or don’t. Best!

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