The exterior of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (photo  courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania)

The exterior of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (photo courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania)

Yesterday, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania became the first museum to be certified by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), the activist organization that seeks to ensure that artists are fairly compensated for their work. Though many smaller nonprofit spaces, artist-run galleries, and even some museum exhibitions and programs have previously been certified by W.A.G.E., the ICA is the first museum fully certified by the organization.

“There was a lot of conversation,” ICA Director Amy Sadao told Hyperallergic over the phone. “The director of curatorial affairs and the chief curator, Anthony Elms and Robert Chaney, really took the bull by the horns in terms of what does that mean for our budgeting process, what does that mean for our plans, what does that mean for how many projects we do?”

The W.A.G.E. certification process involves calculating fees for artists based on a given program or organization’s operating budget. The ICA, with its full-time staff of 25 and annual operating budget of $4.8 million, is by far the largest organization to complete the process, which required it to track all its fee payments and meet minimum W.A.G.E. standards for at least a year.

“For me, by far, the biggest challenge was the learning curve on both our side and on the side of W.A.G.E. to figure out what things were overlooked or didn’t distinctly sync with the structure as W.A.G.E. had it set out,” the ICA’s chief curator Anthony Elms wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “All these differences had an impact on what was and was not possible, and also what the scope can be, both for the ICA, and hopefully for W.A.G.E.’s larger push as well. That said, I believe that administration is a creative tool. And moments of stumbling over definitions in these discussions are how you discover what is structurally taken for granted, what can change, what works, and what can be used for alternative means.”

The ICA’s W.A.G.E. certification process, which began a year ago, may have been facilitated partly because it is a university museum. As such, it has comparatively greater autonomy than a traditional independent museum, which is governed by a board that must approve budget decisions.

“Because we’re seeded inside this great research university, there’s a lot of sense of academic freedom,” Sadao added. “So as a center director, I report directly to the provost and that’s the structure of all the centers at Penn, and they’re not interested in the provost or the president or any of the administration dictating either what professors teach, how they teach it, or what the centers program. I’ve had great support form my colleagues in the administration and I think that they’re going to be very, very proud.”

W.A.G.E., which was founded in 2008, created its certification program in 2014. Since then, a number of smaller nonprofit spaces including Artists Space and Participant Inc. in New York, Locust Projects in Miami, the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, DiverseWorks in Houston, and Jacob Lawrence Gallery in Seattle, have been certified. Two museum-affiliated programs — SFMOMA’s Open Space publishing platform and the Carnegie Museum of Art’s biennial, the Carnegie International — have also been certified; but the ICA is the first full-fledged museum to complete the process.

“It is sad to say that many artists, when we mention we would like to process a payment for them, are not accustomed to being offered this by an institution,” Elms added. “This is simply one of many small and direct ways to be able to support the endeavors of artists. I think this is understood across the museum.”

Asked what advice she’d give to administrators at other museums interested in undertaking W.A.G.E.’s certification process, Sadao offered these words of guidance:

If I was an independent museum director, I would find a coalition among my board leadership and patrons who really support living artists and emerging artists … who understand the importance of artists’ work, and artists — that we don’t have art unless we have working artists and that artists need support.

I would make it a priority — I would look at my budgets and I would plan. One of the things that we saw very early on was that we have to do less to enable the right kinds of budgets. Maybe we have to do less. Instead of having a 40-person show, maybe we have a 20-person show. Can we achieve the same thing for our publics, for the artists that we work with, if we budget to pay them equitably?

I think it also helps to talk to the artists on your staff. More than half of the people at ICA are artists or trained as artists — I’m trained as an artist. You know the deal, you know the life. And then I would say talk to W.AG.E. It’s not adversarial, they want this to happen. W.A.G.E. is trying to work within the museum world.

Certification guidelines, a fee calculator, and application form are all available on the W.A.G.E. website.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...