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Tonight, the group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), will release the results of the artists survey they conducted with Artists Space, a gallery in Soho. The survey found that 58% of the nearly 1,000 artists interviewed (including visual and performing artists) received no compensation at all for exhibiting or presenting their work at nonprofits in New York. In the weeks prior to these survey results being released I had been conducting my own, informal survey of the artists participating in this year’s Whitney Biennial, and found that none of those exhibited in the galleries that I exchanged emails with were paid to include their work — arguably one of the most important exhibitions of young and contemporary artists in the city. At most they had some of the costs of bringing the work to the museum covered, such as transporting or installing the work. But according to the W.A.G.E. survey, 58% of the artists they surveyed didn’t even have their expenses reimbursed. What W.A.G.E.’s survey finally makes transparent, is a reality that most artists have known for many years — by and large, most cultural institutions in the United States do not pay artists when exhibiting or presenting their work.
Many of the people I tell this to have no idea that artists aren’t paid for exhibiting. Others shrug their shoulders. They assume that artists make lots of money through gallery sales or big grants and prizes, so it doesn’t matter that they don’t get paid to exhibit. In fact, that’s the rationale of most museums. They argue that the exposure artists receive through exhibitions will set them on the path to financial reward. But the realities of life as an artist are quite different from these assumptions. Research by the NEA shows that artists across all fields earn much less than other professionals, with dancers earning a median income, including non-arts earnings, of only $15,000 in 2005 (museums, including the Whitney, are now regularly including dance and performance works in many of their major exhibitions). And women artists earn only 65% of male artists. Further, research by the sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger confirms that the arts in Europe and the US are a winner-take-all market, in which a select few artists are given the majority of the money.
When it comes to questions of artists and money, you’ll often hear the name Damien Hirst. He’s a favorite example for many of the potential wealth an artist can achieve (as well as the corrupt intentions of contemporary visual artists), given his record-breaking sales such as the 2008 auction of his works that raked in over $200 million. Even the prominent art philosopher Denis Dutton evoked Hirst for those very purposes in an OpEd for The New York Times. But nobody ever mentions the name Charles Saatchi — the art collector and dealer who is among the primary reasons that so many people know Hirst’s name and work.
A significant player in global advertising since the Mad Men days, Saatchi bought up large amounts of work by a set of young artists working in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when their work could be bought cheaply. Then in 1997 he launched the infamous exhibition, Sensations, filled with work hand-selected (and owned) by this man who spent his career learning precisely how to press people’s buttons through advertising. As was reported in the Times, Saatchi himself donated funds to make sure the exhibition would go forward, while also actively stirring the pot of controversy building in the media (i.e. free advertising) around some of the works on display, which included a portrait of the Madonna by Chris Ofili that was made up of, among other things, pornographic imagery and elephant dung, as well as another portrait by Marcus Harvey of the convicted murderer Myra Hindley created using the handprints of children. Not long after that, Saatchi went on to sell a number of the works at auction for record prices—money that went back to Saatchi in that instance, not the artists. In a climate when we’re looking more closely at all the ways that people of great wealth are able to manipulate certain markets to their own benefit, it’s worth noting that this kind of thing goes on regularly in some segments of the art world.
And if Damien Hirst is so many people’s poster boy for the visual arts world, it’s hard not to notice that he’s white, British and male. As indicated above, the arts are often far worse than most fields when it comes to achieving parity for women, as well as minorities.
Another response to artists not being paid is that artists chose to live a life of poverty, so they can’t expect to be paid for their work. Or an extension of that thinking — that artists are elitist and privileged and make obscure work that nobody cares about, so they shouldn’t be paid. Or the Neoconservative version of these same assertions — that it’s a free-market economy and if they don’t get paid it’s because nobody wants to pay.
But, in the case of the Whitney Biennial, for instance, we’re talking about artists being shown in a prominent cultural institution. According to the Art Newspaper, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Guggenheim together attracted close to 10 million visitors in 2010 — more than the entire population of the five boroughs. And all of New York’s top art museums either request or require that visitors pay to view the works on display. These are artists who have been recognized in their field and are having their work viewed by large numbers of people, who, by and large, are paying to view it. The artists who generate the work are the reason we all show up and that museums are able to find funding, yet they often go unpaid.
The fact is that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) devotes less than 2% of its meager budget to direct grants to individual artists. State arts agencies spend only 3% of their grant dollars on individual artists. The bulk of philanthropy in the arts goes to only 2% of the nation’s arts institutions, who are among those with the largest budgets. And we know that many of those institutions don’t pay the artists whose work they show. Everybody keeps shifting the responsibility of sustaining artists (the real lifeblood of the arts) to some other group; meanwhile, the money keeps finding its way into the coffers of the few who hold the most power and the purse strings.
As the NEA said in its own 2008 report, Artists in the Workforce: “The time has come to insist on an obvious but overlooked fact—artists are workers.”
W.A.G.E.: 2010 Artists Survey Results Presentation and Open Forum takes place tonight, Friday, April 20 at 7pm at Artists Space (55 Walker Street, Soho, Manhattan)