YouTube video

Everything sounds worse taken out of context, but a new video released by New York art activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) starts with a pretty damning quote from Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of art mega-exhibition Documenta (also known annoyingly as dOCUMENTA).

“If you were an artist, you didn’t get any money, no, because you were already invited to the exhibition and you got to produce your work, so we didn’t pay the artists,” she says, at a panel discussion in New York. And then she laughs — maybe nervously, but still. Ouch.

The video is an “infomerical-dramedy” produced by W.A.G.E. to highlight the subject they’re continually highlighting: the fact that many artists don’t get paid by nonprofits where they show their work. It picks up on the sentiment behind Christov-Bakargiev’s statement and creates a what-if scenario, speculating on how the curator herself would have reacted if she had been approached by Bernd Leifeld, the CEO of Documenta, and asked to curate the show just for the power and fame of it, without get paid. “There is no financial compensation because you have already been invited to the exhibition,” the fictional Leifeld says at the end of his speech. “Are you interested?”

The video suffers from a screenplay premise that doesn’t totally work and an extremely creepy, slowed-down voiceover for the fictional Leifeld. It also ends with this line from W.A.G.E. — “We demand payment for making the world more interesting” — which I’m not sure is really the strongest argument they could make here. (“[A]rtists are workers,” from a 2008 NEA report, seems a better bet.)

Data from the 2010 W.A.G.E. survey showing that larger nonprofits are less likely to pay artists (image courtesy W.A.G.E.)

But it does call attention once again to W.A.G.E.’s survey from 2010, the results of which were released last year and show that more than half of artists who exhibited at nonprofits in New York between 2005 and 2010 didn’t get paid to do so. It also seems to reinforce the data from the survey suggesting that larger organizations are actually less likely to pay artists, which is really troubling, because if they’re not, then who the hell is? (One of our writers found the same story at another Important Survey Exhibition, the Whitney Biennial.)

What’s most disturbing for me, though, is the attitude that comes across in Christov-Bakargiev’s statement — the idea that just being invited to make work for Documenta is enough compensation in itself. Some might say that’s not surprising coming from a woman recently billed as the most powerful person in the art world, but is it too much to expect curators, of all people, to do (or at least think) better? That’s like a publisher saying to a novelist, “but we’re giving you the opportunity to even write the book!” — er, which I guess is more and more likely to happen these days. Still, it’s both obnoxious and unsettling. The art world — like any bubble or sector that has a lot of money, I suppose — can’t (or won’t) shake the fantasy of trickle-down economics, leaving the people in power free to continue screwing over the ones who are the reason the art world even exists. We’re lucky they’re such a stubborn, inspired bunch.

h/t Artinfo

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

20 replies on “W.A.G.E. Calls Out Documenta for Not Paying Artists”

  1. What I think is so odd here is how WAGE almost defiantly and/or even ignorantly seems to presume that all so-called artists who exhibit are actually worth financing. In my opinion it is an honor for any gallery or institution to show any art of mine. But at the same time I can sympathize with those again so-called artists who are strapped for cash and desperately need funds to pay their various bills although that doesn’t necessarily mean that their work is culturally worth the exchange value of a single filthy penny.

    1. WHAT!! If artists are chosen to provide work for an institution it is presupposed that the institution sees cultural value in their work.

      1. I think that the majority of so-called art exhibits in the nonprofit sector strictly operate just as time-wasting self-deceiving filler or middle class status quo socio-political programming which in both cases would surely demand that more “artists”–regardless of actual talents–exist. It makes me wonder if inherently militant capitalism proliferates fake artists in any given supply and demand cultural situation whereas in a less materialistic society an artist would not only be more talented and therefore rare but genuinely much more revered.

          1. In some very ancient Oriental cultures artistic prowess is directly in concord with spiritual achievement … So, for example, if a person has attained enlightenment then their art could actually be conceived of as being true art which brings to question the ideas of artistic talent or technical competency and are they even of primary import in this regard of a differing worldview?

    2. JD, if an institution likes the artist enough to invite him or her to show, then the institution presumably thinks that s/he merits payment. (They don’t show art they think is bad.) And that’s all that matters. There’s no objective judge of good or bad art—the people who invite artists in to show their work should pay them to do so, just like journalists get paid to write articles and musicians (ideally) get paid to play gigs.

    3. Let me guess… you have a trust fund. Oh, its an honor for any place to want to show my work… but for something like Documenta… PAY ME.

      1. I don’t disagree with the proposal that respectable artists should get paid for creative services rendered but I do very much believe that a lot of people wantonly claim to be artists when in fact they aren’t really that talented at all and by no means pertinent to the advancement let alone maintenance of learned cultures worldwide. Sure–I’ll pay you but only what your offering is truly worth to me. Are people actually willing to swallow that and deal with the finely nuanced self-assessment that it effects?

        1. Great.. now just find some way to determine that in real time, not in retrospect. After all, how many people passed over Van Gogh’s work in his lifetime???

          1. Which quite serendipitously goes back to what I was expounding upon earlier about capitalism and how time in a maniacal capitalist society quickly becomes manipulated into an almost tangible commodity thus losing nearly all of its dreamlike qualities and value in the crunching process. The very same thing could be said of the hefty surplus of purported art objects in the West and how little the great majority of them actually help us to reorient ourselves to living a physically and spiritually fulfilling life rather than scrounging like blind mice for crumbs all of the time.

            The economy-propelled and now expected clockwork frequency of art exhibitions in the West strictly demands the steady proliferation of material and not at all necessarily of quality especially if the minions of us arts journalists are peer pressured into always coddling artists for the sake of appearing nonthreatening and therefore an asset to the monied powers that be of the art industry whether spoken or implicitly understood.

  2. This really hits home. It feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth when asking for wages if invited by a prestigious institution. It is so much harder to get paid than to have an impressive CV!

    1. It depends on what you think is important. Intangible benefits are only good if you know how to use them, most people network poorly, unless you’re good at networking don’t count on it or CV lines.

      As an artist you’re putting out time, materials, rent, etc.. Make a business decision. How much did it cost you to actually make the piece, how long, what is your time worth? Ask questions about promotion, PR, who will visit etc. what will you get out of showing if you MUST show for free.

        1. I’m learning the same as you are, it’s different as an artist. I had two jobs in galleries before and that was an eye opener, they look at things very differently. A lot of my friends are artists or curators so I hear about what they go through, learn from your friends experiences as well as your own.

          Thanks the rims were fun, I was experimenting with radial split fountains.

    1. It’s so complicated, though, and it’s the same in the world of journalism. You can say, OK, “I’m not going to write for free anymore,” but other people are still writing for free, so you still get screwed. Obviously people can control the conditions of their own careers as much as possible, but when it’s a community/field-wide problem, you’re just one person enmeshed in it.

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