Members of SEIU Local 1021 with their inflatable rat last fall, when they were fighting with COFAM over their contract. (photo from anonymous source)

Members of SEIU Local 1021 with their inflatable rat last fall, when they were fighting with Corporation of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco over their contract. (photo from anonymous source)

How are artists who have been systematically denied fair wages and access to basic services like healthcare and unemployment protections gaining access to those things today?

Art and labor is a big topic today, at least among artists. Specifically, it has become ever more obvious that virtually none of the money that flows into major arts institutions, companies that distribute creative content, and art markets actually reaches the artists who generate the work. And people are getting vocal about it. Just in the past couple weeks we learned about the millions that arts executives are pulling in and contract workers at the Smithsonian Institution went on strike. Before that we saw striking workers at the Frieze Art Fairstudents fighting one of the country’s oldest art and design schools over tuition, and the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco grappling with labor disputes, lawsuits, and donor hijinx. And these are just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

So, how do artists go about changing things? The models for change fall roughly into five overlapping and intersecting categories.

1. Traditional Labor Organizing / Standard Contracts

Historic marker for early local of American Federation of Musicians. (Source)

Historic marker for early local of American Federation of Musicians. (Source)

Early in the 20th century, artists’ guilds morphed into labor unions as part of larger national cross-industry labor struggles, many of which still exist today. Their primary mode of ensuring that members get the money and services is through standardized contracts and working to create closed or mostly closed shops (i.e. only union members can work in certain places) or preventing union members from working in non-union establishments. Many musicians, actors, writers, people working in film, people working behind the scenes on stage, and some museum employees are in unions today. You can view a sample/standard Actors Equity Contracts for union members here.

Other groups that aren’t actually unions, like the Dramatists Guild and the Dancers Forum, have tried to put together union-like contracts, but without the ability to engage in collective bargaining, it’s up to each artist to advocate for themselves, and the legal intricacies can be daunting. So these model contracts often end up serving as guidelines and strong suggestions.

There is also the Freelancers Union, based in New York City, but they too lack the ability to enforce contracts or collectively bargain, and members have to pay individually for the services they offer, so they actually function a bit more like a professional association instead of a union at this point.

2. Lobbying / Professional Associations

Professional associations can still be a useful way of advocating for large groups of workers. However, in the US, many of the largest arts-related associations, like the Americans for the Arts or the Theatre Communications Group end up focusing most of their resources and energies on institutions rather than individual artists, and it’s often these same institutions that artists seeking payment end up in conflict with. So, in the arts at least, there aren’t many that are working in a serious way to improve employment conditions for artists.

That said, at least in New York, organizations such as the League of Independent Theater New York (LITNY), are focusing on influencing local politics by lobbying politicians directly. Their list of political demands focuses mainly on organization-level needs, but they are explicit in seeking affordable housing for working artists, and their demand for affordable facilities would have a direct impact on rehearsal costs which are often born by individual artists working across theater, dance, and music.

3. Certifications / Change from Within

Detail from W.A.G.E. survey results. View the full survey report here.

Detail from W.A.G.E. survey results. View the full survey report here.

One group that has received a lot of interest in the US over the past couple years is Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). Founded and led by artists, W.A.G.E. has adopted a somewhat novel model. Rather than work from the outside in, they are proposing a certification program whereby willing visual arts and performance organizations would agree to abide by “ethical payment practices,” which amount to a custom artist fee and production support structure based on the budget and level of activity of each organization. This model has similarities to the work of the Canadian group CARFAC, which managed to get minimum payments to visual artists whose work is being exhibited written into copyright law in the 1980s. But currently W.A.G.E.’s version relies on organizations opting in or large groups of artists refusing to exhibit in spaces that don’t have certification.

4. Revolutionary Demands

A fourth method of seeking access to money and services, or, perhaps more importantly, decision-making power, is to put forth a set of revolutionary demands. One of the most well-known examples of this in the US in the 20th century was the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC). Though it was short-lived, operating under that banner between 1969 and 1971, the AWC did put together a compelling list of demands that not only addressed payment to artists for use of their work, but also things like one-third representation of artists on all museum board, representation of artists of color on staff and in galleries, equal representation of female artists, and perhaps most revolutionary, the decentralization of museums.

Ultimately the people who helped to craft that list of demands believed that all people should have a minimum income, so their focus was less on traditional labor arguments and more on gaining control of their work and large cultural institutions. They were, particularly the Black and Puerto Rican artists among them, able to make important strides toward those goals, but because the group dispersed, there was little ongoing pressure to continue the fight for the group’s demands.

5. Going Off the Grid / Alternative Economies

From cover of OWS Arts & Labor publication. Download the full publication here.

From cover of OWS Arts & Labor publication. Download the full publication here.

With a similarly revolutionary viewpoint, Occupy Wall Street’s Arts & Labor working group has, over the past two years, been engaging in serious questions about how to rethink and rebuild the contemporary relationship between art and labor. Ultimately, according to the OWS Principles of Solidarity, they hope to “imagine a new socio-political and economic alternative that offers greater possibility of equality.” And so, Arts & Labor is committed to looking at alternatives to capitalism that don’t always associate dollars with labor. Their latest publication, What Do We Do Now: Arts & Labor’s Alternative Economies Resource Guide for Living in New York City, is filled with links to organizations or resources focused on everything from affordable housing and squatting to free and alternative health care to worker cooperatives and barter networks.

It’s All in the Mix

The reality is, of course, that these five categories are not really distinct or separate — they intertwine and overlap, and each relies on a viewpoint that believes the opaque and laissez-faire realities of the current arts landscape are not only detrimental to individual artists, but that they are part of a larger system that is detrimental to all people. In the coming months I’ll be doing more research on these ideas and others and in September will publish a follow-up piece with more specific examples of models that are working for US artists.

Alexis will be facilitating a class on this subject, titled Rights, Demands, and Radical Reimaginings: Art and Labor in the US at the Hyperallergic offices starting August 27. Registration info is here. Hyperallergic readers can get $15 off with the code HYPER.

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...

13 replies on “How Are Artists Getting Paid?”

  1. Silly posts like these are evidence of America’s downfall. We don’t manufacture anything anymore. Artists demand more money to distract ourselves from our economic ruin.

    1. Posts about artists organizing for better pay is “evidence of America’s downfall?” Or is it the organizing itself that is the evidence? So confusing! Your last sentence particularly so, permit me an attempt to parse it: artists ask for more money as a means to obscure from us the state of our economy? It sounds pernicious, but what does it mean? Hyperallergic might not be for you.

    2. Money doesn’t come from manufacturing alone. Not that they would pump more money into having more workers in this sector, as where labor is gradually being eliminated in favor of cheaper machines and computers that will do those same manufacturing jobs many times more efficient than 10 workers (or do it overseas). Not giving money to artists means the money is not circulating in certain sectors of industries and societies that involves artists and culture. Art and culture is not an isolated fragment of society – it’s in every aspect of society and industry.

      Heck art plays a large role in a lot of people’s lives, it’s all over them, and they don’t even know it. In commercial art and design alone, you buy this candy over that candy, this car over that car, and this house over that house – all art influenced by elements of art and design. And art doesn’t encompass fancy paintings and drawings alone – it also covers music, food, dance, theater, radio, movies, architecture, product design, advertisement, etc. And there are manufacturers that provide for all those, so it all still circulates to manufacturing anyway. I mean money given to artists don’t just disappear in thin air, it goes to buying our everyday needs (food, housing, transportation, electronic devices) as well as the things we need for our trade (supplies, instruments, machinery, computers, chemicals, pigments, paper, etc.).

      The real economy killer is when financial companies and banks hold most of the wealth and are in control of where they put the money in, and it’s usually not in everyone else’s pockets – I mean once you have all the money, it’s stupid of them to let it go, much to the dismay of everyone. They don’t just make more money, it usually just circulates around, and for every person that’s making a boatload of money, there’s a handful who lost it.

      1. The truth is that art doesn’t play a large role in a lot of people’s lives – but it has been an essential indicator along with prosperity and health as to the measure of the quality of life of every community since the dawn of recorded history.
        When artists stop making art, when art is destroyed, when no one cares about art people cease valuing their lives and each other’s, they stop caring about their immediate environment and the prospects of a better future. The whole world goes to shit.

        1. Are you kidding,… Art doesn’t play a large role in alot of people’s
          lives? What are you typing on right now – an artist designed that. Where
          are you sitting? In a chair? In a house? Artists designed and produced
          those as well.

          1. This delineation is bs. Fine artists get paid too, about $20-80K a year (the mean was about $54K for fine artists in 2013 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Which is about the same for illustrators, cartoonists, and graphic designers. The only difference is how the artist is paid (eg. commission, salary, royalty). Only architects do significantly better economically, with an annual average income of about $70K (some varieties of architect make a hair under that number, some varieties do significantly better). These numbers vary wildly depending on where the artist works, who exactly is paying, and how saturated a market is already with professionals. And don’t forget, these are all very competitive fields. An established illustrator might make $50K, but most people drop out of the field because it takes years of living off of $20K before they get to be established (thats assuming they are even able to get hired as an illustrator, many illustrators have to build portfolios for years with little to no remuneration before they ever get regular paid work). “Designers get paid. Architects get paid. Illustrators get paid” is divisive nonsense. Creative professionals need to work together and respect each other to protect their income.

        2. You can make that argument, but not claim it as truth. There’s also an argument where art is a reaction to society, and society is a reaction to art, and is therefore unavoidable. In this argument, the lack of concern for art goes to show the direction where society is going.

          Supposedly, Reagan doing major budget cuts from art back in the 80s timed with a series of controversial art at the time that offended the masses is likely the main reason why people in the US today don’t respect art as much anymore (as America and its art flourished and is respected prior to that), and it’s starting to show its consequences in the cultural void it left. Each generation is looking elsewhere to satisfy their cultural needs; places like graffiti, urban art, hip-hop, and tagging are likely filling that void for the kids these days, which in turn, starts a deadly cycle of disrespect for art, and kids disrespecting society for hating on their culture. While those who don’t engage in those but still loves art has to look overseas to satisfy their cultural need, appreciating Italy, France, Latin American, Japanese, Korean culture and they contrast it by seeing America as this trashy, unrefined place that doesn’t hold much appeal to its own populace.

  2. As a working Artist for over 30 years, I can comment that there is not much interesting from the new Artist. Most of it is just plain boring and copies.
    I lived in my car for 6 months and have lost everything I own twice and consider that part of my maturing. Now days Artist depend on welfare and hand outs, for support. Get a real job to support your Art. If your truly an Artist you will continue to do Art because your life depends on it.

  3. Folks–It’s a matter of supply and demand. There are just too many artists out there who are willing to work for very little. The myth of the “starving artist” is just too strong! If you are a true artist, you will pursue your calling whatever the cost, etc. etc. This goes for other arts professionals also. Unfortunately, you don’t get paid what you’re worth, but what other people are willing to pay you and what you are willing to accept. I’m not saying that things “should” be that way, but it’s how things are. That is why so many successful artists throughout history have had paying jobs, such as commercial artist, teacher, arts administrator, etc–they could not live solely on their income from art.

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