The New York-based organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), which offers certifications for institutions based on their artist compensation, will launch a new platform in the coming week. W.A.G.E. debuted its program in 2014 and has certified nearly 150 nonprofits over the course of its history. In addition to fixed bugs and programming updates, the new platform will raise its compensation standards in accordance with inflation.
In order to be certified, an institution must commit to baseline fees for the artists it employs. W.A.G.E. sets payment criteria for specific artist engagements including solo and group exhibitions, talks, and screenings with in-person appearances. Starting July 1, these requirements will increase 25% across the board.
Fees differ based on the size of the institution. Nonprofits with annual operating expenses below $500,000 must meet “floor” fees; larger institutions must meet “minimum” fees calculated based on their operating budgets. Big institutions with operating budgets over $15,00,000 can’t pay higher than a “maximum” fee set to the average employee wage.
“In practice this means that if, for example, the Whitney Museum were W.A.G.E. certified and contracted Jeff Koons to have another retrospective, with its operating expenses of over $100 million the museum would pay him no more than a $60,000 fee,” reads a statement the organization sent via email.
CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea has been certified since 2018. Executive Director Jinny Khanduja told Hyperallergic that W.A.G.E. is a useful tool in understanding artist payment standards across the art world ecosystem and compensation in relation to nonprofit budgets.
“W.A.G.E. certification is an important, objective way for artists considering working with us,” said Jil Weinstock, executive director of Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York, which has been W.A.G.E. certified since 2015.
The upcoming W.A.G.E. website also includes a host of other information, including a timeline of W.A.G.E.’s advocacy work. Those initiatives include a 2016 push for the New Museum to become certified — it did not — and W.A.G.E.’s 2019 call for artists to withhold work from the Whitney Biennial in solidarity with underpaid staff. It also includes data visualizations, updates to the WAGENCY program (which helps artists advocate for higher compensation), a list of organizations that have been involved over the years, how W.A.G.E. developed its policies, and a fee calculator.
Additionally, organizations with operating budgets over $250,000 will now have to pay between $100 and $700 to be certified.
W.A.G.E.’s core organizer, Lise Soskolne, told Hyperallergic that the initial launch of the certification program “unwittingly” started a project that requires continual upscaling.
“Keeping pace with technology is demanding and expensive,” Soskolne continued. “But this rebuild, more than two years in the making, has been necessary to free W.A.G.E. up to get back to the organizing work we’ve always done.”
“This world of art presentation and artist compensation can be a strange environment — largely due to our eagerness for validation,” said artist Miha Sarani, who exhibited last year at the W.A.G.E.-certified Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington. “We often become blinded by the hunger and excitement for institutional recognition, and we may jump at opportunities without truly understanding and realizing the full extent; including the financial strain of such a commitment.”
“The transportation costs alone can be prohibitively high,” Sarani said, but added that they felt fairly compensated at Jacob Lawrence. “I would like to think that the last few years showed us how essential the arts are to humanity’s wellbeing — and it would be wonderful to finally create an environment in which arts creators don’t feel taken advantage of at the end of the day. Fair compensation is certainly a welcomed step in that direction.”