In a recent review in the New Yorker of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of local art, Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond, Peter Schjeldahl singles out BFAMFAPhD as puncturing the effervescent mood of the exhibition.

He writes: ‘The collective BFAMFAPhD (the initials of academic degrees) spreads a homeopathic wet blanket on the show’s high spirits with statistical documentation of the hard lots of current graduates – the staggering number of artists, debt burdens, iffy prospects. The bonus bummer of a group discussion among veteran local artists, in the show’s catalogue, circles the drain of Topic A in the daily life of art anywhere: real estate.’

While I don’t really care too much about the over-celebration of Brooklyn as a creative context, this snarky tidbit has a little bit of truth – the hard lots of current graduates is indeed a quite epic bummer and not just in the over-capitalised art scenes of New York.

The questions around who can afford to be an artist in today’s economy is a central concern to the current generation of artists. How can we talk about this situation openly, honestly, with some well-deserved finger-pointing around the exploitation of artists by institutional culture, and a little self-reflexivity about why artists do indeed deserve to get paid (all artists? for what kinds of services?) and who should pay them?

Systematic exploitation

Artists themselves are addressing the issue head on. BFAMFAPhD are asking: ‘What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?’, while the W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator aims to set standards for artist compensation based on organisational budgets. From a slightly different angle, Brooklyn Commune – ‘a report on the state of the performing arts from the perspective of artists’ (all New York based) – provides perspective with some hard numbers to back it up. It is an exciting time to think about artist-driven efforts to research and fundamentally change the systemic exploitation of artists.

From the opposite coast, in San Francisco where rapid gentrification is significantly and meteorically changing the culture of the city, there have been a number of other efforts to talk through the working economy for cultural producers and how to stop the prevalent culture of working for free.

These include illustrator and designer Jessica Hische’s online diagram Should I Work For Free? (which I came to through Christian Frock’s recent article on KQED, which also talks about these efforts); Helena Keefe’s Standard Deviation, which led to a symposium that I also participated in at UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center; and an issue of Art Practical on Valuing Labor in the Arts.

There’s also The Compensation Foundation, a project much like W.A.G.E., which aims to collect data on whether visual artists are compensated for their work, though not as specifically aimed at particular organisations like the WAGE compensation calculator.

Who pays artists is also an online aggregation of anecdotes, which I don’t find particularly useful but perhaps is a good place to share anonymous stories. And in the recent past, Temporary Services put together the great Art Work, a national conversation about art, labor and economics, which also has its own bibliography.

Artists Report Back, Animated from BFA MFA PhD on Vimeo.

Fighting tooth and nail

I should say first that I completely support these efforts and advocate for their proliferation. I work at an organisation, Threewalls, which has always had an ethos of paying artists and adheres pretty closely to the WAGE compensation calculator based on our budget size.

I believe that non-profits should be fighting tooth and nail to keep artist pay in their budget lines and I am against what seems to be a recent trend by organisations to charge artists for vaguely defined professional development opportunities and networking beyond school. People that can pay, should.

But what I’m also excited by is the opportunity to really talk about the ‘who’ in who pays artists. As in, who cares about art? How does this speak to our perceptions of ‘the market’ or ‘the state’ or ‘the non-profit sector’, and whom do we believe is responsible for our social welfare? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we create a shared ethos rather than a shared professional standard?

Because if we do agree that artists should get paid, what then? Who are our choruses directed at? We can change standards in the field (and I mean the field of grassroots to mid-size artist-centric organisations, because that’s where I operate from; advocates from the museum world also have to start standing up for this), but how can we create a discourse alongside shifting standards that says why it’s important to do so?

And let’s not forget the racial and class dimensions of who gets to be a professional visual artist nowadays. Writing about BFAMFAPhD recently for The Washington Post blog, Roberto Ferdman said: ‘If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white‘, adding that ‘the thing about racial diversity among working artists in America is that it pretty much doesn’t exist.’

Myths and preconceptions

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, in her great piece about the myths and preconceptions of artists as gentrifiers, writes much along the same lines as Ferdman, but with some caution about overly narrowing our definition of who working artists might be: ‘When we talk about issues of power, social inequities, or “the politics of belonging and (dis)belonging,” as Roberto Bedoya so eloquently frames, I want us to remember that artists, on average, have low incomes, and that they are not all white.

The NEA’s Artists and Arts Workers in the United States (2011) reveals that musicians, dancers and choreographers, photographers, and other entertainers’ median salary is under $28,000. Despite artists’ high levels of educational attainment, the average salary for all artist occupations (including architects) is just over $43,000. Over 20% of artists are racial/ethnic minorities. And these statistics are only for people for whom being an artist is their “primary” job.’

What Nicodemus is pointing out is that we can widen our scope of artists included in this conversation, and think in terms of solidarities, without losing the primary target of fighting against exploitation. Saying this does not water down what these initiatives are doing, it’s just to ask what it means to make art your job and who wants to do so? Because then we can start talking across a spectrum of geography, scale and intent.

What if art is your job in Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, and not in New York? Is it possible to value and not overly romanticise a day job that allows you the freedom to have an artist space in your garage, the kind of space that doesn’t have a website, isn’t a white cube, and believes in a kind of DIY punk spirit?

And which artists should get paid? Deciding on compensation standards, in the model of CARFAC (Canadian Artist Representation), founded in 1968, also demands that artists define themselves along professional lines – exhibition records, institutional affiliations, presentations at prestigious venues. What could be some alternative standards of value that could make this process more interesting, more open, more responsive to the needs of all kinds of working artists?

This is an edited version of an article originally published on the American contemporary art website 

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To find out about a-n and AIR’s Paying Artists campaign see the Paying Artists site.

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