Response: Common Measure in Kind

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Common Measure in Kind

By Shannon Jackson May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics.


Shannon Jackson participated in the “Defining Value, Labor, and the Arts” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts Practicum.

Toward the end of the day of “Valuing Labor in the Arts” (VLA)—after the craft making, after the questionnaires, after the yoga, the debt screams, and the ad-hoc curating—we adjourned to a larger plenary space to think together about what we had wrought. Sociologist Alison Gerber started us off with some reflections from her own research, a kind of metaphoric palate cleanser offered just after artist–caterer Yasmin Golan invited us to speculate on the sourcing and labor conditions of the food that was, by that point, literally filling our palate. Sourcing her own critical apparatus from economic sociology, Gerber put the word “commensuration” into the air, asking us to think about the processes that reconcile the labor of art with the value of art, asking us to think too about the degree to which such processes involve and require a degree of de-commensuration as well.

Commensuration assumes and re-instantiates “a common measure.”  In the arts, of course, these measures are elusive.

As a humanist with an amateur’s (amorous) interest in such frames, I found myself wondering about how commensuration functioned throughout the day and in the wider spheres of artistic labor in, and well beyond, the Bay Area. To create a commensurate exchange, we theoretically invoke shared principles of correspondence; “A” can be imagined as commensurate with “B” in proportions that measure amount, magnitude, or degree. Commensuration assumes and re-instantiates “a common measure.”  In the arts, of course, these measures are elusive. In the rare moments when the value of artistic labor is pinned down in numerical terms, the numbers fluctuate wildly between the .1 percent of very highly paid (or at least highly priced) artwork and the large majority of unpaid or barely paid artistic labor that surrounds it. The idea of establishing common measure, much less common cause, often seems very much out of reach.

It was thus a boon to have Lise Soskolne of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) among us to share in a project of demystification. Fresh from a recent summit convened on W.A.G.E. Certification, Soskolne shared the metrics that they developed to generate artist fee schedules for remunerating different kinds of artistic work in small and large art organizations. W.A.G.E. thus seeks to establish something like a common measure—i.e., principles for measurement that might encourage artists and organizations to establish common cause. One of Soskolne’s simplest demystifying tools came in the form of the 990, the form that you or I or any of us can access to see the records of U.S. nonprofit institutions, including information on annual operating expenses and highest-paid employees. Based on this data, W.A.G.E.’s algorithm deduces what they are provisionally calling “Minimum,” “Fair,” and “Professional” fee schedules for different products and services: a solo show, a single work in a group show, a lecture, a panel discussion, etc. These categories shift if a work is commissioned or preexisting, and they shift further when including a wider range of art forms, say a new choreographic work or a film screening. 

Defining Value, Labor and the Arts workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Lehrmann

While W.A.G.E. has not gone public yet with all of their propositions, we worked through tables that derived artist fees as one tenth of a percentage point of total operating expenses. The disparity among different art organizations was striking. The operating expenses of some organizations were so small that the algorithm yielded miniscule figures, whereas for large organizations such as The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) or the Guggenheim, the algorithm generated numbers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Soskolne tabulated a fee for her own artist workshop for VLA by inserting the total operating expenses of UC Berkeley, generating an artist fee of $114,862. When she inserted the annual operating expenses of the Arts Research Center (a tiny dot in the UC budget), the proposed workshop fee turned out to be $178. The point is not necessarily to require MoMA (or the larger UC Berkeley campus) to pay the fee generated from W.A.G.E.’s algorithm, but the exercise forced us to question why it seemed so obvious to us that such organizations never would.

The computations and thought exercises continued, and with them the process of demystification. How clarifying to learn that 58.4 percent of artists polled between 2005 and 2010 did not receive any compensation for their artwork, including coverage of expenses. How clarifying to learn that, of all arts organizations analyzed, The Kitchen had the strongest track record of consistently paying artists and Performa had the weakest. To some extent, the shock and laughter of seeing the huge numbers demonstrated how embedded all of us are in current patterns of commensuration. Indeed, if there is an implicit social contract behind commensuration, it depends on the ideological normalization of certain exchange principles, a habit of thinking and feeling about how “A” can be imagined in terms of “B.” 

Soskolne was very clear that a focus on artist fees is only one component of a wider and more complex effort to sustain a cultural sector, and other VLA workshops and lectures offered allied models. Catherine Powell recalled—and Caroline Woolard reinforced—the importance of allegiances with labor movements for whom these issues are hardly new, and for whom artists are a supremely interesting test case in a contemporary service economy. Initiatives such as the Compensation Foundation created by The Present Group echoed W.A.G.E.’s frames, extending queries to a Bay Area landscape and creating an open-source platform for composing and disseminating data visualizations. 

Defining Value, Labor and the Arts workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center. Photo: Megan Alvarado Saggese.

Meanwhile, the question of monetary compensation does not obviate the need to explore other kinds of sustaining ecologies, including those invested in public-sector models as well as in experiments of bartering and in-kind exchange. The public-sector question remained in the background of VLA until Patricia Maloney reminded us of the populist support for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Soskolne herself noted that much of our own DIY efforts to standardize artist compensation might normally be regulated by a state operation if we were in any other profession. The public sector was also part of this gathering’s background in that it was hosted by an art center inside a “public” university, albeit one where only 11 percent of annual operating expenses is now actually funded by public dollars. As an art center dependent on outside grants for all of our programming—inside a university that is itself dependent on taxing over 50 percent overhead on very large research grants in order to pay the bills of the rest of the campus—this is a moment to notice that the educational sector and the cultural sector need to be reimagined together. Certainly one is clearly not the patron of the other. Meanwhile, Cassie Thornton’s indebted students scream, and Christian Nagler’s adjuncts wonder about their next contract.

It is of course by facing the limits and opportunities of patronage models, of public-sector models, and of fee-for-service models that artists begin to imagine other ecologies. Bartering systems and in-kind labor exchange offer alternative modes of commensuration. Projects like those of Woolard, Abigail Satinsky, and Stephanie Syjuco experiment with principles for substituting the time and materials of one domain with those of another, imagining different technologies and algorithms of distribution, plotting new currents for new forms of currency. VLA was sited inside and alongside The Possible exhibition, which offers open studios and exhibition space to artists in exchange for building new work for the exhibition. It is thus itself an iterative coordination of technology, time, material, and embodied labor that creates emergent patterns of correspondence among them. 

Defining Value, Labor and the Arts workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley and W.A.G.E.

VLA too was funded partly through small grants and private donations, partly through labor already paid for by the University of California, and partly through a whole variety of “in kind” exchanges—with the David Brower Center, with Art Practical, with BAM/PFA. I like to think that all of the above are producing ecologies of value in new terms, filling the holes in each other’s operations to create bigger platforms together (space in exchange for art, graphic help in exchange for clay firing, programming in exchange for editing in exchange for space, my art in exchange for yours). But we can also ask if and when such models create the conditions for mutual self-exploitation. When do they constitute virtuous circles that buoy and sustain a shared mission, and when do they diminish energy and resources through constant cycles of giving-and-taking-and-giving-back?

Art is not only about money, and this fact has made money a taboo topic for many.

Art is not only about money, and this fact has made money a taboo topic for many. There might still be many situations in which artists decide to work for free, but if artist payment becomes a norm, hosting institutions would have to be clearer about what the intangible benefits of unpaid work might be. If nothing else, entities like W.A.G.E. could succeed in establishing basic “Minimum” fees that will take the pressure off of artists in having to ask for it. Foundations too could require any organization that they fund to commit to consistent artist payment, perhaps also acknowledging that doing so means that the organization will need to produce less, i.e., produce fewer “outcomes.” Many organizations may never be able to afford “Professional” fees, but transparent measures allow black-and-white clarity in some areas so that other areas, following Lauren van Haaften-Schick and Helena Keeffe, can remain appropriately “gray.” The appropriately gray areas are those places where the value of art is defined in all kinds of non-monetary ways—in the passion, distress, ethics, joy, curiosity, irony, laughter, tranquility, sociality, and criticality that it elicits. Art is not only about money; establishing commensurate systems—common measures and common cause—ensures that it can remain so.

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