Response: Negotiating Terms and Setting PrecedentsMay 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.
Patricia Maloney participated in the “Gauging the Gray Area: Standards for Artistic Labor” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to write this response.
"I’m a twenty-five-year-old artist, just graduated from an MFA program. I’m $50,000 in debt. I’ve been invited to have a show with a commercial gallery that is only a few years old. They travel to fairs and seem to sell work that has an aesthetic similar to mine. I will have to pay for all production costs and framing. They take 50 percent of sales. I’m going to have to use credit cards to pay for materials and framing, which I think will end up totaling around $10,000."1—hypothetical scenario for “Gauging the Gray Area”
"And in fact it seems that there is no way to pay an artist for his work as an artist. I have taught, lectured, written, worked as a technician…and for all those collateral activities, I have been paid, have been compensated for my work. But as an artist I have been paid only on the rarest of occasions."2—Hollis Frampton
"I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us."3—Sara Wookey
“Gauging the Gray Area: Standards for Artistic Labor” is both the name of the workshop organized collaboratively by artists Helena Keeffe and Lauren van Haaften-Schick and its product. In their stated goals for the workshop, they posit that the prevailing measures for valuing artistic labor fluctuate between its contribution to a collective good (vis-à-vis a gift economy) and its potential for professionalization (with the ensuing promises of exposure), and that both measures leave artists and institutions with insufficient means to establish fair compensation. “Gauging the Gray Area”—the workshop—sought to formulate a set of standards by which artists can evaluate proposed opportunities (both compensated and non-compensated) as they arise, based on criteria related to the impacts and risks the terms on offer create for the artist. The resulting eponymous broadsheet is conceivably a viable tool to help artists measure subjective, difficult-to-quantify conditions, but its most effective application may be as a precursor to evaluating what negotiations are necessary and what precedents are established in the working relationships between artists and organizations.
“Gauging the Gray Area” arose from the conceptual overlap between Keeffe’s and van Haaften-Schick’s independent projects. Keeffe created the broadsheet Standard Deviations, which seeks to create a set of tools for shifting perceptions of artistic agency; van Haaften-Schick initiated the archive Non-Participation, which collects the related correspondence from artists who have declined invitations to participate in exhibitions or programs for which they would not be compensated. Keeffe introduced the principles of Standard Deviations, and van Haaften-Schick shared examples from the Non-Participation archive at the outset of the workshop to frame the two activities that would follow: spectrogram analyses that revealed consensus and deviation in response to hypothetical invitations, and an exercise in which participants formulated the questions to be used in the broadsheet.
The spectrogram analyses were the most illuminating part of the workshop for me; they are exercises that quickly solicit and visualize the range of opinions on a particular subject within a group. Given a hypothetical situation such as the one described above, I, along with my fellow participants, selected and pinned to a cloth board a paint chip from a gray scale that best represented positive or negative feelings or ambivalence to the proposed scenario.4 We then stood along a horizontal axis in a spot corresponding to that same position. (For the final scenario, a vertical axis was added to reflect how comfortable we felt with our decisions.) Each of the scenarios addressed financial restrictions surrounding the production of work and the costs that the artist would have to shoulder to accept the invitation to participate in the hypothetical exhibition. Variables included the age and exhibition history of the artist, the location and type of the venue, the existing or potential audiences for the artist’s work, the scale of the venue, and the amount of funding available to the artist. In all cases, funding was limited or restricted.
Clusters developed that demonstrated consensus around whether the scenario was favorable or unfavorable, and the frank and thoughtful conversation that accompanied each exercise revealed the contingencies that influenced where people chose to stand. I observed a pronounced tendency to accept or decline the conditions as they were presented, rather than in consideration of how they might be adjusted to meet an artist’s need. The scenario of the young artist contemplating the gallery’s representation seemed ripe with potential for negotiating the terms of payment or at least for inquiring into the gallery’s business structure to evaluate the risk. But only two people raised those options. Similarly, the conversations around institutional scenarios homed in on curator-artist relationships or exhibition production and excluded the intersecting activities that support the exhibition. Exhibition catalogs, marketing efforts, and members’ events (at which potential collectors might be present) did not seem to receive significant weight in calculating value. Finally, there seemed to be a myopic tendency to consider only the artist’s financial investment in their work within the context of that single exhibition. The creation of a new body of work was presumed as a given, rather than pursuing the opportunity to show existing work, thereby increasing the potential return on a prior investment of labor and funds.
These contingencies go to the heart of the challenges this workshop sought to address, as they underscore the limited agency artists perceive themselves to have in negotiating the terms by which they contribute to or create exhibitions, whether commercial or institutional. Looking strictly at the funds allocated to artists for production labor, materials, fees, or travel in real-world scenarios does little to contradict this perception of limited agency.
In current models for creating exhibitions, artists function akin to manufacturers rather than contractors: Value is measured in a project’s reception rather than made visible in the labor and material costs quoted to a client and set by the producer. It is a crass analogy, as the logic of artist-as-contractor would suggest a system of bidding that measures proposals for affordability rather than merit of concept. My point, though, is that production costs and fees are very much the business of making art and therefore should be negotiable. Upending the entrenched inequities in the current system of artist compensation seems to necessitate four principles:
- Frank assessments of the costs, risks, and investments present in the production of work by the artist;
- Negotiation of terms as an essential component of exhibition production by both artists and venues;
- Transparency and entry on the part of organizing venues into institutional operations;
- Cognizance that fair labor practices manifest in the day-to-day interactions between individuals, and that all parties—artists as well as administrators—are responsible for their perpetuation.
Negotiation also creates an outward trajectory with three outcomes. First, the conversation ceases to be personal and is reframed in terms of the mutual objective of producing the most successful project possible. The resources or limitations of each party are on the table. Accountability for all parties comes into play. Second, its impact goes beyond the particular circumstances of any individual project to affect prevailing practices. (W.A.G.E., whose mission and objectives are discussed elsewhere in this issue, explores this concept in depth.) In this regard, venues have to increase their transparency and become more porous to artists.
The gesture of transparency is a mutually beneficial one. If artists have a comprehensive view of all the labor that is involved in the production of their shows, it can affect a shift in the artist/venue relationship from contentious to collaborative. I would strongly argue that those who organize exhibitions and programs in an institutional or commercial capacity operate with both generosity and significant limitations. But there is opacity surrounding the infrastructure in which they function, and artists often unwittingly strain organizational resources because they don’t know what limitations exist. Enlightening artists as to the interdependency of roles in the planning stage of an exhibition creates a more holistic picture of that organization’s production process, as well as a realistic accounting of the labor and time all parties expend.
Finally, negotiation brings into focus the following question: How does my participation not only impact my future opportunities but also create a precedent for this institution or gallery’s approach to working with other artists? In the second session, “Sharing Knowledge Is Sharing Power,” Catherine Powell, Director of the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University, gave an overview of organizing labor for unions that illuminated a condition of collective bargaining I hadn’t previously considered. Collective bargaining not only demands protections for the individual, it also grants a set of guidelines by which an individual might recognize prevailing fair standards for labor—standards that meet objective rather than subjective criteria. By choosing to join a union, members benefit from and are committed to the propagation of fair labor practices. In the absence of a union for artists, are there means by which such standards can be explicated, replicated, and distributed? Here again, I will point to W.A.G.E.’s efforts to hold institutions accountable. But I will also echo Keeffe’s and van Haaften-Schick’s aspiration that “Gauging the Gray Area” will “spur open conversations on this taboo subject” and encourage artists to recognize that receiving fair compensation begins with asking for it.
Download the "Gauging the Grey Area" PDF