4.17 / The Fourth Year

Standard Deviation

By Helena Keeffe, Patricia Maloney June 13, 2013
Image: Helena Keeffe. Standard Deviation, 2013; broadside. Courtesy of the Artist.

In statistical and financial analyses, standard deviation measures the dispersion of a set of data from its mean. The more spread apart the data, the higher the deviation. Investors use this method as a gauge for expected volatility: high standard deviation equals more volatility.1 In the art world, the volatile and precarious economic conditions that working artists face provide evidence of a high standard deviation in the value of artistic labor. This is particularly evident in the discrepancies in how value is assigned to artistic labor by institutions of varying scales and financial means.

What are the key questions artists should ask themselves in seeking to define standards for valuing their labor?

What kinds of strategies might artists employ to create a sense of agency when it comes to artistic production? What are the key questions artists should ask themselves in seeking to define standards for valuing their labor? Standard Deviation—a multiphase project that includes a series of conversations, a printed broadside for distribution, and an online forum—addresses these questions so that artists might identify the kinds of opportunities that serve their artistic goals and help them sustain viable practices over time. The printed broadside functions as a tool to generate public awareness and as an aid to personal conviction. It uses the imagery of a hand as a mnemonic device for five key questions artists can ask themselves when presented with exhibition opportunities. It also includes a Request for Funders form, a flow chart to help answer the question, “Should I work for free?” and symbolic currency whose exchange is intended to acknowledge volunteer labor.2

Although these issues are regularly debated in private, among friends and colleagues, it is clear that a public dialogue is needed. Artists, writers, and curators may not be able to agree on one set of definitive standards, but we can think critically about our own standards through shared knowledge. This project, whose catalyst was a seminar on art and labor at the University of California, Berkeley, with Julia Bryan-Wilson, seeks to create a structure for dialogue that invites everyone from seasoned practitioners to newly graduated art students to share their perspectives.

It is in considering the broad spectrum of needs and desires and promoting transparency that we can create an environment where artists can sustain their practices and participate in a not only supportive but also engaged and critical community. What follows are two narratives, providing perspectives on Standard Deviation and how these issues will play out in specific cases. Each perspective demonstrates how standards can differ between individuals and situations. In the interest of self-reflexive transparency, the examples offered are my experiences, as I have initiated this project, and those of the director of this publication, Patricia Maloney.

Download the Standard Deviation broadside.


Perspective #1: Helena Keeffe, Artist


In 2012, I received three very different invitations to make artwork. The first was from an artist-run space in Oakland, a small gallery self-funded by two artists. The second was a children’s museum that works with contemporary artists to create hands-on exhibitions for visitors. The third was for a natural-science gallery within a large museum. For the artist-run gallery, I created a one-night participatory event involving food. For the children’s museum, I held a workshop related to the venue’s trash-themed exhibition and made textiles from drawings created in the workshop. The textiles were used to make sheets and cushions—building materials for ad hoc forts. For the natural-science gallery in the museum, I created a year-and-a-half-long project involving seven families from the local YMCA and entailing a series of field trips and workshops that resulted in a video and installation in a newly renovated exhibit.

These projects collectively demonstrate how confusing it can be to define the value of my labor as an artist. In the first instance, I knew that the support I would receive from the artist-run gallery was the use of their space and the audience they had cultivated. I would have to rely on personal resources for the materials I needed and for the time spent preparing and carrying out the project. I took it as an opportunity to do something experimental and felt good contributing to a space run by people who were also using their own resources to add to the cultural landscape of Oakland.

The children’s museum opportunity resulted from an open call, and the budget was set at $2000. This figure seemed low to me, considering I had to produce something that would survive two to four months of heavy use by young children. But since my relatives live near the museum, I could save money by staying with them and have the added benefit of spending time with them. In the end, the budget paid for all of my materials, my plane tickets, and perhaps 10 percent of my time working on the project. I took the advice offered at a Creative Capital workshop and put the rest of my time in the budget as an in-kind donation. Overall, it was a pleasant experience. Once the piece was installed, kids immediately began creating forts, and it held up well. The museum asked to keep it an additional six months, which I agreed to, even though I was not offered additional compensation; I hoped this would create good will that might lead to working with them again in the future.

When I was approached to propose a project for the natural-science gallery, a friend who worked at the museum suggested that I ask for a consultant fee, similar to what they pay graphic designers who work on contract. I thought I would start with this suggested amount and negotiate toward something agreeable to all. The museum did not hesitate and agreed without negotiation. I worked longer on the project than I had planned and ended up paying helpers out of my fee, but the fee was enough to allow me to support myself and dedicate three quarters of my time to the project for almost a year, a rare opportunity for most artists.

there are no standards for the compensation of artists’ labor

I bring up these three examples because they all occurred within a year of each other and therefore during the same phase of my career. I had previously received a couple of large commissions and at the same time had been invited to create ambitious projects with little or no financial support. My experiences and those of artist friends make it clear that there are no standards for the compensation of artists’ labor.

In 2009, Temporary Services created Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, And Economics, a free newspaper that included articles produced by “artists, activists, writers, critics, and others on the topic of working within depressed economies and how that impacts artistic process, compensation and artistic property.”3 Following its release, there was increased public dialogue in the Bay Area around this subject. A reading in December 2009 at Site School, a now-defunct artist-run space in Oakland, erupted into a heated debate: Should artists unionize? Whose responsibility is it to set standards? What ethical systems exist in the art world? Are artists exploited by institutions?

At the event, the question of standards stood out for me. Harrell Fletcher’s contribution to Art Work was an article titled “Thoughts on Standardizing Fair Artists Lecture Fees.” He cites the Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC) schedule of fees as a model that could be adapted in the United States. However, as I learned from a recent conversation with the New York art collective Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), its effort to account for the diverse situations of nonprofit institutions in New York—such as the size of the organization, how long it has been around, and whether or not it owns its building—demonstrated the painstaking complexity of creating a domestic model. But the collective continues this task.

The sociologist Alison Gerber recently wrote about issues of art and labor in an article titled “Payment for Services: From Market to Professional Logics of Valuation in Contemporary Artmaking.” She focuses on the activities of CARFAC, W.A.G.E., and the Swedish Artists’ National Organization. Whereas CARFAC advocates for valuation of labor based on specific tasks performed by artists, and W.A.G.E.’s certification seeks to find ways to account for size, history, and stability of an organization when determining fair compensation for artists’ labor, the Swedish group proposes a simpler equation: “For every exhibition in a public art institution an exhibition fee shall be paid. The artist shall be temporarily hired as staff and receive at least two months’ salary at 25.000kr (US $3,743). The employer shall pay employers’ fees and taxes.… The salary is not negotiable downwards.”4 It is hard to argue against the assertion that an art institution able to budget for full-time arts administrators should also be able to budget for the equivalent salary of at least one full-time artist.

What strategies can we conjure up, both realistic and fantastic, for artists to gain a greater sense of agency?

During her talk at UC Berkeley last fall, the artist and curator Gabi Ngcobo mentioned that since receiving international attention for The Center for Historical Reenactments, a collaborative project she initiated in South Africa, she has been encouraged to apply for funding. Ngcobo and her collaborators have been the primary supporters for the project through their salaries as professors; it operates on a modest budget, allowing for a degree of autonomy and responsiveness in its activities. Her reaction was that, rather than apply for funding, she would put out a call for funders to apply to her. This imagining of a Twilight-Zone-like reversal of power dynamics creates an opening for new ways of thinking about relationships between funders and cultural producers or presenters.

What strategies can we conjure up, both realistic and fantastic, for artists to gain a greater sense of agency? When is it more generative for an artist to refuse participation in a particular system of the art world?

Perhaps one way to address the complexity of the issue of valuing artists’ labor is for artists to more consciously set our standards as individuals. On March 30, 2013, I brought together a group of artists, curators, and writers to address the following questions:  How do you define your labor? Where do you draw the line when it comes to volunteering your time and resources? What risks are you willing to expose yourself to in order to make your work? Are you comfortable going into debt to make your work? How can institutions and artists better understand the contributions each is making to cultural production? What criteria have you developed to help guide you through decisions related to making and showing your work?

Issues of transparency, class, professionalization, the market, exposure as compensation, autonomy, and instrumentalization dominated the conversation. For example, writers volunteer to write for Art Practical, but many have successfully used it as a stepping-stone to full-time, permanent jobs or to graduate programs. Some of the gathered artists felt that the freedom offered by an institution providing little or no financial support can outweigh the hassle of working within an institution that offers funds but is more restrictive. Others were concerned that fighting to be paid a salary or hourly wage creates conditions that compromise an artist’s ability to question the more fundamental flaws of our market-based economy.

The Standard Deviation broadside, viewable here in the form of a PDF, brings together ideas, tools, and questions meant to spur this conversation forward. Do we fight for a more stable place within capitalist structures of support, or do we need to seek more radical paths? The autonomist Marxist Franco “Bifo” Berardi asserts:

We have been working too much during the last five centuries…Working so much has implied an abandonment of vital social functions and a commodification of language, affections, teaching, therapy and self care. Society does not need more work, more jobs, more competition. On the contrary: we need a massive reduction in work-time, a prodigious liberation of life from the social factory, in order to re-weave the fabric of the social relation.5 

His words resonate deeply for me. Yet I live in an expensive city, buy my food at a grocery store, drive a car, and live a life that generally requires capital in order to be sustained. In her article, Alison Gerber points out, “There are, of course, those within this art world who disagree with the positioning of art as work or as a job; however, because the notion of art as work is so tightly bound up in what being a serious artist means, those who object to professionalization or thinking about art as work are forced to advocate not for hobby or amateur status but for total revolution.”

My parents chose revolution when they moved our family to a commune in Tennessee that required all members to take a vow of poverty and become “voluntary peasants.” Though the community still exists, my parents left after three years. At the time they left, the population had swelled to fifteen hundred and the commune faced bankruptcy and shortages of food and medicine. This relatively brief time in my family’s history has led me to both seek new and ideal ways of living and to acknowledge the reality of the systems in place. The strategies I have found most effective have been a willingness to speak up and the determination to stick by a set of standards that may shift with time but offer some guidance in the face of so many unknowns.

Perspective #2: Patricia Maloney, director, Art Practical


Art Practical launched on October 29, 2009, and in November, we received our first grant, $3,500 from Alternative Exposure, which covered the cost of the website development. In October 2010, we became a fiscally sponsored organization through Intersection for the Arts’ Incubator Program. At that time, we moved our fiscal year (FY) to end on June 30. For FY 2011, we earned $12,000 through a combination of earned and contributed income; for FY 2012, we earned $29,000, and for the FY ending June 30, 2013, we will earn $46,000.

Currently, sponsorship banners are our primary source of earned income while lecture honoraria and commissions for public programs compose the balance. Our planned development strategy is to match our earned income with individual donations and foundation and corporate grants. In FY 2014, Art Practical will implement this new funding plan to support several significant changes underway: a redesigned website, an expanded partnership with the online publication Daily Serving, and the creation of a nonprofit organization to oversee the partnership and the individual activities of the two publications. All of these changes represent a deeper commitment to our mission and an investment whose goal is the long-term sustainability of the two publications. The commitment and energy available from those who participate are key factors in instigating this move forward.

What cannot be overemphasized is what Art Practical has been able to produce while relying on a mostly voluntary staff of editors, writers, editorial assistants and interns. I estimate 85 percent of each issue is produced by in-kind labor. Considering the fact that we have published more than eighty issues comprising close to nine hundred articles from nearly one hundred contributors in less than four years, the investment of time those numbers represent is astounding. The income that we receive from sponsorship banners goes toward operational costs and monthly stipends for editors and editorial assistants, which account for a small percentage of their time in comparison to a freelance market rate. Some travel costs are covered. Writers do not receive compensation except for articles published in funded issues and for occasional fellowships. I work on average fifty hours per week; all of my time is donated.

The radical organizational shift we are embarking on intends to correct the inequity of this ratio of time to compensation. Writers, like artists, need to get paid for the work they do. An increase in annual funding to $75,000 will mean that 24 percent of our labor cost could be compensated. This calculation is based on the income the two publications would need for their operations to be fully funded. The budget for three full-time salaries with benefits (one director and two managing editors); market rates for freelance editors, grant writers, and production assistants; compensation for all contributing writers; as well as operational costs and rent for office space would total $315,000. Attaining that level of annual funding requires a serious investment in our infrastructure to build donor and sponsor support, and the budget for the coming fiscal year will reflect that priority, even as we commit to paying our contributors.

The publication thrives because it is an initiative by the community for the community.

What the numbers don’t represent are the individual reasons that motivate writers and editors to contribute ten to thirty hours a month to Art Practical. The publication thrives because it is an initiative by the community for the community. Many contributors cite their pride in working for what has become an archive that both documents and provides critical reflection on artistic production, in the Bay Area and abroad, and they are eager to increase the visibility of our activities for an international community.  

While I eschew the notion that exposure is an adequate substitute for compensation, there are other intangible benefits that Art Practical offers to its contributors that expand our concept of our mission. From the beginning, we saw the potential value of inviting emerging writers to participate, not only to help build their portfolios but also to create a peer network that would include more established writers and to instill the professionalism that arises from working within a rigorous editorial process. What I did not anticipate, but which has become a significant attribute of Art Practical, is how our standards for the content we produce and the consistency with which we produce it translate into job opportunities for our contributors. Hiring managers at museums, nonprofit art spaces, and Bay Area galleries have told me that an affiliation with Art Practical was a distinguishing factor for candidates who now hold full-time positions with their organizations. The intention and attention that goes into the work we produce translates as a level of professionalism that other institutions value. It also suggests that mentorship, both from our editorial staff and among the larger community of Art Practical contributors, is an activity that has wide-reaching benefits.

While such associated benefits are significant, they are not a tangible, consistently applied exchange value for labor. One of the challenges I face in shifting the publication away from in-kind labor in favor of compensation is creating a policy that has clear delineations for the conditions of each. This shift will not be immediate, but during this time, we will aim to be as transparent as possible around our decision-making processes behind compensation. This article is one gesture toward such transparency, but there are precedents for how the publication has addressed artistic labor and how, as an organization, our activities impact a larger economy. In March 2013, we published “Walden Inspired Accounting,” in which Christine Wong Yap details the material and labor costs for the production of a work of art. In 2011, we collaborated with the blog Open Space in producing “Shop Talk,” a three-part series of conversations that highlighted the many ways artists evaluate and attempt to restructure market conditions to accommodate, support, or help distribute the conceptual, aesthetic, and critical capacities of their work. 

I believe that creating a forum for reflection on and documenting the means by which artists value their labor is an essential tenet of this publication, which is founded on the principles of generosity, collectivity, and community. And perhaps by publicly explicating the standards for compensation that Art Practical provides, we can encourage both artists and arts organizations to more comfortably and collectively broach a discussion around how each values the work they produce.

What this example is meant to represent more than anything else is recognition of the interdependency that exists between institutions and artists. The investment that editors, writers, and readers have made in this publication will only receive a dividend if our activities are sustainable. The same holds true for artistic activity. The question of establishing standards is essentially one of creating the mechanisms by which sustainability can occur. Implicit in the mission statement to exhibit and contextualize contemporary art production is the desire to perpetuate it. Acknowledging that implication requires a more holistic accounting of the means by which a visual arts community contributes to the sustenance and growth of its participants’ practices. To encourage artists to establish and commit to a set of standards requires a concurrent commitment by institutions to acknowledge that valuation and to explore more equitable means of exchange. This assessment does not diminish agency for either party but creates conditions from which true support and autonomy may arise.


  1. “Definition of ‘Standard Deviation,’” Investopedia, http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/standarddeviation.asp. For a helpful illustrated guide to the concept, see “Standard Deviation and Variance,” Math is Fun, http://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-deviation.html.
  2. The broadside’s compilation of key questions is derived from a conversation that took place on March 30, 2013, with a group of active Bay Area artists, curators, and writers: Helena Keeffe, Heidi De Vries, Patricia Maloney, Packard Jennings, Amy Trachtenberg, Eleanor Hanson-Wise, Oliver Wise, Lucas Murgida, Cassie Thornton, Stijn Schiffeleers, Valerie Imus, and Joseph del Pesco. Issues raised during the conversation included the need for more transparency and clear communication between artists and art institutions, the effects of cuts in public funding, the risk of burnout, the desire for freedom and autonomy potentially conflicting with the role of art-worker-as-wage-laborer, and possible alternative models of art education, such as apprenticeship.
  3. Temporary Services, Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, And Economicshttp://www.artandwork.us/.
  4. Emma Reichert, Camilla Backman, and Camilla Palm, “Untitled,” Taking the Matter Into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices, ed. Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson (Black Dog, 2007).
  5. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “How to Heal a Depression,” provided by 16 Beaver Group, http://www.16beavergroup.org/bifo/bifo-how-to-heal-a-depression.pdf.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content