Reflections on Ambivalence, Accountability, and Action

5.4 / Shotgun Review

Reflections on Ambivalence, Accountability, and Action

By Shotgun Reviews May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center (ARC) 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. The ARC invited participants to send them reflections on the key ideas, challenges, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day to feature on their blog. We are featuring several of these responses as Shotgun Reviews to offer our readers multiple perspectives on the day.


I came to this event hoping to be part of a Marxist revolution and though that definitely was not what happened, I was not disappointed. I found out about this practicum on Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.)'s website, so naturally I signed up for the workshop on Defining Value, Labor, and the Arts, hosted by W.A.G.E.'s Lise Soskolne. W.A.G.E. had a summit earlier this year to work out their certification program, which certifies non-profit arts exhibition spaces that fairly compensatetheir artists. Looking at some of the figures Lise shared with us, I was surprised by how huge some nonprofit arts institutions' directors salaries are, while their exhibiting artists are being paid next to nothing. There was also discussion during the workshop about a certain famous artist who will remain nameless, and their exploitative relationship with younger, non-famous collaborators--no surprise there, but still thought-provoking.

I feel some ambivalence about this issue personally. I'm a young(ish) visual artist trying to eke out a living and make a name for myself, like a lot of people in Oakland. If some notable artist or prestigious organization that I respect asks me to come participate in their project for free I think it would be really hard for me to turn them down. In fact I've been in that very situation a few times in my career, and usually have some regrets about my decisions whether I agree to participate or not. On the other hand, I've been looking into W.A.G.E. or artists' unions of the past like the Art Workers' Coalition (thanks to Julia Bryan-Wilson's book, Art Workers) because I think that the only thing artists can do to counteract the winner-take-all art market, and all the other art world financial bullshit, is to band together and stop clawing each others' faces off to get the tiny sliver of the pie available to us. I brought up my ambivalence during the workshop, and one of my thoughtful fellow participants said that part of the beauty of W.A.G.E.'s certification program is that it holds accountable the institutions and their funders, rather than the individual artists who are perhaps the most vulnerable party involved. 

Sharing Knowledge is Sharing Power workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. 

In the afternoon I was fortunate to hear Catherine Powell's talk about the history of labor unions in the Bay Area. During the discussion following the talk people brought up the idea of artists aligning themselves with other labor struggles, like those of freelancers and educators. Later my partner and Catherine were talking about the possibility of creating an artists' union today. Unlike the conclusion that my fellow morning workshop participants came to, Catherine said that it would probably be more effective for artists to unionize rather than rely on institutions to hold themselves accountable. After all, institutions must first elect to participate in W.A.G.E.'s certification program. Without pressure from artists and the public, how many organizations are really going to volunteer to dramatically overhaul their budgets? I thought it was funny to have heard two equally convincing, but opposing solutions to the same problem. In the end, I think the two approaches don't have to be mutually exclusive. Artists could band together to hold each other accountable and not give their labor away for free, while at the same time pressuring the institutions we decide to work with to pay us more fairly. 

I'm still waiting to figure out when we're going to start setting up barricades in the street or chain ourselves to something. If anybody has plans for further action, whether dangerously revolutionary or not, you can email me:


Kate Rhoades is a visual artist.

Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum is on view at Arts Research Center, in


, through April 19, 2014.

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