Advocacy Group W.A.G.E. on What Its First Survey Tells Us About How Artists Are Treated in NYC

Advocacy Group W.A.G.E. on What Its First Survey Tells Us About How Artists Are Treated in NYC
Out of 577 artists surveyed by W.A.G.E., 58.4% did not receive any compensation
(courtesy W.A.G.E.)

Success is never guaranteed for artists, but at least those who manage to hustle up a show in a museum or non-profit space should get paid something. This is the argument of the New York-based artist rights group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), whose slogan is “fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting.” In 2008, the group set out to gather data about the economic experiences of 600 visual and performing artists who had worked with New York City art non-profits in the past five years. Included in the survey were questions about artist fees, coverage of exhibition costs, and travel expenses for shows, screenings, lectures, and performances at over 67 institutions. The results give a snapshot of just how economically uncertain the terrain of artistic success is in New York.

W.A.G.E. unveiled the results of the data they collected at an event at Artists Space earlier this month. To get a deeper insight into the survey process and the final results, ARTINFO posed some questions to the group via email. Read on for the surprising numbers, and for the group’s recommendations on how to fix the prevailing dearth of artist fees.

What kind of trends concerning artist compensation did you uncover after analyzing the 2010 survey?

The results point toward a disparity in the way monies are distributed by institutions. Essentially, there are no consistent patterns regarding if and how public and private funds are being distributed to independently contracted performers, lecturers, or visual artists. 

The most conclusive information is that 58 percent of artists invited to work with small, medium, and large non-profit arts institutions and museums received no form of payment, expense reimbursement, or artist fee at all. While some might argue that the survey is skewed toward those who had a negative experience with an institution and were therefore more motivated to complain about it, the fact is that they had good reason to complain: 337 out of 577 artists did not receive any compensation, which is 337 too many.

In terms of fee payment, it’s very clear that artists are more likely to receive a fee for a solo exhibition than for a group exhibition. On the other hand, when they did receive a fee for a solo exhibition, almost the same number of artists who got a fee in the range of $2,000 to $4,999 did not receive a fee at all.  

In terms of the size of the fee, the range was not surprising, and is in line with what we found [nonprofit organization] Artists Space had been paying in that same time frame when we dug into their payment history. For exhibitions involving two to five artists, 47 percent received an honorarium between $100 and $500, while 22 percent did not receive any artist fee. For exhibitions involving six or more artists, 48 percent received less than $300 honorarium, while 40 percent did not receive a fee.

It looks like larger organizations and museums were 10 percent more likely not to pay an artist fee than small- to medium-sized organizations. While 10 percent isn’t a significant difference, the fact that larger organizations were not more likely to pay is significant, because we assume that larger institutions have greater means than smaller ones, and would therefore be more able to pay fees. The conclusion one might draw from this is that it’s not a matter of being able but is instead a matter of being willing.

In other words, the coverage of expenses and the payment of fees are limited by the budgetary priorities of an organization. What are funds being spent on in lieu of paying artists: Salaries? Overhead? Capital projects? Fundraising events? We can only answer this conclusively by looking at artist fees paid out annually in relation to the rest of an organization’s budget. The only problem is that there is no line item in annual operating budgets that indicates artist fees, which is why we had to do this survey. Institutions wouldn’t tell us, but artists would.

What do these results mean for artists and their relationship with larger organizations?

After compiling and analyzing the results, we are more convinced than ever that there is little clarity, consistency, transparency, or negotiation regarding artist fees — above and beyond expenses, which themselves are being covered wholly inconsistently.

Cultural producers are not in a specific relationship with non-profit arts institution as a charity provider, or on the other end of the spectrum, as a speculator. Cultural producers serve as content providers and as educators within this relationship, as non-profit status affords the arts institution tax-exempt status to provide a public good. Whether the cultural producers an institution works with have none, some, or an overabundance of cultural capital and/or commercial market value, this should have no bearing on whether or not fees are paid and expenses are covered; how each project is negotiated with each artist, collective, lecturer or performer can take whatever form the project needs, but the provision of an artist fee is a necessity.

Did any of the results end up surprising you? Was there any good news to be had?

There was a surprise in gender differences in the coverage of travel expenses. It turned out that 69 percent of female respondents reported that they did not have any travel expenses, and of the remaining 31 percent who did, only 10 percent of them were partially or fully compensated for their expenses. Whereas 45 percent of male respondents reported that they did not have any travel expenses, and of the remaining 55 percent who did, 50 percent of them were partially or fully compensated for their expenses.

According to our sampling, some people (42 percent) who work with these institutions are actually paid — so it is possible. But accordingly to our sampling, over half are not. This inconsistency occurred throughout the data, and is what spurred the W.A.G.E. survey to begin with. Now we know it's true. This pattern must change, and eventually end. 

Other good news is that there are many cases of artists having very positive experiences exhibiting with non-profits in New York. The purpose of this survey was not to publicly shame these organizations, but to gather evidence that there is a lack of consistency in their payment practices. For the most part we assume, and have experienced first-hand, that the dedication of non-profits to supporting the work of artists is a fact. We suspect that artist fees are not being paid for a number of different reasons, the main one being that there are no existing guidelines for what is appropriate and what is anticipated. The provision of an artist fee is therefore postponed, ignored, and if paid, is done so arbitrarily. W.A.G.E. Certification is intended to change that.

What are the first steps the art world can take to start solving the issues that the survey confronts?

An artist fee must be part of any exhibition, lecture, or performance proposal made to visual artists and performers. 100 percent of the cultural producers who work with arts institutions must be offered a fee as part of the negotiation of their work with that entity.

Both the artist and the art institution must be held to a compensation standard, whether this comes about because an institution develops methods of internal regulation in order to receive W.A.G.E. Certification, or via external pressure from funders — or both. W.A.G.E. Certification could require organizations to provide proof of payment of fees in the form of canceled checks paid to exhibiting artists and by incorporating artist fees as a separate and distinct line item in operating budgets as a matter of protocol. W.A.G.E. Certification is still in development, but funders could enforce this now.

How difficult is it to survey such a disparate group as artists? Is it possible to be at all comprehensive?

It is extremely difficult to be comprehensive, yes. The economic structure we're dealing with is unique, baffling, complex, layered, and alarmingly opaque, pitting cultural producers against each other in a destructive game of competition without compensation for their work. The non-profit is not a commercial marketplace, and although it clearly influences that marketplace, it is not one and the same; rather, it is a separate working and presentation space with its own budgets and set of mechanisms.

Surveying artists is difficult because of the unique nature of each artistic proposal and exhibition type. There are likely to be more exceptions to the options provided in the survey than there are those that conformed. Film screenings and lectures are a case in point. These activities can either be considered separate categories or they can be considered exhibitions or performances unto themselves. If an artist considered a single screening at MoMA to be a solo exhibition, then that’s how the data would have been entered. When we constructed the survey we were also limited by the technology at the time (2010). Survey Monkey has since evolved to make more nuanced data collection possible.

Changes in artistic practice necessarily make it difficult to place things in defined categories, and it was a challenge to take all of that into account without the survey becoming prohibitively complex. We’re thinking about how we can fix any holes, augment it for the continued collection of this data, and represent the fluid and flexible nature of negotiation strategies between arts institutions and cultural producers.

An earlier version of this article stated that W.A.G.E. teamed with Artists Space for the survey. It has been corrected to show that the survey was an independent project.