Working Artists and the Greater Economy began in 2008 with a series of informal discussions between a small group of visual and performing artists and independent curators in New York City who shared their experiences working with art institutions, and specifically the common practice of non-payment. These discussions took place casually in various apartments and studios across the city, culminating in the writing of the womanifesto and soon evolving into a series of large, open meetings and public forums held at Judson Church that collectively brought language to this inequity, making it central to W.A.G.E.'s cause.
As this loose affiliation of art workers began to coalesce into a core group of active members, W.A.G.E. responded to the community's growing interest in the problem by regularly giving speeches, making videos, holding open teach-ins, coffee klatches and workshops—W.A.G.E. RAGING in panel discussions and symposia at museums, galleries, conferences, festivals, schools, summits, and art fairs. Through education and consciousness raising W.A.G.E. helped to bring issues of economic inequity in the art field back into circulation. These remained W.A.G.E.'s primary activities until mid-2010 when we chose to work towards a single achievable goal: the regulated payment of artist fees by nonprofit arts organizations and museums.
This focus narrowed W.A.G.E.'s platform but it also expanded activities to include information sharing and negotiation. In Fall 2010 W.A.G.E. launched an online survey to gather information about the experiences of visual and performing artists with the payment practices of nonprofit organizations in New York's five boroughs between 2005 and 2010. With almost 1000 respondents, the results of the W.A.G.E. Survey have become a key tool in concretely illustrating—and documenting—the common practice of non-payment.
Also in Fall 2010, W.A.G.E. initiated a certification program that publicly recognizes nonprofit arts organizations that voluntarily follow a best practices model and demonstrate a history of, and commitment to, paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard. The first certification took place at the New Museum in New York via an invitation from curator Lauren Cornell to participate in the group exhibition Free. W.A.G.E.'s contribution as an activist group and not an artist collective was to successfully negotiate artist fees for all participating artists, qualifying the New Museum for Exhibition Certification. But because W.A.G.E. believes that the goal of establishing permanent payment standards implies a long term commitment on the part of an organization, the development of W.A.G.E. Certification was to be limited to organizations and would not apply to single exhibitions.
W.A.G.E. received its 501c3 non-profit status in 2011, and after 3 years of consciousness raising and aggregating data from the field we chose to focus exclusively on establishing W.A.G.E. Certification and on consolidating our own resources in order to support the kind of sustained, internal work necessary to achieving policy change. W.A.G.E. elected an interim board of directors and began to shift away from a horizontal, non-hierarchical, consensus-based configuration into a more compact institutional structure.
In March 2011, Artists Space initiated a dialogue with W.A.G.E. about the implications of the W.A.G.E. Survey and W.A.G.E. Certification, resulting in the formation of a temporary research partnership between the two organizations. The partnership provided W.A.G.E. and Artists Space with a cooperative platform on which to organize a series of symposia/public discussions and strategic think tanks involving artists, activists, curators, grant makers, administrators, economists, sociologists, and the public in an extended conversation about payment practices in the arts.
Alongside public programs W.A.G.E. conducted research into Artists Space's history of fee payment between 2005 and 2010, the same time frame as the W.A.G.E. Survey. Charting the organization's exhibition schedule year by year, counting the number of participating artists and confirming what the organization had paid out in fees, we learned that there was little consistency in the fee size and that Artists Space had spent between 0.6% and 1.4% of its total annual operating budget on artist compensation annually. Further research indicated that if Artists Space had used CARFAC's recommended fee schedule it would only have spent between 1.3% and 2.3% of its total budget on fees. By looking at artist compensation in direct proportion to what the organization had chosen to spend on its operations, the actual value it had placed on artistic labor became apparent. At that point the question was no longer whether artists were getting paid or how much, but how the value of artistic labor should be determined and how its compensation could be enforced.
W.A.G.E. Certification's early principles also took shape through invitations from artists and institutions to travel to the UK and Europe. These included a public meeting in Glasgow with the Scottish Artists Union, a first attempt at W.A.G.E. Certification with Truth is Concrete in Graz, long overdue in-person meetings with Precarious Workers Brigade, CarrotWorkers' Collective, and ArtLeaks, as well as the delivery of a speech at the MMK Zollamt in Frankfurt where we met with the Art Workers Council Frankfurt/M. Dialog began with London's Artquest, while the a-n company used the W.A.G.E. Survey as a basis for its Paying Artists Campaign.
2014 – 2016
In January 2014, a group of minds from across the fields of labor, sociology, economy, theory, and arts administration, whose work has been central to W.A.G.E., convened at Cage, NY to establish the policy for W.A.G.E. Certification. Using Artists Space as a test case, A.K. Burns, Howie Chen, Andrea Fraser, Alison Gerber, Stephanie Luce, Andrew Ross, Marina Vishmidt, W.A.G.E., and key Artists Space staff looked closely at the organization's institutional structure and budget, considered the conditions under which it operates, and questioned the mechanisms it uses to determine the organization, valuation, and compensation of labor. Over two days we talked through, negotiated, and arrived at a framework for fee payment and a revised set of principles. W.A.G.E. Certification was further developed and refined over the following months, with additional input from Abigail Levine and Suhail Malik.
The summit marked the conclusion of W.A.G.E.'s Research Partnership with Artists Space, and its findings were presented publicly at Out of Alternatives, a conference organized by Common Practice New York and the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College in May. W.A.G.E. Certification was officially launched in October 2014, at which time Artists Space became the first organization to be certified.
Also in October, W.A.G.E. launched Wages 4 W.A.G.E., a 6-week fundraising campaign intended to help us transition into a functioning non-profit organization after operating on volunteer labor for over 6 years. Thanks to the generosity of 777 friends and supporters, Wages 4 W.A.G.E. raised close to $53,000, finally making it possible to employ its core organizer.
One year later, W.A.G.E. received its first grants. These came from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. This support stabilized W.A.G.E. organizationally while also signaling to arts organizations that funders stand in solidarity with artists as part of an equitable community.
While continuing to administrate W.A.G.E. Certification, we actively began work on a parallel certification program for artists that had been conceived years before. In November 2015 a mini-summit took place at MayDay Rooms in London, UK to establish the program's framework. Over 2 days, W.A.G.E. board members Suhail Malik, Marina Vishmidt, and Tirdad Zolghadr, along with W.A.G.E.'s core organizer and artist and writer Anthony Davies, developed a set of guiding principles and the strategic approaches to effectively engage them. With the intention of providing working artists with the necessary agency to negotiate compensation or withhold content and services from institutions that refuse to pay them fees according to W.A.G.E. standards, "WAGENCY" emerged—a new form of labor organizing for an unpaid and atomized workforce.
In addition to the regular certifications in cities across the U.S., in 2016 Open Space, a department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art represented our first 'partial' museum certification, setting an important precedent: Open Space agreed to pay fees according to SFMOMA's total annual operating expenses despite that as a department its own expenses are 200 times smaller than the museum's. The scope of Open Space's operation is analogous to a small-scale organization and yet it chose to pay fees according to W.A.G.E.'s standards for a museum. By making the decision to "not operate from a sense of resource scarcity that, often, simply camouflages over-production" Open Space chose to prioritize equity over quantity by opting to do less with more.
In summer 2016, the collective MTL+ invited W.A.G.E. to be a collaborator in Decolonize This Place, an action-oriented space working around indigenous struggle, black liberation, Free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification. In late 2016 W.A.G.E. began working in coalition on the People's Cultural Plan, a profound roadmap for anti-racist regulatory reform within New York's cultural sector, and beyond.
Alongside the continued coalition-building work that started in 2016, W.A.G.E. began to lay the digital foundation of a new platform to accomodate our growing scope. In preparation for the addition of WAGENCY and an updated and modular version of Seth Siegelaub’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement on Blockchain later this year, an automated system for W.A.G.E. Certification and this new website were launched in August.