Since its founding in 2008, W.A.G.E.’s work has developed in service of a single achievable goal—the regulated payment of artist fees in the nonprofit sector—but we emerge from a long tradition of artists organizing around the issue of remuneration for cultural work in the United States that dates back to the 1930s.
We see the contemporary fight for non-wage compensation as part of a wider struggle by all gig workers who supply content without payment standards or an effective means to organize. In the context of contemporary art, where the unpaid labor of artists supports a more than $60 billion-dollar industry, W.A.G.E.’s mission is to establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions that contract our labor, and to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy.
Self-regulation is central to our approach because artist compensation has never been mandated at the city, state, or federal levels by government agencies or by the private foundations that provide financial support to nonprofits through the grant making process. In this context, and in the face of accelerated privatization, deregulation and defunding, we have concluded that the task of regulating the field has been left to us.
To that end, W.A.G.E. currently operates two connected programs, W.A.G.E. Certification and WAGENCY, and is currently developing a series of contracts for non-unionized freelance workers whose labor facilitates the conception, fabrication, production, exhibition and circulation of art.
To establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions that contract our labor, and to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy.
Working Artists and the Greater Economy began in 2008 with a series of informal discussions between a 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. took the first step toward developing a certification program via an invitation from curator Lauren Cornell to participate in the group exhibition Free at the New Museum. W.A.G.E.'s contribution as an activist group and not an artist collective was to successfully negotiate fees for all participating artists, officially "certifying" the exhibition. This became the template for a program that would publicly recognize those nonprofit arts organizations that voluntarily follow a best practices model and demonstrate a history of, and commitment to, paying artist fees meeting minimum payment standards. 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, grantmakers, administrators, economists, sociologists, and the public in an extended conversation about payment practices in the arts.
Events began in early 2012 and were designed to engage a diverse arts community on multiple levels, providing vital dialogue and feedback through which W.A.G.E.'s certification program was to be developed. The first forum, Feeling the Shape of the Arts Economy was followed by W.A.G.E. Survey Release: Presentation and Open Forum, and later Marion von Osten: Be Creative! With responses from Andrew Ross which included a presentation by W.A.G.E. summarizing recent developments in the conception of W.A.G.E. Certification.
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 remuneration 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, Carrot Workers 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 Artists Information Company (a-n) used the W.A.G.E. Survey as a basis for its Paying Artists Campaign.
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, board members A.K. Burns, Howie Chen, Andrea Fraser, and Marina Vishmidt, along with Alison Gerber, Stephanie Luce, Andrew Ross, 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.
In early 2016, 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 core 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. The seeds of these collaborative working relationships were planted in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street when W.A.G.E. encountered emerging peer organizations including OWS Arts & Labor, G.U.L.F., Gulf Labor, Occupy Museums, Strike Debt, and others. The January 2015 conference, The Artist as Debtor: The Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism at The Cooper Union, organized by artists Noah Fischer and Coco Fusco, publicly reassembled many people who had come together during OWS and reignited some of the collaborative momentum begun there. On Merit, W.A.G.E.'s contribution to the conference can be found here.
Alongside the continued coalition-building work that started in 2016, W.A.G.E. began to lay the digital foundation for a new platform to accommodate our growing scope. In preparation for the addition of WAGENCY, this new website and an automated system for W.A.G.E. Certification were launched in August.
In October 2017 W.A.G.E. convened another summit, this time at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, UK to establish the policy framework for an updated and modular version of Seth Siegelaub’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement on blockchain. This closed two-day meeting drew on more than 2 years of research and development, including the W.A.G.E. Artists' Resale Rights Working Group (2015), a series of artist discussion groups, as well as long-form interviews with art dealers, art advisors, and collectors. Representing W.A.G.E.'s first step beyond the nonprofit sector and conceived as a key component of WAGENCY, the purpose of this project is to reclaim a portion of the surplus of wealth generated by speculation on the unpaid labor of artists; to redistribute this surplus to bring about a more equitable distribution of art’s economy; and to control the conditions under which artists’ work is used.
In December the 57th edition of the Carnegie International received W.A.G.E. Certification, followed in March 2018 by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, which became the first W.A.G.E. Certified museum. In June, the second closed Artist's Contract Summit took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, UK.
After more than 3 years of research and development, WAGENCY was launched on September 18, 2018. WAGENCY is a certification program and transactional platform that provides artists of varying means with the necessary collective agency to negotiate compensation or withhold content from the nonprofit institutions that contract their labor. WAGENCY is also a form of solidarity unionism. It enlists the active and direct participation of artists in W.A.G.E.'s work, effectively decentralizing the organization and building power for artists as a workforce.
WAGENCY was hard-launched with the very first W.A.G.E. RAGER, a *Not-a-Gala* Party celebrating our 10-year womAnniversary! With immense gratitude to friends and supporters for celebrating with us in epic wildness, and to Amelia Bande, Malik Gaines & Alexandro Segade, Lia Gangitano & Baseera Khan, JD Samson, Keijaun Thomas, and Mariana Valencia for their performances, in all their wonder. 10 more years. RAGE on!
Shortly after WAGENCY's launch, and as a then core collaborator of Decolonize This Place (DTP), W.A.G.E. contributed an electronic direct action to the 3rd Anti-Columbus Day Tour, an annual effort led by DTP to decolonize the American Museum of Natural History. W.A.G.E. drafted and sent a Fee Request for $383 million through WAGENCY to Ellen V. Futter, President of the AMNH as well as to other museum staff on October 8, 2018. This symbolic action was intended to call attention to the AMNH's prioritizing of capital investment over the urgent need to decolonize its holdings.
In late 2018, W.A.G.E. got involved in another campaign led by DTP, this time challenging the Whitney Museum of American Art to remove its board Vice Chairman, Warren Kanders, the owner of Safariland, a private defense manufacturer of tear gas cannisters and smoke grenades that had most recently been used against asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. DTP’s call stemmed from an internal letter written by a group of the museum’s full-time employees and part-time contracted workers, sent to Whitney Director Adam D. Weinberg, that was made public without staff consent. The letter decried the museum’s silence on Warren Kanders as complicity and pointed to an abdication of responsibility that would effect, in the form of increased labor and decreased political agency, those already impacted most directly by state violence, oppression and exploitation: the museum’s visitor-facing staff who are primarily Black and people of color. As the letter stated: "Should protests from the public or questions from visitors arise, our visitor-facing staff will be the ones answering them. Leadership choosing not to give a public (or even internal) statement displaces the labor to our visitor-facing staff, who are, generally speaking, our most diverse and lowest paid staff. You will recall similar complaints surrounding the Dana Schutz protests—and we are disappointed that the response by the leadership of this institution remains the same." The letter also issued a set of demands and insisted on a restorative approach to realigning power at the leadership level predicated on transparency, accountability, and museum-wide staff participation.
With the 2019 Whitney Biennial exhibition just months away, W.A.G.E. oriented its involvement around mobilizing its primary constituency, artists, to act in solidarity with those whose labor is fundamental to facilitating their visibility—museum workers. On January 23, W.A.G.E. circulated an invitation to artists participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial to use WAGENCY to withhold content from the exhibition until the demands made by Whitney staff were met. W.A.G.E.’s strategy developed out of a series of long-form anonymous interviews with staff members connected to the internal letter and was an effort to shift DTP’s campaign away from an exclusive focus on the removal of Warren Kanders and back toward the holistic demands of the letter's signatories who were being increasingly backgrounded by the campaign and left vulnerable to workplace intimidation.
W.A.G.E.'s invitation was made after Biennial artists had signed a mandatory Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) prohibiting them from revealing their inclusion in the exhibition, and more than a month before the list of participating artists was announced by the Whitney Museum. At that point, no one, not even the artists themselves, knew who was in the exhibition. Even though WAGENCY would have enabled artists to withhold their work privately, and possibly without breaching the NDA, the inability of Biennial artists to communicate directly with one another posed a significant challenge to any form of collective organizing. No Biennial artists responded to W.A.G.E.'s invitation, but some are understood to have engaged as a group in formulating a collective response once the artist list was announced. Warren Kanders remained on the board until resigning in July 2019 after months of sustained pressure by DTP, and shortly after four artists publicly announced their intention to withdraw from the exhibition in an open letter published in Artforum.com. This public statement was planned in advance, and in coordination with Artforum and the authors of an Artforum.com editorial published 48 hours before urging participating artists to boycott the 2019 Whitney Biennial. No artists withdrew their work and the 2019 Whitney Biennial closed on September 22.
October 13, 2019 marked exactly 5 years since of the launch of W.A.G.E. Certification. In celebration, W.A.G.E. commissioned The Cornell University Survey Research Institute (SRI) to produce a report analyzing tens of thousands of data points provided by W.A.G.E. Certified institutions and collected through the program's administration. According to payment records, a total of $5,557,516 was paid out in artist fees through 6,970 transactions. These data points represent the program’s financial impact, but the summary report produced by SRI went much further in providing information about the state of the sector. SRI’s approach was informed by a set of broader questions posed by W.A.G.E. about how the redistribution of resources has impacted both the artists and institutions who participated in the program, and whether as a model, W.A.G.E. Certification has worked as a self-regulatory tool for the complexity of the sector. W◼A◼G◼E◼ D◼A◼T◼A◼: A Report on 5 Years of W.A.G.E. Certification was released in December 2019.
Brian Kuan Wood
A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E. co-founder)
A.L. Steiner (W.A.G.E. co-founder)