Artist Assistant Labor

WAGENCY automatically certifies artists when they secure W.A.G.E. fees or withhold labor from institutions that decline to pay them according to W.A.G.E. standards. Certified artists must also be prepared to pay equitably those who contribute to producing the content of their artwork – their studio assistants.

When artists hire others to help produce their work, they function in a similar capacity to institutions. They should therefore be responsible for fulfilling a parallel set of expectations from the point of view of those they hire. WAGENCY limits this to the labor performed by artist assistants because, like the labor of artists, there are no existing guidelines or standards for compensation in this area. It is also a crucial link in the supply chain and an important source of income for younger artists. 


The power of WAGENCY to alter conditions of non-payment depends on a critical mass of usage by as many WAGENTS as possible, but it is the artists with heightened visibility or economic status who operate its most powerful lever. These artists are better positioned to command W.A.G.E. fees or withhold labor and WAGENCY automatically certifies them when they do. They are also better positioned to pay equitably those who contribute to producing the content of their work. Once certified they are responsible for paying their studio assistants according to W.A.G.E. standards and using the WAGENCY Work Agreement.

Not unlike the variety of institutional models in the nonprofit sector, artists' practices range in form, as do their studios as sites of production. Depending on the employing artist’s income and demand for their work, the studio might be run by a single person or employ tens or hundreds of workers. Depending on the employing artist’s material practice and working method, the workplace might be located in an artist’s home or in a converted industrial space restored to its intended use as a factory. Depending on the level of involvement of the employing artist in the process of production, the degree of contact between assistants and employer can range from highly intimate and familial to remote and instructional.


Different forms of artistic production produce different forms of exploitation. In studios where fabrication takes place in factory-like conditions, assistants might be more likely to experience workplace discrimination, harassment, and health and safety violations. In smaller studios, the more intimate nature of the working relationship might result in assistants being prone to accepting lower pay and the equivalent of Just-in-Time (JIT) scheduling or zero-hour contracts because a friendship has developed with their employer.


Regardless of the number of employees, studio location, or the employing artist’s presence, the issues facing assistants often replicate the issues experienced by artists when they work with institutions. These include the devaluation and underpayment of highly skilled labor, the exchange of exposure or social connections for work, and the unremunerated provision of content.


The creative contribution of assistants also raises complicated questions about authorship. Assistant positions are commonly filled by other artists who may have been hired because their artwork has relevance to their employer's own art practice. But because assistants are waged workers they usually receive no direct benefit from the profit generated by increases in the market value of the work they contributed to making. The degree to which assistants contribute to producing content for the employing artist is difficult to measure, but it is clear that the field does not regard assistants as co-producers or co-authors and does not reward them financially as such.


The intimacy of knowledge-sharing coupled with social engagement inside and outside the studio casts assistants in a supporting role that is often both intellectual and emotional. An assistant’s job title might be Studio Manager but the work is likely to pivot around supporting the employing artist in making their artwork. This could begin with its conception, carry through the process of fabrication, and end in the oversight of its installation in a gallery, museum, or private collection. The decisions an assistant makes throughout this process on behalf of their employer, whether supervised or unsupervised, constitute a critical and underrecognized dimension of contemporary art production.


In spite of the uniquely complex nature of this relationship, the issues that arise in the studio workplace mirror those of workers in other fields, including inequitable treatment based on race, gender, and ability; severe health and safety concerns; and unreliable work schedules. Obstacles to worker empowerment are also similar. Fear of retaliation or of being easily replaced by others just as desperate for work precludes advocating for better conditions and pay.


Assistants also share what is perhaps one of the most pervasive problems in the contemporary labor market: misclassification of work. Determining whether or not an assistant is an independent contractor (1099) or an employee (W-2) has significant implications for each party. For the assistant, it can mean underpayment of wages, lack of benefits, and increased exposure to certain kinds of risks. For the employing artist, it can result in fees and penalties. It can also leave them open to claims on intellectual property should there be a dispute: independent contractors have the potential to claim legal joint authorship of artwork, a right that employees do not have.


The IRS has made specific guidelines available to determine the correct classification, but these criteria are not usually referenced by employers or assistants. The WAGENCY Work Agreement integrates the IRS' directives and has been designed to help both parties come to a shared understanding and decision about how an assistant's labor should be classified.


The criteria for this analysis and for WAGENCY's guidelines were derived in part from a series of long-form interviews conducted in New York in 2017 with persons who have or were then working as artists’ assistants, in addition to conversations with artists who were then employing assistants. The collection of individual accounts was crucial in locating common needs and outlining best practices to help both parties navigate the inherent power dynamics of the workplace while creating mutually sustainable relationships between artists and their assistants.