In 2020, almost 50 years after Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sales Agreement was introduced in 1971, W.A.G.E. began developing agreements for art workers inspired in name and in function by this legendary legal document.
W.A.G.E.’s work agreements are intended to establish new industry standards and a set of standard legal contracts for engaging the skilled labor of non-unionized freelance workers who facilitate the conception, fabrication, production, exhibition and circulation of art in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.
Recognizing that it is often artists who perform this labor — working ‘secondary jobs’ to support themselves — we see this effort as being well within W.A.G.E.’s remit. But what makes it integral to our longstanding campaign for artist compensation is the recognition that it is the invisible labor of art’s supply chain workers that makes the visibility of artists possible. While artists are still unique in their status as unpaid workers, artists also benefit from an elevated status within the art system that depends on the labor of a workforce that is racialized, poorly paid, and often exploited.
It is around an understanding of these conditions that W.A.G.E.’s agreements have been drafted. While each is tailored to a specific form of labor, all address areas of common concern: wage equity and transparency, worker safety, equal representation, compensation, and worker classification.
CONTRACTS will launch in 2024 with Phase 2 of the W.A.G.E. platform rebuild. Help us fund it and the meantime, read about W.A.G.E.'s development of contractual materials, starting in 2015 with an unfinished yearslong effort to produce a resale royalty contract on blockchain, through to the present day. Go to materials .
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 criteria for this analysis was 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.
A work agreement for artist assistants has been completed. Coming soon with the launch of CONTRACTS.
Below are the required minimum pay rates for general artist assisting in two capacities. They reflect an estimated living wage calculus for New York City, which currently ranks as having the highest cost of living in the U.S., and where there is a high concentration of artists and artist assistants. To determine an equivalent living wage in another region please start with MIT's Living Wage Calculator .
Artist Assisting Starting Rate: $31 per hour minimum
Managerial Positions Starting Rate: $38 per hour minimum
When the employing artist and assistant discuss and agree upon an equitable rate, they should consider other factors, including previous experience, if there are special skills required or being offered, duration of work, regularity of agreed-upon work, number of hours worked per week, whether it is part-time or full-time, hourly or salaried, what benefits the employer can offer if the assistant is classified as an employee, or what the assistant will need to take on if classified as an independent contractor. In addition to a salary or hourly pay, some artists implement agreements to pay their assistant(s) a percentage of the sale of artworks to which they have contributed.
Employing artists should advocate for equitable pay for their assistants when working in an institutional setting. Assistant labor must be understood by institutions as a cost of production in the mounting of exhibitions which is not the responsibility of the exhibiting artist. However, cases may arise in which outside labor may conflict with in-house staff responsibilities and hours. These should be carefully negotiated to ensure that assistants do not displace or reduce the hours of existing institutional workers.
Suggested rates for assisting an employer during exhibition installation are budgeted for a 10-hour day. For example, an individual whose install rate is set at $35/hour would suggest the institution budget for a day rate of $350. Rates are higher to reflect the additional expense of being away (if applicable), working more demanding hours, and to acknowledge assistants' specialized skills and knowledge of their employers’ work. Travel, lodging, and per diem(s) for the installing assistant(s) are typically budgeted in addition to the day rate.
The employing artist's role in collecting and withholding taxes will depend on worker classification. If it has been determined that the assistant is an employee (W-2), the employing artist will be responsible for collecting and filing half of the assistant's Social Security and Medicare taxes (FICA).
The employing artist's obligation to provide benefits for things like insurance, pension plans, paid vacation, sick days, and disability insurance will also depend on worker classification. The IRS notes that businesses generally do not grant these benefits to independent contractors, but the lack of these types of benefits does not necessarily mean the worker is an independent contractor.
As required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the IRS has outlined the requirements for mandating an employer to provide healthcare. In summary, the IRS states that the "vast majority of employers fall below the ALE (Applicable Large Employer) size threshold and therefore are not subject to the employer shared responsibility provisions." The ALE size threshold is generally 50 full-time employees including full-time equivalent employees. A comprehensive Q&A about the Employer Shared Responsibility Provisions Under the Affordable Care Act can be found here .
Completed. Coming soon with the launch of CONTRACTS. Read about its development here .
Completed. Coming soon with the launch of CONTRACTS. Read about its development here .