With its move in late 2007 to a newly built $50 million location on the Bowery, the New Museum of Contemporary Art had, for many, come to represent the growing excesses of the art industry and the nonprofit sector's subsumption within it. The New Museum's transformation from founder Marcia Tucker's vision of a non-institutional institution into a starchitect designed mega museum also transformed the surrounding neighborhood, typifying — and normalizing — the art system's powerful role as an agent of displacement.
W.A.G.E. was founded shortly after the New Museum's reopening and just as these conditions began to saturate the art system more broadly. W.A.G.E.'s engagement with the New Museum took place between 2010 and 2016, and alternated between W.A.G.E. issuing letters calling out the museum and the museum issuing invitations to W.A.G.E. to contribute to its programming. Did it work? The New Museum remains uncertified.
An open letter in the form of an intervention. 2010. Unformatted text below.
March 5, 2010
We don’t talk about it ever, but I love you very much. I know you love me very much, and you are very proud of me. Your existence encouraged me in my career aspirations. You taught me that I need to learn how to take care of myself before I rely on anyone else to do things for me. You've exposed me to the art world. That exposure has led me to one conclusion: that exposure is only a small fraction of the support I need to survive as an artist.
Dad, W.A.G.E. is deeply concerned about you. Your strategic waste of funds and belligerent disregard for ethics has been a part of our lives since your re-launch. You suddenly seem to lack dedication to the mission you set out to accomplish and have disgraced our mother Marcia Tucker's wishes. Remember when she said that she "wanted the museum to welcome art that was excluded elsewhere because it was difficult, out of fashion, unsaleable or made by artists who were not white or male or straight"? Or her rejection of the corporate model, where "budgets and fund-raising had become predominant in a nonprofit world...often at the expense of the bottom line” — would be the guiding spirit of her new initiative — The New Museum. Under your guidance this nonprofit engages in an unethical allocation of funds, and has become a pubic-private partnership of insider trading.
You present a lot, but you support little. Your spending habits seem to provide you with a "high" from an artificial feeling of being in "the club", of being accepted. For instance, you spend millions of dollars on what you think are "blockbuster" art installations and buy an additional $16 million dollar building as real-estate speculation, yet you find it more "economical” to fire staff or withhold raises, rather than making cuts elsewhere. You present exhibitions from the collections of board members or artists with proven market success. You scheme to get artists, performers, independent curators, writers and smaller nonprofits — who can least afford it — to produce, screen, exhibit work and lend equipment without compensation. You offer nothing to artists whose work your institution-corporation depends on. You have yet to recognize your mimicking and worship of a failed, corrupt system, where profits trump people. You're binging and purging at our family's expense.
As you know, Dad, showing an entire collection of one of your board members or 3 consecutive shows featuring Uncle Gavin Brown's artists, is a CONFLICT OF INTEREST. We, as your family of artists, receive no royalties or resale compensation in the insider trading of our works. It's our own fault that we've trusted your good-intentions and well-wishes; we must confront our own denial of your serious problems. Our family has become tiresome- you pretend you're advocating on our behalf, but you're not. To have a successful support system, we need you as much as you need us. Dad, you have failed us.
When we show at your house, we can see it in your eyes, hear it in your speech — you’re drunk on wealth and cronyism. Your allocation of space and funds affects our lives. For us, ignorance is far from bliss. We love you and don’t like seeing your seriously destructive problems sucking the life out you, and us all. We’re here together because we want you to accept help. In the spirit of mother Marcia, we have some helpful (curatorial) suggestions:
- exhibit contemporary artists who are historically important but have died in severe destitution; or
- 50 artists under 33 who have no health insurance; or
- artists from all 5-boroughs who receive food stamps; or
- 5 female artists who have never made a living off their work but have been featured for more than 4 decades in shows internationally; or
- world-renowned performance artists who have never been paid a fee by a U.S. art institution; or
- independent curators curate a show for The New Museum and, for the first time, receive a fee!
Dad, we also need you to move Gran Fury's Silence=Death from the bathroom to the front desk, where it belongs. Additionally, please post Marcia's mission statement on your website — we're tired of the empty promise of NEW ART/NEW FOOD/NEW IDEAS.
These problems have been a part of our lives for a very long time. We didn’t get here overnight. It's ruining your life, and ours. Dad — will you accept our help today?
Your deeply concerned friends and family, W.A.G.E.
In 2010, curator Lauren Cornell invited W.A.G.E. to participate in the group exhibition Free at the New Museum. As an activist group and not an artist collective, W.A.G.E.'s contribution was to successfully negotiate fees for all participating artists, officially "certifying" the exhibition and establishing the template for what would later become W.A.G.E. Certification.
As further conditions of our participation, W.A.G.E. requested a meeting with Director Lisa Phillips to discuss the museum's policy on artist compensation; we also requested the inclusion of a public event. Phillips declined to meet with W.A.G.E. but a public discussion with April Britski, Executive Director of CARFAC, took place on December 9, 2010.
When New Museum curators contacted W.A.G.E.'s core organizer in 2015 with a reprint request, an email exchange ensued. After some negotiating, the correspondence became W.A.G.E.'s contribution to Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good . Read the published exchange here .
On May 10, 2016, The New York Times reported on the New Museum's $80 million expansion plans for its Bowery location. Already armed with a calculation of what the New Museum would have paid out in artist fees had it been certified in fiscal year 2014 (see below), an open letter was spontaneously penned and circulated 6 days later. Read the original open letter here or view the copy below.
Below are the calculations included in W.A.G.E.'s open letter, Dear New Museum. This internal research looked at what the Whitney, a collecting museum, would have paid out in artist fees meeting W.A.G.E. standards in FY14, compared to the New Museum — a non-collecting museum. It was an effort to rebut the argument made by some collecting museums who claim that if they were to get W.A.G.E. Certified, the cost of collection maintenance would unfairly increase their total annual operating expenses and require them to pay out more in artist fees annually than non-collecting museums.
W.A.G.E.'s research debunks that claim by demonstrating that the number of participating living artists and corresponding fee payouts would have been almost the same. FY14 included the Whitney Biennial, an exhibition which sharply increases the number of participating artists.