Narrative Analysis

This section provides a narrative analysis by W.A.G.E. of the report's key findings. Divided into four sets of questions, the answers synthesize the analysis provided by The Cornell University Survey Research Institute.


1. Fee Pricing

Have W.A.G.E.’s minimum standards become industry standards or are they functioning as intended – as minimums only? Did the introduction of minimum standards lower fees overall, adversely impacting the ability of some artists to command more? Did W.A.G.E. fees drive down the higher compensation of a few, but raise the lower (and non-) compensation of many? 


With 69% of all payments having exceeded the minimum fee, we can conclude that W.A.G.E. fees have not lowered compensation overall.


This is reinforced by payment discrepancies found in group exhibitions. In the category Group Exhibition, 3-5 Artists, fee discrepancies registered at 32%. The highest pay difference between artists was $13,600, and the average pay difference was $2,370. In the category Group Exhibition, 6+ Artists, fee discrepancies registered at 52%. The highest pay difference was $3,750, and the average pay difference was $2,370. There could be several reasons for this: some artists are still able to negotiate higher fees; institutions are choosing to pay some artists more; institutions are paying more for commissioned work than existing work. 


Even though the data indicates that some artists are able to command higher fees in group exhibitions, we cannot conclude that these artists aren’t being negatively impacted by the introduction of minimums. Anecdotally, it is known that the group exhibition category can and has been used to justify paying all artists the same minimum fee, and perhaps a lower fee than could have been negotiated, especially in the context of larger institutions, and that this has impacted some artists adversely.


With so much class stratification among artists, the introduction of a minimum standard raises fundamental questions about redistribution and equity: should minimums be used to level out the unequal distribution of resources by ensuring that all artists get paid the same, thereby potentially raising rates by a modest amount, but equally and for everyone? Or is the purpose of a minimum standard to modestly benefit those who didn’t get paid before, thereby lowering a barrier to entry into the field, but still enabling those who can command more to continue doing so?


2. Fee Categories

Are the W.A.G.E. model’s fixed fee categories flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of institutional forms? Are they flexible enough to accommodate contemporary artistic and curatorial practices that are chiefly invested in overturning existing programming conventions? Which fee categories are being used the most and what does that tell us about the kind of content artists are being contracted to provide?


Of the 77 institutions certified, 19 different institution types were identified, suggesting that the W.A.G.E. model is adaptable across the institutional spectrum. Of the 19, Visual Arts Presenting – what the model was designed for – is the most common, with 48 out of 77 (62%) matching this type. As such, Visual Arts Presenting institutions have made the largest number of fee payments, with 4,089 recorded. 


The most widely used fee category across institution type is Event with Presentations or Performances by 2 or More Participants, with nearly 2,000 payments (26%) on record. This is followed by Group Exhibition, 6+ Artists, the only other category with over 1,000 payments (15%). Talk, Discussion or Workshop with 2 or More Participants registered over 600 payments (9%). In total, about 40% of all payments were in categories involving groups of 2 or more artists.


This data suggests that the simultaneous participation of multiple artists in a single program has been a strong trend across the institutional spectrum over the past 5 years. It may also suggest that discursive programming is increasingly common. In addition, fee sizes have increased in the Event with Presentations or Performances by 2 or More Participants and Group Exhibition, 6+ Artists categories. By combining these findings, it appears that group-based programs are not being used by institutions to pay less for programming, and that through them, more substantial fees are being distributed to a greater number of artists overall.


3. Programming, Expenses, and Redistribution

By adding artist compensation to an institution’s expense burden, would W.A.G.E. Certification adversely impact smaller institutions? Did W.A.G.E. Certification bring about a redistribution of resources within institutions and if so, how did it impact artists as well as other workers? 


W.A.G.E. Certification does not seem to have adversely impacted smaller institutions. In fact, there appears to be an inverse relationship between institution size and the amount spent on fees. The majority (43) of W.A.G.E. Certified institutions operate with budgets under $500,000, demonstrating that small and medium sized institutions are crucial to leveling out inequity – on average, institutions with budgets under $500,000 have spent 7% of their TAOE on artist fees, while institutions with budgets between $500,000 and $1 million have spent 4% of their TAOE on artist fees. The 7 institutions with TAOEs in the $1 million – $5 million range spent an average of 2% on artist fees. This is reinforced by the fact that 10 out of 68 institutions (15%) have paid out the highest amounts in fees across all categories, and over half have operating budgets under $500,000. While these institutions only constitute 7.5% of the total, the fact of their paying higher fees, or fees on par with the largest institutions, is notable.


Because the data set is limited to artist compensation, we can’t speculate on how redistribution has impacted other workers but it remains an important question. From the outset W.A.G.E. has been concerned that by adding compensation as an expense burden, institutions would be forced to reduce the number of programs they produce annually, resulting in fewer artists earning money. Compensating artists may also have come at the expense of other workers. Without the necessary data, or data from before the launch of certification, there is no conclusive evidence of either, but both scenarios remain of concern.


Because the operating budgets of nonprofit institutions are necessarily limited by what can be raised in a given year, W.A.G.E. minimums were introduced as a compromise between what was fair and what was possible. As such, W.A.G.E fees are not living wages, but whether or not artists are receiving recurring fees across institutions is of interest, so analysis of this trend was requested. The findings were notable, with 37% of all payment records made to recurring artists, and about 18% of all artists in the data set received recurring payments. The largest number of recurring payments occurred in the Event with Presentations or Performances by 2 or More Participants category, representing 22% of recurring payments. We know that artists can’t live on fees but the fact that some are being contracted repeatedly makes it more likely that not only those who can afford to work for free will enter the field.


4. Certification Take-Up and Use

If W.A.G.E. Certification were to be successful in shifting the field toward sustainability by establishing industry standards, would the shift come about as a sudden tipping point, once a large museum signed on, or would it happen gradually from below, through the build-up of a coalition of small and mid-sized institutions? How is W.A.G.E. Certification being taken up and used? 


Of the 68 institutions that provided data, 43 had operating budgets under $500,000, and 16 had operating budgets under $1 million. Of the $5,557,516 paid out to artists, 63% came from institutions with budgets under $500,000, and 87% came from those with operating budgets under $1 million. If this constitutes a shift in the field, it has come about through the gradual build-up of a coalition of smaller institutions – grassroots movement building at the institutional level. It appears that, just like any social movement, change happens from the bottom up.


While the number of institutions certified has significantly increased since 2014, the rate has slowed over time. A 67% increase after the first year could have been due to the newness and novelty of the program. A spike in certifications in 2017/18 may have been due to the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation's inclusion of a question in funding applications about whether applicant institutions pay W.A.G.E. fees. This suggests that funders can play an important enforcement role. 


The number of consecutive years institutions have been certified is 1–6, with an average of 2.5 years. This data point excludes records for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 which are still in progess, while many re-certifications are currently pending. Institutions discontinue their certification for a variety of reasons, which have included: the institution closing; a new director choosing not to renew; the administrative burden of fee tracking; temporary use of certification to justify or paper over other kinds of policy inequities and injustices, aka W.A.G.E. Washing, an approach that may not be consistent with the long term commitment to equity suggested by the program.