Many people will already have heard about Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a New York-based organisation ‘focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable model for best practices between artists and the institutions that contract their labor.’[1]

Operational since 2008, W.A.G.E. have recently garnered increased attention through various e-flux advertisements, through Artists Space in New York City gaining W.A.G.E. Certification, and through their ante upping campaign ‘Wages 4 W.A.G.E.’, a crowd-fundraiser to finance their own work. Very aware of the often un- or lowly-paid status of arts workers, W.A.G.E.’s mission is that artists and curators are paid to an extent commensurate with the earnings of the institutions employing them. Crucial to their project is the understanding that the work we do is work, and therefore wage-worthy. In other words, generating symbolic or cultural capital in the hope that – one day, maybe, if we’re lucky – it will turn into ‘real’ capital is all well and good, but one must ask: who is profiting from poverty or indebtedness in the name of ‘non-profit’ creativity and art market speculation?

‘AS AN UNPAID LABOR FORCE WITHIN A ROBUST ART MARKET FROM WHICH OTHERS PROFIT GREATLY, W.A.G.E. RECOGNIZES AN INHERENT EXPLOITATION AND DEMANDS COMPENSATION.’[2]

As mentioned above, W.A.G.E. focuses primarily on the nonprofit sector. One mustn’t forget that this does not solely include artist-run initiatives, project spaces, independent websites and publications, etc., but also many museums, mid-size institutions and even private foundations. Claiming to be ‘not-for-profit’ has become the norm rather than the exception; if nothing else, as a way of legitimising one’s institution, whatever the scale, as one worthy being paid attention. How distasteful to admit openly you are in it for-profit, that you would stoop so low as to care about earning money from your work! If the labour of love is enough, the buck has to stop when the other ‘lovers’ (CEOs, board members, employees, etc.) are cheating.

Perhaps a question we really should be asking is what we mean when we say ‘profit’. In a global economy where the binary of credit and debt, surplus and deficit are the defining existential and social categories across all sectors and all facets of life, we need to query these words’ common use, why their meaning goes so boldly unquestioned.

Somehow, maybe by osmosis, we learn that claiming to be ‘for-profit’ would be symbolic suicide. This will certainly be the case as long as we trick ourselves into upholding an art economy whose highest value is the idea that artists and creatives work uniquely because of desire and will, rather than for money. It’s funny that we can maintain this suspension of disbelief, considering the proliferation of art schools, the professionalization of artists via endless training, the excess of curators, writers and administrators of art (all post-tertiary educated), not to mention the art market’s increasing virility and its according pressure on ever-younger artists to make work to the taste of flipping collectors.

What the ethics to already underpaid workers funding other underpaid workers to advocate for changed labour-relations are, is debatable. Nevertheless, it’s very clear this is a topic that needs to be put front and centre of all of our relations with institutions, other artists/curators/writers, and with ourselves. Although W.A.G.E. is obviously a US-oriented model, similar dynamics, and a similar need for action occur globally.

The question needs to be begged, we can’t just assume the ethics are on the side of nonprofit. There are material expenses such as rent, food, travel and research that cannot go ignored. Every time, we should think: What is my ethic when it comes to paying/being paid? Will I work for free? Under what conditions will I work for free? For how long? And, finally, why?

If nothing else, refuse to be ashamed for mentioning money: ‘Is there a fee?’ is not a dirty line. Putting money on the proverbial table makes for healthier conversations, better relations. We can’t all hide under the veil of financial speculation and self-investment – its logic is twisted, it will only ever work for the few. Why do we as in industry allow so much devalued labour to occur, when we see ourselves as some of the most liberated of the social strata, when some of the richest people in the world ‘own’ art?

[1] W.A.G.E.’s mission: http://www.wageforwork.com/about/2/mission
[2] W.A.G.E.’s full wo/manifesto available here: http://www.wageforwork.com/about/1/womanifesto

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