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Artists fight for fair pay

Campaigns in the US and UK want creators to be compensated for exhibitions and productions

Image: Jay Wilson / WAGE

In the UK and the US, a labour debate is growing over how artists should be compensated for showing their work in public institutions. On 19 January, Nick Trench, the Earl of Clancarty, led a discussion in the House of Lords about what the British government is doing to support individual artists. Meanwhile, for the first time from 2015, Arts Council England (ACE) is asking national portfolio organisations to demonstrate their commitment to paying artists fairly.

ACE has pledged its support for the Paying Artists campaign, which was launched last May and is backed by high-profile artists including Jeremy Deller and Yinka Shonibare. The campaign is lobbying for artists to be paid a fee for showing their work in public galleries. It found that 71% of UK artists have not been paid to display their work in publicly funded galleries over the past three years and 63% of artists have turned down exhibitions as a result. The research was based on 134 galleries that regularly receive funding from the arts councils in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The issue of what an artist’s fee should cover and how much should be paid, however, is a complex one. “We need to understand that there is a need to make payments, but I don’t think there is a tight model that everyone would subscribe to because we are so varied in our form, in our funding models and in our scale,” says Godfrey Worsdale, the director of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the chairman of the North East Contemporary Visual Arts Network. Baltic pays artists according to the size and scope of each exhibition. Fees may also cover any talks given by the artist.

Production costs can further complicate the matter. In some instances, publicly funded galleries may offer production costs or a commissioning fee for an artist to make new work. According to the Paying Artists campaign, Modern Art Oxford pays up to £10,000 in commissioning fees, while the Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow offers around £9,000 to an artist to produce new works. Excluding production costs, artists’ fees are usually paid at between £1,000 and £3,000.

But what happens if that work is then sold through an artist’s commercial gallery? “There are still cases when it is not tightly observed, but there is an acceptance now that when public institutions make commissions happen and there are subsequent sales, that investment is recouped,” Worsdale says.

And what if an artist underperforms? As the New York dealer Ed Winkleman points out, institutions—and their staff—are likely to come under scrutiny if an exhibition bombs. “Would an artist be asked to reimburse the institution should the work delivered for the exhibition not be received as well by critics and the public as had been hoped for?” he says.

America names and shames

The issue of paying artists fairly has also come under scrutiny in the US amid controversies surrounding the labour practices of several high-profile artists, including Marina Abramovic, who has been accused of underpaying performers and employing unpaid administrators at her non-profit institute. A spokesman for Abramovic’s studio says that performers at a gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2011 were paid, but that the museum set the “rather modest” honorarium. He adds that performers have all been paid for recent shows in New York and London. In terms of advertising for unpaid positions, the spokesman says the Marina Abramovic Institute “relies on the contributions of its supporters” and that the job listing “stated clearly that they were looking for volunteers, not interns”.

The non-profit, US-based group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) launched an initiative last October to recognise organisations that pay artists fairly. WAGE designates artists’ fees as compensation for “content and services”, and is distinct from programming costs, production expenses and the purchase of works. Fees are set according to a gallery’s annual operating expenses. Those with operating expenses below $500,000 must pay $1,000 for a solo show to become certified; organisations with operating expenses above $500,000 must pay 0.2%.

A WAGE survey from 2011 found that just over half of respondents did not receive any payment or expenses for showing work at New York City non-profits and museums. Performa was found to be among the worst offenders. “We didn’t set out to shame anyone in particular," said WAGE’s main organiser, Lise Soskolne, at an event in New York in December. Performa declined to comment for this article.

Creative Time, SculptureCenter and The Kitchen were named as some of the best institutions. So far, only Artists Space has become WAGE certified. “The question [of whether we should pay artists] is an ethical one. Where are we, if contemporary arts organisations allow for all sorts of budget provisions but not for artists’ fees? Artists and art are the very reason that those organisations exist in the first place,” says Stefan Kalmár, the director of Artists Space.

The journalist Alexis Clements notes that the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts devotes only 2% of its grants to individual artists, while state agencies give artists only 3%. Yet the institutions they fund rarely channel that money to artists.

Susan Jones, the former director of a-n The Artists Information Company, which helped establish Paying Artists, says that the UK campaign hopes to introduce a kite-marking process. “We liaised closely with WAGE and also examined several other models in Norway, Sweden, Poland and Canada,” Jones says. “But we are aiming to develop a model that works for the UK."

Starving artists

Nonetheless, the issue of paying artists is a global one. In an article by Jones published in the Guardian newspaper earlier this month, artists were consistently shown to be on low incomes—even in countries with tried and tested systems for payment.

In Canada, which has operated its Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens (CARFAC) to protect artists’ economic rights since 1968, the majority of an artist’s revenue comes from sales (54%), with grants (34%) and artists’ fees (12%) making up the rest.

In Sweden, a 2009 agreement between the government and artists’ organisations KRO/KIF aimed to establish a pay scale for public exhibitions. However, a recent review showed that 60% of artists who exhibited in smaller state museums either failed to get paid or received less than the agreement stipulates.

Meanwhile, according to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, nearly half of all South Korean artists are only earning the equivalent of £291 a month.

Correction, 26 January 2015: This article has been corrected as an earlier version wrongly attributed this quote to Lise Soskolne: “We didn’t set out to shame anyone in particular, though it’s clear that Performa finds it extremely difficult to recompense the artists who bring this biennial of performance art to life." In fact Soskolne said: “We didn’t set out to shame anyone in particular." The second part of the sentence are the words of the editor and critic Christopher Howard, writing after the event.

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9 Feb 15
15:18 CET


It is worth noting that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have long supported the policy that artists must be paid. This is a condition of their funding, with full guidelines researched and made available through Visual Artists Ireland, the representative body for visual artists in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Artists Union have similar guidelines in place... so in reality it would appear the this article should focus on England and the English Arts Council who have nothing to do with artists in the other countries that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

21 Jan 15
22:56 CET


I am writing about your article, "Artists fight for fair pay," in which you note that according to WAGE, the National Endowment for the Arts, "devotes only 2% of its grants to individual artists, while state agencies give artists only 3%. Yet the institutions they fund rarely channel that money to artists." [emphasis mine] It is true that the only direct individual awards the NEA makes currently (as distinct from the Jazz and Heritage honorifics) are Creative Writing and Literary Translation Fellowships. This is a change the U.S. Congress made to the NEA's authorizing legislation in 1996. However, it is also true that most NEA grants do directly support artists, via artist fees and/or additional support such as travel, rehearsal/studio space, etc. A review of recent grant lists demonstrates many examples of funding artists including: · To support the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's 2015 United States tour. The company's dancers will offer outreach activities. · To support a series of public performances featuring Native Alaskan music and dance at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. · To support an artist-in-residence program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Artists working in a range of disciplines are invited to live on-site for one month. Your readers can find examples of other grants at

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