BY Sarah Hromack in Opinion | 29 JUN 16

Sign on the Dotted Line

W.A.G.E.’s open letter to the New Museum

BY Sarah Hromack in Opinion | 29 JUN 16

On 16 May, an open letter was posted to the internet and circulated throughout social media. The missive is a call-to-action addressed to New Museum, which recently announced it had raised $43 million towards an $80 million plan to expand its Bowery location. It was authored by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), an independently led, grassroots organization dedicated to the core tenet of labour unions the world over: People should be paid for their work. It’s an assertion that eludes certain sectors of the art world. The New Museum has a chance to change that, and it should.

Addressing the New Museum’s administration in a commendably calm, straightforward tone, the W.A.G.E. letter asks that the museum voluntarily adhere to the guidelines for paying artists set forth in W.A.G.E.’s certification program, thereby publicly declaring its commitment to pay all of the artists and collaborators who provide its programming. With some back-of-the-napkin math, the letter states: ‘If you had been W.A.G.E. Certified in fiscal year 2014 (July 1, 2013 – June 30, 2014) and had paid minimum fees according to W.A.G.E. standards, you would have spent a total of about $301,000.’ This number represents 0.7% of the US$43 million the museum has raised in support of its expansion.

New Museum, New York

The implication here is that US$301,000 is chump change when considered as part of a relatively vast capital campaign. And though $301,000 is an enormous sum of money to me – and perhaps to you, too? – it is indeed small when considered within the context of this particular project. $301,000 is a tidy if, in this case, theoretical number – we don’t know if the New Museum did, in fact, pay the artists it worked with in 2014, or how much. Yet this sum of money is symbolically complicated as artists, it turns out, are not often reliably or transparently compensated by museums (or anyone, for that matter).

The inner logics and workings of museums are opaque. The Internal Revenue Service 990 tax documents which non-profit institutions are required to make public, for instance, might offer broad suggestions about the institution’s fiscal health. They don’t, however, tell us anything about the delicate institutional alchemy that determines how budgets are formed and allocated. Though the decision to become W.A.G.E. certified won’t be made lightly, it is nevertheless just that: an institutional decision point. Once that decision is made, what follows is a series of operational procedures. The bureaucratic machinations required to turn a decision point into institutional policy aren’t simple processes to negotiate, but museum administrators (as well as the development professionals tasked with raising the funds in question here) know precisely how to do so. Artists can be paid as simply as any other person who provides labour to an institution.

There are few opportunities for museums to make truly relevant, impactful political statements in New York City, in 2016. This is one of them. Making a public promise to pay all artists fairly would set an institutional precedent that could be a critical first step in destroying the many barriers to entry – race, class, ability, access – that artists face when engaging with institutions. A step towards closing the ideological gap between how museums see themselves and how they actually function in the world and for artists.  

New York remains the commercial epicentre of the global art market, yet life is hard for artists struggling to meet the city’s ever-rising basic cost of living. This has been well-documented; most recently in screeds written by artist-celebrities whose cohort once fuelled the downtown scene in which the New Museum first took hold, in 1977, as the brainchild of Marcia Tucker. As an itinerant, non-collecting museum that occupied a series of locations below 14th Street in Manhattan before opening its current building in 2007, the New Museum has reliably engaged with the city’s social fabric over the course of the past nearly-30 years – much more so than its local peers. Ongoing programmes such as Museum as Hub, Ideas City, Rhizome, and NewINC, to name a few, all rely on the collective labour of many, as well as the willing participation of the public. (In fact, my own creative trajectory was inspired by, a participatory exhibition of media artists and youth collectives that I took part in as a teenager, in 1996, at the New Museum’s former Broadway location.)

As for W.A.G.E., it has worked to establish a ‘floor’ for artists’ fees, a number below which payments to artists shouldn’t fall, by collaborating with a number of advisors involved in artistic production and labour organization. Though the table, visualized on the organization’s website as a ‘fee calculator,’ isn’t built on precise financial modelling (‘We sought to strike a balance between what was fair and what was possible’ says Lise Soskolne, W.A.G.E.’s primary organizer) it establishes a baseline, a minimum wage for the arts. This concept differentiates the labour of producing ‘content’ from the market-driven value of the artwork itself, one of the artist’s few hopes of recouping the value of her work, from not just the commercial art worlds of New York, London, and beyond, but all of the half-baked ideologies which contribute to the still-dearly, if unfortunately held misconception that artists can simply choose to exist on a material plane far above and beyond the reaches of corporate interest, therefore justifying the donation of one’s artistic or intellectual labour in the name of solidarity with a cause whose value many struggle to quantify. We shouldn’t need Marx and Engels to point out the error in this way of thinking. Giving away one’s labour for free is perhaps the greatest mark of privilege one can bear, in 2016.

With its bold graphic identity, W.A.G.E. has made a distinctive visual mark – both online and through its printed poster ephemera – that allows it to assume the guise of labour organization, art project or collective.  A 2015 fundraising campaign elicited contributions from gads of emerging and established artists, administrators and other supporters in New York and beyond. The resulting list of supporters, visible on the organization’s website is a diagram of the social habitus that surrounds and supports this project. One might imagine a future for this organization wherein its visual identity becomes a true part of its political strategy over the course of time – much in the same way legendary Lower East Side collaborative Group Material strategically employed graphic design as a strategic means of subverting institutional bureaucracies, a history now documented in New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections.

Museums, as institutions, are as intellectually relevant as the artists they associate with. If it takes institutional alignment with a well-loved political organization, and agreeing to pay artists along the way, as a means of buying street cred, then so be it for the moment. In order to attain the top-down buy-in necessary to implement museum policy then W.A.G.E. may have to assume the guise of the museum itself, whether actually or symbolically, and don a dapper suit for a meeting or write a letter or two on posh stationery, as it were. Strategy is strategy, no matter what guise it assumes.

If there is a single New York museum historically and ideologically positioned to make this particular statement, it is the New Museum. New York City Council is currently endeavouring to create its first comprehensive cultural plan for New York, due to be submitted in July 2017. New construction is an opportunity for institutional renewal. Now is the time.

Sarah Hromack is a writer living in New York.