We demand payment for making the world more interesting.

W.A.G.E. Lecture with A.L. Steiner
Posted by: Benjamin Adrian
Working Artists and the Greater Economy is an activist group seeking change in the way art institutions remunerate artists. Founding member A.L. Steiner began her lecture by reading excerpts from a letter (pdf) sent by artist Hollis Frampton to Donald Richie, then curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art. Frampton explains why he cannot accept the terms offered by MOMA for access to his films. MOMA had offered mere “love and honor,” but no money. Frampton explains that like everyone else involved with the production and exhibition of the work, he needed to be paid. This letter is dated January 7th, 1973. Steiner’s point is that not much has changed.


Steiner gave a brief history of artists asking for remuneration from those exhibiting their work. The picture was bleak; a consistent and systematic trend in which artists are not present in the budgets of art exhibition. Many examples were from the 1970s, and involved minority artists. She mentioned successes, including the Art Workers’ Coalition efforts with MOMA, such as getting free access on certain days of the month, (on that note, the Portland Art Museum recently started limited-hours free access each fourth Friday). Today, the vocabulary may have changed slightly from Frampton’s day, artists are asked to display their work for the great “exposure” a gallery may offer, which, the theory goes, will lead to payments down the road.
For TBA, this was an expressly political message, but certainly relevant, even in Portland’s relatively inexpensive marketplace. Exposure and good press do not pay the rent, bills, or material and studio space to work on projects. Steiner phrased W.A.G.E.’s goal to be consciousness raising; Art institutions, from large public museums, to small exhibitors, need to reassess the space made for artists in the details of fiscal budgets, as there is often nothing. Steiner is usually compensated for presenting on behalf of W.A.G.E., and PICA did pay for this presentation. I do not know PICA’s policy on paying artists, but I did witness a check being handed over to the directors of Crock: The Motion Picture, which indicates to me that PICA is very open to artist remuneration (it sounded like said check was going to drinks for the cast, also egalitarian).
W.A.G.E. does not have a simple formula to offer as a solution, and it’s clear this is an uphill battle. Steiner described it as being “more frustrating to start this group than to ignore the issue.” However, she mentioned several starting points for the movement, such as small payments, as little as 50 dollars can make a difference to some artists, or non-monetary remuneration such as access to meals at a cafeteria, or transportation. By all of us including artists in exhibition budgets from the smallest institutions to the largest, we can sustain an artistic community which will be able to produce cultural works for an engaged public.
The W.A.G.E. website is located at www.wageforwork.com

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