Blog / 2019 / Why Artists Should Be Paid Every Time They Exhibit

May 1, 2019

I’m contributing to a book about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. I’m painting portraits of the workers whose stories are featured in the book, and I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to meet these workers—to West Virginia and DC and Mississippi and Missouri as well as Philadelphia and North Carolina and Georgia.

works in process by Gwenn Seemel
photo by Gwenn Seemel

All of these adventures have forced me to confront the fact that, while I’m pretty good at defending myself and all of art-kind from certain bad actors in the art world, I know nothing about organizing artists to take a stand against the meanies.

Happily, there is someone who does know a thing or two about getting artists together: the nonprofit known as WAGE. The goal of Working Artists and the Greater Economy is to get artists paid whenever they exhibit or perform their work.

If you are a visual artist yourself, then this concept probably seems simple and obvious, à la “Oh ya! Why is this not already the case?!” But I’ve learned that it’s not so self-evident for people who don’t know how art exhibits are actually set up.

When I told a non-artist friend of mine about WAGE’s mission, this is the conversation we had:

Gwenn: Artists are almost never paid to exhibit their art. The curators, designers, and preparators who put together a show all make money, but the artist does not get paid. And the artist is the worker without whom this employment opportunity wouldn’t even to exist! Artists should get paid for all this value they create, right?

Non-artist friend: So you mean it’s like royalties for visual artists?

Gwenn: No. I mean it’s like “I just did a bunch of work right now, and I should be paid for the work I just did.”

Non-artist friend: Soooooooo...like how royalties work for musicians?

ROYALTIES: a sum of money paid to a composer or artist for the use of their work, often in reproduction and long after the original artwork was first created.

With musicians, royalties usually mean getting paid when your song is played on the radio. The equivalent for visual artists would be getting paid when images of your art are used, which happens less often than non-artists think. Visual artists are generally expected to provide images in exchange for exposure.

But none of that has anything to do with WAGE. Working Artists and the Greater Economy is fighting for pay for “live” art. That can be performances or exhibitions, depending on a given artist’s output. When I say “live,” it just means “enjoyed in real life, not in reproduction.”

The point is that artists bring so much value to all kinds of institutions, but we are almost never paid for that value. WAGE wants to change that.

In my 16 years as an independent artist, I’ve had 20 solo shows of my art and I’ve participated in over 30 group exhibitions. In just one of those 50+ “live” art situations was I given any money for all the work I did. And it wasn’t even income! It was money to pay for transportation of my art to the venue. I’ve had to eat the transportation costs and I’ve not been paid in all the other cases.

I don’t have an easy solution for this. I think WAGE’s work is vital, but I worry that it’s coming up against a massive paradigm misalignment.

I mean, even fair-minded federal-minimum-wage-supporting left-leaning people who think that other kinds of workers should of course be paid properly often believe artists should just “get a real job” if they want to make money. The “art-making ≠ real work” worldview is closely related to the “art = luxury” mindset, and, together, they add up to a huge hurdle in getting artists paid.

PLEASE NOTE

I learned about WAGE from Holly Bass when I interviewed her for this article about how artists decide what to sell and what to give away.

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