Articulating Value Upends Comforting Assumptions About the Worth of Art Labor, the Meaning of Professional, and the Local Scene's Diversity | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Articulating Value Upends Comforting Assumptions About the Worth of Art Labor, the Meaning of Professional, and the Local Scene's Diversity 

On September 23 at Durham's Living Arts Collective, the Saxapahaw arts nonprofit Culture Mill produced a symposium called Articulating Value in the Arts. Funded by a Biddle Foundation grant, it was the result of a yearlong conversation among Triangle artists and art professionals about the relationship between art and value. Culture Mill codirector Tommy Noonan's reflections, delivered that day, are condensed for length here, but they appear in full in the free, downloadable Articulating Value book: culturemill.org/articulatingvalue#/the-book.

As an independent performing artist, the codirector of a small nonprofit, and a white, thirty-four-year-old male in central North Carolina, I began Articulating Value with certain assumptions: that professional artists were defined as those who earn a living wage from their art, that the primary barrier to a fully monetized culture of independent art in this country is a simple lack of public funding, and that my personal and professional networks were sufficiently broad to address the problem.

At the end of a yearlong process, I now believe none of these things to be true.

This project has revealed just how homogenous my own network is, and how segregated the arts community here remains. This is not news to many people, especially people of color. I am keenly aware of how embarrassingly late this revelation comes to some of us white artists, and how frustrating it may be for others to witness. Nonetheless, it bears repeating, as other (particularly white) friends in the arts community are still not aware of the degree to which our networks are segregated.

Our leading team made an early decision that the initial conversations on value and art would not be an advertised public event, but would spread within the existing networks of relationships among local artists. This was to create impactful, relevant conversations based on community bonds, as opposed to contriving "communities" and discussion terms. We started with ten questions, and we wanted them to resonate with questions already percolating between friends and collaborators. So we reached out to artists we knew personally or professionally—those whom we felt might be interested in grappling with our questions, much as one would reach out to a friend for a coffee or beer to discuss some pressing personal issue.

This idea felt organic. We wanted the size of the initial gathering to preserve the possibility for a group discussion, so we limited our invitations to thirty people. Our leading team is balanced in gender; three of us are white and one is a person of color and an immigrant. Those invited included people of color, and we discussed the importance of a diverse room.

However, when the day arrived, the thirty faces in the room were almost entirely white. Further gatherings, which continued to spread through existing networks, remained predominantly white. This unfortunate, deeply problematic reality spurred many conversations and, of course, the impulse to remedy the situation—an impulse which can lead down the problematic path of tokenism, or "mining for brown people," as one of my PoC colleagues once put it.

Rather than remedy this situation, I now feel it is important to let the nature of our method be revealed as indicative of an insidious truth: from the first conversation through the final symposium, the unexamined white impulse to have a simple conversation within existing social networks reinforced the deeply segregated nature of those networks, excluding many andcementing the terms of discussion along segregated lines. Existing social networks, unconsidered by white artists, reflect a deeply racist and systemic history still at work in North Carolina.

And so we were left with what to do. Certainly, the answer is related to work on a generational scale that dwarfs the arts, work that is already underway in many spaces. What to do is less about token diversity and more about building real relationships beyond the easy, existing social networks of artists—networks that are often the products of a racist society.

Perhaps it's about cultivating the curiosity to show up in other spaces, as to foster the conditions for new relationships to blossom across segregated networks. I am speaking to white people, as people of color already are doing enormous work on this issue. We white artists need to consider what it means to show up if we want our own spaces and networks to be more than reflections of an oppressive system.

So perhaps the problematic nature of our initial decision has value in that it provides an opportunity to reconsider the terms of conversations about art, who shows up to those conversations, and how they are or are not invited in the first place. Perhaps one value of art is that its networks can be a scaffold that takes shape around greater structural problems in society, becoming a frame through which those problems might be revealed and addressed.

One example of broad social injustice being addressed through the lens of the art world was the Art Worker's Coalition in the late sixties. As a loosely assembled network of multidisciplinary artists, the AWC protested a homogenized, exclusive art world, specifically, the sometimes exploitative relationship between art institutions and artists.

The legacy of the AWC's work can be felt in several movements today. One is the New York-based nonprofit Working Artists and the Greater Economy. (My analysis draws heavily on W.A.G.E.'s research, located at www.wageforwork.com.) Articulating Value encountered W.A.G.E. through a set of questions we began asking our friends and colleagues: What are artists paid in your field? What should they be paid?

These questions relate to my second naive assumption: that the primary barrier to a robust and monetized independent arts culture in America is a lack of public funding.

Once again, the problem proved more complex than I thought. It involves not only public funding structures but also nonprofit arts institutions, and the ways we, as individual artists, relate to them and one another. It was striking that, in response to the question about artist payment, few offered a considered numerical answer. More often, the answers were either equivocal paragraphs on the nature of art and capitalism or cynical one-liners. Either few wanted to answer our question or few knew how to.

Most important, these responses betrayed a lack of meaningful reference points about how much artists should be paid—or any frame of reference for the value of artist labor in monetary terms.

Of course, quantifying labor value in the arts is a Sisyphean task. Everything differs according to location, community, medium, and level of experience. Visual artists grapple with a mystifying marketplace full of agents, dealers, speculators, and collectors. Theater artists or film and television writers often regard free labor as a career investment, with unionization providing reference points for a basic value. Independent musicians' payment depends largely upon ticket sales by a for-profit venue, but concert musicians might be under contract to a large nonprofit with clear definitions about the value of their labor. Of all fields, dancers seem to have the least consensus as to how their labor or their ephemeral artworks should be valued.

It is no wonder that such a heterogenous landscape creates confusion at best and exploitation at worst. Such conditions gave birth to W.A.G.E.'s mission to address artist fees, mainly in the arts nonprofit sector in the U.S. Its primary instrument is a fee scale by which nonprofits pay artists and an accompanying certification program. The approach is modeled on existing structures in Canada and elsewhere.

Nonprofits obtain W.A.G.E. certification by committing to pay artists a certain proportion of their annual budget, then turning their numbers over to W.A.G.E. for assessment and approval. In such a system, the labor of artists is treated like any other type of labor, which produces value within capitalist society. If one party profits from labor that is not adequately compensated, then the situation has a name: exploitation.

I think we artists walk around with two myths about our labor: we are special unicorns who live outside the normal conditions of capitalism, and our love of our work precludes our right to be compensated for it. These myths are not only untrue, they are also harmful, enabling the continuation of an exploitative system, conditioning our behavior so that we enter dubious, quasi-exploitative relationships as collaborators, even with the best of intentions. This is not entirely our fault, but it is, to some extent, our responsibility to address.

In the U.S., nonprofits are supposed to be tax-subsidized to do the socially important charitable work taken on by the public sector in other wealthy industrialized nations, where robust cultural ministries often directly fund and, more importantly, regulate artist labor. Here, we have thousands of nonprofits that gather both public and private funds and may or may not engage in the direct payment of artists. This lack of any regulatory mechanism encourages an abundance of free artist labor, which is too much for many nonprofits to resist. (Who doesn't love free labor?)

This creates a pervasive culture among artists in which we fail to maintain common references about what we should be paid. We also start reproducing these exploitative relationships by asking one another to contribute labor without any discussion of compensation.

My point is not that all artists can always be paid. That would be unrealistic in our resource-scarce fields. It is that, while artists should be paid, the systemic problem will persist until that fact is internalized by artists willing to ask up front about fees, and until artists and employers can have frank discussions about nonexploitative compensation for labor.

In this way, W.A.G.E. not only provides an opportunity for the ethical self-regulation of the nonprofit sector, it also raises awareness among artists, enabling them to grasp their responsibility in asserting their own value. I am happy that Culture Mill, the independent nonprofit I codirect with Murielle Elizéon, has recently become the first nonprofit in the Southeast to gain W.A.G.E. certification. For all our future programs and projects, we will pay artist fees according to W.A.G.E.'s scale.

Practically, this means our projects will be limited by realistic costs and cannot operate on whatever scale we want—that's a benefit of using free artist labor. It means we must make choices according to what labor actually costs, but we consider that a worthwhile and an ethical trade to make. It is our hope that we are not only putting our money where our mouth is but also encouraging other nonprofits in our region to self-regulate.

Another question we started with was, How do you define professional? Quite simply, I assumed a professional artist to be one who earns a living making art. I now find this to be woefully inadequate. Some artists consistently create work of great quality and impact without ever earning a living from it, while others have ways of subsisting from their craft that have more to do with entrepreneurship than creativity. Some artists move freely in and out of art making, while others make art constantly but rarely share it with anyone.

Some industrialized nations, such as France, have a clear administrative category for professional artists. Once the hours of work are logged and the paperwork is approved, artists are adopted into the Intermittent du Spectacle system and enjoy all sorts of rights and regulations concerning their labor, unemployment benefits, and other official mechanisms. In the U.S., however, as in many countries, no such administrative class exists. Artists bear the responsibility of articulating that definition.

Over the course of our conversations, I came to define professional artists as those who are committed to an art practice in which they have invested considerable time, energy, and resources; those who are committed to demonstrably engaging with the world; and those who are committed to the concrete work of connecting artistic labor with the basic costs of their lives.

Let me focus on that word: commitment. There are no easy answers to any of our questions, but the operative characteristic of being a professional artist, of addressing questions of labor and value, and of confronting the reality of a segregated arts community, is commitment. In Articulating Value, each conclusion revealed an exception; each definition revealed new ambiguities, and the meaning of commitment varies for different artists, administrators, thinkers, consumers, and producers. Yet one is either committed to these questions or is not; one either advocates for ethical practices or does not; one either shows up in unfamiliar spaces or does not.

In one of our interviews with artists, the immersive theater director and activist Mikhael Tara Garver said, "If you are asking what makes me a professional artist, it's that I am having this conversation ... I'm dealing with the balance of real life and my values and priorities. It's that I woke up this morning and I'm figuring out how I balance family with the goals and ideas and ways I want to make work in the world."

Perhaps one value of art, then, is that there are no easy answers, but whether we are producing, consuming, thinking, or facilitating, art is a dynamic, unsolvable, and important puzzle—one whose many facets provide the opportunity to discuss how to be in the world, as artists, as citizens, and as humans.

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