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Artist as Debtor Conference at Cooper Union 1/23 -- Live Coverage by Karen Archey


Join us Friday, January 23rd for live coverage of Cooper Union’s “Artist as Debtor” conference. Karen Archey will once again take the e-flux conversations blogging helm from 1-9pm. For those abroad or otherwise engaged, you can follow along the conference via livestream at, or on Twitter via the hashtag #ArtistasDebtor.

Some information about the conference: We live in an era of unprecedented profits from contemporary art sales and massive debts incurred by art students. Are these phenomena related? Is it a coincidence that in an age in which art can be made from nothing, the price attached to an art degree is staggeringly high? Contemporary art institutions amass great wealth through real estate development and the value of their holdings — why then do museums, art-related businesses and art schools rely so heavily on precarious and unpaid labor provided by artists? What are the connections between big money in the art world and the big debts taken on by so many young artists? Are artists encouraged to believe that extreme economic disparity is just part of the way the art world works? Do romantic ideas about merit and talent mask a system of indenture?

Artists Noah Fischer (member of Occupy Museums) and Coco Fusco will present a conference to discuss the art and the debt economy on January 23 2015 at The Great Hall of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. This event is made possible thanks to support from The School of Art at Cooper Union. Our featured speakers include artists Julieta Aranda, William Powhida, Martha Rosler, Gregory Sholette; writer Brian Kuan Wood; W.A.G. E. and BFAMFAPHD, and cultural theorist Andrew Ross.

For more information, visit

Recap: Artist as Debtor Conference

Noah Fischer speaking in Cooper Union’s Great Hall

And we’re off! Conference co-organizers Coco Fusco and Noah Fischer give their opening remarks, which tie their personal and professional experiences as artists and activists to the debt crisis. The booming art market, they say, is tied to the booming professionalization of the artist and ever-expensive MFA programs. And when an artist graduates from an MFA program and continues to practice as an artist, MFA debt is amongst the most difficult debt to crawl out of.

Fischer spoke about his experience studying at the Columbia University MFA program in the early naughts. He came out of that experience with $70,000 of student loan debt and graduated into a booming art market. Just a few years later in 2008, the market crashed. This spelled the end of the boom for everyone Fischer knew. But somehow the upper echelons of the art world kept going, and grew ever stronger. The boom never ended for them. It seems as if our debt has padded their ability to keep making more and more money.

Cultural theorist Andrew Ross is up next.


The cover of “The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual”

Andrew Ross begins his talk with a discussion about how debt works in general. Although it seems counterintuitive for a millisecond, creditors are incentivized, he says, by debtors who default on their payments, as it makes them more money. Creditors don’t want you to pay down your debt for the same reason that credit card companies don’t want you to pay down your balance every month: it makes them more and more money, and you more beholden to them. In that industry, if you were to pay down your balance every month, you would be considered a deadbeat, Ross quips. Creditors want you to pay late fees and interest and open new lines of credit to help assuage old ones. They want to keep you on the hook for as long as possible until the day you die. Just take for example our parents, he says, who were asinine enough to co-sign on our student loans and are still on the hook for it.

High schoolers are often told that a college degree is a passport to a good life. There’s the statistic that college graduates make twice as much as non-college graduates, but that doesn’t take into consideration the cost of the college degree itself. Also, only 30% of Americas job that require college degrees. There’s an overproduction of college graduates. What can we do about this?

Ross shifts his focus to the topic of debt resistance. He talks about his projects with Strike Debt, such as the Rolling Jubilee, the collective project to buy others’ defaulted student debt for pennies on the dollar; and the book The Debt Resistors Operations Manual, now in its second edition, the PDF of which you can view here. Now he has recently launched the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union, this past fall.

Next up are Brian Kuan Wood and Virtual Julieta Aranda on Skype from Berlin!


Brian as a student, scratching his head

Julieta Aranda and Brian Kuan Wood kick off their talk, which is actually a collections call roll play between a debtor student and a creditor MFA department head. Here’s the introduction of the talk:

Julieta MFA Chair Creditor: You’re calling me about your student loan, right?

Brian Student Debtor: Yeah yeah, I can pay you… but not right now.

Julieta: Yeah, but it’s been too long! And there are other ways you can pay it…

Brian: What do you mean? I’m not really into taking off my clothes. You’re a great department head… but I can’t pay it right now.

Julieta: Look Brian, you are a great artist. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a good artist. What we want is to make sure that we produce successful artists. The main reason why we charge tuition is because we’re trying to teach you something; how to survive.

Brian: I mean, I’m surviving, my career is going pretty well. What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter whether my work is good, I told you I can pay, just not now!

Julieta: I hear this all the time, I know. It’s not a secret this program has been broke for decades.

We’ll try to get the full script and post it later!


Brian Kuan Wood, Andrew Ross, Noah Fischer behind the pillar, and Julieta Aranda on the screen

Brian Kuan Wood, Andrew Ross, Noah Fischer, and Coco Fusco take the stage for a short question and answer session. Fusco says, “I think the reason why most people are so frustrated by debt is because there’s a gap between what you’re supposed to pay and what you actually can pay, and as an artist what you can pay is usually so little. So the question becomes, how long can you hold onto making that work? For many people, the answer is oftentimes ‘not that long.’”

Brian Kuan Wood says that he’s newly in debt for buying property, which he notes is something that people are often weirdly proud of. When else are people proud of debt? When capital becomes so abstract for many artists, he says, it begins to absorb other currencies, like intellectual capacity, strength, and resilience. So all of these get absorbed into capital. Artists are in an exemplary position, says Kuan Wood, because their function is abstract; so many of the forces artists deal with are a major components of a precarious economy.

Julieta Aranda adds that she keeps getting donor cultivation emails from her MFA alma mater–as if they want MORE money. Fusco adds that she also gets these emails from every university she has ever attended. She thinks this is a unique position for art schools because normally, former students to have the money to donate to their alma maters and are able to create an endowment for that school. Perhaps this money is recuperated in higher tuition fees and these donation request emails. (Having gone to an expensive private art school myself, I’m beginning to wonder where the hell all of this money goes.)

Fusco adds that within the last few years, she has met more students who have left the country to escape loans than she has in the last twenty years.

New Whitney already under pressure for its proximity to gas line--but why?


We’re back at 3:30pm with BFAMFAPhD, William Powhida, and Debtfair. As a friendly reminder, you can check out the livestream here:, and follow along on Twitter via the hashtag #ArtistasDebtor.

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the day:
3:30-4:30 BFAMFAPhD, Powhida, Debtfair

4:30-5:00- Greg Sholette

5:00-5:30- W.A.G.E

5:30 – 6– Q & A

6:00-7:00 Break

7:00 – 7:30 Coco Fusco

7:30 – 8:00 Martha Rosler

8:00 – 8:30 – Q & A

8:30-9–General Discussion


BFAMFAPhD, DebtFair, William Powhida

BFAMFAPhD is up first. Students are oftentimes unaware of the loan terms that they’ve agreed to in writing, they say. Caroline Woolard speaks about her experience teaching at the New School. She compared what student paid for tuition with what she got paid, and realized that the New School was taking 95% of tuition money.

So what should we do while seeking reform? Woolard does caution against lower-cost state run schools such as CUNY, as these are also becoming rather expensive. She also states that the drawback of self-organized free art schools, such as the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, is that they’re short lived. (They’re also not accredited, but that’s another issue.) Woolard goes on to talk about the depressing gender statistics of art schools: While women make up the majority of art students, they make make up less than half of all practicing artists.

For more statistics, you can check out their website


William Powhida, State 1 – Solidarity Economies, 2014. Copyright William Powhida.

“Welcome to what may be the most depressingly titled conference I’ve ever heard,” opens artist William Powhida for his talk about art and the economy. His talk centers on a recent paper he wrote for Creative Time, titled "Why Do We Expect Artists to Work for Free?"

There’s more capital in the art market now than ever due to income inequality, as evidenced by research by Andrea Fraser in her essay L’1% C’est Moi and Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, he says. Here’s the intro to his essay:

It’s all too clear that artists are willing to sacrifice everything for their art, including self-interest, an unfortunate consequence of an economy that trades in exposure. In our perilously unequal society, most artists are poor, and few understand how we might begin to change the situation. According to a recent report by the artist-activist group BFAMFAPhD, only 10 percent of U.S. arts graduates make a living from their art. Yet the art market is booming; last year it nearly rebounded to its highest-ever level—the 2008 financial crash produced only a temporary dip—with $66 billion in sales. I recently spoke with the art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson about artists’ remuneration and made the mistake of saying, “The problem is, there just isn’t enough money.” She corrected me immediately: “There is enough money—it’s just concentrated in the hands of the very few.”

Lastly, some Powhida quotables:

“Someone like Stefan Simchowitz proves that it takes just one rich person and an Instagram account to get the ball rolling on a young artist’s career.”

Quoting Jen Dalton, “I feel like a professional artist about 11 months a year until I do my taxes,” and adds, “I feel the same way; I just realized that I have more debt on my business credit card than I do in my business account.”

DebtFair is up next!


Image from

Next up is DebtFair, an organization that charges itself with “revealing the hidden debt structures in the art market,” paying close attention to art fairs. Here’s the DebtFair manifesto, taken from their website:












Gregory Sholette is talking about the cultural image of the artist and how it fits into the cogwheels of capitalism. The topic echoes a recent comment from Fusco, when she was pressed by an audience member. The audience member basically asked what Elizabeth Warren’s politics have to do with art (Warren and broader student debt politics have been brought up several times). She says that artists tend to think that they can tough out getting themselves out of debt, because they’re genius “chosen ones,” who can outlive anything, and that they don’t need money. Sholette starts with the quote, “It has cost me a lot of money over the years to be an artist.”

Sholette brings up the concept of the creative class, who have been rewarded for their flexibility in figuring out new sustainable financial structures. Strangely, this ingenuity and flexibility has leant the most nonconformist members of the creative class to become the handmaidens of capital.

He brings up the quote from the Rand Corporation in 2005:

“The number of artists in the visual arts has been increasing (as it has in the other arts disciplines) and their backgrounds have become more diverse. At the same time, however, the hierarchy among artists, always evident, appears have to become increasingly stratified, as has their earnings prospects. At the top are the few “superstar” artists whose work sold internationally for hundreds of thousands of dollars and occasionally millions of dollars.”


W.A.G.E. artist payment graphic

W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) talks about how nonprofit work oftentimes upholds the private sector status quo, and non-profits oftentimes recapitulate private sector financial models and interests. For example, last year, New Museum director Lisa Philips made over 600k, about 5% of the museum’s operating budget, three times more than the other top paid employee at the New Museum. What could legitimize that much of a pay gap at a nonprofit, or any nonprofit employee being paid that much money?

W.A.G.E. notes that weirdly, it’s the moral authority of social serving nonprofits like museums that increases the value of the exhibitions and economic value of art. So, at the best side of things, museums have a social function, at worst, the nonprofit is tax shelter for the wealthy. Tax law also makes it advantageous for capitalists to solve the social problems that they caused in the first place.

The fewer tax dollars collected by the government, the less amount of public goods it can fund, which in turn increases the need and amount of nonprofits. These nonprofits are not funded by philanthropists according to social need, but rather by how well suited their goals are to the philanthropist’s needs. In order to receive charity, they must prove what it does to merit funding. So why don’t art nonprofits pay artists fees? Because they reproduce the funding structure of which they work–but what fits the organizations’ needs.

The W.A.G.E. representative (Lise Soskolne) talks about the difference between charity and philanthropy; charity fixing an immediate problem while philanthropy tackles serpentine, embedded problems. She recalls the Chinese proverb that differentiates between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish–thereby either feeding them for one night or a lifetime. But, says W.A.G.E., we don’t need to know how to fish–we need to be fairly compensated for the work we already do. She acknowledges that we have a constituency of artists who are ambivalent about whether or not we want to be paid at all, or are ambivalent enough to not collectively structure themselves in resistance to the status quo. (I assume she’s also referring to this popular myth that’s been frequently brought up that artists shouldn’t have or need money because of this weird cultural assumption that artists should take an oath of impoverishment.)

In response to these issues, W.A.G.E. has developed a vetting system called W.A.G.E Certification. Essentially, it’s a voluntary program that issues a set of payment standards for nonprofits that work with artists and other creative professionals. Here’s the introduction from their website.

W.A.G.E. Certification is a program initiated and operated by Working Artists and the Greater Economy that publicly recognizes non-profit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard.

Its specific goal is to establish and guarantee standards of minimum compensation and organizational support for artists in the non-profit arts economy. Its broader goal is to work toward the fairer and more equitable distribution of resources in the contemporary art field and in society at large.

W.A.G.E. Certification is a voluntary program. Organizations choosing to be certified have made a commitment to operate ethically in relation to artists and wish to have this commitment acknowledged by their communities. A W.A.G.E. Certified organization signals that it stands in solidarity with artists as part of an equitable community no matter what their material practice or reputation might be.


Is the blogger compensated for this labor?


I’m compensated in press releases and fingered-through copies of e-flux journal!

Just kidding, of course I am. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:


Coco Fusco speaking

Coco Fusco has taken the stage for the penultimate talk for the night. She’s focusing on MFA debt.

Essentially, art school are structured and operate as trade schools, she says, despite being recently rebranded as research centers. This rebranding is motivated by two things, says Fusco: To tap into private sector money, such as from the design industry. Secondly, rebranding art as research is a motivation to appeal to governmental funding. While we don’t look at art as a research industry within the actual art world, this rebranding effort is an attempt to tap into private sector and government money.

Because art schools are almost entirely tuition dependent and do not get endowments from wealthy former students, there is no art school in the world that charges no tuition, she says. Further, 90-95% of teachers in arts programs are poorly paid adjuncts.

Where is this money going? I would venture a guess that a lot of it is real estate costs… and a lot of university president salaries.

What can we do about this? Fusco recommends shaming. She references the Guerrilla Girls as an example of an activist group who has used shaming as a tactic that has seemingly worked.

Martha Rosler is up next, and our last speaker of the day.