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 collectively 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.
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 alt.youth.media, 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.)