You’ve just spent a week installing your show at a nonprofit art space and you realize that everyone helping you, from the director down to the part-time preparator and the gift shop clerk, is getting paid for his or her time, and you’re not. Does it seem unfair? Stand up for your rights as an art-worker! You deserve to be paid like everyone else.
If you didn’t bring this sense of outrage to the Charge Practicum at the Art League Houston last weekend, you probably left with it. Activism was the watchword as presenters from Houston and across the country picked at the scabs covering the unhappy truths about artists and money.
Most of the issues raised are old bones, gnawed in the last wave of artist-pay activism in the 1970’s, focusing on the many ways artists allow themselves to be used by museums, schools, and nonprofits as cheap labor to create their programming.
It’s all true, of course. Every practicing artist has experienced the types of exploitation outlined at the conference and a few more. Nevertheless, in a field as wide-open as contemporary art, where anyone can do anything and be taken seriously, and where the compensation is so laughably low that it’s difficult to imagine anyone tied to their art career by a paycheck, there is just no compulsion to submit to maltreatment. If you don’t like the rules, there’s almost nothing to stop you from picking up your marbles and starting your own game.
The most interesting presenters at the Charge Practicum were doing exactly that, and it turns out that Houston is ahead of the national curve on engineering alternatives to an unsatisfactory gallery/museum/nonprofit complex.
Robert Pruitt and M’Kina Tapscott described H.O.S.T., a deeply but quietly subversive Houston project that organizes studio tours aimed at connecting collectors and artists directly, cutting out the middleman. They also outlined the H.O.S.T.-sponsored Gimme the Loot grant, $1000 given annually to a Houston artist of color.
Ayanna Jolivet McCloud described her open-ended Houston enterprise Labotanica in poetic terms, touching on artists as entrepreneurs, rethinking art, reciprocity, latitudes, soulfulness, uncertainty, fragility, and failure. Her workshop talked about how to embody these qualities in an institution.
Gabriel Martinez talked about the limits of running an art space with zero budget, and the joys of not having to answer the usual questions charity nonprofit spaces face. He described Alabama Song, an art nexus he runs out of his house in Houston, as a community, held together by the very limitations that the small physical space and negligible budget enforce.
Serial instigator Zach Moser told the story of his wildly successful projects: Workshop Houston (which was presented the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this week!), The Big Parade, and of Shrimp Boat Projects, drawing parallels between the exploitation of commercial fishermen and artists.
The conference drew several out-of-towners, and their approaches varied strongly by region. New Yorkers were more negative, focused on reforming existing institutions rather than bypassing them.
Lise Soskolne, the star of the weekend, is prime mover of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy). She presented the group’s recently released guidelines for minimum compensation of artists by nonprofit art institutions. Her damning facts and figures were guaranteed to make most nonprofits look like sweatshops, and artists like schmucks for submitting to them. Even I was ready to join the union.
Lauren van Haaften-Schick and Helena Keeffe’s Gauging the Grey Area: A Human Spectrum workshops aimed at empowering artists to say “no!” to substandard opportunities offered them, and to hold out for better deals.
Aay Preston-Myint, of Chances Dances, a floating queer dance party/arts granting organization, is based in Chicago, another secondary art center. The similarity of his non-specific community-centered project to those of the Houston artists suggests that responses to dissatisfaction with the established system vary strongly by region. New Yorkers want a piece of the pie; in Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh artists are baking their own pies.
Dawn Weleski’s Co-dependency Anonymous workshop was a twelve-step program helping people free themselves from traditional art-world definitions of their practices. She showed artists how to re-define what they do in context of the broader culture and take advantage of opportunities for funding beyond the traditional art system. She’s from Pittsburgh.
The most thought provoking of the presenters was Alison Gerber, a Yale PhD sociologist who studies how artists value their practices. An enthusiastic lecturer, she revealed some of her surprising findings in non-technical terms, providing more new insights into the artist/money relationship in her forty minutes than the rest of the weekend’s presenters combined. Essentially, she said, art is in a transition similar to that happening in politics and childcare, where professionalized paid workers work side by side with unpaid volunteers, doing many of the same jobs, some for love, others for money. The tension between these two views of the proper motivation for art work gives rise to the uncertainties, inequities, and anxieties that the Charge Practicum tried to address.
Charge was co-organized by Jennie Ash of Art League Houston and Houston artist Carrie Schneider, inspired by Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum presented by The Arts Research Center (ARC) at UC Berkeley last April. It took place on November 8-9, 2014.