The Wage is Too Damn Low

October 23rd, 2014

“Artists rarely make a decent wage, even when they manage to practice art and have it be their main source of income,” says a recent Washington Post blog post.  How much should artists get paid? Working Artists and the Greater Economy (aka W.A.G.E.) has a few answers.

This month, W.A.G.E. introduced its W.A.G.E. Certification program. W.A.G.E. Certification is a unique “self-regulatory model” meant to resist the “exploitation of cultural labor” within arts organizations. The W.A.G.E. program will establish payment standards for artists and publicly acknowledge the non-profit arts organizations that uphold those standards.

Reaching this breakthrough took three innovative ideas.  First, W.A.G.E. classifies artists as “cultural producers” who provide content, just like vendors and contractors provide services and products.  Second, W.A.G.E. identifies the problematic symbiosis between the art market and the non-profit realms: non-profits don’t have to pay artists for shows, because those shows might increase market demand for those artists.  However: “The promise of exposure is a liability in a system that denies the value of our labor.” Third, W.A.G.E. offers clarity in place of ambiguity and ambivalence, which includes a handy fee calculator.  In that sense, W.A.G.E. Certification is the first model for artist compensation in the U.S.


The W.A.G.E. participating institutions could include 501(c)3 museums, advocacy organizations, professional societies, and more, with emphasis on those organizations with exhibition schedules.  These include MoMA, with annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars, and a vast range of smaller institutions, such as the The Center for Book Arts, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Performa, and even The Society of Illustrators.  The participation of institutions like The Studio Museum in Harlem could help remedy deep-seated inequities in the art world.

W.A.G.E. Certification categorizes artist fees as “units of content or services commonly supplied by artists in a visual arts context.” Thus, solo exhibitions warrant a different artist fee than group exhibitions, commissions, and performances.  The amount of each fee is also based on the Total Annual Operating Expenses of the institution.  This model is split into a three-tiered calculator with a simple logic: the greater the TAOE, the greater the artist fee.


Detail from the W.A.G.E. fee calculator

However, W.A.G.E. also sets a maximum fee. From the W.A.G.E. website:

“Institutions with TAOE of approximately $15,000,000 and over must not exceed a specified maximum rate of compensation. …’Maximum W.A.G.E.’ compensation…is capped at the average salary of the institution’s full-time employees. An average salary varies from institution to institution, but has been estimated at $30,000; W.A.G.E. will use an institution’s actual average salary when working with it during the process of certification.”

So far, Artists Space is the only W.A.G.E. Certified institution for 2014. What forces will be needed to expand the influence of W.A.G.E.?  In the meantime, W.A.G.E. is accepting donations here.  Read more about the greater, organized struggle for artists’ income here.

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