(via valentinrussanov on iStock)

The struggle for equitable labor practices hasn’t always included the work of artists and creatives. However, the racial reckoning that began in the summer of 2020 has pressed multiple industries to acknowledge the depth of their institutional inequities, including in the arts. Artists and art patrons are now wrestling with how to view art as labor, as well as entrenched inequality on issues like compensation, wage stability, opportunities for performances and displays, and access to resources such as grants, fellowships, and other forms of funding.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the value of arts and cultural production in the United States was $919.7 billion in 2019, amounting to 4.3% of the nation’s gross domestic product. For comparison, the stimulus package that Congress passed right after President Joe Biden’s election amounted to $900 billion, with $15 billion going to the arts. The National Assembly’s facts and figures sheet also indicates that the arts contribute more to the national economy than the construction, transportation, warehousing, travel, tourism, mining, utilities, and agriculture industries. 

“The arts are definitely a backbone of our economy,” says Dawn Xiana Moon, founder of Raks Geek, a majority Asian American and LGBTQ+ performance company based in Chicago.

Working artists took a considerable financial hit when theaters, art houses, and other venues closed at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. While some like Raks Geek were able to transition to virtual streamed performances—albeit with a more modest audience—many others were left with unreliable or nonexistent income sources. Even as arts venues are slowly reopening, creatives who rely on these venues for their livelihoods remain in a precarious position, making it vital for the institution—museums, galleries, brokers, curators, residencies, grantmakers, and their funders—to proactively address how certain practices reinforce disparities in the arts.

Leveling the playing field

The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on BIPOC exacerbated an already exclusionary industry landscape. According to a study on diversity in museums, as of 2019, 85% of artists featured in museums were white and 87% were men. Also as of that year, marquee galleries like The National Gallery of Art in Washington had 986 works by Black artists out of the 153,621 total works on display. The National Gallery, alongside many institutions nationwide, has vowed to acquire art from individuals of marginalized and non-traditional backgrounds to address these disparities. The Denver Art Museum is also grappling with how arts funding and resources are unevenly distributed, as they are often given to a very small subset of marquee artists or institutional gatekeepers. 

“We used to differentiate honorariums for emerging versus established artists in various programs,” shared Jodie Gorochow, associate director of creative and public engagement at the Denver Art Museum—one of the biggest museums in the Rocky Mountain region. “We did away with that. If expectations are the same, then pay needs to be the same.” 

The traditional narrative has been that the arts don’t pay, and that artists should prioritize the integrity of their work over money. But artists are still people trying to thrive through their work. Many undergo years—even a lifetime—of training to perfect their craft and create the moments of awe, intrigue, and transformation that draw people in droves. Organizations and collectives that understand this reality have sparked movements to pay artists, and more importantly, shift artists’ perspectives to expect fair pay and a sustainable environment. 

Creating accountability for fair pay

“Working Artists and the Greater Economy” (W.A.G.E. for Work) has been advocating for more transparency and equity around artists’ pay since 2008. W.A.G.E. was formed by a group of New York City artists and independent curators who shared their frustration with working with art institutions, specifically highlighting the common practice of non-payment. Interest in their work grew quickly, and the organization responded by regularly giving speeches, making videos, holding open teach-ins, demanding accountability, and creating the W.A.G.E. certification, a standardized system of fair pay for museums and cultural institutions. 

“Since we started W.A.G.E., institutional culture has shifted from non-payment as a norm to payment as expectation,” said Lise Soskolne, the organization’s core organizer. “W.A.G.E. worked to set a standard for pay where there was none.” 

According to a 2019 data report commissioned through Cornell University, institutions that collaborated with W.A.G.E paid out a total of $5,557,516 in artist fees spread over 6,962 payments in six years. The report outlines that since 2014, there has been a dramatic increase in fee amounts in the categories of group exhibitions, performance, commissions of new work, solo exhibition, commissioned text for publication, and solo projects. For example, in 2014 there was only one artist reported to have been paid $2000 for a solo project (most made under $500 or nothing at all); in 2019, there were 50. 

The report also indicates that smaller institutions—those with under $500,000 of total operating funds—disproportionately committed more of their budget to artist fees than their larger ($1 million-$5 million+) counterparts. In fact, each year showed an inverse trend between institution size and amount spent on artist fees. Several of the smallest institutions also paid artists the highest individual amounts across all art categories. Though most types of organizations are eligible for certification—museums, galleries, arts education nonprofits, public art organizations, performance venues, festivals and residencies—most have not done so. The report indicates that as of 2019, W.A.G.E. has issued a total of 249 certifications in 32 cities throughout 21 states, and contains a complete list of certified organizations. 

Gorochow noted how she’s also seen the Denver Art Museum’s system for compensating artists change over the decade she’s spent at the institution. Originally, the prevailing perception was that artists should be grateful for the exposure provided by working with an arts institution, but the museum’s team has worked to internalize the idea that regardless of how prestigious an institution is, exposure isn’t payment, and artists need to be paid. Gorochow credits the fact that her team has worked closely with artists in the community and around the nation for several years and encourages other institutions to do the same. 

“Institutions that don’t regularly work with creatives are not usually engaged in equity work,” she said. “We don’t only think of bringing artists in to exhibit, but have really expanded to co-create experiences with them.”

For Moon, a longtime musician and performer, transparency on both ends of a collaboration is key, especially to make the general public aware of the cost of creative labor. Pay gaps can be massive between different companies, but it can be difficult for individual artists to advocate for themselves if they don’t know how others are being paid for similar work. This has a compounded effect on BIPOC and other marginalized artists, who already experience considerable pay gaps with their white peers.

“A lot of people don’t know that many smaller acts that play at your music festival do so for free, or even pay to be there,” Moon said. “There are some multi-million dollar organizations that pay less than my small group.” 

Nora Burnett Abrams, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, said the museum is doing a complete overhaul of how they determine artist payment to be more equitable. 

“Whether it’s an Instagram takeover or live storytelling experience, we’re working to standardize how all artists are compensated in our museum,” she said.

Gorochow added that amid headlines of large endowments and donations, misperceptions about how much funding is actually available for new programming and artist pay can be understandable. 

“Donors often want to fund operating costs—improvement to the building, installations, etc.,” she said. “We do have a budget, but it’s not unlimited, and we’re constantly trying to find funders that align with our values. But that means we have to do our best to only ask artists [to do] what we can actually fairly compensate them for.”

For Soskolne, how an institution allocates its budget—what it’s willing to pay for, how much, and to whom—can be revealing about who and what that institution really values. 

“It’s really an issue of class,” she said. “Those in leadership are often disconnected from the community and their needs.”

“We all have to speak out about artists getting paid adequately,” Moon added. “If some people work for very little or for free, it’s harder for anyone to get paid. There are reasons to perform for free sometimes, but if free becomes the standard, then it’s problematic.”

Building an equitable future

Some businesses have committed to serving artist needs and building a future of equitable artistic labor. The classical and sacred music company Groupmuse, which was billed as the “Airbnb” of classical music,” became the nation’s largest compensator of classical musicians during the pandemic. According to Co-Founder Sam Bodkin, some musicians were making “double what they would make in a live performance” through Groupmuse. In 2020, Bodkin traded his role as a CEO for equal shared ownership among a core group, many of whom are highly-trained musicians. Groupmuse’s next goal is to launch a musician-owned cooperative under the company’s aegis where the musicians will have the ability to define the cooperative’s purpose themselves. 

“I could see a scenario where musicians are making a base rate for their performances and then have the option to contribute the surplus to a group fund for medical insurance, advocacy or whatever they want—they would all have equal power to steer it,” Bodkin said.

In many ways the idea of sharing power equally has been anathema to the current structure of creative labor. Is there a future where all institutions adopt similar pay standards, akin to W.A.G.E. certification? Gorochow noted that while every museum exists in different contexts, with some more insular and resistant to change than others, sharing transparent pay data is still vital to moving the needle in the arts industry. She urged institutions to keep equity at the forefront. 

“Sometimes pay equity is an afterthought for institutions,” she said. “Ask yourself what you are expecting from an artist. Can you write that into the budget from day one? What about paying for planning, meetings, and set-up? The invisible work is what institutions forget. It’s [still] labor.” 

Invisible labor is also embedded in institutions themselves, through what Soskolne called the “institutional supply chain.” These are jobs in production, circulation, distribution, and exhibition; the physical labor of crate building, shipping, installation, and security; and the mental and emotional labor of administration, visitor’s services, education, and more. This is not to mention the emotional burnout that artists of color often experience in having to represent their own work and navigate spaces not traditionally designed for them. The irony of how much labor is actually involved in the arts and who gets paid is that it’s often artists who already have resources who reap the most rewards. 

“There’s a myth of meritocracy that ignores structural barriers,” Soskolne said. “In order to have time to make [artistic] work, you have to have money to not work conventional jobs.”

According to Moon, if artists want to build a lifelong career, adopting an entrepreneurial mindset can help strengthen their ability to advocate for what their labor is truly worth. 

“You need to learn about marketing, promotion, and business administration,” she said. “Even ‘making it’ to a big opportunity isn’t making it sometimes.” 

Providing artists with the resources, community, and support needed to continue their work is the niche that W.A.G.E. is trying to fill, Soskolne said. Any artist, from any background, can advocate for themselves, especially if artists embrace the idea that they are part of a collective labor force. But there’s only so much that artists can do when they’re largely dependent on arts institutions for their livelihood. This is why Gorochow emphasized a need for institutions to work together to build a sustainable and equitable future for artists and other creatives, as art is still labor. 

“If we came together, we could be more aligned,” Gorochow said. “We could make powerful changes.”

Brenton Zola is a first-generation writer, thinker, and polymath who uses the power of words to cultivate humanity. Informed by travel to dozens of nations to illuminate some of the world's greatest challenges,...