Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
I espouse fair labor initiatives like W.A.G.E. to pay artists. However, my own projects are often un- or under-funded; if a stipend covers a significant portion of my expenses, that seems like a success, even if I take a loss on my own time and labor. As a consequence, I’m unable to pay myself, much less collaborators, contributors, or volunteers. In return, I try to offer sincere thanks and credit lines, as well as social media links. First, how do I navigate this paradox? Am I being a hypocrite? What more could I do to support fellow artists? How will I know if I am taking artists’ energy in exchange for an exploitative promise of “exposure”?
Nearly every artist I know navigates this ambiguous and complex territory in some way or another. The paradox you experience operates on a tacit, institutionalized presumption—that artists’ work is a “labor of love” and consequently our primary goal is to have that work “exposed” to the world. This logic dictates the primary model of success and failure within the art world (cf. Melanie Gillman’s “If Other Professions Were Paid Like Artists”). It also plays into the affective conditions of being an artist, namely that a legitimate artist should have an obsessive impulse to create that suppresses all other drives (including the ones to pay rent and eat); ergo, if you care about compensation, you must not be a real artist.
To combat conventional thinking, you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity. To start, each time you are offered a gig that doesn’t mention payment up front, you can ask, “Is there a stipend?” Importantly, the act of asking raises awareness of the problem. You can take this further: “Thanks for inviting me to be part of this exhibition. As you may know, I work with collaborators. Is there room in the budget to compensate them for their time and labor?” The answer may be “no,” but you’ll have shined a light on a dark and oft-unspoken issue.
Since you mention W.A.G.E., I thought it would be best to get some expert advice from the source. I connected with Lise Soskolne, an artist and core organizer of W.A.G.E., to see what she would say about your question. But before I move on to her thoughts, I want to point out that an uncompensated exchange can still be ethical. I acknowledge the irony of asking another arts worker to contribute her time and energy to this column for free and, in fact, should note that in the three years that I’ve been writing “Help Desk,” I’ve never paid a contributor for a quote (likewise, no one has ever asked for a stipend). Like you, I offer my gratitude; obvious credit in the column text; and, links, tags, and write-ups on social media. And similarly to arts work, writing an advice column isn’t famous for being a path to considerable profit, but I’m willing to put in my time and labor because I sincerely want to help artists and the art community, and I suspect that the contributors have felt the same. As Soskolne herself notes below, “that is part of how solidarity and community are built within the field.”