As a part of our ongoing partnership with Art Practical, today we bring you Helena Keeffe‘s essay on labor and transparency. If you’ve ever been an intern, volunteered, or otherwise worked for free, looked for ways to support yourself as an artist, or wondered where you might get the tools necessary to weigh the risks and benefits of low-paying opportunities, you should take the time to read this article and the accompanying PDF that Keeffe provides. “Perhaps one way to address the complexity of the issue of valuing artists’ labor,” notes Keeffe, “is for artists to more consciously set our standards as individuals.” The article was originally published on June 13, 2013.
In statistical and financial analyses, standard deviation measures the dispersion of a set of data from its mean. The more spread apart the data, the higher the deviation. Investors use this method as a gauge for expected volatility: high standard deviation equals more volatility. In the art world, the volatile and precarious economic conditions that working artists face provide evidence of a high standard deviation in the value of artistic labor. This is particularly evident in the discrepancies in how value is assigned to artistic labor by institutions of varying scales and financial means.
What kinds of strategies might artists employ to create a sense of agency when it comes to artistic production? What are the key questions artists should ask themselves in seeking to define standards for valuing their labor? Standard Deviation—a multiphase project that includes a series of conversations, a printed broadside for distribution, and an online forum—addresses these questions so that artists might identify the kinds of opportunities that serve their artistic goals and help them sustain viable practices over time. The printed broadside functions as a tool to generate public awareness and as an aid to personal conviction. It uses the imagery of a hand as a mnemonic device for five key questions artists can ask themselves when presented with exhibition opportunities. It also includes a Request for Funders form, a flow chart to help answer the question, “Should I work for free?” and symbolic currency whose exchange is intended to acknowledge volunteer labor.