Art, Love, Or Money: Choose Any Two

In September, a group of artists organized as W.A.G.E [Working Artists and the General Economy] appeared at a Creative Time-organized event to talk about the economic inequities of artists’ interactions with museums and other institutions. They certainly earned their speaking fee.
The video’s here; it gets kind of angry. There’s a cooler headed Q&A at ArtCal, but the gist of it is: because the US lacks the standards or legislation of other countries, the practices of arts institutions in the US are often economically exploitative of artists they work with. It’s often unclear, but artists in the US are routinely expected to work on exhibitions and programs for free, for exposure, or for some/all reimbursement of expenses.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. A couple of years ago, I was working on a story for the NYT about the dynamics of the artist-collector relationship; reporting it out got complicated, and I eventually killed the piece in its crib. But one thing I found was an almost pathological aversion of art world participants to discussing money issues generally–and the vast economic disparities between most collectors and most artists, specifically–directly. That avoidance mechanism apparently extends into the cultures of many museums as well.
While W.A.G.E.’s point about the trade of work for exposure is valid to a point, I think there are larger dynamics afoot. Rightly or not, the art world contends that arts institutions are places apart, which operate as non-commercial havens, bastions of altruism, in contradistinction to the art market.
To a large extent, the sense of art as a luxury, something to be pursued for love, not money, is determined by collectors with the means to travel and purchase at will. But artists, dealers, curators, advisors, much of the rest of the art world readily ascribes to this notion; even if they are living hand to mouth, they feel obliged to act as if they, too, are in it solely for love. This notion can exist within museums, where modestly paid staffers and patron/volunteers work side by side, and where the default that everyone, including artists, should chip in, in places an undue burden on people for whom money is as finite as their time.
W.A.G.E.’s notion of wealthy art institutions is a bit naive, though, a point which we will no doubt see proved out when museums are hit with layoffs or even closures. Still, it would be interesting to see the impact a few major institutions could have if they stepped up and offered artists fair compensation for their time and expenses as a matter of course, not just as an extraordinary request.
Democracy In America: Democracy Convergence Videos []
Working Artists and the Greater Economy at the Park Avenue Armory [artcal via modern art notes]
W.A.G.E. is having a rally/info mtg on Dec. 11th []