Occupy a Living Wage

Signs created by LA artists in response to the controversy over the 2011 MOCA Gala, choreographed by Marina Abramović.

Since Occupy came to LA, I have been present for many beautiful, challenging, inspiring, joyful, frustrating, and moving events. I have visited Occupy encampments in both my immediate and professional communities. I have initiated a drive to provide Occupiers with blankets, washed LA City Hall with Mother Art (an action initiated by Tucker Neel), read “A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible” aloud at an Occupy LACMA action, talked endlessly with friends who participated in the notorious 2011 MOCA Gala, and spent the first hours of my thirtieth birthday watching friends get arrested on Ustream feeds while telling another, on the phone, to get away from the LRAD she described standing next to. The event that I want to discuss most, however, is the creation of a union, or something like it, to address what is obviously a very failed system.

I’m not even sure the problem is systemic, but as Sara Wookey’s letter addressing the equity controversy at the MOCA Gala points out, there is definitely a problem. Since there is plenty of literature on the event and its aftermath, I will not recap it for you, but it was directly after a protest of that Gala that a few LA artists began to organize towards a local art union. (Note that as a group, we are not yet sure of the terminology we want to use in naming ourselves, but for the purposes of this essay, I will use the term “union.”) The group has had three meetings and plans to continue them. I cannot speak for the others who have come together to form this affiliation, but I will detail why I feel very strongly about its necessity and why Occupy is the perfect catalyst for it.

In our meetings there have been two major issues that I believe will shape the form of the organization: compensation equity and mutual aid.

The Art Economy

It is no secret that the art and culture industry is a multimillion (billion?) dollar industry. In The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey proposes that art is not bought for money, like a commodity, but rather art is invested in, based on its projected value. The “buyer” is buying insurance in the art’s cultural importance. This is both a beautiful and problematic idea that seems to take the “icky” out of the process, but the reality is that the “art” in question is stuck in an industrialized institution that cannot or will not adapt to art’s expanding size and economy. When the workers at Sotheby’s recently went on strike, it became impossible to ignore the ever-expanding labor force that allows the culture industry to exist in its current form. What a travesty it would be for the entire industry, if all of its economic resources were pooled into speculative bargaining with projected cultural value.

Artists Adam Vuitton and Kate Kershenstein protest outside of the 2011 MOCA Gala, holding signs created by Eve Fowler. Photo: Cake and Eat It.

At some point in my quest for a career in the arts, I convinced myself that this industry, like many others, would have a sort of internship period, where I would work for free, with the figurative promise of eventual employment. I’ve also seen it like a small business, in that “you have to spend money to make money.” Never at any point did I think I would “make money” as an artist, but I thought I could have a humble life, pay my bills, and make artwork. There is a drastic distinction between gaining enormous profit off one’s art (such as the occasional Damien Hirst type) and making a living off it, the latter of which is hard for most people to do, even established artists.

In my opinion, the idea that experience-based, performance-based, or time-based artists should work for free because they are working in traditions that critique capital is absolutely meritless. I’m not asking for a mansion, I’m asking for a roof. I would trade rent for a performance. Somehow, the rent needs to be addressed. In every other industry I’ve encountered, risk is directly related to compensation. Dancers, athletes, circus performers, police officers, etc. are all paid according to their level of experience and bodily risk. So for the life of me, I cannot understand why high-risk performance artists such as Ron Athey, Mary Coble, Mike Kelley, etc. wouldn’t be among the highest paid in the industry.

I don’t know what pay equity in the culture industry looks like yet. I know it should include artists, curators, writers, scholars, teachers, handlers, preparators, janitors, receptionists, etc. I know that whether the art is being traded for cultural “investment,” or bought and sold among the rich to impress each other, or supported through $1,200 Gala tickets and donations that are packaged with “naming opportunities” (such as the BP Grand Entrance at LACMA), the funds certainly aren’t “trickling down” to the very people who are producing and tending to the “culture” in question.

First meeting to discuss the formation of an LA–based art union at Human Resources on November 19, 2011. Carrie Mcilwain, Adam Vuiitton, Adam Overton, Brian Getnick, Jen Hofer, Edith Abeyta. Photo: Cake and Eat It.

Mutually Beneficial Alternatives

In our discussion of what the art union would look like, there were many precedents to consider. There have been artists’ guilds, artists’ unions, artist associations, etc. Canada’s CARFAC, the New York–based W.A.G.E., the Freelancer’s Union, and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are all great models for what our union could look like, but what if, in addition to collective bargaining, we helped provide each other with some of the resources that are inflating our overhead and spiritual costs? Not only is there desire for a tool library, a collectively owned truck, studio visits and critiques, printers and facilities, but there is an undeniable community of amazing people who are willing to do everything from helping you build a chicken coop to recommending a job lead. This may sound crazy, but I’m going to put it out there: what if the art union acted as an alternative to the MFA program? It may not provide the break from reality to develop your work for a few years, but it would provide all the other resources, minus the $100,000 of debt.

Why this holistic approach to a material problem? Because it is very much a holistic problem. This is a competitive, opportunistic industry that has us competing over exposure because we’ve been convinced that’s what’s needed to land the “job” (whatever that is) and you need the “job” to survive. If the only thing that comes out of this is community solidarity, then that alone is overdue.

The third meeting at RAID Projects included a "stone soup" style potluck. Photo: Cake and Eat It.

Occupy Equity in Art

Lastly, I want to talk about why I think this is the best possible time to be forming a union. Occupy proposes not that you should join a movement without a leader, but that you should be a leader within that movement. Bertolt Brecht’s famous quote, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” proposes that the future you are trying to create should employ a method that embodies that future. If we want a future of political signs, marches, and speeches, than that’s what we should do to get it. As the anarcha-feminist collective, Mujeres Creando, wrote on a wall in La Paz, “Be careful with the present that you create because it should look like the future you dream.”

What Occupy has done is acknowledge the importance of art in social change; not just because art is powerful, but because using art forms to shape community creates a future that we want. During the 2007 Climate Camp, activists covered their protective shields with photographs of the faces of climate refugees. Recently Ken Ehrlich gave a workshop at Machine Project in Los Angeles that used book covers on cardboard shields. As artists, we have the tools to shape people’s perception of the event happening right in front of them. Why would the form of our union look like every other union, if our protest looks like art? With Occupy filling the air we breathe, it is now easier than ever to reconstruct the idea of “union” into something that is art, into something that benefits the artist, the art laborer, the institution, and culture.

The next art union meeting will be an informal social gathering. It will take place on January 15, at a time and place TBD. Everyone is welcome to come and discuss what kind of form our organization will take and most importantly, strengthen community. Check our Up The Art Union website for further details.

Christy Roberts is a conceptual artist and activist based in Los Angeles. Her work includes performance and social practice and explores concepts that, like art, create their own culture, tension, joy, and dissonance. She received her MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2011.

  1. Christy,
    Thats’ a great article. You’re hitting on a lot of important points. Thanks.

  2. greenie arts says:

    Nicely written, Christy, with relevant links. Excellent.

  3. jorgenson says:

    totally disagree. it’s a fact that the best art comes from those that suffer, look at picasso or pollack. brilliant artists that made their work through their suffering and by struggling through poverty. if artists start getting a “living wage” this legacy will be destroyed and there will be no such thing as art any more.

  4. martinwtrenton says:

    look, i totally understand that artists have it bad but frankly you knew the risks when you go into this profession and so shouldn’t be surprised now that you have a lot of debt. plus there’s no way that museums and other art institutions could pay artists any more, they are struggling too you know. would you rather have a world with no art museums at all? maybe when the economy gets rolling again, but right now an artist union is a really really bad idea.

  5. hwathenl says:

    The idea of an artist union is ridiculous. There are so many more deserving groups of people to organize than artists, this just sounds like a bunch of middle class hipsters that make crappy art that no one cares about so they go whining to their union.

    What do artists have to complain about, that they have to buy a new pair of skinny jeans at urban outfitters and that no one will pay them to jerk off in a gallery? Jesus Christ, now I’ve heard it all.

    Plus all artists care about is their careers, you people probably just want a union to further your own career. If you really cared about labor rights you should organize in a factory or something, not a bunch of self satisfied, over-educated, whinny hipster artists.

  6. facefook says:

    You really can’t understand why police officers are paid and ron athey isn’t??? Is this a joke? Police officers protect us from people like ron athey, that’s why. Artists don’t contribute anything meaningful to society except… Actually, wait, they don’t contribute anything. If i had the choice between hiring a bunch more police officers or a bunch of ron athey’s, hmmm, real hard one. Um… The police any day. What artists do in their own time is their business, but when it involves the tax payer’s dime or “demanding a living wage” then yeah, i’ve got a problem with that. So you want to start a union? What are you going to do, go on strike and stop making performative blanket making parties for hippies sleeping in the park?? Sniff sniff. Any-thing-but-that!

  7. jennyschiller says:

    jorgenson: who’s pollack and picasso? are they artists?

  8. eatmepoussi says:

    wtf. are we really invoking the fucking jesus artist line? pollock was a hack and picasso was too until he became a communist and started making like 1000 plates a day… i’m so over the whole cult of the artist genius. all it does is further an antiquated white boys club and should be burned to the fucking ground as fast as humanly possible. yes to the union, thank you christy for the call to arms!

  9. jennyschiller says:

    hwathenl: it’s a total fallacy to think that all artists are “hipsters,” artists are a diverse group from all different walks of life, races and economic backgrounds. In fact, the way that the art market is structured now just furthers that inequality. If art continues to be devalued then it’s just going to further the situation that the poor and the oppressed cannot afford all the unpaid internships, hobnobbing, and $100,000 debt to become artists. Furthermore, people that use “hipster” to describe someone are just lame old turds anyway.

  10. openheartarts says:

    I’ve worked as an artist for the last 30 years and I have to say that I disagree with the way that you are characterizing the field. I feel like the art world is really supportive and that museums and galleries are on our same side and we shouldn’t be demonizing them by saying we need something like a “union”. Artists are really resourceful people and I think that part of why I’m an artist is because I value my individuality and independence greatly. I will not be joining a union because I do not want to jeapordize my ability to think freely and on my own. I am doing just fine and feel like if you work hard enough then the art world will accept you and you can make it. It takes a lot of courage to be an artist and there are lots of times when you just feel like giving up, but you’ve just got to go on. No matter what, you can rise above and become successful on your own. And in the end you will feel a lot better having achieved your success by yourself rather than having to depend on a group to hold you down. Remember: You need to keep love in your heart and tackle all your problems with an open spirit and if you do that, you will be happy and prosperous.

  11. jorgenson says:

    jenny, i don’t understand your question… what are you trying to say? Jackson Pollock was basically the inventor of modern art and Pablo Picasso invented cubism, if you don’t know these two names then you probably don’t know very much about art. All I was saying was that both of these artists, and others too, have suffered and made good art. So why should this generation be any different?

  12. scottinabox says:

    Christy, I really love this article, I feel like you’ve put a lot of the ideas I’ve been thinking into words and actually you’ve gotten me really pumped to get something like this going here in NYC. I’m an artist and have worked in the art world for about 20 years and am still struggling to make rent every month even though I show all the time. I’ve been to a lot of the ows art and labor meetings and what not but they are really heavy on the theory and not so much on the action, it’d be really great if you could come out here and do a workshop or something!

  13. john says:

    this is awesome! thanks!

  14. Edith says:

    These are some of the most conservative, anti-art comments I have read on a blog. It’s hard to believe Art 21 has so many readers against art and people getting paid a living wage.

  15. npopp says:

    Scott, some folks at OWS Arts and Labor are talking about the exact same thing! Try talking to the Occupy Museum folks. There are some really similar conversations going on in NYC!

    We in the US are so unaware of the strong connection between arts, culture and work that exists in other countries, and here, too.

    Recently I met with a group of artists who work with ‘recovered’ factories in Buenos Aires. After the fiscal crisis of 2001, some factory owners abandoned their businesses, leaving workers stranded. The workers stepped up and took over the factories themselves, running them cooperatively without a ‘hejfe’. Artists organized in solidarity with the workers and now the factories have cultural centers, libraries and exhibition spaces inside of them!

    Check out this worker-run printing factory in Buenos Aires and it’s current exhibition:



    1)Artists want to get paid their fair share if they are hired to masturbate in a gallery. This is not a conversation about voluntary endeavors.

    2)Your demographic critique of art workers is completely unrelated to factual information. A recent survey of art workers at museums and other arts non-profits, generated by the Center for Culturual Innovation indicated that the up-and-and coming generation of California art workers (between
    the ages of 18-35) is comprised of:

    Over 70% women
    Over 25% ethnic minorities
    approximately 30% of whom are living in households that make between 20,000-40,000/ annually.

    When the director of LACMA is given a starting wage of over 600,000/annually,a car, a rent free house, and a promise of 1,000,0000/annually OF COURSE art workers do the math and wonder why there is that level of pay inequity within an organization that is a non-profit,community based, educational resource.
    If a director is paid money to attract money, where is going to? No one is buying the “trickle down” any more. This is what this about. Stop this generic, ill informed hippy bashing campaign. Let’s have a real conversation. This is PBS not Fox News.

  17. ADDENDUM: My opening note on artists wanting to get fairly paid for gallery based masturbation was @hwathenl who accused artworkers who would like to unionize of wanting to be “paid to jack off in a gallery.”

  18. artisalive says:

    This is a pure case of resentment: artists who can’t get (or don’t want) their works shown in half-way decent galleries or even their local coffee shop demanding to get paid for their third-rate hyper-critical self-reflective postmodernist drizzlings. (They’ll probably turn the art union into some “performance piece” if they have their way.)

    If you aren’t making money as an artist, maybe you should rethink your practice. You either aren’t good enough or you haven’t hit your real ideas yet. I had two tough years after getting my MFA where I worked like crazy and never slept more than four hours I night so I could work on my art.

    Spend your time actually putting thought into your art. Then a union becomes irrelevant.

  19. Derek Curry says:

    Hi, jorgenson,

    I’m not sure how you are define suffering. Pollock wasn’t so bad off, he received a decent income from the Works Progress Administration from 1938- 1942. Considering this was during the depression when many men his age were hopping trains and eating beans from a can, he was hardly suffering. Later he was supported by wealthy patrons like Peggy Guggenheim. He could afford a large house on Long Island and a car, and didn’t have to ever work a day job.

    Picasso did extremely well in his later years. He grew up in a very middle class family, his father was a panting professor, so Pablo was able to attend the university for free and received a proper education. Later he moved to Paris and fell into a group of anarchists and intentionally decided not to work. When the war broke out, Picasso was exempted from service because he wasn’t French. Considering many of his contemporaries like Georges Braque were drafted and either killed, wounded, or, in Braque’s case, suffered from severe PTSD at a time when little was known about it. Braque couldn’t continue his work after the war. So considering the environment in Paris at the time, Picasso wasn’t suffering nearly as much as most people.

    Monetarily, they were both much better off than most of the people around them at the time. So if great art comes from suffering, it should stand to reason that others should have been producing much better work than those two during their times. And since there was an abundance of suffering, one would think that there would be more artists coming out of that period.

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