I posted this Frieze rant on my tumblr last night but for those who prefer to read material that’s copy-edited, this should be a better reading experience. The content is entirely the same.
How many different people do you have to shake to get art institutions and businesses to wake up? Our actions as employers affect the quality of life of others. We know this—in general, the art community votes for socially responsible policies—and yet our own labor practices are amongst the very worst across all professions.
This isn't news. We've known these problems have existed for a long time, and no one likes it. But every so often a statement or an event brings these issues to light again and the problem feels fresh. In my case, it's been the Frieze Art Fair's decision to undercut workers wages by cutting out the unions, the unwillingness of museum directors to support the locked-out art handlers' protests at yesterday's Frieze panel discussion, and the seemingly oblivious statements made by co-founder Amanda Sharp about the fair and what kind of compensation artists should expect for the work they make.
Let's start with Sharp's clumsy statements on the Guardian earlier this week connecting artist expectations about wages to reality TV. Sharp says she's not necessarily against the Occupiers, but senses the protest is based on false expectations:
Over the last 10 years, the art world has tracked global economic change. In America there is a more politicised awareness of inequality between class and wealth. At the same time, more people have decided that art can be a career. They've seen art reality TV shows and they think they can make a career purely out of their work. That's an unrealistic expectation so a lot more people feel disenfranchised.
This is just wrong. Work of Art proffered a lot of harmful art myths, but never that artists could or should make a living wage off this shit. Of the artists cast in Work of Art Seasons 1 and 2, only one artist lived off his art: The Sucklord. The $100,000 grand prize cash pot wouldn't last most artists more than 2-3 years.
Also, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH WANTING TO BE COMPENSATED FOR WHAT YOU DO. Artists don't all expect to make a living off their art, but there's an expectation amongst the profession where we're thankful if we make anything at all, because getting a place in the history books will be worth it—if we're so lucky. That's the unrealistic expectation, and we need to call it out for what it is.
This wasn't the only statement Sharp made I took issue with this week. She followed up her Guardian interview with one at the Globe and Mail; her statements made sense this time, but were still far out of sync with her actions as a fair organizer. Observe:
We do want to be more than a fair, in the sense that we always aimed to create a meeting place, a place where discussion could begin.
This sounds great and all, but just who gets to participate in this discussion? Frieze talks aren't free—they come at a 40 dollar ticket price—and on Thursday police shut down the Occupy protests over Frieze's labor decisions. Tomorrow there will be a talk about Occupy at Frieze without a single Occupy representative. It seems Frieze won't be welcoming much discussion after all.
Speaking of discussion, for a fair with a reputation for balancing commerce, art and ideas better than most, they've certainly hosted more than their fair share of bullshit talks. Yesterday Frieze hosted a panel dubbed “Expanding Museums”, which claimed to explore the “current and future roles of contemporary art institutions.” Given the role the internet now has in our lives, there should be a lot to discuss on that topic—how, for instance, can we document and preserve culture online?—but neither that topic nor any number others ever got discussed. Instead, Glenn Lowry, Director of the MoMA, Adam D. Weinberg, Director of the Whitney, and Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of the Modern and Contemporary Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum offered a full spectrum of PR for their museums, focusing primarily on the various buildings they're each renovating.
That's not a discussion, and if they weren't prepared to have one, they shouldn't have been invited. Frankly, what happened in the Q&A portion of the talk, when each of the Directors feigned ignorance of the Sotheby's Lockout protests, is unconscionable. There are 43 art handlers out there with meaningful jobs. If Sotheby's gets the contract they want, there will be a lot fewer. They will replace full time workers with temporary workers, and those workers will receive less pay and no benefits.
That's just not right. Health care costs companies a lot, but you know what? It saves people's lives. That's meaningful and it's time we started acting that way. We'll all be a lot better off if we stop placing our bets on an imaginary future that might have our name on it, and started investing in the quality of our lives now.