Should Location Determine Artist Pay Grade?

by Corinna Kirsch on March 18, 2015 Opinion

money floating

Digital artists, your moment has arrived. Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) and the online publication art-agenda have announced a payment tool for online commissions and digital artworks, set to debut this spring. (The entire contract between the two organizations has been published online.) Finally! There are no standards for online commissions, and now someone’s trying to change that.

Looking at the contract, there’s one aspect of the proposed tool that’s difficult to unpack: W.A.G.E has proposed the production of an online tool that sets rates of compensation for online commissions according to living wage standards determined by the place of residence of the commissioned artist.

Can of worms, opened: Should artists be paid more based on where they live? What about other factors, like the cost of childcare, healthcare, transportation, and other necessities? What factors need to be considered when calculating a cost of living wage?

Lets start from the beginning. Coming up with a living wage requires knowing where a person lives; this is pretty standard for organizations interested in setting living-wage standards, like the Economic Policy Institute, MIT, or the Living Wage NYC coalition.

MIT’s living-wage calculator sets the living wage for a single adult in New York City at $12.75 per hour. But geography isn’t the only factor in determining living wage. Looking at MIT’s metrics, the hourly wage increases with the number of non-wage earners (such as children) in the household. One adult with one child? The living wage increases to an hourly rate of $24.69.

Knowing that it’s more than geography that determines the living wage makes clear that W.A.G.E. has their work cut out for them.

To create consistent policy, should W.A.G.E also recommend that artists with children deserve more pay? Though W.A.G.E. does not yet include family size as a factor in determining their digital commission, doing so would put W.A.G.E. in a unique situation—they could become one of the first art-minded organizations to support a different pay-scale for artists with families. Given the difficulties of juggling children, work, and art, I’m excited to see if W.A.G.E. takes this on when compiling their report.

On the other hand, I’m far less excited about geography determining the rate for online commissions. Living-wage proponents do end up tying a worker’s location to where they work—because that’s usually where they live and pay taxes too. It’s harder to determine what fair payment means for online commissions, when digital artists frequently travel for shows, and can make their work anywhere. Digital artists are nomads, living and working at all points along the network.

What if the primary wage-earner works in one city and lives in another? The living wage varies by city. A single adult in Austin, Texas needs only make $9.43 per hour to meet MIT’s living-wage minimum. If I were a greedy bastard, I could commission an artist in Austin to make a GIF, and be justified in paying her 25 percent less than an artist in New York.

Location-based fees could discourage commissions from artists who live in places with a higher cost of living, and who thus have a higher commission rate. (This may not be a bad thing, if it encourages organizations to commission digital works from artists working outside major cities.) Nevermind that MIT’s living-wage calculator, for instance, only measures wages for people living in the United States.

Plenty of digital artists live outside the States: Francoise Gamma lives in Barcelona. Sabrina Ratté lives in Montreal. Eva Papamargariti lives in London. W.A.G.E. might have to start from scratch when it comes to international commissions.

Curiously, W.A.G.E.’s current pay-scale tool for exhibition fees, artist talks, and screenings, uses only two mechanisms—a research-based industry-wide minimum, and an organization’s annual operating expenses. Geography does not come into play, and neither does the size of an artist’s family. Why should the pay-scale be different for digital artists?

W.A.G.E.’s online tool hasn’t come out yet, so there’s still time to determine all the criteria going into the online-payment calculator.

I’d love to see a living wage, but the current W.A.G.E. proposal obviously has some kinks to be worked out. I can get behind the industry-wide minimum. With its current fee calculator, W.A.G.E. has already set the standard for fair compensation. But if the formula for determining artist payment takes geography as its defining factor, then I don’t have high hopes for the digital-payment tool’s longevity.

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