Why Do We Expect Artists to Work for Free? Here’s How We Can Change the System

December 2, 2014

Only 10 percent of arts graduates make a living from their creative practice. Artist William Powhida maps the institutional structures that keep most artists broke, and shares strategies for spreading the wealth.

A (More Objective) Economic Map

William Powhida, State 1 – Solidarity Economies, 2014. Copyright William Powhida. Hover over the image or click “expand” to zoom in.


It’s all too clear that artists are willing to sacrifice everything for their art, including self-interest, an unfortunate consequence of an economy that trades in exposure. In our perilously unequal society, most artists are poor, and few understand how we might begin to change the situation. According to a recent report by the artist-activist group BFAMFAPhD, only 10 percent of U.S. arts graduates make a living from their art. Yet the art market is booming; last year it nearly rebounded to its highest-ever level—the 2008 financial crash produced only a temporary dip—with $66 billion in sales. I recently spoke with the art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson about artists’ remuneration and made the mistake of saying, “The problem is, there just isn’t enough money.” She corrected me immediately: “There is enough money—it’s just concentrated in the hands of the very few.”

A (Less Objective) Emotional Map

William Powhida, State 2 – Solidarity Economies, 2014. Copyright William Powhida. Hover over the image or click “expand” to zoom in.


While there will always be more artists than opportunities to earn income in the art market, cultural critics like Gregory Sholette and Ben Davis have suggested that we might make inroads in addressing this problem by considering the question “who is art for?” And today artists are starting to come together to connect their economic grievances to broader social concerns, as they strive to support the diverse art ecosystem outside the speculative art market. Take the artist-activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), which has developed a certification system for nonprofit institutions to voluntarily pay artists an amount defined as minimum compensation for their work. Another project pointing to solutions is Standard Deviation, a worksheet designed by Helena Keefe and Patricia Maloney that poses a series of questions and presents flow charts that individual artists can use to make informed, ethical decisions about opportunities such as exhibiting for free at a nonprofit. Keefe and Maloney presented their project as part of UC Berkeley’s recent practicum “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” in which an inspiring group of cultural producers discussed strategies for artists to build agency and self-determination in an economy that privileges objects produced for speculative markets.

Precariousness is the common condition for artists and non-artists

These projects are part of a larger solidarity movement—also including BFAMFAPhD, Interference Archive, the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) and Placeholder Projects (a project I am involved with)—to renew public dialogue about providing greater access to education, debt relief and studio space. Each of these projects implicitly shifts the discussion from artists’ individual responsibilities to the ways in which artists can act collectively. While these are recent efforts, they remain connected to activism of the not-so-distant past that sought to provide greater equity and representation in society for people of color, women and other marginalized groups. One of the challenges for artists now is to see ourselves as part of broader existing struggles instead of treating artistic labor as unique. Art may be special, but work is work.

A (Partially) Idealistic Map

William Powhida, State 3 – Solidarity Economies, 2014. Copyright William Powhida. Hover over the image or click “expand” to zoom in.


As promising as they are, these projects are not without their contradictions and shortcomings. At a recent panel on alternative economies, the artist and filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant pointedly asked, “Why do we still have to do this? Are we just perpetuating the mistakes of the previous generation?” Goode Bryant candidly remarked that her own historic project Just Above Midtown (JAM), an exhibition space for African-American artists, ultimately did not accomplish its goals. She described how it slowly transformed from an alternative to the exclusionary gallery system into a pipeline to it. Her perspective is important for two reasons: first, today’s solidarity efforts are connected to a long, less visible social history, and second, no one lives outside global capitalism. Even when people choose to live and work according to different principles and values, the imperatives of capitalism can eventually change the terms.

Accepting that there is no place “outside capitalism” may also be a powerful antidote to the abstractions of revolutionary theory. Pragmatic reform from within institutions at the level of public policy, law and infrastructure may require us to use some of the tools of the system, even if it gives rise to feelings of co-optation and complicity—and the dreaded accusation of “selling out.” Worrying about how to get by is unavoidable (for those of us without inherited wealth), and as the artist Molly Crabapple observes, “Not talking about money is a tool of class war.” The tension between art and money evokes an ancient dichotomy between the market and the monastery. The myth of artistic purity contributes to the general unease that arises when artists discuss the terms and conditions of their own labor, even if we accept that most of us aren’t in it for the money. Talking money requires artists to reject purist attachments to autonomy and climb down from their ivory towers and isolated studios into the muck of business. Acting as if we are somehow above or outside of global capitalism is not a form of agency—it’s a form of delusion.

Detail of a (More Objective) Economic Map

William Powhida, State 4 – Solidarity Economies, 2014. Copyright William Powhida. Hover over the image or click “expand” to zoom in.


At a recent panel for Sarah Thornton’s book 33 Artists in 3 Acts at the New Museum in New York, Andrea Fraser addressed the powerful allure of myths about being an artist. Fellow panelist Laurie Simmons confessed that her parents started calling her an artist as a child because that was the only identity that could explain her difference. Thornton countered by saying, “The art world is extremely conformist!” An identity premised on being “unique” seems to be part of our aversion to working cooperatively. We know that the market works for very few of us, and yet the promises of prestige, recognition and acceptance associated with this orthodoxy of individualism strongly appeal to our hopes and desires. It’s clear to me that we need other narratives that can fulfill some of those deeply held needs if we are to change the situation not only of the poor artist but also of the broader class of the working poor. Precariousness is the common condition for artists and non-artists in the United States and many other countries with endemic inequality.

Art may be special, but work is work

For groups proposing reforms or building new infrastructure within capitalist systems, there is still a monumental struggle for funding, particularly in the United States. We can’t simply redistribute our limited income to fund one another’s projects. Crowdfunding fails to address the structural problems of income inequality and the concentration of wealth generated from both income and capital ownership in the upper class. According to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top 10 percent of the U.S. population took home more than half of the total income generated in 2012. Income inequality and wealth concentration are distinct but closely related problems that corrupt the electoral process, restrict access to quality public education, enable continued environmental damage and adversely affect all levels of representative democracy. Artists’ activist efforts need to be linked with other anti-inequality initiatives, including Strike Debt, Root Strike, MayDay.US and myriad other progressive movements that appear fractured today. In order to address the problems created by decades of increasing income inequality and wealth concentration, the left may need to look to European coalition models in electoral politics or the German stakeholder model for engaging private enterprise. A coalition of artist-led advocacy groups, economic/social justice organizations, environmental activists and other progressives could powerfully counterbalance the forces of privatization that extract so much value from our labor.

If we have any hope of changing the terms of capitalism (before it changes us irrevocably), we need to effect change throughout the entire art ecosystem. We need to encourage greater solidarity, in part by reaching out to artists who have access to levers of power in the vertical towers of selectivity like Art Basel Miami Beach. Artists whose voices the system has amplified need to speak up and agitate for change in solidarity with everyone down the line if we are to address the conservatism of our new gilded age, which is not about thought policing (as it was during the culture wars) but rather about the absurd levels of income inequality and wealth concentration. If left unchecked and unchallenged, this inequality will reach levels never before seen anywhere in the world—a prospect that should concern artists as much as it does all workers.