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Laboring over Art

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
I have a super-quick musing for you today, sparked by something I read last Friday:

There has been a lot of talk lately about labor conditions and pay equity in museums (looking at you, #MuseumWorkersSpeak). This article in the NYT outlines what seems to be a radical, and innovative, approach to tackling these issues.

Synopsis: The Guggenheim is acquiring a performance art piece called “Timelining,” by Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. The (legally binding) instructions for how to perform the piece also details how it will be bought and (this is what made my antennae quiver) how the performers would be paid.

The artists saw performer compensation “as a blind spot in how performance was entering collections,” Mr. Kelly said. Mr. Gerard added that they “know that the labor of the work is inextricable from its aesthetic content.””

They proposed linking the performers’s compensation to New York’s “living wage” but the Guggenheim (which has taken some heat over labor conditions at its new site in Abu Dhabi) offered a better rate, which will “vary according to inflation and the city where the piece is performed.” 

“Mr. Kelly added that he and Mr. Gerard hoped other artists would find it empowering to think about what a museum “owns” when it acquires an ephemeral performance. “Having this ethical framework so clearly laid out will be influential on our future work with performance, a field still defining itself,” said Nat Trotman, associate curator at the Guggenheim.“

As precedent, this seems to me to be both enormously promising and potentially problematic. First, how awesome to think that artists can directly influence the social justice and labor practices of museums, even if it only relates directly to their own work. As a former registrar, I can only imagine the nightmare of conflicting and inconsistent or ambiguous legal restrictions on works with such restrictions. (Will performers of some works get paid at a better rate than others? Will this depend on the status of the artist, and therefore their power to negotiate at the time the work was acquired, their legal savvy, or both?)
And the futurist in me wonders how far this could go. Gerard and Kelly could swing this deal because they controlled the rights to their work, and that work was already conveyed by a set of instructions. What if other stakeholders try to exercise power in a broader way? Could artists of more traditional, static works insist that the guard for their single-artist retrospective be paid a living wage? Could the donor funding a new wing insist the staff housed in the wing have bargaining rights? Maybe those suggestions sound preposterous now, but I hope they inspire you to think. How many other non-traditional ways might people find to push the needle on issues of social justice, and labor, inside museums?

Monday musings are my way of sharing “brain blorts”: brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

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