The unwaged labour of the broke artist is constantly exploited by the salaried curator

A curator ghosted me. We had a studio visit, the purpose of which was stated explicitly: we were going to discuss my potential inclusion in a forthcoming exhibition. It went fine. I made sure to clean my studio (but not too much) and prepare some tea. My artist spiel was delivered more or less as rehearsed, I did not forget to mention those absolute key aspects of work that, despite their intrinsic necessity, often go unsaid in the nervous midst of it all. A few weeks passed without contact, no “thank you” or “we’ll be in touch” emails. I sent a message thanking the curator for their time, asking when results would be made public. It went unreciprocated. I wondered if I had perpetuated some microaggression—maybe it was the absence of gluten-free snacks—even though I had been careful to ask questions, show nonjudgmental interest in their side of the work, and leave space (possibly too much) for them to speak about their research. The show opens Friday and I’ve not heard whether or not I’m in it.

I am writing this as if it had just happened, as if I was still feeling that slow-creeping sting that accompanies probable rejection and as if my typing now is some form of retribution. But it is a hybrid anecdote, an event that has occurred in various forms, facets of which have been experienced by #YesAllArtists. The reality can be worse. A friend tweeted about receiving a letter of rejection from a committee three years after submitting an application. Another related how one curator’s request for a studio visit slowly shifted, over a few emails negotiating schedules, into a proposition for a date. I went to a panel where the curator let slip that the two women in a show of twelve artists were only invited as a means to break the male monopoly. Many have described feeling insubordinate to a curator despite the catalyst for their relationship being the curator’s purported interest in them. And everyone has exhibited for free. Instances of instrumentalization abound.

What compels me to write is not just rejection and the failure to adhere to unwritten standards of professional etiquette. It’s about a certain sort of relational inequity and the space that remains ripe for exploitation. These “injustices” (a strong word, perhaps necessarily so) continue even beyond the opaque and mystifying act of forming a temporary artist-curator working relationship—a procedure that demands much surplus labour from a bevy of artists, or rather, from the working bodies behind the to-be-instrumentalized work. It’s not about being disregarded or unwanted; it’s about the wantedness coming couched in the patronizing logic of “you should be so lucky,” “it’s better than nothing,” or especially “if you love it, you’ll do it for free.” What makes a bad studio visit so annoying, and what brings this essay beyond an overreaching analogy comparing curators to fuckboys, is the fact that the curator is being paid while the artist is not. All interactions occur while the curator is on company time (I invoke this bland business-speak purposefully) as artists squeeze their administrative work between a variety of un-delineated and unwaged tasks.

I will make this point soon: the unwaged labour of the broke artist is constantly exploited by the salaried curator. A distinct but under-articulated economic hierarchy ensures that “abuse of power comes as no surprise.” And power operates best when it can be invisible, ensuring that it is naturalized and therefore beyond question.

When speaking in generalities—as I intend to do, considering the problems themselves have perpetuated every general aspect of artistic being—it is important to define one’s terms. The bureaucrat, the administrator, the curator, and the programming director may all be invoked interchangeably for their role in acting as a kind of gatekeeper. They are those who are granted the intra-institutional power to program. (Krzysztof Wodiczko uses the term “aristocrat.”)1 I might be better served, although the melodrama will be significantly lessened, by addressing these thoughts to the vague institutionalist. It is obvious and already well-covered that none of the individuals behind the aforementioned (and highly-varied) jobs are exempt from insidious conditions of immaterial or cognitive labour. They suffer too. Nor are all artists immune from institutionalist behaviour. I am not seeking to personify these terms: rather I am calling forth a dialectic between a polarity of traits and roles. It is not cut and dry, many are complicit in various aspects of this spectrum. And yet, I do not wish to have a conversation dealing only in ungrounded values that never coalesce in practicality. This is an acknowledgement only. In truth, there are those who are not caught up in the middle, there are those who thrive through exploitation and seek to ballast a problematic status quo. Here, I am addressing those who perform the privatization of public institutions (though I have no particular fondness for “public” nor “institutions”), those who enact aggressive capitalist agendas, and those who flourish within the hierarchies erected over and around the art world’s raison d’être. Conscious or not, it is systemic and occurs at the cost of the ability to self-determine.

On paying artists

In order to lessen some of the exploitation and instrumentalization carried out against those who perform artwork, or at least to alleviate the symptoms that arise under unbalanced power, artists should be paid for their work. However, this proposition, while clearly radical to the many institutionalists who refuse to pay their artists, is not yet a revolutionary demand—which would entail the abolition of the curatorial presence entirely.

I intend to briefly acknowledge some of the arguments for and against art’s economic exceptionalism before ultimately proving that, as long as curators, administrators, and various salaried institutionalists are dependent upon artistic labour, inequity in the name of exceptionalism cannot be tolerated. When an artist’s work has no clear delineation between labour and not-labour, the former commandeers the latter. The following proceeds in order to substantiate the claim that institutionalists work not solely with artworks, but with artist bodies. And bodies are fragile things. Yet their fragility is not an open invitation for misuse.

But first we must ask: who or what is the art world’s raison d’être? Artists or artwork? At the core of it all, which actor serves as morpheme? Which sounds more correct: “I have been curated into a show,” or, “My work has been curated into a show”?

Instead of prolonging this trick question, critic Bojana Kunst demonstrates that an artist’s work and life are inseparable. In the essay “Art and Labour,” she writes that “what is invested in is not art but artistic and creative powers: the artist’s life is at the core of the interest on the capital.” It is only indirectly that capital cares for the body; it is the source of labour, the crucible of possibility which can be wielded for profit. Evidencing this, she describes how “the centrality of work, the artist as an entrepreneurial person, constant nomadism, the constant readiness to reflect upon one’s work, participation in the presentation and dissemination of one’s own production, the networking aspect of work, the internationalization of work” erect conditions wherein the artist is drained of the ability to inhabit alternate “temporal modalities of being.” Art labour subsumes non-labour, it precludes other pursuits, it refuses to offer any way out except through total self-amputation. The artworker needs time not only to do artwork but also to foster conditions in which artwork manifests.

Does it need to be articulated that down time, rest time, leisure time, research time, social time, time to experiment, time to fail, time to recuperate, are all equally crucial aspects of creative production? Is it not already obvious? Even within explicitly commercial realms the value of an artwork is not dependent on the time spent applying paint to canvas. (Indeed, we may even note that artists who employ a studio full of labourers—that type of artist who is so overwrought with forthcoming exhibitions and deadlines—produce work of lesser quality when they are forced to fabricate incessantly. But at a certain point the value of an artist’s work is not linked to quality, either.) The production of most contemporary work is completely immeasurable and wholly inseparable from acts of non-production. There is no difference between an artist’s life and an artist’s work—and it is more than semantic coincidence that “work” refers both to the product and the process by which the product results.

The product of the artwork is inseparable from the expenditure of life. The body needs sustenance—especially as the cities in which artists study become increasingly unaffordable. It is hard enough to find any amount of work to afford rent, much less work that does not wholly consume time for art-making. It is a matter of redundancy to say that artists will always make art, that art will probably persist despite whatever conditions of precarity arise around the artist. And yet, current relationships mean that each individual artist body is treated disposably: made to run the gauntlet through a variety of programs orientated toward emerging practices—backhanded-prizes and opportunities beset by hidden costs that, rather than encouraging the broke artist to continue forth, serve to distill an attitude of resilience that works in favour of an administrator-centered art world. This is a lesson learned by all emerging hopefuls: one cannot get a foot in the door without breaking toes.

On inequity between artists and curators

While both the artistic and curatorial roles can only be defined tautologically—the sole consensual definition of the artist may be that the artist makes art, and the curator, likewise, curates it—only the salaried curator has a role delineated by wages.

I want to connect Kunst’s writing to some of Silvia Federici’s, who wrote on the relational inequity that exists between men and women (essentialized as the breadwinner and the housewife) and the capitalist necessity of unwaged immaterial labour. I hesitate, however, to draw too many comparisons between Federici’s articulations and the artist-curator relationship. The systems that oppress artists and the systems that exploit domestic labourers may be described in similar terms but the conditions differ drastically. Even if an artist and domestic labourer may be one and the same, it is more common that artistic work in contemporaneity depends on the invisible support of an uncredited other. And the artist, for example, does not face the recompense of domestic violence should they refuse their work. What may be applied for the purposes of this argument is Federici’s understanding that those who are paid for their work also have the privilege of declining work. When unwaged immaterial labour looks exactly the same as not-labour, there is no delineating of what is and isn’t within the purview of the unwaged labourer. Personal and professional time remain indistinct of one another; the latter supersedes and eradicates the former. The conditions for both the artist and the housewife are such that the primary form of compensation for work is presumed to be love. It is a vocation, not a job, and it is carried forth out of passion alone—money might even be said to sully this devotion. But there are many paid jobs that are reliant, even parasitically so, on both.

It could be argued that artists did it to themselves. Certainly, the idealistic refusal of association with extant commercial structures (as has been true of most avant-garde movements and was explicitly the case in early Conceptualism) may serve as precedent—although it is more likely that select individuals (often white and male) assured the unpaid could remain unpaid as they lived off the inheritances, trust-funds, and spousal generosities that enable participation without loss in all unwaged activities demanded by contemporary practices.

But whether artists brought it upon themselves or not, systems have risen to formalize the exploitation of artistic labour. Conditions of precarity, as cheyanne turions points out in “Youth in Revolt: Precarious Labour, the Young Curator and Sectorial Burn Out in the Media Arts,” can be simultaneously desirable and unwanted; what passes as flexibility in some cases is identical to contingency and insecurity in others. 2 It’s true that even participants on the administrative side of art are taken advantage of, as when hours are shifted between peak periods and slow demand without overtime, or when programming staff are asked to fundraise their own salaries. The conditions of the system necessitate exploitation in the name of profit everywhere. A revolutionary ideal entails the overthrow of all of this, eventually, but what about now? The work of an institutionalist is vastly more delineated than that of the artist and, in many cases, they are waged to perform the same immaterial procedures expected of an artist. Robert Pfaller maintains that “within an artist’s work, actual artistic work only has a decreasing ten percent share in comparison to studying the market, self-marketing, public relations, branding, socializing, etc.” (qtd in Kunst 204) while a great deal of this is included, in one form or another, within the curator-director’s initial employment contract.3

It’s hard to tell who outnumbers who in terms of artist/administrator populations, sometimes it seems like any statistic would feel anecdotally true, sometimes they are the same persons, but regardless I am aware of far more administrators who take active stances against filling their free time with openings, critical theory, or gallery-crawls. (NB: for what’s worth, Pfaller says that, within the art world, “there are the impediments and consumption mechanisms of curating and intermediation, so that there are at least two curators and agents per artist nowadays.”)4 For broke artists, all of this activity occurs in time that they purchase via other streams of income: a spending that occurs in addition to the material costs of their work and studio.

But it goes beyond a simple dichotomy where one party profits while the other prostrates itself. In Wages Against Housework, Federici notes that factory labour requires the exploitation of the working man to the extent that his job is unsustainable unless he has a wife at home to care for him.5 He is paid little for his long hours, so he works longer hours that preclude his ability to participate in domestic work; indeed his job requires that domestic work increases to account for the restoration of his body to a state of productivity. The factory worker, and in turn the factory and the capitalists that operate it, are all dependent on this chain’s morpheme—the housewife—remaining unpaid so that profits can grow and the chain can exist. It is not the working man by himself who perpetuates conscious exploitation; it is the logic of the system that necessitates uneven symbiosis. For the morpheme to accurately identify herself as part of the chain is to simultaneously belong to the chain and to shake the logic by which the chain exists. By arguing that the housewife acts out of loving devotion is to obscure the reality that her unwaged presence enables an entire system of exploitation to rest upon her. To remediate this agent—the artist, the domestic labourer—is not to dirty the apparent spirituality of their role, but is to turn the system upon itself and disrupt the illogic of profit: the notion that growth can be indefinite.

On the impossibility of wage

The artist’s life is rampantly unmarked by boundaries. There are no waged hours which erect necessary fences to preclude exploitation and unfair relationships. Federici says that “against any accusation of ‘economism’ we should remember that money is capital, i.e. it is the power to command labour.” But the artist, who is dependent on alternative (possibly unsatisfying if not outright exhausting) streams of income, and who may be assumed to seek autonomy from these alternate streams where possible, has no money with which to counteract the commands of capital. They are thirsty. When an art-object can be anything, so too can the labour behind it. Their undelineated efforts means, basically, that any social interaction is a possible professional opportunity. Leverageable moments—engagements that might lead to future engagements that might even result in an honorarium or sale—could occur at any time. And in reality this describes the most optimistic chain of events for which a broke artist can hope. Because any work would be better than the work of non-artwork: that sustenance-orientated labour that only siphons time away from the work of art. This is the same labour that, across the spectrum, no longer means that a minimum-wage day-job can put a dent in the cost of tuition or urban housing. So how is a broke, emerging artist able to decline a proffered opportunity? And if an artist is incapable of adequately refusing, then how can an artist adequately consent? There is no equality in negotiating remittance when one party is being paid regardless and the other needs to find some way to pay bills, debt, rent.

Over and over in “Art and Labour,” Kunst stresses that an artist’s non-work is an essential aspect of their work; non-work is work. And it goes beyond a Taylorist sensibility of ensuring that one’s leisure is strategically orientated to increase productivity at work. When immaterial labour remains unwaged, it is inextricable from non-labour. Artists cannot afford to stop working even if they cannot afford to work. Within a realm of incessant competition, a plethora of leveraged opportunities are entwined within one another to the extent that you never know when something careerist might happen, when one previously-forgotten trap ensnares yourself a future occurrence, when some curator ex machina will reach down to save you from your own obscurity.

While I have Federici’s text open, I want to highlight a key moment from her argument: “True, under capitalism every worker is manipulated and exploited and his/her relation to capital is totally mystified. The wage gives the impression of a fair deal: you work and you get paid, hence you and your boss are equal; while in reality the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit.” And yet this is different within the art world’s non-profit public institutions or private foundations that find solvency from some other corporate arm. Profit in these circumstances is not pecuniary, nor is it wholly passed off to one’s employer. The curator, as an employed worker (albeit a terminal in their department), is rare in that their name is unquestionably linked to the product of their work. Their name appears in vinyl right within the exhibition walls, not to mention in the subject line of the press release which will be seen by a greater audience unconstrained by geography. Profit occurs in terms of prestige, of which the artist may also partake, but ultimately the curatorial thesis will override any individual artist statement. This is more difficult to generalize: certainly in an international “art world” or historical-canon sense it may be argued that artists, as a whole, hold more prestige than curators. But in a local, immediate, “art scene” sense the power rests with the institutionalists who behave as bottlenecks between artists and the purveyors of prestige. No matter the form of the profit, the curator always benefits from the unwaged efforts of the artist.

Still, doesn’t the imperfectness of this analogy demonstrate that art—unbeholden to the logic of supply/demand and even ownership—remains economically exceptional? If the goals of art are non-commercial and, indeed, often set up in purposeful opposition to commercial structures, then maybe it’s okay for artists to be remitted solely in exposure, optimism, and occasional critical affirmation. The drive to make art is not the drive to make money. Josefine Wikström articulates the dilemma succinctly: “Using the exceptionality of artistic labour as a specific form of production also runs the risk of turning artistic work into any other type of work and thus turning art into any other commodity.”6 If art is about resisting empiricization, then maybe the only thing worth measuring is the length of an artist’s CV.

But Kunst persists: “Subordinated to the necessity of work, artistic work no longer knows a division between life and work: every aspect of life is an aspect of labour. It is flexible and subordinated to the project-oriented logic of work. It is losing its autonomy and is regulated by numerous mechanisms of evaluation.” If we accept her argument that an artist’s life is indistinct from their labour and that a practicing artist within current art world operations cannot afford to cease working, then we can concede through a matter of paradox that art itself remains economically exceptional even though an artist’s work is not. And the curator deals with the artist, if not always directly through one-to-one communication, then indirectly via their life-force that has congealed into dead time.

And yet, it is not enough to remit artists through small symbolic payments that ignore both the realities of labour and the cost of sustenance. Honorariums are often used as a preclusive device meant to ruin the appetite of those who need more. “You are no longer working for free, see, we are paying you,” the institutionalist might say. We need to understand, however, that “working for free” is synonymous with indenture; not only is the work occurring without remittance, it is performed with time evulsed from acts of sustenance and self-care. It also requires the real expenditure of resources necessitated by studio, materials, travel, and shipping. Only when there is parity between an artists’ material costs and institutional recompense can we say they are labouring for free. Anything less is the deficient accumulation of debt.

To wage artists is to undergo the impossible task of quantifying their labour compounded with the apparent impossibility of asking underfunded institutions to find more money. But it is just as impossible to continue working for free, borrowing resources from a finite future, depleting oneself prematurely. “In this sense,” write Pil and Galia Kollectiv, “it is important to remember that falling short of perfection does not mean abandoning improvement. While it can sometimes be useful to highlight inconsistencies, we also need to ask whether, at least in the short term, we can afford to be consistent.”7

On paradox

Maybe it needs to be asked, why do we care for art at all—much less the conditions of its production? Kunst says the question is irrelevant, it only adheres to enemy logic meant to deride it before an answer can be formed. “This obsessive need for rationalization springs from the irrational nature of this economy—that of increasing and constant production, where excessive profit arises from the consumption of surplus.” But for myself—because, despite my best intentions, I have yet to completely eradicate every capitalist impulse that has been instilled within me—it is necessary only to say that artwork is valuable precisely because entire systems exist to instrumentalize not only its products but also the life-forces that comprise it. If, as Kunst has articulated and as I have attempted to reinforce, artists are the raison d’être of art world administration, then all other jobs and paid engagements are dependent upon them, no matter how much of a MacGuffin the relationships may be.

The institutionalist curatorial presence, inasmuch as it signifies inequality in the shared endeavour to make meaning, suppresses artistic practice even while purporting to care for it. To use artists without paying them is to perpetuate exclusion under the guise of exposure. This system, despite its airs of egality, remains prohibitive to all who are incapable of giving away their labour for free. The economic preconditions of this privilege do not encompass disparate identities construed through race, gender, class, or ability. White hegemony persists.

Inequality exacerbates precarity and precarity precludes radicality. I want to stress that radicality is different from avant-gardism, which has historically operated in a way that expands the possibility of art in order to expand the horizon of capitalist commodity. This is already well-established. I am, as ever, not sure if this speaks more to capitalism’s uncanny ability to subsume without failure or the inability of artists to imagine art beyond commercial objectification. It’s possible that cultural value and exchange value will always coalesce because this is simply how all value works. I invoke “radicality” if only to connote something beyond this: a progressiveness that goes unbeholden to planned obsolescence’s innovation for the sake of innovation or newness as precipitatory condition for profit. I believe in a way out. The ability of art to be radical is not diminished if artworkers should be paid for their labour, it is only lessened when artwokers are incapable of fully enacting the necessary downtime, time for experiments, and time for failure that are intrinsic preconditions of artworking. And the inequality that exacerbates precarity and precludes radicality cannot be seen more clearly in the art world than in the relationship of the unwaged artist and the salaried curator.

Still, a curator paying an artist only represents a half-measure. Workers everywhere must protest the costs of being alive, the profit-driven systems that withdraw one’s life-force before selling it back. Artists fighting for the recognition of their labour must also align themselves against displacement, debt, and the neoliberal drive to rationalize all effort ever. Institutions paying artists—while crucial for the establishment of equity against stratification—does nothing for the artists who remain excluded by institutions on bases of race and gender. We cannot isolate the fight for fair payment. Economic exploitation does not exist without the systemic enablement of racism, sexism, and especially white patriarchal supremacy. If our struggle proceeds toward some vague notion of equality, we must acknowledge that, for some, equality looks like relinquishing power. Remittance must succeed inclusion. This means that an artist demanding payment must demand on behalf of all artists rather than solely on behalf of the self. These are not yet revolutionary demands, but they are steps toward acknowledging labouring bodies and eventually overseeing a shaken hierarchy, a destratified art world.

We participate in a dialectic world where paradox is de rigeur. To eliminate the paradoxes that inhibit artwork is to create space for the generative paradoxes that beget artwork. By this I mean that inequity between artists and administrators must be resolved if either is to flourish and if even a pretence of self-determination is to be maintained. Federici demands recuperation for invisible labour, understanding that an attack on capital “forces it to restructure social relations in terms more favourable to us and consequently more favourable to the unity of the class.” Kunst notes that neoliberalism itself is a paradox, constantly demanding empirical justification while also advocating for unconstrained and tautological profit-mongering. And so it seems crucial that art is enabled and even encouraged to use the illogic of its own form to combat the illogic of our current morass.




  3.  Bojana Kunst quoting Robert Pfaller pg. 204
  4. Ibid.

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  1. Catherine

    Thank you for writing this Steven! Many salient points. I have to agree with the following quote by John Cage which hints at artists’ general status with regards to money, attention and respect in the US (and beyond, though this is what I know): “Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression “free as a bird,” Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.”
    ― John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings

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