Museums: The Parts & The Whole
October 10th, 2016
. W.A.G.E. Certification was launched 2 years ago today. In that time we have certified 33
nonprofit organizations across the United States. The latest each set precedent: Participant Inc
in New York City has just been certified for 3 consecutive fiscal years, and San Francisco's Open Space
represents W.A.G.E.'s first partial museum certification.
The condition of Open Space's certification defies the most common counterargument we hear anecdotally from museums about why W.A.G.E. Certification isn't fair or possible at their scale: It is said that artist fees should not be determined in relation to an institution's total operating budget
because that number includes expenses that have nothing to do with its exhibitions or programs—such as maintaining a collection or operating a retail store. Instead, some argue, fees should be measured in relation to the budgets of the individual departments that contract artists' work.
We see it differently, and believe that certifying Open Space as an institutional part will demonstrate that it's possible for an institutional whole to fairly compensate those who supply its content.
Open Space is both a department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
and a community-based platform. It produces web-based content rooted in the tradition of the written word at under $300,000 annually. As SFMOMA's official Department of Community Engagement, its funding is raised and determined by the museum, whose operating expenses are now more than 200 times that of Open Space. For a sense of scale, according to public records SFMOMA was smaller than the Guggenheim but larger than The Whitney in fiscal year 2014.
The condition of Open Space's status as a W.A.G.E. Certified organization is that it must pay fees according to SFMOMA's total annual operating costs—despite that its budget is the size of Participant Inc's
. How, you wonder, can such a comparatively small entity afford to pay artist fees intended for an institution roughly 200 times its size?
Now over to Claudia La Rocco to explain:
Open Space is a digital and live platform for creative and critical responses to art and culture. We're very lucky to be supported by an institution that values our community-based, non-museum centric position. It's imperative we use this support as an opportunity to do right—because it's ethical, yes, but also because it fosters better work.
Those of us commissioning work must not operate from a sense of resource scarcity that, often, simply camouflages over-production. Arts organizations are ever-more involved in the role of content creation; this work fills a vacuum, especially as journalism has radically retreated from arts coverage. But too many of us refuse to acknowledge the labor behind these creations, instead treating them as add-ons and offering paltry sums of compensation.
Many of us makers and commissioners are guilty of the scarcity/over-production conflation, even while, as "consumers," we're deluged with more than we can possibly absorb. If individuals were paid more, they could afford to do less, and do it better. If institutions paid more, they would commission less, and do it better—have more time to research who they should be working with (to ensure consideration of all forms of diversity); spend more time helping to shape and frame the work, so that each piece gets the care and attention it deserves. As any editor will tell you, more typically doesn't equal more: it's better to pay a young writer $400 for 400 words, and work overtime meticulously guiding her through the editing process, rather than offering $500 for 2000 words and ending up with a half-baked project that we lack time to fully edit.
I know full-well the difficulties faced by independent artists, having spent almost my entire career as a freelancer. I decided to become editor-in-chief of Open Space in part because of its history of artist-centric behavior. In this sense, W.A.G.E. Certification is a crucial component of Community Engagement. Far from a special effort, it's simply part of the job.
Claudia La Rocco
Head of Community Engagement