Confronting the Depreciation of Artists’ Work

Title Magazine’s Mimi Cheng writes about her experience as an unpaid intern, the culture industry, and suggestions on ways to correct the imbalance of unpaid positions.

In “This Will Be a Great Experience: On Unpaid Labor in the Culture Industry,” Cheng begins by talking about her year of service as a fellow to the Slought Foundation.  She acknowledges their small running budget, but points to the “revolving door” of unpaid workers Slought depends on.  She has mixed feelings about the situation.  While her unpaid labor “can be viewed as institutional exploitation,” she also recognizes how she benefited from “the opportunity to work with some of the most interesting, engaging, and provocative cultural practitioners of our times.”

How often have we heard from some knowledgeable person that “you’re gaining experience, just do it”?  And, as the economy slowed in the last 5 years, more and more of us were taking unpaid jobs just to work “in our field.”  But on an individual level, it is just not sustainable.  And it might be hurting the industry itself to value artists and cultural workers in this way.

I had a meeting with Mary Salvante in the middle of the summer.  Salvante is the curator at Rowan University’s gallery and also runs Salvante Fine Art Services.

She was gracious enough to come to my studio and talk to me about my work and how to “get it out there.”  We began to talk about the problems of installation art–how to finance it and whether or not it can be commoditized.  I told Salvante that I mostly fund my own art out of whatever I have in the bank account–a situation I do not think is uniquely my own.  And, while I’d love to sell more work, I told her how difficult it is to price portions of my installations.  “They are not archival and they are not editioned,” I explained, talking about some of my multiples.  That was not the problem according to Salvante.  She felt that selling off portions of my installations devalued the installation as a whole and pointed to the artist Christo as an example.

Mary Salvante told me that Christo funds the majority of his installations by selling pieces that are tangentially related to his installations, but not pieces of them.  He might make a print of a design or sketch-up he drew, for example.  Thus, no one could own his true, most important work, but they could own something he did.  In some ways, this shuffling around of the “object” creates more desire.  In many ways, all of this is mere psychological square dancing. Dosado your partner into buying something he did not know he wanted.  Nonetheless, it solves one of the problems Christo would have with his work–devaluing the art.

Cheng addresses some of this in her essay.  She writes, “On a societal level, how we compensate cultural labor is symptomatic of the value we assign its products or outcomes.”  If we as workers in the art world do not value our products and our services no one will.  If we are willing to give it away for free, why should someone pay?  Or if we’re willing to give it away on the cheap, well, then it is cheap.

And yet, Cheng also brings up the point that sometimes money can be a hindrance.  Quoting from Bodega’s essay for The First Among Equals show at the ICA, Bodega claims, “In a way, being financially un-beholden works to our favor; the larger an organization gets, the slower it moves. The fact that Bodega is operated by five individuals who are only accountable to one another—not a board, clients, or annual reports—aids in our independence from external interests and enables our agility as a cultural organization.”  I also think about Bill Cunningham, the photographer, made famous for his amazing photo-speads in periodicals like Vogue and the New York Times, and encapsulated by the documentary film Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham says in the documentary, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid. That’s the key to the whole thing.”

So, where does this leave us? Where does this leave Mimi Cheng?  In the end she’s advocating practical solutions (like giving interns SEPTA passes or reduced dormitory costs from the universities that require internships of their students), but she is also seeing this question as greater than just that of the unpaid internship.   “The opportunity exists,” says Cheng, “to produce new means and forms of cultural production that resist the status quo by considering the conditions in which art and cultural labor can be justly compensated, exchanged and valued, even if not fully formalized.”  And she thinks Philadelphia is the perfect location to do it.

To read the entire article from Title Magazine, click here.

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