Art and Work Within and Beyond Crisis. Part 2 – Art worlds.

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Given the economic depression outlined in part 1, the social order is bound to change. But, does that mean it will change for the better? Given the long road ahead, it could go either way at this point.

The idea of an “art world” can be an enigma. I am opposed to using the term “art world” as a single, monolithic idea that prioritizes mega galleries, major biennials, major public commissions, a small group of global art stars, the largest museums etc. There are several art worlds made up of many different individuals, sites, forms of labor, relationships to capital, methods of production and presentation, and differences in values, ethics, and aesthetics. These art worlds create a multi-dimensional assemblage of unique entities, each of which is impacted by its adjacency to the others, and the broader, systemic challenges within the economy. Terms, such as “art” or “activism” or “work”, mean different things to different people depending on their history with those terms, the positions in the art world they occupy, and other factors.

I have found it helpful to develop the following schematic to demystify this topic. The document below will follow this outline.

  1. Art worlds – three major parts (or standalone worlds):
  • Experimental, artist-run practices and projects
  • Non-profit spaces, small galleries, independent publishers, etc. Institutions with between $100,000 and $1 million operating expenses.
  • Large museums, institutions, commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, etc.

2. Types of labor in these worlds

There are various jobs in the art world that can be categorized as freelance, direct employment, sub-contracted, part-time, full-time, unionized, or otherwise.

  • Artists, writers, etc. – who are largely independent contractors.
  • Service workers, such as security guards or cafeteria staff.
  • Arts workers, such as art handlers or educators.
  • Office workers involved in administrative and managerial duties.
  • Directors, full-time, overseeing an institution, reporting to a board.

3. Core issues on the rise

  • The demands of workers and artists for equality, fair wages, conditions of employment, e.g. union organizing, workplaces free of racism and discrimination
  • Art’s relationship to debt, e.g. the premium on space or cost of an MFA program.
  • Art’s entanglement with money and the political economy, e.g. the protests against philanthropy and dark money, ambitious institutional growth goals, and the skyrocketing price of artworks.

4. How will the art world(s) be reshaped?

  • Pressure on the top from below
  • A reckoning in the middle layers
  • Reinvention, innovation and survival on the peripheries

With that outline in place, let’s unpack these ideas.

  1. Art worlds. Three major parts (or standalone worlds):
  • Experimental, artist-run practices and projects such as alternative exhibition spaces, radical forms of publishing, and home-based galleries, both physical and virtual. These are often created and run by artists themselves or groups of artists as part of or adjacent to their practices. While many of these may be a labor of love and reciprocity, not necessarily at a scale of employing workers, they are critical for accessing art and a form of vibrant energy for art and cultural production. Such hyper local or community spaces can be, at times and often incorrectly, read as minor from dominant power structures, yet they can hold the most transformative energy. How can such spaces survive and thrive in this environment when they often outside the flow of capital?
  • A world of horizontal non-profit spaces, small galleries, independent publishers, residency programs, university galleries and so on. I am thinking of these as institutions with between $100,000 and $1 million in total operating expenses. They often rely on grants, both state-funded and private, for forms of sustainability. These spaces can also be radical and transformative agents that make art accessible to communities.
  • The top-down, systematized art world of large museums, commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, and major academic, and cultural institutions. One could think of these as organizations with larger operating budgets in excess of $1 million. Artists are typically “invited” into these institutions. These institutions are increasingly metric-driven – income from eyeballs, ticket sales, and the donor class. These spaces are where the politics of the art world system play out on a public stage and end up in front page art news. This is where the plutocracy of the museum board intersects with its art workers, where the wealth and speculative behaviors of the finance industry intersect with a space that aims to welcome communities and encourage dissent.

This only an aerial sketch, and does not represent hard and fast classifications by any means. There is a wide amount of blurring between these categories and many, many sub-categories.

2. Types of labor in these worlds

  • Artists, who are largely independent contractors. Artists can also often play a dual role in holding employment in the art world such as an art handler or an educator.
  • Service workers, such as museum security guards or cafeteria workers.
  • Cultural workers, such as independent writers, critics, art handlers, and adjunct teachers.
  • Office workers involved in a range of administrative and managerial duties such as technology, HR, and finance.
  • Directors, full-time, overseeing an institution, reporting to a board

One could also categorize the types of labor as freelance, direct employment, sub-contracted, part-time, full-time, unionized, or otherwise.  The antagonism is increasing between these categories due to the growing inequality and discontent within capitalism at large and, now, the public health crisis.

What complicates things even more, is that these forms of labor are not evenly mapped over the art world’s various arenas. For example, an artist could double as an art handler in a larger institution and hold very different values from the governance of that institution. In other cases, politics do not evenly map across categories of labor, such as the historical examples of some 20th century unions excluding certain workers based on race and gender.

3. As it relates to art and work, over the last several years, I have seen three major issues surface in the art world(s):

  • The demands of workers and artists for equality, fair wages, conditions of employment, e.g. union organizing, workplaces free of racism and discrimination.
  • Art’s relationship to debt e.g. the premium on space or cost of an MFA program.
  • Art’s entanglement with money e.g. the protests against philanthropy and dark money, ambitious institutional, growth goals, the skyrocketing price of artworks.

The demands of workers and artists for equality, fair wages, conditions of employment, e.g. union organizing, workplaces free of racism and discrimination.

In 2019 there was a marked rise in arts and cultural workers, educators, and artists organizing (which has a long history not included here). Here in New York, workers from the New Museum successfully formed a union represented by the UAW Local 2110, which also represents MoMA (a long-standing union site). The UAW is the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. Unions were formed at the Tenement Museum and the Guggenheim. In other parts of the country, Workers at the Frye Museum organized, while those at the Marciano Art Foundation and LA MoCA sought unionization, the latter under the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCM), which represents workers at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. In addition, Kickstarter, the software platform used by artists unionized, which is one of the first white-collar tech companies to do so (in addition to Glitch).

These efforts were not slam dunks, but the result of an enduring struggle filled with setbacks. Despite large institutions’ civic-minded mission statements, and hosting many exhibitions that promote democratic thinking and challenge the logic of capitalism and power, generally speaking, they demonstrate a lack of support for union organizing. At times, museums all too often consider themselves too unique or prestigious, distinct from other industries, where labor organizing is common. This logic makes little sense given the economic sacrifices many arts workers in the cultural sector make to work for large cultural institutions. In addition, workers, who are unable to make sacrifices to join the cultural sector are left behind, which contributes to forms of resentment between the working class and cultural elite.

There have also been horizontal efforts around collective organizing across roles. The Art Handler’s Alliance NY has created a Bill of Rights and has conducted survey work to reveal the impact of the crisis on cultural workers. Methods like these can help hold employers to higher labors across the field. An excerpt from the manifesto states: 

Art Handlers are the backbone of a growing and profitable industry. We possess an essential and highly specialized skill set upon which the industry depends to function. With this declaration, we assert not only our value as individual working professionals, but also our value to each other as members of a community of workers.

The rise in spontaneous strikes and calls to action around the U.S. are not limited to the art world. On November 1, 2018, 20,000 Google workers (10% of its total workforce) walked out on strike. (1) While this was the largest tech walkout to date, it certainly has not been the only one. Silicon Valley has a long history of strikes and 2018-2019 was a beehive of activity led by tech workers themselves. (2).

The tech worker movement has found traction in vertical integration. In such an example, software developers, who are retained, well paid, and given preferable working conditions, have advocated for the service workers or warehouse workers, who are treated as replaceable and working under much more precarious conditions. This high-profile example at Amazon occurred in early May when a top executive, Tim Bray, resigned over the treatment of warehouse workers during the crisis.

Even in worst-case scenarios, such as layoffs, the efforts of workers organizing have shown success. In mid-May, Kickstarter laid off a significant amount of its employees, but it was the Kickstarter Union which fought for the best possible severance packages.

Educators, adjunct teachers and graduate school workers are also organizing during the crisis in response to job insecurity, the challenges of austerity, and the risk of reopening. (3) The salaries of adjunct professors can barely support families, yet their labor is vital to institutions and students. Adjuncts have not been properly set up for distanced teaching, and simultaneously fear losing their healthcare and support for unemployment insurance. (4)

The crisis has hit artists and creative workers on the jobs front – 62% of artists and creative workers are fully unemployed because of COVID and 80% do not yet have a plan to recover. (5) 

Art’s relationship to debt

Last year, I visited an artist who, at the start of the studio visit, wrote their grad school debt down on a piece of paper. It was an amount over $100,000. Our conversation focused on recovery from this debt in finding work and we barely spoke about the art work itself.

The model of accruing grad school debt in order to reach commercial gallery success entails a huge risk for the student. There is not enough space in the commercial art world to give graduates hope of paying it back. Debt can also lead to art being categorized as a materialized commodity, a mechanism of payback. This limits the potential of the work of art’s reach and social transformation before it is even made. 

Debtfair, a project by Occupy Museums, explores this issue in a manifesto stating, “Debt is the key to seeing American art today.” 

Image courtesy Debtfair

Debt brings into focus a booming art market parallel to a generation of culture workers slipping into financial ruin. All debts are connected.

The average American artist today is a debtor; financializing their visions, unable to see beyond cresting loan payments, artists are pressured to adopt the aesthetics–and the politics–most pleasing to the market. They have become conditioned to wade ever deeper into financial risk in exchange for aspirations of success in the art market. (6)

How can artwork challenge the status quo if seeking to abolish the same system it clings to for sustenance? How will artistic education, such as MFA programs, respond and nurture alternative and radical practices given the mountain of debt that encapsulates their pedagogy and programs?

I am hopeful we will see more collective action to support students and cultural workers, including momentum in the fight for college for all.

Art’s entanglement with money

Art has an intertwined and increasingly turbulent relationship with money. Art objects are not necessarily value-based commodities that can be correlated to the productive working hours and effort put into making them. Yet, some are actually conceived this way.  Increasingly we see them treated as commodities, to be invested in and acquired. This carries through to how some art is presented, in rooms with plaques named after large donors and financiers like the Sackler family, who have well-documented cases profiting from violent products. In addition, this same art ecosystem runs on unpaid and underpaid forms of labor from interns, art workers, and artists.

WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2018/12/09: Activists took over the lobby at the Whitney Museum of American Art to protest and demand the removal of the museums board of directors Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders. Kanders is the CEO of Safariland, a corporation that manufactures the tear gas used against migrant families presently at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In 2015, Jillian Steinhauer wrote a piece for Hyperallergic called, “The Unlikely Relationship Between the Whitney and Riot Gear.” The piece, tipped by AFC, was the first example of art world reporting that dug into the relationship between Warren Kanders, president of Safariland, a tear gas manufacturer, and his role on the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees. She writes:

Facing Tear Gas calls Kanders a “war profiteer,” which, despite the legality of his business, is probably how most people perceive what he does. He makes money off of the increasing militarization of the US police, and then he gives that money — some of it, anyway — to a major art museum. Welcome to life in the nonprofit industrial complex.

On November 27, 2018, Hyperallergic reported again on the topic after cans of Safariland tear gas were used by US border agents on asylum seekers and children from Central America along the US-Tijuana border.

On July 25th, 2019, after months of signed letters and sustained protests by artists, staff, and educators at the Whitney, Warren Kanders resigned. This a quintessential example of art’s entanglement with dark money, but not the only one.

In February 2019, Nan Goldin and Sackler P.A.I.N, the activist group she created a year earlier, held a protest at the Met Museum. The group demanded the Met, and other museums, refuse philanthropy from and disavow the Sackler name, based on the family’s role in marketing OxyContin through Purdue Pharma. Goldin’s relentless pursuit of the Sackler’s originated from her personal experience with the opioid and her vision to eradicate the stigma from the opioid epidemic.

 Photographer Nan Goldin with protesters at the V&A, calling for the museum to drop the Sackler name and stop accepting the family’s money. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

These are powerful examples. And, these are just a few of the examples where dark money is seen on museum boards or wall placards. For instance, Zachary Small took a look at the rest of the Whitney’s board where trustees continue to be linked to dirty money. (7)

Now, is a time for more people to rally around collective, systemic change in the operating structures of these large cultural institutions. Calling out single board members can work on a one-off basis, but more sweeping, transformative industry-wide changes are needed.  The examples above, amongst others, bring into sharp relief how museums and larger cultural institutions need to rethink their relationship to growth, funding, and scale, and to re-imagine their role in the community.

Andrea Fraser recently pointed out the growth mindset tied to the industry: 

The rising costs of museums, which necessitate huge gifts from wealthy donors, are not primarily driven by board members. They are driven by the ambitious expansion plans of directors, the grand visions of starchitects and the skyrocketing prices of artists’ work. This growth is driven by competition and ambition, not by need. It creates an extremely steep pyramid of resource distribution, in which a few individuals and institutions at the top absorb the vast majority of the total resources in the field. The corporate populist museum needs spectacle and the whole system flatters donors into funding it. (7)

As I was thinking about this topic, I received a survey from the National Public Engagement study on this question. The questions in the survey highlight how the museum model will continue to be challenged to legitimize itself. Beyond the battleground it has become, how should the museum seek to care, heal, and educate the communities it serves differently during this crisis?

If we didn’t pour energy into those top-down systems, what types of social organizations could we build? How can we sustain the less commoditized parts of the art world? How do we move towards building more collective forms of care and practice to sustain ourselves along the way? How do the services and roles of art organizations that support artists need to be reshaped to help artists, especially those who have been left out of the conversation?

4. I think the art worlds will be reshaped in the following ways.

  • Pressure on the top from below 
  • A reckoning in the middle layers
  • Reinvention and survival on the peripheries

Pressure on the top from below. The world of large commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, and major academic, and cultural institutions will broadly seek a return to “business as usual.” There are ambitious growth goals at stake, after all. However, they will face tremendous pressure on the equality, or lackthereof, in their models from within by their workers and from outside by their communities.  They will have to deal with this pressure while they continue to align themselves to top-down pressure to maintain their scale and growth. I would categorize their changes in response to the pandemic this way: 

  • Significant employee headcount reductions, even in areas that are needed in a crisis like education (9).

  • Micro-adjustments that reify their position – everything from slick online viewing rooms at fairs to larger wall labels to prevent crowded spaces when in-person viewing resumes.  Part of this world is engaging in tech ventures to “support or extend” their existing models, for example, Sotheby’s gallery network, David Zwirner’s Platform with online galleries, Hauser & Wirth’s ArtLab digital residency, and more. Sotheby’s intention is to focus on accelerating sales: “Sotheby’s Gallery Network is being implemented during this time to offer our gallery peers support and a new way to sell works quickly and efficiently. We are hopeful that the model can outlast our present circumstance and provide a valuable, full-service transactional tool in the future, particularly for galleries that do not otherwise have this functionality.”

  • A continued battlefield towards shaping their governance structures and the values in how they operate. These institutions will face ethical challenges that they will have to contend with (unless they implement broader structural changes), ranging from worker inequality, “pay to play” trustee models, the lack of community, artist, and worker representation in how they operate, and the reliance on business metrics (in the case of academic institutions). Several museum leaders will be ousted by ongoing reports from workers on the grounds of racism and discrimination that have been going on for too long without change. 

Buried behind the scenes in the shift online is the digital divide. Citizens and students with disabilities or those who lack proper computer access are left to play catch up. Educators within the most ailing organizations are forced to take on the brunt of filling in that gap. Expect to hear the social demand for “internet for all” to be shouted more widely. 

A reckoning in the middle layers. It is challenging to see how organizations with smaller operating budgets, reliant on funding, can sustain at their current size and scope. These are some of my favorite spaces, but without reinventing their models, or significant donor stimulus, cash flow will simply dry up. Patreon, and other forms of crowdfunding, will only scale up so much.  The organizations that rely on online presence, like net art organizations, or those incubated by host organizations, may have a greater chance of survival. 

Worker centers such as Make the Road NY and new forms of work organizations such as Cultural Workers Education Center, which is housed inside PS122 gallery in New York, will continue to strengthen their support of workers (all workers, including undocumented workers). These spaces will continue to foster support for workers in their communities and augment the role of traditional unions. These worker centers all function in unique ways, but what I find ties them together is their accessibility and ability to create intimate, pragmatic, personal spaces that can help workers learn a skill, vent, or cope.  And how they bring visibility to workers’ issues , connecting artists and cultural workers in various sectors. 

Reinvention and survival on the peripheries. In parellel with pure survival techniques, I believe there will be a beehive of energy in the periphery of experimental, artist-run practices, and projects such as alternative exhibition spaces, radical forms of publishing, and home-based galleries, both physical and virtual. This is where new imaginaries, new frameworks, and decentralized, horizontal formats are incubated and sustained. These are the spaces that will re-energize many artists to avoid burnout  and stay sane. As people rethink what home means to them in quarantine, I am excited to see more alternative spaces online, in sheds, homes, and on land emerge.

Inside the space of energy, I think we also could include arts workers who are engaged in a form of mutual aid, gathering and distributing supplies.

Artists, curators, writers, and organizers who seek horizontal structures will relish and produce creative energies in these spaces. 

While the wave of online programming is a nightmare for legacy institutions, the net art community has been pioneering new radical forms of online art and new digital presentation formats for decades. I hope many more people will come to understand the history and power of net art with the acceleration of online programming. 

Given the scope of the economic depression we face, artists and cultural workers, like millions of other workers, are getting hit hard. Given the prolonged recovery and lack of sustainability in the art world, even before the crisis, many may need to hustle for other forms of employment by selling their labor power elsewhere in the economy.

Unfortunately, almost every employer is cutting back or pausing hiring. Does that mean more artists will be working at the very few places hiring at scale, such as Walmart, Amazon, and Dollar General? Perhaps. Many already are. Going back to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917, the idea that the artist is not a savior or hero, but a worker within society has now been in circulation for over 100 years.

I will end this section with a passage from Max Haiven’s No Artist Left Alive, in which  he articulates the artists’ role in the common fight for social progress:  

Ultimately, what is likely best for artists is what is best for all workers: universal high quality free public services and the abolition of the wage-discipline of capitalism. These demands seem possible surprisingly today and are in a strange way an actually existing fact in the emergency. If artists make common cause with others, we might be able to preserve and extend these, and so abolish capitalism as such. (10)


  1. The walkout was in protest to how Google handled the exit of an executive, Andy Rubin, paying him $90 million and lavishing him with praise without disclosing he had been accused of sexual misconduct by a female coworker.
  2. See this tech movement tracker and the history of the Tech Workers’ Movement.
  3. Cory Rubin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, recently wrote a sobering essay about the stark contrast between elite and public universities and the case of getting back to business as usual.
  4. See Anthros Against Austerity.
  5. Data from The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Culture Sector and The COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers, as of April 21, 2020. 
  7. Small, Zachary, A Closer Look Into the Whitney Museum’s Board, Hyperallergic
  8. A conversation between Andrea Fraser and Michelle Millar Fisher
  9. See Museum staff impact by Michelle Noon