Work and Art Within and Beyond Crisis. 2.

2. Art worlds

Given the economic depression and crises, the culture industries are transforming. But, does that mean the labor processes in these industries under the capitalist mode of production will change for the better? Will we see better institutions that are more just and equal for the workers who make these institutions run, institutions whose workforce is representative of the diversity of our society, and, institutions that stand by the values they present instead of performative gestures that signal ethics.

I won’t speculate on the future too much, but rather focus on the current impact of the art world.

The following chapter is outlined into 3 parts

  1. Art worlds
  2. Labor classifications
  3. Labor-Capital problems

1. Art Worlds. The idea of an “art world” is an enigma. I am opposed to using the term “art world” as a single, monolithic idea. The term “art world” tends to subordinate all structures and modes of art under a sort of “ruling class” in the form of mega galleries, major biennials, major public commissions, a small group of global art stars, the largest museums etc.

The reality is that there are several art worlds made up of many different layers, forms of labor, relationships to capital, sites of production and presentation, and differences in ideologies, skills, and values. These art worlds create a multi-dimensional assemblage, where each world impacted by its adjacency to the others, and the broader economy.

Across these worlds, terms, such as “art”, “value”, “work”, “labor”, mean different things to different people depending on their history and relationship with those terms, their own mode of production, the social relations of labor, capital, and art, and other factors.

For my use here, I have segmented the enigma of an art world into three parts. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of the topic, but a high-level schematic to peel back some of the layers.

  1. Experimental, artist-run practices and projects.
  2. Non-profit spaces, small galleries, independent publishers, etc. Institutions with between $100,000 and $1 million operating expenses.
  3. Large museums, institutions, commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, etc. Institutions with more than $1 million operating expenses.

Image: © NASA

Experimental, artist-run practices and projects. These could include alternative exhibition spaces and projects, para-institutions, assemblies, collectives, small publishers, experimental galleries, both physical and virtual, on the public web or dark web. These projects are often created and run by individuals or small groups. Many of these projects do not employ a formal group of workers (outside of the founders) or have a formal hierarchy. These projects 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 of the art world, yet they can hold the most transformative energy. I believe these spaces are a source of resilience in the art world economy given they can run in autonomous or semi-autonomous ways, with limited capital expenditure, and make use of flexible shared resources.

Non-profit spaces, small galleries, independent publishers, etc. Institutions with between $100,000 and $1 million operating expenses. These institutions often rely on grants or other forms of capital, both state-funded and private, for sustainability. These spaces can also be radical and transformative agents that make art accessible to communities. At times, they can be run with a single director, limited part time staff, a group of volunteers, and a board. We have already seen some of the spaces changing their current programs due to decreases in operating budgets – some are focusing on platform models, or pausing programming for 2021, or operating with less staff. Some have closed after prolific, long runs as experimental spaces in the art world e.g. Art in General.

Large museums, institutions, commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, etc. Institutions with more than $1 million operating expenses. This is the part of the art world closest to the capitalist mode of production. 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. These institutions have a formal hierarchy where the plutocracy of the museum board intersects with its art workers, and where the wealth and speculative behaviors of the finance industry intersect with art. Theiir labor model mirrors that of other industries where employees manage or are managed. And, where there is focus on work broken down by specific tasks. This breakdown of tasks allows the museum to evaluate the cost of labor from the entry level job on up creating a situation of income inequality. For example, “at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), director Glenn Lowry walks home with almost $2.3 million a year (plus a $6 million rent-free apartment), which is about 48 times the salary of an education assistant at the museum[efn_note]Bishara, Hakim, “Spreadsheet Highlights Major Income Disparities at Cultural Institutions”, Hyperallergic, April 29, 2020.”[/efn_note]

Within these institutions, the mode of operations is increasingly metric-driven, meticulously tracking every eyeball, ticket sales, every auction sale, etc. Also, We have seen major changes e.g. departures in this sector already with various museum leaders facing a reckoning for their treatment of employees that has been channeled into the public sphere.

2. Labor Classifications

As an organization moves from a smaller, experimental program to a large museum or institution, its relationship to the labor-capital problem changes. The institution becomes more entrenched in the capitalist mode of production. A large institution includes many layers and many different worlds within it, from board members, senior-management, middle layers as buffers, to frontline workers. There have been antagonisms coming to a head in large institutions from discrimination to union busting (which I will discuss in this chapter).

There are various jobs in the art world that span freelance, direct employment, sub-contracted, part-time, full-time, and unionized work. These categories are not mutually exclusive.

  • Artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. most of whom could be classified as independent contractors.
  • Service workers, such as security guards, retail, or cafeteria staff.
  • Office workers involved in administrative and managerial duties.
  • Contractors, such as builders or consultants.
  • Arts workers, such as art handlers, installers, museum educators, engineers, technicians, programmers.
  • Directors, full-time, overseeing an institution, reporting to and members of a board.
  • Board members, trustees, advisors.

These forms of labor don’t always correspond to a particular job. For example, an artist could have a secondary job as an art handler in a larger institution.

3. Labor-Capital problem. The antagonisms between those who labor and those who control labor (senior management) is widening.

The capitalist mode of production, which extracts surplus value from the labor it controls, has given rise to a number of issues in the last few years. These issues mirror those faced by workers across industries.

The demands of workers.

Cultural workers have been fighting for equality, fair wages, conditions of employment, the right to organizing, and workplaces free of racism and discrimination.

In the last year, we have seen a rise in arts and cultural workers, educators, artists, and citizens organizing.

Here in New York, workers from the New Museum successfully formed a union represented by the UAW Local 2110, which also represents workers at MoMA. 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.

Going back to the video shared in part 1 about the proposed layoffs to District Council 37 workers, this union also represents workers at The Met and Brooklyn Museum.

In addition, Kickstarter, the software platform used by artists unionized, which is one of the first white-collar tech companies to do. Glitch was another software company to unionize.

Throughout this year, the Guggenheim Union has been in an ongoing fight with the museum for a fair 1st contract[efn_note]Schindel, Dan. “A Short Film Captures the Guggenheim Union Protest on Museum Opening Day”, October 15, 2020.[/efn_note]

Unionization continues to be a form of labor power that can help fight back for higher wages, benefits, and fair contracts.

These efforts were not slam dunks, but the result of an unending struggle between workers and management. Despite large institutions’ civic-minded mission statements, and their presentation of exhibitions that challenge notions of power and inequality, 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. These economic sacrifices include low wages and minimal pay raises for workers who are contending with rising costs in housing, healthcare, food, and transportation. As museums reopen these last weeks, workers now have to contend with keeping themselves safe on-site.

Workers at MoMa are caught in such a bind. A recent interview on NPR highlights how these workers are concerned about returning to work in-person given the healthcare pandemic, yet unable to risk losing their jobs[efn_note]National Public Radio, “MoMA Workers Must Decide Whether To Return To Work Amid Pandemic, Morning Edition, September 24, 2020.[/efn_note]

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. Think for a moment about the resentment that Trump voters have against the democratic elite about jobs. They want to bring America back to the days where the wages were higher, the work less routinized. Those days are long gone for any industry that capital has encroached into. The capitalist mode of production has continuously thrust these workers, like all proletarian workers, into other industries, where wages are lower, or into the industrial reserve army of unemployed workers.

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.”[efn_note]Art Handler’s Alliance of New York, Bill of Rights[/efn_note]

This model of horizontally organized communities is able to bring visibility to workers’ issues, connecting museum and cultural workers, along with artists in solidarity, across institutions.  The Museums Workers Happy Hour is another example which includes members of all the major New York City museums.

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[efn_note] 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.[/efn_note]

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 [efn_note]Paul, Kari, Amazon executive resigns over company’s ‘chickenshit’ firings of employee activists, The Guardian, May 4, 2020.[/efn_note]

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. 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 [efn_note]Rubin, Cory. “The Pandemic Is the Time to Resurrect the Public University”, The New Yorker, May 7, 2020.[/efn_note]

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. Anthros Against Austerity, “#CutCovidNotCuny”, May 4, 2020.

Barbara Bowen, Professor of English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is President of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC)/CUNY. DC37 rally, September 22nd, 2020. Photo: Brett Wallace

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[efn_note]”Americans for the Art, The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Culture Sector, April 21, 2020.[/efn_note]

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. That changed the entire conversation. We barely spoke about the art work itself and focused on topics of employment.

The skills acquired in art school, from conceptualization to making, don’t easily translate into employment that can pay down that amount of art school debt.

The model of commercial gallery success entails a low probability and huge risk for any student. There is not enough space in the commercial art world to give graduates hope of paying it back. Some artists may not even want to enter the commercial sphere of the art world and choose to live and practice in other ways.

Debt can also lead to a situation, where the artist feels pressured into finding mechanisms of payback. This may include creating materialized commodities that can float between mega art events, big galleries, auction houses, collectors homes. Obviously, not all artists who shows in these spaces lean into commodification, and there are artists who don’t shows in these spaces that do. There are no perfect swim lanes here.

One issue with commodification is that it not only limits the potential of the work of art’s reach and social transformation after it is made, it can also hamstring the artistic process before anything is even made. 

Debtfair, a project by Occupy Museums, explores the debt 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[efn_note]Debtfair, Debtfair Manifesto[/efn_note].

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?

Art’s entanglement with money

Art has an intertwined relationship with money. At times, a relationship that is turbulent. There are a few examples that come to mind.

Art objects are not necessarily value-based commodities that can be correlated to the productive working hours and effort put into making them. Yet, increasingly we see art objects treated as commodities, to be invested in and acquired, with some blended purpose of appreciation and wealth accumulation. This said, I have nothing against buying and selling of artwork. What I have an issue with is the capitalist mode of production entering all industries, including art and forms of social mode, to subordinate everything to its mode. I think there will always be a space for art outside capital because it can made without a formal production process, without an explicit goal, on its own terms.

In other cases, we the issue how some art structures, including high-end dealer, employ unpaid interns or underpaid forms of labor.

This art-money problem also manifests itself, at times, in the funding, presentation of art. And, in some cases, how artists are holding specific funders accountable. One example that is still unfolding is the work of Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N to hold the Sackler family accountable.


I narrowly escaped. I went from the darkness and ran full speed into The World. I was isolated, but I realized I wasn’t alone. When I got out of treatment I became absorbed in reports of addicts dropping dead from my drug, OxyContin.

I learned that the Sackler family, whose name I knew from museums and galleries, were responsible for the epidemic. This family formulated, marketed, and distributed OxyContin. I decided to make the private public by calling them to task. My first action is to publish personal photographs from my own history.”[efn_note]Goldin, Nan. Sackler PAIN[/efn_note]

In February 2019, Nan Goldin and Sackler P.A.I.N (Prescription 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 the Sacklers, and disavow the family’s name, based on the family’s role in marketing the opioid, OxyContin, through their ownership of 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

Another example was the situation with Warren Kanders, CEO of Safariland. Kanders was on the Whitney Museum’s board, but he also ran a company producing tear gas used by the military and law enforcement[efn_note]In July 2015, Jillian Steinhauer, on a tip from Art F City, wrote an essay in Hyperallergic, “The Unlikely Relationship Between the Whitney and Riot Gear.”  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.[/efn_note] His role at the museum, and the source of his wealth, came to a head based on demands from members of the museum’s staff, artists, activist groups, culture workers, citizens etc. On July 25th, 2019, after months of signed letters and sustained protests by artists, staff, and educators at the Whitney, Warren Kanders resigned.

This is a system issue as much as it is an individual donor issue. The reasons is that there is lots of dirty money on the hands of board members, collectors, etc. 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.”[efn_note] Fraser, Andrea. “Why Are Museums So Plutocratic, and What Can We Do About It?”,, February 26, 2020 [/efn_note]

I am left with a few open questions to the art-money entanglement. How should the museum seek to care, heal, and educate the communities it serves differently during and beyond this crisis? What other models can smaller institutions play as funding dries up and they are forced to rethink their current mode?

The purpose of this notebook is not to speculate, but to archive current developments of labor under capitalism. That said, I will share a few thoughts on changes in the art world to come.

Business as usual. The world large commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, and major academic, and cultural institutions will broadly seek a return to “business as usual.” For the institutions following capitalism’s mode of production to make profit, they will test new platforms to sell works quicker. Sotheby’s and David Zwirner are a few examples here that come to mind.

Sotheby’s Gallery Networks provides an online, buy-now marketplace for contemporary art from our trusted gallery partners. With complete price transparency and seamless online checkout for artworks under $150,000, Sotheby’s Gallery Network gives clients access to prized gallery inventory, with many artworks coming direct from the artist’s studio.”[efn_note]Sothebys[/efn_note]

Many of the large institutions will be also challenged with new protocols, such as slick online viewing rooms at fairs to larger wall labels to prevent crowded spaces. If these initiatives take precedent over what employees who make the museum what it is, the result will be increased tensions. 

Tensions.  In some cases, the ambition plans of large institutions to make profit (or hit other goals) will create antagonistic social relations between senior management and workers. These antagonisms could include employee layoffs, lack of fair pay of benefits for employees, too much reliance on profit[efn_note]“Museum Staff Impact of COVID-19”.[/efn_note]

And, as we have seen already, more executives 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.

The middle layers. Many organizations with smaller operating budgets, reliant on funding, will be challenged sustain at their current size and scope. These spaces will be confronted with reinventing their models as previous donor funding decreases. The organizations that rely on online presence, like net art organizations, or those incubated by host organizations, may have a greater chance of keeping their current pace given their lower cost of operating expenses.

Beehives of energy.

Experimental, artist-run practices and projects are beehives of community and energy. These spaces re-energize us, foster new imaginaries, new frameworks, and decentralized, horizontal formats are incubated and sustained. As people rethink what home means to them in quarantine, I think we will see more alternative spaces online, in sheds, homes emerge. These spaces may produce or present works, but they could also engage in forms of mutual aid, such as gathering and distributing supplies.

Net art. 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. 

Art jobs. 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 and art workers will be thrust into working at the very few places hiring at scale, such as Walmart, Amazon, and Dollar General? Perhaps. Many already are. This further illustrates how the artist is not a savior, in a studio far away from the relations of society, but, in many cases, the artist is a worker within society selling their labor. 


Next chapter –>>>