Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Exposure: A Teachable Moment.

Out in the Cold: Robert Smithson, Proposal for a Monument at Antarctica (1966) Mark Quinn, Self (1999)
This past Monday, Nate Thayer posted an email exchange in which he was approached for a 1200 word piece on "basketbal diplomacy", but was also informed by Olga Khazan, the new Global Editor of The Atlantic: "We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month." I caught wind of this kerfuffle yesterday when my twitter feed blew up. Felix Salmon noted: "There seem to be two kinds of websites: 'We're small, we can't pay you', and 'we're big, plz write for the exposure'." Nate Silver weighed in as well, warning: "If an editor offers no cash but says you'll get lots of exposure, you usually won't get very much exposure." And Matt Yglesias chipped in ironically (sarcastically? facetiously?): "Just discovered that many colleges run professional football teams whose players are unpaid and work for the exposure." This outrage was not contained to the wonk's corner of the blogosphere however, the pretense of "exposure" as pay got under the skin of the art people I follow as well. I was glad to see the outrage was shared by the art writer, Carolina Miranda, but also by the gallerist Magda Sawon. Sawon would seem to have no skin in the game, but does, because artists are the ultimate "freelancers." It was good for me personally to see the outrage reach the artworld, because late last month I had a similar exchange via email, and had been trying to decide if I should to post it.

Here's the thing: Thaye's email exchange is a tale of Thayer as a brave David vs. the Atlantic's exploitative Goliath. Thayer has every reason to feel proud and courageous; he can, and should stand tall. I on the other hand, was unnecessarily sharp, and embarrassed a obviously well-meaning art student. I feel bad about that. I am sharing my exchange, however, because it is extraordinary in one way: While I am, like every other artists I know, approached all the time by people I have never met, from institutions I know nothing about, to donate my labor for causes I have no connection with what-so-ever (usually to support the costs of running said institutions), and my answer is almost always the sort of "no thanks" I sent in this case, this case was different in one important way. What usually follows my "no thanks" is silence (embarrassed or otherwise, I have no idea, since I never hear from these people again). In this case I received an apology; that's a lifetime first.

Below is the email exchange between the art student, me, and her professor. Because, unlike Thayer who was righteously shaming a large institution, I don't want to cause anyone involved with my exchange any further embarrassment, I've removed all identifiers but my own (and corrected one small, but embarrassing, typo of my own):

The student's email (subject line. "gallery's name")
I am student's name from college's name and location. My Museum Studies II class, led by professor's name, has been put in charge of curating a museum exhibit at the gallery's name and location. It is associated with the museum's name, and is located in a prominent part of town. Our exhibit will consist of different Southern Contemporary artists from around the Southern area. We would like to extend an invitation for a piece or pieces of your art to be exhibited there for our museum exhibit. This invitation is exclusive. The exhibit opening will be May 3 and be open for six weeks. We cannot hang art from the ceiling. We give a two week window before May 3 that the art may be transported here. If you need assistance transporting any pieces, please let us know. We do not have funds for transportation, but if you are interested than we can do our best to get it here. Along with the pieces of art being exhibited in the gallery's name, we are able to put up your art and a link to your website on the college's name website for this exhibit. Please let me know if you are interested or have any further questions. Thank you for your time.  
student's name
My reply:
Hi student's name, 
Thanks for your interest in my work. I don't think it is fair for an institution of any kind to ask artists to pay to exhibit their work. If at some point your college should decide it values art enough to remunerate artists for their labor, please feel free to contact me then. 
Best regards, 
Professor's email (subject line, "an apology"):
Dear John, 
I apologize for having offended you. My student was almost in tears when she read your email to the class refusing our offer to participate in the exhibit. I then realized what a mistake I had made. Please accept my apologies. When I thought of having my museum studies students put together an exhibition, I talked with my friend freiend's name, who suggested artists in the area who might be interested. The students were very enthusiastic. Obviously our invitation really offended you, and I am very sorry. This is a class project and not one of the college's name. That’s why we have no money. Our college does indeed pay for transportation. But we are showing our exhibit in the gallery's name and location  I have told freiend's name that we both made a big mistake. 
All good wishes,  
professor's name
My Reply:
Dear professor's name
Thank you for your kind note, I'm now sorry my note to student's name wasn't clearer: I was not at all offended, but I did feel it was important that she (and you, and your school's administrators) understand exactly why I wasn't interested in participating in your show. 
I do think that you and freiend's name made a big mistake, one that is far too common, and that the origin of the error is institutional. Your college should provide you with funds if they want your students to interact with artists; all institutions, no matter how modest, should. 
Here's why: you are paid for your time and so are your superiors. I very much hope that you and your fellow faculty receive health benefits (although I know it's just as likely that you are kept part-time in order to deny you health care). But be that as it may, I'm certain your administrators and their staff are full-time and receive full benefits. 
While I think it's laudable for you to encourage your students to approach artists, I believe it teaches a very bad lesson to ask artist to provide unpaid labor in exchange for "exposure." Whether the artists are "local" or not, if you instruct your students to approach professionals, you should be prepared to pay those professionals for any and all expenses involved with participating in your show. 
While some artists may teach, or have other sorts of jobs that provide them stable incomes and full benefits, artistic labor is work most often done without guarantee (and most often, without hope) of recompense. Of all the professionals involved with your show (your's, your administrator's, their staff), the artists have the greatest financial exposure and are the only ones being asked to forgo pay. 
Like other Americans I am happy to volunteer my time and resources as much as I am able. But also like other Americans I don't do this because they have offered to put me on their website, or because of any other possibilities for "free" publicity - I do it because I have a relationship; that there is something I want to support; to be a part of. 
I am very sorry my email upset student's name  and I hope you will tell her so. And while I'm grateful for your apology (and happy to accept it unconditionally), I hope you will share this experience with your superiors (and your students). Artist's labor (local and otherwise, but especially local) shouldn't be taken for granted. In addition to the exposure they desire, your local artists need your support. Asking artists to support your institution, without offering them support in exchange, is far too common, but it is also predatory. 
If your administration doesn't want to provide funds for artists (no matter what the context: gallery, museum, or classroom), they should know what they are teaching their students: artistic labor has no value. Again, please believe that I am not offended, and that I very much appreciate your apology, but if we don't speak up about bad practices, no matter how wide spread, how can we ever hope to change the way things are done? 
Best regards, 
John Powers 
If I had this to do over again (and I am sure I will, as these sorts of offers for "exposure" in exchange for my time, materials, and even out-of-pocket expenses are a persistent reality), I'd be far more careful with my tone (I was traveling and replying via cell phone - not ideal). But I stand by reply. My advise to young artists about showing their work is to "never say 'no'" - but with one giant exception. As John Gapper reminded Felix Salmon, there is a third type of offer made by websites to freelancers: "You can pay us to publish your 'sponsored content'" - this is all-too-common an offer in the artworld as well. I tell students and young artists that they should never pay to show their work. Unfortunately, drawing the line between working for "exposure" and paying to show, is a blurry one.

We all have to make our peace with this in our own way. As I told a meeting of the W.A.G.E. group last year: if PS1, The Whitney, or the Brooklyn Museum asks me to participate in a show for free, there's no way I'd say no, and neither would any artist I know. (I have a higher threshold for institutions outside NYC, because it usually involves far greater resources to get work out of NYC, than to peddle it around the 5 boroughs). But that doesn't make it right.

No one is paid to be in the Whitney Biennial. Right about the time I was graduating from grad school, I watched an artist I knew and admired bankrupt himself to make a massive instillation for the Biennial. I never saw him or his work again - I think he gave up. He became an object lesson for me. Despite his example, I have, and no doubt will again, extended myself dangerously to work with people and institutions I admire and believe in (as has every artist I have ever met). But, as I explained to Kevin Buist and Paddy Johnson last year, I don't want to participate with practices I find predatory - even if I am not the one being preyed on. It's one of those "first they came fir the freelances, and I did not speak out..." moments. 


  1. This is a really great post. It's probably worth adding that while I don't have any problem with sponsored posts so long as they are labeled, whereas pay-for-play exhibitions are the lowest end of the spectrum you're talking about and I think deserve a resolute "No" no matter what the context.

    1. Thanks Paddy. We are of one mind on the subject of vanity shows. And you are absolutely right, pay-for-play deserve a resounding "no". The problem is that so often the lines between pay-to-play and pay-your-own-way blend together, and that's what I meant by blurry. My own experience was that showing was very important, as important (or perhaps even more important) as all the years of work I did privately, were my first opportunities to holding my work up for public scrutiny. Those early shows involved hundreds of hours of unpaid labor. 3.5 months working daily on an instillation for Exit Art, months of unpaid labor leading up to a show at Grand Arts... the list goes on. But I also got a lot more out of those early shows than"exposure" - tens of thousands of dollars in materials, technical assistance, and fabrication budgets. While I volunteered all that I had, they matched my efforts, not in pay, but in support. That is still an important measure for me, that a gallery shares my financial risk. That an institution shares my financial burden. That a school pays an honorarium that at least amounts to a reasonable wage. Every artist I have ever known approaches budgets the same way: not so much how much they can get, but how much can they do with however much they can get. The trick, when your just starting out, is figuring out when the people your working with are sharing risks and when you are being taken advantage of.

    2. I agree with everything you've laid out here, (but I still like ArtPrize.)

  2. Recently I was asked to be in a project at a major museum on the other side of the country. A month after the invitation I was given a budget number that wouldn't pay for a quarter of the plane ticket. I had to withdraw.

    A couple of years ago a museum invited me to do a project and then withdrew the funding. They had a very real budget issue and it was understandable that they no longer had money to hand out, but the problem was that they said "another artist has offered to pay for everything out of his own pocket but we'd rather have you, can you manage this?" I couldn't.

    Institutions ask artists to pay their own expenses because by the time artists are being asked to show at institutions most of the poor people have been weeded out. Art is a game for kids with rich parents, for the spouses of high income workers. Those people use their money to get ahead, it's the tie breaker when all things are even close to equal.

    1. You're posting anonymously, so you may feel embarrassed by that experience, but you shouldn't, and you shouldn't allow it to make you cynical. You didn't do anything wrong, but the people you were working with did, and I am guessing if their behavior was made public they would be ashamed of what they did.
      If this is something that happened recently, you should name yourself and name that institution, and the curator you were working with there. They deserve a public "dog shaming", and you deserve an apology.

  3. While all the broad points are understood and seem obvious, the error was made by the professor, not his institution. (That's unless 'the institution' in the person of the administrative individual who allowed the professor use of the museum deserves blame as well.) The professor arranged for his students to stage an art show with no funding. (It's not clear whether the professor or the student erred in the matter of payment for shipping the artwork.)

    Your response was directed at the institution and its failure to fund the exhibition in an equitable way. The reason this strikes me as germane is that the broad complaint you're making is against companies and institutions routinely taking unfair advantage of artists need for ways to market their work. While this is more than unseemly, it was not what happened in this case.

    This was not a case of a big institution lining its pockets or boosting its prestige at the expense of artists. It was apparently a misguided effort of a professor to expose his students to the process of curating a show, and failure of some mid- or lower-level administrative staff person to think through the implications of the project before allowing the museum to be used. The reason the professor apologized, as he well should have, was likely that he knew he'd unthinkingly allowed the institution to be seen in a bad light and feared the response if this incident became more public.

  4. As I read this I was thinking, geez how expensive would it be to ship down a print or something. Then I saw your art.


  5. BRAVO! Excellent points throughout. We've been sharing this with friends all over today.