Money for nothing

For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, NSFS logoTate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.

This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’

In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain.No Soul For Sale?

Not everyone was in sharing mood, however. The greatest visual equivalent of this underclass attitude among the half-empty and shambolic spaces of No Soul For Sale was the padlocked façade of a foreclosed home presented by the Brooklyn-based Not An Alternative. In the installation’s accompanying essay, filmmaker Astra Taylor posits a critical stance towards such participatory celebrations, in which: ‘Every action is subsumed by a new framework, including our very sociability – our likes and desires, our heartfelt comments and curiosities – which are mined, analyzed, and monetized by the new powerbrokers.’ Rather than looking towards the wider economic crisis or social media’s digital encroachment onto privacy, maybe they should have looked closer to home.

And what of this mythical, unquantifiable gain? Is it meant to be a warm, fuzzy feeling? Perhaps for those at Tate Modern it was supposed to be a great showcase for their alternative positions in the belly of the institutional beast? Those who penned the open letter clearly believe that this exchange might be closer to outright exploitation, with Tate benefiting through increased audiences and shop revenues while participants remain out of pocket. One commenter to my piece online said: ‘No money for materials, tickets or accommodation… Some coffee I think. Nice one Tate.’ Let’s call this the art system’s hidden ‘Gift Economy’ – working for nothing or for some ethereal glow of mutual advantage. We should even be grateful. Never mind the political backdrop of a new government here in the UK that’s about to slash arts budgets across the board, this must be a familiar scenario for struggling art professionals the world over.

5 thoughts on “Money for nothing

  1. Unpaid work in the arts can fall into several categories:

    Volunteering: an expression of commitment or support–a form of charity or citizen initiative in which you freely donate your time and effort.

    Outsider art: art made outside the confines of the professional arts system, without immediate expectation of financial reward.

    Protest: Art made to advance a social or political agenda, or to make a point about the rejection of markets and institutions.

    Amateur art: Art undertaken as a private pastime or a form of sociability in which creative activity is its own reward.

    The Tate show falls into none of these categories. To me it is best described as “involuntary volunteering”–volunteering because you didn’t have a better option. Analogies include unpaid internships and unremunerated writing and academic labor.

    At most, one can say there is a transaction involved: The artists invest time and money so they can say they have been exhibited at the Tate.

    In the US right now, Congress is starting to take a look at the legality of unpaid internships. It seems to me, the Tate artists should, at least, be entitled to a tax exemption for their donated materials and time.

  2. Hmmm. I am not sure I can go along with the sentiments expressed by both Ossian and Andras on this. In difficult economic times, with a multitude of artists and would be artists around, and a shortage of sponsorship and support for galleries and museums, it is inevitable that strong venues, like Tate Modern, will use their drawing power to bring artists and visitors together at no cost to the venue.

    Everyone here gains, or they wouldn’t be taking part. Whatever the grumbling and posturing, everyone approached had a choice whether or not to pay their own costs to participate. So why did they do it, even if they complained as they did? For the publicity and CV kudos that goes along with a work on display at Tate Modern, of course.

    There have never been as many artists competing for gallery space as there are today. There have never been as many Art schools and Art graduates as there are today. And there has never been as much competition for the albeit growing number of eyeballs that keep the circus that we know as the contemporary Art market rolling along.

    So of course many took the opportunity to have a work on the walls or in the halls of this relatively young but no less august institution. And of course Tate Modern took advantage of the fact that they had the drawing power to do it. And of course the public is going along to see it because it makes a good story and good stories draw crowds.

    I don’t see a problem with the concept at all. It is a good contemporary example of the Art Market at work. As for the work in question? Well that is another matter…

  3. The notion that the Tate benefited more than those who freely agreed to the participation terms doesn’t stand up to scrutiny IMO. How else were those groups going to reach that audience? Was there another festival in an equally prestigious venue offering them space AND payment? If so, why didn’t they take it?

    I’ll go even further than Ian and argue that there was considerable cost to the Tate in providing the space (staff, insurance, security, utilities, hardware, restoration costs, administrator’s time and effort, etc.) for this event. Had the Tate charged the participants a fee, then I could understand the griping, but even then it’s not as if any of the participants had guns held to their heads and were forced to join in.

    The groups were invited, they understood there was no budget, and they agreed to participate. If that’s not acceptable, then they should have declined.

    Indeed, had no one agreed to participate under those circumstances, then the Tate might have had to reconsider (hint, hint) either canceling the event or coughing up some cash, depending on how important the event was to the Tate and how embarrassing it would have been to have no one good take them up on the offer…but under these exact circumstances, I reject the notion that the Tate took advantage of anyone. Artists and artist groups who want to change the system have to take a stand…not merely take what they can get, moan about it later, and expect anyone to take them seriously.

  4. I agree with you Ed and Ian, but I think your comments skip pretty quickly over some of the subtleties of the situation, subtleties that Andras’ analogies–to internships, unpaid writing, academic or intellectual labor–draw out, and subtleties that, when it comes down to it, determine where we draw the line between exploitation and just or fair practice. So two things:

    When we organized a free talk series at The Drawing Center last year, we made a point of offering honorariums to the participants. Standard practice, sure. And this wasn’t big money of course, but it was an explicit acknowledgement that, as a serious institution (and one without the pockets of a Tate), we valued our guests’ time and intellectual efforts beyond a mere thank you, full well understanding that their participation reflected well on us. It may have been a symbolic gesture in large part (given the sums), but I think that gesture, and what it forces you to navigate, how it comes to mean something more than the transaction itself, is very important.

    At a recent panel on “Rethinking Curating” at Artists Space, Maria Lind, Director of the CCS Bard Graduate Program, noted that to fund a curatorial program, it’s best to incorporate some sort of educational component, by which she meant, offer classes for which students will pay–the idea being that people will pay for school, and that school can then pay for other initiatives, like putting on shows. It’s a smart, pragmatic philosophy for funding exhibitions, but how academic labor, not to mention the students themselves, get valued in this equation, still troubles me. (Shouldn’t education be for education’s sake, or for some other liberal or emancipatory ideal? Perhaps that’s already sounding too idealist.)

    What I mean to bring up with these examples is that institutions do bear responsibility for their practices, and the little PR war being fought by the NSFS artists is something of a reminder about that, however ineffectual or cynical it may seem.

  5. This is turning out to be a bigger and richer subject that one might first think, as the previous exchanges show. And that is because, in one way or another, these relationships in the art world are not clearly transactional. They involve a voluntary exchange of benefits, but not on terms one would encounter in the marketplace.

    On the one hand, following on Ian and Ed’s trail, I think we’re challenged to measure the contributions of the host institution. The equation isn’t “artist bring works, museum gets it for free.” The museum keeps the lights on, manages publicity, and most importantly, brings prestige (dare I say, its brand) to the table. There’s a reason artists are lining up to be exhibited, even on these terms.

    On the other hand, as Jonathan reminds, following on some of my thoughts, we have to acknowledge that creative value is being discounted on many fronts. This is not altogether voluntary. And that is because of the asymmetrical character of the relationship between artist and museum. Whether they like it or not, and whether they feel that it is ultimately to their benefit, artists MUST accept the terms if they wish to participate.

    These points are being played out every day about journalism, where writers “voluntarily” offer their work at discounted rates or for zero. One may say they get exposure, which they can leverage into paid opportunities. But that doesn’t necessarily make free right. In media, art, and elsewhere, we need better models and roadmaps that fully account for the reciprocal benefits while being mindful of the asymmetries involved.

    I come back to the notion that the artists are making a gift, not in the cultural sense, but much like a work that’s donated to the collection. That gift carries certain rewards that makes it worth giving. But it also helps the museum further its mission. So it should be tax deductible as a voluntary donation to a nonprofit institution.

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