Based in New York, the six-year-old advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has supported a single issue: payment to artists working with nonprofit organizations in visual art. Three months ago W.A.G.E. launched a voluntary certification program for institutions that wish to publicly signal their commitment to compensating artists for their work in exhibitions and for speaking engagements and writing, among other things. The group also debuted a fee calculator that establishes a minimum wage, so to speak, for creative labor, as well as a progressively scaled payment schedule based on an institution’s annual operating expenses.
“It was a look of horror … or a smile,” said Scott Rothkopf, curator of the exhibition Jeff Koons and moderator of a panel discussion called “The Koons Effect Part 1,” regarding the responses he received when telling others of his research for a retrospective on the artist. Artists were interested in Koons, to his surprise, and he noted that Pierre Huyghe is fascinated by the “story that didn’t get made,” and Andrea Fraser enjoys Koonsian economics. Tino Sehgal finds Rabbit (1986) to be an iconic work, the curator continued, and Kara Walker responds to the advertisements for art magazines from 1988–89. For this panel, Rothkopf invited four American artists to discuss what Koons’s work means to them and how it has affected contemporary art.
Billed as “The First World Art Market Conference,” the show was, as John Everett, president of the New School, said in his opening remarks, about the “business of art.” It appeared to be mostly a media event. The press was given the three front rows, fussed over with TLC. Some four hundred others, dealers, and collectors from around the country, and a few artists hoping to learn about “business,” paid $200 each to see and hear the superstars of the art market. Those expecting a clear view of the crystal ball—specific investment advice—were disappointed. But they got lots of encouragement and word that the art market is very good these days.
Titled “What Price Art,” and provocatively subtitled “The Economics of Art: An Agenda for the Future,” the conference promised to explore the economics of the visual arts market, with practical details on costs and price structure provided by “national experts in economics, finance, law, public policy, art and journalism.”
Whether it was the furor of the first few weeks of Occupy Wall Street or the popularity of the presenters, more than one hundred listeners packed the main gallery space of Art in General to hear a discussion on “what the neoliberal economy has imposed on artists,” according to one panelist, and on what the art world’s 99 percent can do to get ahead. Cosponsored by Silvershed, “Off the Clock: Working with Flexible Labor, Social Networks, and Everyday Life” allowed four panelists and a moderator to thrash out the intersections of art, labor, and community.
The choruses to Billy Joel’s number-one single “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” released a couple months before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, and Jesus Jones’ spring 1990 hit “Right Here, Right Now,” which reached #2 on the Billboard charts, repeated in my mind at “Periodizing Contemporary Art,” a lecture held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, on the eve of the College Art Association’s 2009 annual conference.
At his talk at the Guggenheim Museum last night, the artist Tino Sehgal did not say much that was all that different from the interview and article last year in Artforum, but he did clarify his position and give it more depth. The major point I got from his talk was that his art takes place on the macro level of institution and medium more than on the micro level of an individual work. He referred to this as his “set up” at one point and said that the subject of any particular piece was secondary to it.