Temescal Alley is an eerily picturesque testament to Oakland’s developing economy. There, you can get a $30 retro-style haircut, a $4 cup of coffee, a $40 vintage jacket, and a $150 leather bag. While you’re at it, you should also enjoy the art at Interface Gallery, a small not-for-profit space that mostly exhibits socially conscious and experimental work. That’s the only activity in the corridor that won’t cost you anything — because you should never pay for visual art unless you’re placing it above your mantle, right?
There’s a fog of mystique that separates the “art world” from those outside of it. That veil often keeps people from thinking about how exactly it is that spaces like Interface Gallery pay the bills and how the artists who exhibit there make a living. Meanwhile, within that world, a critical discussion has been taking place regarding the question of compensation for artists, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make their art practices financially sustainable.
A large part of that conversation relates to compensation for the labor and cost that goes into preparing for an exhibition. Galleries pay artists a percentage of the money that comes from selling artwork, but there is no set standard for whether an artist should receive compensation beyond that. That’s partly because it would be a complex standard to set, contingent on where the artist is in his or her career, the type of space showing the art, and the motivation behind the artist’s practice.
Still, in recent years, there have been many attempts to solve the issue, or at least discuss it productively. For example, the New York-based activist organization W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), formed in 2008, has developed a fee calculator that artists can reference when they demand compensation (such as, $1,000 for a solo exhibition at an organization with total annual operating expenses below $500,000.) W.A.G.E. also offers certification to organizations that adhere to the best practices they propose.
Helena Keeffe, a recent UC Berkeley master’s of fine arts graduate, took a more personalized approach last year when she created “Standard Deviation,” a pamphlet with easy methods for making decisions on when to ask for compensation and how much to request.
Now, Interface Gallery director Suzanne L’Heureux is doing her part by setting a standard at Interface. For her next year of exhibitions, she plans to pay every artist who shows in the gallery a yet-to-be-finalized standard rate — probably just above $300 — regardless of whether the artist actually sells work at her gallery.
Three hundred bucks may not seem like a lot, but it’s pushing the financial limit for a space like Interface. Despite the seemingly affluent location, the gallery subsists almost entirely on grant funding and the occasional sale of prints — the artwork rarely sells. L’Heureux teaches online classes for the Academy of Art, so she’s able to work remotely from the gallery during open hours while also paying herself nothing. All of the gallery’s funds go to paying the rent, the gallery assistant, and the exhibition costs. In the past, L’Heureux’s also made a point of paying artists as much as she can for their time — anywhere from $150–$500 — but she has never been able to make a flat guarantee before. Most galleries in Oakland don’t offer any such compensation.
L’Heureux noted that when a gallery runs on a shoestring budget, the first expense to get cut is usually artist compensation — and that’s understandable. Most artists exhibiting in small galleries realize that those running the space are contributing free labor, so they don’t mind offering free labor, too. But L’Heureux wanted to see if she could operate the gallery while treating artist compensation as a necessary cost — like paying the rent.
With Interface’s usual grant-backed budget, the answer to that question would have been a simple no. But L’Heureux set up an Indiegogo campaign at the beginning of April to crowdsource the funds. As of late last week, the campaign had exceeded its $3,000 goal by $115. L’Heureux said all extra funds will go toward raising the artists’ standard compensation rate.
L’Heureux thought up the campaign after attending an art practicum called “Valuing Labor in the Arts ” that Keeffe organized last year in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Arts Research Center. The 120 attendees divided into small workshop groups to discuss art and labor at the Berkeley Art Museum. Afterward, a collection of reflections was published in a special issue of the online magazine Art Practical (with the same title) devoted to the topic. Much of that conversation focused on working toward an art world environment in which artists could feel comfortable asking for pay. “Artists are so often afraid to talk about it or afraid to ask to be paid — you don’t want to blow a chance, and you don’t want to seem tacky, and you don’t want to seem weird — and in almost all other facets of our society … being paid for your labor is a given,” said L’Heureux.
Shannon Jackson, UC Berkeley professor and director of the Arts Research Center at Cal, noted in an email that because there is no standard process of commensuration in place between artists and organizations, it automatically falls on the artist to demand payment. Interface is part of a growing group of organizations that is attempting to shift that responsibility away from the artist. “It is exciting but unusual that artists and art organizations are voluntarily establishing compensation structures on their own,” Jackson wrote. “They are trying to figure this out from the ground up, whereas the compensation structures of most other industries are more centrally regulated.”
Still, when it comes to art, regulation and monetization can be off-putting to many artists, because they prefer not to contextualize art-making in terms of labor. Jackson pointed out that if a base compensation structure were in place, everyone involved could shift their focus away from negotiation and back to art. “Frankly, many people in our society work for reasons that are not primarily motivated by money — social workers, community organizers, public officials, journalists,” wrote Jackson. “Does loving what you do — or being compelled to do what you do — mean that you can’t get paid for what you do?”Click here to donate, or visit InterfaceArtGallery.com for exhibition info.