Wages for art work

By Airi Triisberg


Wages for art work

By Airi Triisberg

Zody Burke, Artist in Studio, 2023

According to a recent wage survey, the average monthly income of art practitioners in Estonia is 600 eurosKoppel, K., Arrak, K., Konov, V., Parts, R. 2023. Loometöö tasustamine Eestis ja loomepalkade mõju hindamine. Civitta Eesti AS, 2023.. This number is lower than the national minimum wage and reflects an international trend – visual art is among the lowest earning branches in the cultural sector.  One strategy to improve working conditions is establishing criteria for fair pay. Such fair pay guidelines are usually developed by artist unions and advocacy organisations; however, in Estonia the process was initiated at the grassroots level. Together with Maarin Ektermann, we consulted with nearly 70 colleagues to develop a fair pay proposal that would consider the particularities of the Estonian tax systemEktermann, M., Triisberg, A. 2022. Õiglaste tasumäärade ettepanek kunstivaldkonnale. Kodutud tekstid. Available at: KT_töövihik_elektrooniline_05.01.22.pdf.

The proposal focuses on exhibition making, which is a core activity in the art sector. Participating in exhibitions should generate substantial income for art workers; however, this is currently not the case. Even the most well-funded exhibition spaces pay artist fees that are barely in sync with the national minimum wage. The remuneration of artists is usually lower than the pay of installation technicians, graphic designers, project managers, curators or exhibition designers. In many cases, artists are funding the exhibitions from their own pocket, either through unpaid labour or finances channelled into production costs. There is no consensus that making art is work that should be recognised and remunerated as such.

Why are wages important?

The fair pay proposal suggests a three-tiered model, taking into account the budget limits of different exhibition spaces. The highest fee rate is linked to the minimum wage of cultural workers (currently 1,600 euros per month), which is a wage tariff applied to the permanent employees of some state funded institutions. The lowest fee rate is linked to the national minimum wage (725 euros per month or 4.30 per hour), a standard which also has limited reach. The minimum wage is legally binding for all conventional employment contracts; however, in the art sector incomes are usually lower because the law does not apply to temporary work contracts. There is no consensus in the art field about complying with the minimal standards voluntarily.

For freelance art workers, earning the minimum monthly wage is crucial because access to health insurance, unemployment protection and future retirement pension depends on it. The minimum wage has been rising every year, whereas incomes in the art sector remain stagnant. From the perspective of art workers, chasing the minimum wage is a sport that demands a truly athletic performance. Another problem is that not all income is paid in the form of wages – grants, licence fees and art sales are not subject to labour taxes and therefore do not grant access to the social security system. A recent study showed that 49% of freelance cultural workers in Estonia do not have stable access to health insuranceKoppel, K., Masso, M., Arrak, K., Michelson, A. 2021. Vabakutselised loovisikud, nende majandusliku toimetuleku mudelid ja sotsiaalsete garantiide kättesaadavus. Mõttekoda Praxis.. To improve the situation, it is critical that artistic labour is remunerated fairly and through wages. Wages and social guarantees are two sides of the same coin.

Why is tracking time necessary?

Before developing our proposal, we researched fair pay standards in other countries and presented three examples for public discussion: the MU Agreement in Sweden, the recommendations developed by Carfac in Canada, and W.A.G.E. in New YorkTriisberg, A., Mürk, M. Näitusetasu. Kolm näidet mujalt. Sirp (6 December 2019). The fee tariffs in these examples are linked to various parameters including the budget of the exhibition space, the number of visitors, the duration of the exhibition, or the number of participating artists. When analysing these models, we identified some essential shortcomings. For example, there is often a negative correlation between group exhibitions and artist fees – the larger the exhibition, the smaller the fee. Such a principle serves the interest of the institutions rather than the artists because the workload of one artist does not depend on whether the exhibition includes 10 or 20 artists. Models based on the number of visitors and the duration of the exhibition are framing the artwork as a commodity. In our proposal, we chose a different approach and focused on measuring working time.

Negotiating on the basis of workload is not a common practice in the art sector. The fees are usually dictated by institutions who approach freelance art workers once their budget is already fixed. These budgets do not realistically reflect the time needed to carry out the work.

In group conversations with art practitioners, we tried to estimate the average time needed to produce art works and exhibitions. For example, artists estimated that the preparation of a solo exhibition requires 6–9 months of full-time work, although the preparation period itself is usually longer because the intensity of work varies over time. The workload also depends on external factors such as the size of the exhibition space and the availability of institutional support staff. Based on the group conversations, we developed negotiation guidelines with negotiation guidelines that can be used to discuss the division of labour between the artist and the institution. This worksheet also highlights activities that are often overseen when agreements about workload are made, such as attending meetings and writing emails, participating in public programmes or giving interviews to the press. However, creative work cannot always be planned and measured precisely. Some concepts take time to mature, while others are born in the moment; some ideas are easy to realise, others require long experimentation with materials, techniques or skills. The negotiations about workload and fair pay should not only focus on administrative tasks that can be easily measured, but it is important to consider that the creative process also takes time.

Zody Burke, Tallinn, 2023
Zody Burke, Interpassivity, 2023

Why is collective organising essential?

Not much has changed during the one and a half years since the fair pay proposal was published. Two institutions have partially modelled their fee tariffs according to the proposal. Tallinn Art Hall linked their artist fees with the minimum wage for cultural workers; however, the workload calculations are unrealistic – for the preparation of a large solo exhibition artists receive the payment of only three months – and thus the artist fees are actually closer to the national minimum wage which is roughly two times lower. The magazine A Shade Colder follows the proposed fee schedule for writers; however, the rates have not been adjusted to factor in the high inflation and the rise in the minimum wage tariffs in 2023. Some institutions have made adjustments that do not require financial means, such as improving legal awareness and adjusting communication protocols. It is commonly agreed that establishing new labour standards requires additional funding for art and culture. This aim can be achieved only through collective pressure.

In the past decade, the visual art sector in Estonia has gone through two different cycles of debate addressing un(der)paid labour. The first cycle took place in 2009–2011 as a collective organising process and coincided with an international wave of self-organised movements of art workers mobilised in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The ongoing cycle (from 2019 onwards) has been led by individual experts, advocacy organisations and the ministry of culture. This shift in the forms of organising mirrors certain general patterns characteristic to labour struggles in Estonia. In the trade union movement, the preference is for a top-down service model in which the trade union offers counselling, support and services for members rather than empowering their active participationKall, K. Ametiühingute nõrkusest ja strateegilistest valikutest. Vikerkaar 2023/1-2..

According to a recent survey, only 4% of art workers are organised in trade unions, while 68% are members of creative associations which function as the most important advocacy organisations in the cultural sectorKoppel, K., Arrak, K., Konov, V., Parts, R. 2023. Loometöö tasustamine Eestis ja loomepalkade mõju hindamine. Civitta Eesti AS, 2023.. In those cultural branches where workers are organised in trade unions – for example, theatre – working conditions are better. That is why it is essential that the issue of fair wages not be confined to elite spaces and limited to a negotiation between policy-making experts and representatives of advocacy organisations. The political pressure which is needed to improve working conditions in the art sector will be stronger when exercised collectively by a multitude of art workers – artists, curators, writers, designers, educators, archivists, builders, exhibition guards, cleaners, etc.

Zody Burke, Meeting, 2023

Airi Triisberg is an independent writer, curator and educator. They are actively engaged in advocacy work to improve working conditions in the art sector, performing different roles such as journalist, labour organiser, tax critic, coach in financial education and agitator by saying “no” to unpaid labour. In the book Art Workers – Material Conditions and Labour Struggles in Contemporary Art Practice, co-published with Minna Henriksson and Erik Krikortz in 2015, they conceptualise recent practices of organising art workers in Europe.