I left school and came to New York—along with pretty much everyone else from my program and every other MFA program on the east coast—and hunkered down to figure out how to survive. The thought of a union for artists and/or art workers quickly faded. When I would score jobs, I would just feel grateful to be working (no matter how insane or abusive the person or organization I was working for) at a rate of 15 to 20 bucks an hour. The people I worked next to were all in the same boat I was. I landed what I thought was a nice job as a gallery attendant/security guard for a small private collection. Three days a week, 24 dollars an hour. At first it was great; no one ever came in, allowing me plenty of time for reading, writing, and working in my sketchbook. After about six months of no one coming in, the managing director decided it would be a good idea for us to start cleaning and moving books and boxes around in the basement storage, just to keep us busy. I missed being able to read, but I didn’t mind pushing a broom around or scrubbing elevator doors because the pay seemed good and it was only three days a week. The menial tasks became more frequent, and the director grew more and more erratic, condescending, and manipulative. I felt hooked on the job because, while it was deadly boring—as was the collection—and the managing director was becoming a full-blown psychotic, I was just getting by on three days a week. My co-workers were all a decade or so older than I, and they had been in New York for a long time. There was always shared bitching between us about how boring the job was or what an unjust prick the director had become (he’d taken to reminding each and everyone of us we’d be fired if mistakes were made), but my coworkers kept repeating that there were very few opportunities this good for artists, and most places were “so much worse” (which I’d found to be at least partly true). There were two people I worked with whom I liked and learned from a lot; one got out after just over a year, the other ended up sticking around another three after my three years. There was, after all no better job for an artist in New York.
And the truth is, when I would talk to my other peers about what I did for my rent money, it was often met with a reaction of jealousy. “Dude, you should never quit that job!” While it was true that the hourly wage was close to double what some people I knew were making, when I would talk about the job over beers or whatever with friends, I wouldn’t talk about the parts where I was scrubbing a freight elevator door that was never used. I never talked about how I didn’t have health insurance, and how one trip to the ER put me in more serious debt. I wouldn’t talk about having to sweep up condoms in front of the building in the morning or washing the windows, and I never talked about what a moody, constantly insulting prick I was taking orders from. The prick that held my ability to pay rent over my head. He made the half-joke of “You’ll get fired” all the time. In spite of my being able to make rent in only three days a week, I was still scrambling all the time. I had a studio but rarely had the money to make the work I wanted to, so I still had to hustle for freelance work to get my own work done. In 2006, an opportunity to do a residency and teach in Europe for a few months came up, and I took it. While there, I was treated well financially speaking, but I also was treated with basic respect that I had not found since trying to make a living in New York. That gave me some perspective.
Just looking at auction results alone will tell you there is an enormous amount of money that moves in the art world. The figures have nearly recovered from the recent crash, and the fairs are churning along at a robust pace. In spite of those large amounts of money that do move around, it takes most artists years to get access to it through their own work. Very few get to a point in their lives where they are able to fully support their lives with their own work, and most have to augment their practice through a series of jobs, flexible skills, and schedules. The adjunct jobs are hard to get, and when they are obtained, there’s never enough money with them to live on. The tenure-track job is quite rare, and usually parallels the development of one’s own work. An artist is usually supporting him/herself with their own work, and that contributes a great deal to what makes an artist eligible for a tenure-track job. Most artists and most art scholars usually have to spend some years in the industry that services the art world—that of the art handler, the receptionist, the crater, the warehouse worker, or the adjunct. Some stay there. Though most who take these jobs are very educated, at least with master’s degrees, there is an expectation that the jobs are temporary. The artist or scholar believes that he or she is in a transition and won’t be at the job or in the state of needing a job for very long. Generations of artists and scholars coming to New York and other cities in droves with the same belief has set up an ideal situation for gallerists, warehouses, and academic art and art history departments who need labor but don’t want to invest in it like businesses in other industries do. They know there are plenty of smart, skilled workers here and plenty more coming right behind them. The reality of needing a job for most artists is not something they are inherently proud of. Artists in need of a job are on their own. As it stands right now, the collective trait amongst artists and scholars in the industry which services the art world is a shared low self-esteem with regards to what work is done to survive.
No one who has developed a career out of being an art handler or a receptionist sought out to do that. It just sort of happens. Whether or not someone is just passing through those jobs on to the next thing or they sprout roots into those jobs, there is no reason the conditions of those jobs should not be much better than they are. Much better meaning a basic standard of respect, in the form of rules against abuse. Better in the form of decent wages, and overtime presented as an option with the guarantee of increased compensation. And better in the form of healthcare, vacation time, and some sort of pension.
These improved conditions don’t and won’t just suddenly happen. They need to be fought for and secured through the formation of a union. It’s high time art-workers—especially art handlers and receptionists—unionized. It seems there is currently an attempt by TAs and adjuncts to unionize which comes and goes, but a lot more consistent, even militant, effort should be put into that, as well. Art workers are among the few remaining sources of educated indentured servants in America. But you’re renting your labor; they don’t own you. You should be treated with respect. The abuse you—many of you with advanced degrees—endure is considered “paying your dues.” That bullshit comes out of the collective low self-esteem for the work you do that allows things to keep moving in and out the door—the work that, if it were suddenly halted, would bring everything to a stop. Galleries could not operate without their administrators and laborers. Some recognize this, but most don’t. They need to be reminded. I’ve felt the fear of needing to endure the shit in order to survive and I know it’s not easy to make happen, but having a union-secured contract protects against the requirement for long hours, verbal and other forms of abuse, being fired without proven just cause, and benefits for those who don’t get them.
Galleries seem to think that their administrative staff and art handlers are insignificant and easily replaced. This is largely because it’s true. Art workers have no structure in place to protect themselves. Unionizing art-workers and adjuncts seems almost impossible. It’s a steep enough hill that it’s constantly tempting to revert to apathy and cynicism before we even start. It’s important to keep in mind that the notion of a 40 hour week, weekends, health and dental benefits, elimination of child labor, women’s rights, the establishment of auto workers unions, garment-workers unions, plumbers unions, carpenters unions, all looked like impossible hills to climb as well.
Why is working in the realms of “culture” and academia so undervalued? Not only by the institutions that hire, but also by the good, committed workers themselves who will step on each other for the next available job? It’s equally worth organizing adjuncts as it is art-workers. The work doesn’t get done without us. Some institutions know this and act on it. When workers in any field collectivize and strategize to confront management, management listens and attempts to compromise. This is just the first step, that often rewards it’s participants with euphoria. It gets more difficult after that, but a necessary step to make. It is worthwhile to at least imagine what labor unions for art workers and adjuncts might look like. It’s worthwhile to imagine how good things could possibly be, as there are more than enough examples to point to as examples of what is bad.
What if there was a union for gallery receptionists? Perhaps if there were a dress code, it would be made explicit in a contract and not enforced through passive aggressive cues and insults. There could be a budget for the clothes the gallery wanted its receptionists to dress in. Terms of what was expected from the receptionists would be made explicit, and they wouldn’t be expected to anticipate what was needed to be done. What if, instead of hiring whomever for an exhibition change, a gallery had to contact the union for a team of men and women to execute that change under specified terms that included the scope of the work, how many hours would be expected per shift, what the terms of (optional) overtime would be, while these freelancers enjoyed benefits? Adjuncts and TAs who carry out most of the university’s work of teaching undergraduates would be able to negotiate class sizes, compensation, health benefits, as well as time and space for research.
Since I have been working in the art world, the subject of an art workers union very rarely comes up, and when it does, it’s usually in the form of a joke, like “Can we take a union break?” or it’s met with utter ridicule. The difficulty, even perhaps improbability, of forming a union is perceived as impossibility, and a silly delusion. Everyone needs the job they have. Everyone had to hustle and struggle to get it, and they’re all aware of how many people are hustling and struggling, waiting to move into their spot. A union will not come about in a form of being granted to art workers. It will have to be developed, as will the solidarity amongst those who are doing the work. There is the Freelancers Union, which has nice ads on the subway, but no one I’ve ever worked with in the art world has been a member. They have an interesting website, and appear to be an organization with mostly potential at the moment. That is one model in tact, which can be looked to and built upon, but perhaps another organization can be formed specifically for art workers. Just imagine if everyone who serviced the art world organized and suddenly and abruptly refused to work in the days leading up to Miami. What if everyone refused to move crates, refused to show up and answer phones, hang work, and patch and paint walls? It’s really worthwhile to consider what that might look like, what solidarity required to make such a strike a serious one, and how you would ensure your own protection and that of your fellow worker. The skills you have, which they depend on in a very real way, become a powerful weapon when they are withheld, or threatened to be withheld, collectively, in solidarity.
It’s definitely easier to remain disengaged, keep your head down, and bide your time. The truth is, you’re juggling these jobs in order to get to your own work. It is your own work, after all, that is going to allow you to produce yourself and allow you to make the kind of life you want for yourself. Or maybe it won’t. And what if it doesn’t? How long can you keep scraping by as an adjunct having to hustle other jobs to make rent and get to your own work? How long can you keep humping crates off of a back of a truck? How long can you sit on display at a desk answering phones? Just in case it doesn’t work out, are you going to take on another $40,000 in debt for another degree?
We all run the risk of mortifying ourselves discussing such matters; I think I’m running that risk here, now. I don’t know where to begin, apart from starting a conversation. I just think the desires many of us share for some sense of being our own masters are very well understood, exploited and taken advantage of. I sense that most of us realize this but just don’t want to say anything about it. I think our refusal to say anything about it, our refusal to organize and do anything about it is actually quite conservative—a survival reflex in response to the equally conservative impulses of a corporate ethos which adheres to the fluctuations of the market. I’m just finding this to be tiresome, and I hope if you do also, you’ll start talking about it more, thinking about what might be done to make it better, thinking about what “better” might look like, imagining how good things could possibly become real.
—written by a member of arts & labor #ows