Who pays the artist?

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Report on Platform BK debate: Who pays the artist? (Wie betaalt de kunstenaar?)

by Michelle Schulkens, Platform BK
Translation by Sarah van Lamsweerde

This is the first debate in a series planned under the title ‘Responsibilities’.
Moderator: Rune Peitersen (Platform BK).
Panellists: Ad de Jong (artist), Janneke van der Putten (artist), Ella Derksen (freelance curator), Steven ten Thije (research curator Van Abbemuseum), Irene de Craen (director HotelMariaKapel).

On the 9th of February, the first public debate on artist fee guidelines took place at Casco in Utrecht. The debate – Wie betaalt de kunstenaar? (Who pays the artist?) – was the logical next step after BKNL (Beeldende Kunst Nederland) had published results of the second survey on artist fees, published in November 2015. Those results shows that the call for a new directive is widely supported. Artists, art support organisations, arts centres and even the national government, all agree upon the fact that the current situation is unsustainable. But how do we tackle this problem, where do we start? And, an important detail, who are ‘we’? Platform BK believes that this discussion should not only be conducted top-down, but should also be fuelled from the ground up: with input from independent artists, curators and art centres. Plenty of reasons to organize a debate that could clarify who ‘we’ are and what we can do.

The evening in Casco kicks off with an on-point performance by Sarah van Lamsweerde and Michiel Bakker, based on an e-mail exchange between an accomplished Dutch artist and a freelance curator organizing an exhibition in a medium-sized Dutch museum. The curator has invited the artist to take part in a group show, but is unfortunately unable to offer an artist’s fee. The artist argues that he expects a fee for his labour, just like the other museum employees that are involved in realizing the exhibition. No artist, no exhibition, is the argument. The curator can relate to his position, but claims to have no leeway to give. We witness an exchange of all too familiar claims, defending or disputing the artist’s fee. The undersized room is cramped with artists, theoreticians, curators and representatives of arts institutions. No one present doubts the truthfulness of the correspondence, yet people react with dismay and astonishment. To witness this stalemate dialogue in the flesh confronts us with the facts. The performance reminds us of the urgency of this evening’s gathering. The audience is awake and ready for the real discussion.

Rune Peitersen, chairman of Platform BK, introduces the talk with a brief insight into the actual state of affairs by presenting the two surveys conducted by BKNL. He also presents two examples of guidelines for artist’s fees used abroad: the ‘Danish’ model and the a-n model. In short: the Danish model is comparable to existing display remuneration agreements. Fee calculations are based on the insurance value of the artwork and the exhibition period. In addition, the Danish model provides a non-compulsory exhibition contract. The a-n model is still under construction, but calculates wages based on a percentage of the institution’s total budget. Through tonight’s discussion, we hope to hear whether one of these foreign models could work in the local context, or could serve as a blueprint for a Dutch model.

Once the panellists are introduced, the actual discussion can begin. The participants speak about their personal experiences with artist’s fees. How do curators handle the issue, and what agreements are in use with exhibition projects for museums or presentation spaces? Janneke cites a positive experience with a German curator in Cologne, where a contract that covered expenses and fee was drafted in dialogue with her. Ad’s experiences are less upbeat. He has never received payment for exhibiting in museums, even with longer-running exhibitions. His concern is that the gap between ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ artists will become more and more institutionalized.

All curators agree that the artist’s fee should not be the residual item on the exhibition budget. Their current practice always includes a budget for the artist. Ella: “I don’t work for free as a curator and I make sure that the artists involved in a commission are well paid. If that is not negotiable, I quit the project.” At HotelMariaKapel, a fee for the artists is also standard practice; Irene comments that these amounts are sometimes less than ideal, but that so far this has never caused artists to refuse participation. The exhibition budgets of the Van Abbemuseum always include an artist’s fee, says Steven. “The discussion is gaining ground, also on mainstream media. It’s important for us to engage with this issue in order to enforce concrete actions.”

The evening proves itself to be momentous, with many reactions from the audience attending. Comments are not focused so much on concrete solutions, although many questions are raised about the implementation of the Danish and the a-n model. There are also some concerns. In what way do those models take into account the difference between smaller and bigger institutions, or between emerging and established artists? The a-n model hasn’t been completely finalized yet, but if the fee depends on the scale of the exhibiting venue, it may become less attractive to present work at smaller spaces. Furthermore it remains to be seen how much of a choice artists will have. The Danish model seems clear and relatively simple to implement, but it creates the apprehension that only successful artists will receive a decent fee. After all, the insurance value of the work will increase in proportion with the fame of the artist, thus raising the level of compensation. Steven: “Emerging artists are in the most vulnerable phase. A guideline for artist’s fees should cater for their needs too.” Besides, the Danish model assumes government funding, an issue that also prompts different opinions. Some feel the government should be held responsible for creating decent wage regulations for artists, others think that artists should be more assertive and should take charge for negotiating reasonable fees themselves. Yet another speaker urges us to draw lessons from the past 5 years. If we create dependency from state support only, we run the risk again of losing political leverage when a new coalition takes office. The same objection is put forward to argue against fee guidelines: how do we know that the guidelines we develop now, will not be abolished when a new government is elected?
As an alternative, Ad de Jong proposes an independent, artist-managed fund in which all artists and institutions would be represented. This fund would be alimented by arts centres to create a financial pool from which artists could be paid. Such a setup would enhance the autonomous status of artists and be less subject to political fluctuations. It is a noble idea. Art should aim for autonomy, also in terms of its place and function in society. But someone makes the legitimate remark that such a system would place artists in a separate category, while an artist is just like any other working person, expecting to be paid for labour. “This is the message we have to get across”, an audience member declares. “As artists, we should stand for the value of our art and not settle for less.” Ella Derksen agrees: “Too often, we feel bound by what an institution is willing to spend. We should separate the two. The artist should indicate what is needed, not comply with what the institution has available.”
Irene de Craen shares this view, but points to the bottleneck: institutions only receive a limited amount of funding, and those restricted budgets depend on a certain amount of exhibitions per year.
Again, everyone seems to agree that payment for artists should not come at the end of the list. An artists performs labour, and labour should be remunerated. What if we, all together, artists and institutions akin, decide to no longer conform to the status quo and demand a fee no matter what, without compromising on other budget entries? That message should be heard. Artist Jan Banning is sceptical. He relates of a group exhibition at a ministry he took part in. By adopting an entrepreneurial attitude, he was able to raise his fee considerably. Other participating artists applauded his achievement, but did not follow suit.. The intention to fight this predicament together is laudable, but not realistic.

By ten ‘o clock, the discussion is still in full swing. Clearly there is a lot more to be said on this topic. Platform BK concludes with closing acknowledgements and a draft of future actions. From the total of 2 million provided by culture minister Bussemaker to improve the artists position on the job market, BKNL has proposed to spend 700.000 € on an inquiry into concrete guidelines for artist’s fees and initial capital for its realisation. The remarks and propositions expressed during the debate will be taken into account for the blueprint of this new guideline. After a suggestion from one of its members, Platform BK has started to collect ‘best practice’contracts this week, to get a good overview of the various conditions in the cultural sector. The contracts will be anonymized and made available to everyone, so artists can compare these to their own situation. Besides, these examples will be consulted when drafting a new guideline for artist fees.

See other reports:
Cultureel Persbureau
Mister Motley