Retort#20 Curing Curatorial Fees

Together with the Norwegian Association of Curators and W.A.G.E. Platform BK presided a work group about Fees & Conditions in November 2017 as part of the three-day international gathering Humans of the Institution, that called upon people to analyse various aspects of the position of freelancers in the arts in relation to cultural institutions. Some of the curators present considered this work group and the call for transparency a motivation to involve themselves directly in the continuation of improving the fees and conditions of independent curators. Together they wrote Retort#20: Curing Curatorial Fees.


Illustratie: Yuri Veerman

Katia Krupennikova: Let me start by summarizing the situation that brought me to speak up about curatorial fees and conditions. Last year I curated five exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad, with openings in September, November, February, May, and September again. Counting together with some tiny events I earned around 13 000 euro (including sales tax), and a burnout. Keeping in mind all the investments into my personal visibility and education as a professional (having a website, traveling to biennials and other exhibitions, buying books), I more or less used this income to pay the bills, not including food.

Officially, in 2017 the minimum salary in the Netherlands for a person above 22 years old was 1565,40 euro (taxes included) per month.1 This means that in the current state of things, a mid-career curator working at full capacity can’t even earn the minimum wage. For example, an exhibition including mostly existing or site-adjusted works with 10 artists demands 250-350 working hours of pure curatorial labour (considering that there is also a producer and a PR manager involved), not including the pre-exhibition research. The average fee for such an exhibition in a midsize space in the Netherlands is 2000-3500 euro (including VAT). This means that our fees are equal to as little as around 10 euro per hour, or less, including tax. In comparison, the salary of a waiter, a shop assistant or other workers who don’t need a university degree is around 9-12 euro per hour in the Netherlands. Is it acceptable that curatorial labour is rated lower than an unqualified or unskilled worker?

Furthermore, the institutions I have worked with have also been operating at critical capacity, full of interns and volunteers, without which they would not manage to exist. They have paid me and the artists the maximum they could afford in order to produce a quality show, even sometimes overspending their budgets to meet the production requirements. I have been accepting these limited conditions and convincing the artists to accept them too, but as a result a clear understanding came to me that this situation can not continue.

Five years on since the budget cuts, it is clear that the field is exhausted and cannot continue in this severe mode any longer. The Chairman of De Zaak Nu, Arno van Roosmalen, pointed out the ‘slow burn’ of the art institutions in 2015.2 Other models to counter the self-exploitation, like what W139 has developed, cannot escape the self-exploitation, as artists have to spend their own time and money for production, build up and caring for the space. This is absolutely unacceptable, and can only serve as an example of a misery of the cultural field, and in no way be seen as a positive case study.

The individual struggles, not only of artists, but of curators and writers, has to be brought to the surface, on institutional level. Independent and institutional curators should stand together for improvement of working conditions in the field. It is not productive to fight with institutions anymore, but it makes sense to create a healthy working environment by producing less to reach better living standards for cultural professionals. We can’t pretend that the success of our work is only evaluated by quantity of events and audience numbers. The quality of events and of life of the content makers of the cultural sphere of the Netherlands should be put front and centre.

In order to prevent the field from de-professionalizing, it is urgent to make real changes in our way of working, built on the principles of solidarity and transparency. In my view the visible change only can happen on the level of institutions, and not merely individuals. In this sense, I’m absolutely supporting the decision of Het Veem Theater to be open only 100 days a year, bringing to surface the budget shortage that makes it impossible to be open through the whole year. We should demand better conditions from the funders and the different levels of government.

On an individual level, I would like to call for active solidarity among those of us who are financially comfortable, to become aware of creating a class division in the field by accepting lower fees or working for free, and thus making it impossible for others to earn decently.

Kris Dittel: The circumstances described by Katia are more than easy to relate to. Likely many freelance professionals recognize themselves in this account – countless working hours, several parallel projects and symbolic (if any) payments.

Certainly it is important to do some soul-searching and consider our own responsibility in contributing to the creation of such working conditions. In a saturated field, such as that of freelance curators, the normalization of symbolic fees and continuous voluntary work does not help to do justice to ourselves, nor our colleagues, or anyone involved.
As freelance curators we often operate as independent all-in-one institutions, and sometimes it is hard to control the amount of time and investment of one’s own resources devoted to a project. More often, again as our own enemies, we tend to hope in a future return for such “investment” – the prospect of employment, a better gig and the potential financial acknowledgement of our efforts in the future. Yet the reality of this exhausted and overworked field tells us otherwise.

Perhaps at first it is hard to think of collectivization in a sphere that is so highly built on the myth of the individual. And this not to say we should do away with the singularity of practices and plurality of voices, but to consider a horizon where we can back each other and agree on terms and conditions that serve the development of a healthy scene. Saying ‘no’ to questionable offers is the easiest, and at the same time hardest thing to do. Sometimes it is the lack of industry standards we could position ourselves towards that prevents a healthy judgement. A lot of work has been done in this terrain when it comes to artists’ fees, which can serve as a good starting point for a discussion. Establishing ethics and standards of work as freelance curators should necessarily affect the position of other cultural workers as well and contribute to a fairer use of resources overall.

Nat Muller: What’s upsetting about the situation Katia and Kris have sketched out, is that in an affluent country like the Netherlands there should be no reason for the precarious conditions free-lance curators and other art workers are experiencing. There should be no reason that a highly trained and skilled work force of art workers is systematically exploited, underpaid and undervalued. There should be no reason that institutions play out colleagues against each other and turn them into competitors. There should be no reason that many in the field are coping with financial, physical and mental exhaustion. There should be no reason that art workers who are passionate about what they do, and whose mission is to produce meaning in these unruly times, wake up every morning wondering whether it is feasible – if not sustainable – to continue to do their jobs at all. There’s no reason, because the arts and cultural sector in the Netherlands is still predominantly publicly funded (albeit much less than it was before), and this would suggest that there should be a robust system of checks and balances in place to make sure public funding is spent in a way that does not encourage the exploitative practices we see today.

This means that the field is in dire need of a health and reality check. Now, it’s true that the budget cuts of the past years have forced many institutions to do more with less. While this can work on a short-term basis as an emergency measure, it is unhealthy and even sclerotic on the long-term. It has pushed freelance curators into a highly competitive environment in which their value is measured by hyper-productivity, hyper-visibility, hyper-participation and hyper-mobility, but never in monetary terms.

Moreover, many of us have become hyper-expendable as a result. It is a fiendish environment in which everything is considered an opportunity, a career move, to the detriment of any solidarity in the field at large. There’s always someone who will do your job for half the fee, or even for free. I cannot, nor will I, compete with that. There has to be a way to turn the agency of refusal (i.e. saying no), which, when done individually, may be rather pointless and self-defeating, into a collective and emancipatory action. This would require a rethink and a commitment from all actors in the cultural field. It would require some really deep soul searching (to use Kris’ term) from institutional structures to individual ambitions. Moreover, it decidedly should go beyond soul searching, and the field should actively demand fair wages across the board. The Fair Practice Code, like the guideline for artist fees, is a good start, but runs the risk of remaining a paper tiger if no real consequences are tied to it being ignored.

Now this all sounds fair and simple enough, and yet why is it so difficult? I guess the factors are complicated and many, however the conversation really has to change on multiple levels. An important start would be to change the neo-liberal language of policymakers that the field has unfortunately internalized and instrumentalized for more than two decades. Insisting that precarious art workers (artists, free-lance curators, critics, producers, etc.) are cultural entrepreneurs (or another equally awful term: creatives) fully misses the mark and wilfully misunderstands the dynamics of the cultural ecology. It suggests art workers are fully responsible for their own success (or failure) and their risks are driven by profit, not content. This has to stop! Go and wash out your mouths with soap! I look forward to the day when artists, curators and institutions alike do not have to jump through these neo-liberal hoops in order to get a funding application approved. However, free-lancers, i.e. precarious art workers, should equally insist that what they do is actual work, and has to be treated as such. It is creative and intellectual labour that should be remunerated. Moreover, it is work that deserves to be compensated fairly, commensurate with skills and experience. If we refrain from naming what we do as professional labour, not only do we allow a devalorization, deprofessionalization and deskilling of our profession as curators, we run the risk of being relegated to the realm the right-wing populists have reserved for us, namely leftist hobbyists.

Finally, I also miss a discussion on how privilege and power tie into all of this. I am well aware of the fact that all three of us are women, and we are (or at least pass as) white (I am Eurasian). But I am also very well aware of the fact that we would not be having this conversation if we were independently wealthy. Free-lancing is not always a conscious choice; sometimes it is just a necessity. Precarity in the cultural field, as in any field, should be discussed intersectionally, in terms of gender, race, class, etc. This actually means that the Fair Practice Code and the Code Cultural Diversity are inextricably linked. It is about time that institutions and other practitioners consciously make that connection. In other words: institutions priding themselves on their emancipatory, decolonizing and progressive programming should translate that vision not only in the representation of who is in their workforce, but also in how they remunerate this workforce. Otherwise, it all falls flat. You cannot claim criticality while exploiting the precariat. Pay us a fair wage!

Here are a few practical pointers summarizing the above:
To my fellow free-lancers: Not everything is an opportunity. Know that when you agree to work for free or work for a pittance this has ramifications for the whole field and your colleagues. Understand your value and act accordingly. Also check your privilege. The fact that you can afford to work for a pittance probably means you can; many of us can’t.
To my institutional colleagues: Bow less to (managerial) pressure from the top. Realize that criticality should be structural. You cannot credibly promote a progressive and emancipatory program if at the base it is wrong. Fight for your non-institutional colleagues. Do not become accomplices in an exploitative regime.

To policymakers and politicians: There is a dire need for more protections for free-lancers (ZZP’ers) on the whole. Update your antiquated labour laws. We are art professionals, we contribute to the economy, we work, we continue to place the Netherlands on the world map. Facilitate what we do best, rather than constraining us in a neo-liberal straitjacket.

To funders: Penalize institutions that do not pay their art workers, including guest curators, a fair wage. Have clear guidelines for the latter. Insure that adhering to the Fair Practice Code is not optional or paved by good intentions, but mandatory. In addition, be mindful that a curator’s role and needs may differ from an artist’s; incorporate this understanding in your different funding programmes.

Open Call for Curators: Platform BK work group
Platform BK will start a work group on fees and working conditions of the freelance curator. Are you working as a freelance curator in the Netherlands and want to share your experiences and improve your position? Join us, Nat Muller, Kris Dittel and Katia Krupennikova with research and lobby activities, and work collectively on better fees for freelancers. More information on the curators work group and our first meeting will be published on our website soon.

Kris Dittel is an independent curator and editor living and working in the Netherlands. She is associate curator at the Onomatopee project space and publishing house in Eindhoven.Her work is informed by an interest in forms of communication, the relation between language, art and economics. She is the editor of several publications, exploring the format of the book as an artistic medium.Her recent project The Trouble with Value involves two exhibitions, a publication, and a research on the value of artistic labour.

Katia Krupennikova is an independent curator and art critic based in Amsterdam. She graduated from De Appel Curatorial Programme in 2012. Her recent exhibitions include It Won’t be Long Now, Comrades (Framer Framed, Amsterdam), 2017, Post-Peace (WKV Stuttgart and Nest den Haag, 2017), and Games People Play (Nest, Den Haag, 2016). Through her work Krupennikova attempts to dismantle existing social and political constructs into critical artistic models, within which banal relations and conventions are mimicked or criticised, distorted, displaced and revised. She is currently a part of the Core Group at Bergen Assembly 2017-19 (Bergen, Norway).

Nat Muller is an independent curator and writer. Her main interests include: the intersections of aesthetics, media and politics; food and contemporary art in and from the Middle East. She is a regular contributor to art magazines, has edited a variety of publications and written numerous catalogue and monographic essays. www.natmuller.com

1 As of July, 2017. Source: Rijksoverheid
2 See letter to Minister Bussemaker on the website of De Zaak Nu

About Platform BK

Platform BK researches the role of art in society and takes action for a better art policy. We represent artists, curators, designers, critics and other cultural producers.