The Politics of Artistic Labor

On the clash between exhibition production as social practice and the institutional framework. A report on ‘Studio Talks: Artists in the Political Arena’, a program by Platform BK and Museum Arnhem.


The event Studio Talks: Artists in the Political Arena, which took place on Saturday, November 19th, 2022 at Museum Arnhem was meant to examine the history and importance of the professional organizations and types of unions within the arts in a communal conversation.[1]

Participants included the various types of institutional representation within the arts: artists’ initiatives (Plaatsmaken), presentation institutions (interest group De Zaak Nu and art podium P–OST), professional associations (Beroeps Organisatie Kunstenaars), and the trade union (Kunstenbond). With the participation of the organizers Platform BK and Museum Arnhem, the thinktank and mediating platform, the museum, became part of this afternoon. In this way, an important number of positions in the art infrastructure were represented in the discussion.

Gelderland Biennial

This afternoon was meant to address how the various groups view their own positions within artistic production as a whole, and how to imagine a political response to the precarious position of artists then and now. How can artists organize? This somewhat academic approach was made acutely relevant when the Gelderland Biennial was put on hold a few days earlier, whereby the collaboration between the curator collective P1 and the biennial’s organization, Museum Arnhem and Museum Het Valkhof, was suddenly terminated.

The reason: mutual accusations of unfair practice, caused by a difference of opinion regarding what constitutes a good production process. Curator collective P1 accused the organizer of poor management and failure to pay on time. Het Valkhof, in turn, accused the artistic leadership of a lack of transparency regarding costs. This issue was discussed at length during the meeting by the concerned parties. However, Museum Het Valkhof was notably absent. It let Museum Arnhem speak on its behalf, though the latter was only tangentially involved in organizing this edition of the biennial.

In Arnhem, in addition to the problems with the Gelderland Biennial, there is also the issue of the recent dissolution of the collaboration between the curatorial team and the organization of Sonsbeek. Here too, accusations of poor management, underpayment, and organizational neglect played (and continue to play) a role, in addition to even more serious accusations of racism and sexism and a failure to respond to reports of such.

In the background of all this, documenta 15 should also be mentioned, where the skirmishes between the production team, the curatorial team ruangrupa, and the umbrella organization kept the public busy for months. The most important issues were the differences of opinion regarding the relationship between curators and artists within such a significant art exhibition, which were at play behind the scenes of the more high-profile scandals about antisemitism. This meant that the ultimate form and model of artistic production as such were at stake, as well as who gets to decide and to claim authorship.

It is clear that the tensions in the art world concerning the production of art are currently reaching a fever pitch in a very public way, which happened at Studio Talks as well. In this way, this event provided an insight into the broad, behind-the-scenes battle over the infrastructural definition of artistic labor.

The Characteristics of Artistic Labor

The introductory lecture given by Mia van den Bos did an excellent job of outlining the historical context of artistic labor. In her telling, the economic position of the artist in the capitalist economy was explained. As non-salaried workers, artists have an exceptional outsider position in the infrastructure of the arts. As self-employed workers, it is difficult or impossible for their work to be subject to a collective labor agreement or wage agreement. In the meantime, the work they deliver functions in institutions where labor is regulated and protected, and at the same time, it functions on the market as a scarce good, deriving its market value (in part) from the legitimization by presentation institutions and museums.

Van den Bos identifies the economic value of the artist that emerges from this double maneuver: value which is based on forming a reputation. In this way, the production of art as a hybrid form navigates between two economic models: on one hand, as a commodity in liberal market capitalism, and on the other, as a form and product of social labor in not-for-profit presentation institutions. Furthermore, there is a tension between these economic models. In the guise of “social practice,” the latter form is usually positioned as a critical counterpart to the economic mode of production of the former.

In the political struggle over the form of artistic labor, the exceptional position of the art/artist also becomes a political means and battleground issue because it is an expression of the different and conflicting ideas about the organization of society: the very domain that artists comment on in their work. In the current political economy, the artist is pushed into an entrepreneurial role, and the emphasis of the public debate is on the worth of culture in general.

In her address, Van den Bos mentioned examples of the long historical and continuing struggle for the political-economic organization of space: the Paris Commune, the Russian ProletkultThe Artist Union from America, and in the Netherlands, the Provision for Visual Artists (Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling). These were and are attempts to reach an artistic, productive, non-capitalistic synthesis between work, art, and life.

One conclusion that Van den Bos offered was that artists should organize, in solidarity with other groups who are also forced into precarity under the current ideology, and to set up their own collective structures to support production on their own terms. This kind of “social union” is better suited to artistic practice and the contemporary gig economy than a traditional union.

Chain of Responsibilities

In addition to the obvious need to strengthen the position of the artist through self-organization, the organization of the chain is of course of utmost importance. Here, artists’ reputations as mentioned above and the criteria on which they are based are formulated. The Fair Practice Code, a document created to strengthen the position of cultural producers (and signed by most actors in the chain), emphasizes the importance of the chain with regard to the general objective in this respect.[2]

The first article of the core values of the code is stated as the mutual dependence within the chain of creation, production, distribution, and exploitation within the sector itself. In this way, a shared authorship of the chain as a whole with regard to the production of the artistic object is implicitly stated. But does the core value lie in the art object or in the artistic practice as a social phenomenon? There is no clarity about this. In this way, the inherent struggle between the two conflicting models and the struggle for authorship is embedded in the chain infra-institutionally without reaching a solution.

In practice, this leads to the kind of problems we now see at the aforementioned art exhibitions. Nathalie Hartjes, who was present as a member of the board of De Zaak Nu, remarked that artists and institutions operate from different points of view and therefore use different production criteria. Miscommunication about this is persistent. She identified the different interpretations of the Fair Practice Code that exist in practice among different actors as a key example of this difference of opinion.

Therefore, the values artists aim to contribute should be negotiated in a sensible way with the larger umbrella of production: museums, administrative boards, and organizers of biennials and art events. They are largely responsible for production—communication and the distribution of resources and locations—and thus shape the art that is produced to a considerable degree.

Conflicting Models: Artistic Individual vs. Co-authorship

Essentially, a clash between two conflicting models of production is at play here, which is manifesting itself in an ever-louder way. In the conversation that followed the introduction, moderated by Marlies Leupen, the positions of the speakers in question became clearer.

The first question that was discussed was why artists fail to effectively organize in the first place and fail to better resist working conditions like those in the example of the Gelderland Biennial. According to Henk Hofstra of BOK, art students at art academies aren’t sufficiently trained to operate in the field as entrepreneurs. More knowledge about legal status and contracts could prevent many problems. However, Peter van de Bunder saw the cause of the problem as the tendency of artists to identify too much with their work, so that they easily fall prey to working too many hours and not being protected legally and financially.

According to Youri Appelo of P–OST, art students are actually prepared for the labor market, but it is the structural scarcity that leads to competition that has caused this situation: too much work-related pressure, too few resources. Peter van de Bunder added that art always comes forth from the artist’s practice. Institutions need to accommodate this better. To facilitate this process-based work, the Standard for Artists’ Fees was created. He also argues for further establishing labor conditions, such as in collective labor agreements. In this way, artists are better assured of resources for their work and production.

Hofstra’s political approach clearly differs from that of Van den Bunder. Hofstra’s remarks conjured an image of the artist as a liberal entrepreneur who needs to advocate for themselves within the context of clients, while Van den Bunder spoke of the socially embedded artist. However, both failed to mention the substantial room for negotiation and discussion that exists between the organization of the biennial and artists. They see the artist as the measure of artistic value and authorship, not the chain. Thus, they miss the core of the conflict.

The crux is not the limited financial space that museums and production platforms are allotted by politics, which leads to scarcity and pressure. Nor is it how these distribution and production platforms operate in their contact with artists and the biennial. From a standpoint of co-authorship, it would seem logical to negotiate the institutions’ programming methods and the conditions to which they and the invited artists are subject and to see where there are differences and similarities in content. This calls for intensive discussion during and preceding the production.

What is the Goal of a Biennial?

In the discussion that followed between Matt Plezier, an artist involved in the Gelderland Biennial, and Davida de Hond, who attended on behalf of Museum Arnhem, it became clear that the artists and the appointed curator collective operated from a different point of view than the institutions and from a distance. Plezier pointed out the poor financial management of the biennial by Het Valkhof and how artists had to front the money for their work for months without pay.

Though representatives from Het Valkhof itself were not present, it became clear from earlier reports that they found the financial administration by the curators and/or artists unclear and improper. De Hond explained—based on her knowledge from the perspective of a museum employee—that there are differences in production goals between institutions and artists. She emphasized that the number of visitors is the most important production target for institutions and that there is a great deal of bureaucratic pressure to account for expenditures and funds.

It became clear that the museum’s production methods were in tension with the autonomous and process-based operations of an artistic collective. As stated on P1’s website, the proposal for the biennial is an extensive and complete work model. In addition to formulating the themes, the organization also expressly seeks collaboration with artists who actively, critically, and collectively and using a DIY approach seek out problem areas in society. It’s a long-term study, carried out and with the costs advanced by the artists themselves, resulting in a context-dependent choice of locations, a methodology by which the biennial is shaped as such. In line with their stated goals, P1 has raised significant funds itself. This distribution and production method preferred by artists is an inherent part of the artistic message and rests on the quality of process, context, time, and dialogue. In short, it is in terms of content and operationally a full-fledged producer of the artistic message.

In terms of content, these qualities and goals are diametrically opposed to the guiding principles of museums, where efficiency, bureaucratic accountability, and maximizing the number of visitors are paramount. Put bluntly, the approach of museums can be summarized in three steps: quantifying labor and production, allocation of resources, and setting production criteria. In this process, there is no room for periodic review, dialogue, and discussion, no possibility for participants to change or adapt the processes. Thus, within the infrastructure of the arts, this institutional working method—the politically determined mode of production and ways of presenting art—are implemented everywhere, even in the artist’s studio.

This also means that the institutions become part of the artistic product in the way they behave. Here is where the institutions and artist collectives clash; they both claim productional authorship (exercising curatorship over the artistic message), and each stand for a different politics of production. This is also where there is a clash between different ideas of what the form of the actual artistic result is or when this comes into being.

In the end, the question is whether organizing a biennial is about the making of an exhibition of beautiful objects (or artists’ practices), or whether it is an expression of taking part in an engaged, communal process of making that is uncertain but valuable. Perhaps the most important point here is that the museum is distancing itself from the authorship of the art. A division is being created between producers and the umbrella of accommodators and the museum, which isolates itself in its role as a commissioning body, with corresponding production criteria that can be checked off, while that relationship is clearly fluid and subject to mutual influence.

Curatorship and Production of Exhibitions as Social Practice

This shift in artistic production towards a more complete package of work models as art, as described in the case of P1, also characterized documenta 15. There, ruangrupa presented a work model for art that represents a significant substantive and concrete adjustment of the existing model. This multi-tiered process of selecting artists, which undermines unilateral curatorship, the means of exhibiting, and the separation of the marketable artifact, signified a farewell to the art market and collectors as we know them. It was about the quality of being together on location and the idea of a communal space.

At Sonsbeek 20-24, a difference of opinion about the work model also led to a major conflict. According to the production team, this was due to a failure to (sufficiently) address institutional racism and sexism and not guaranteeing contracts for workers as essential basic conditions within production. In the end, the entire team of curators resigned.

In none of these cases was the “exhibition” of art defined in the traditional sense of showing work in an institutional setting. Instead, the curatorial teams proposed alternative production models, by which the organization process itself became part of the artistic form. But that only works if an institution actually engages with the process, takes an active role in the chain, and reflects critically on its own function. They are a productional co-author.

Social practice as a synthesis of work, art, and life is slowly but steadily breaking through as a curatorial principle. All three of the large exhibitions named above are examples of this. The artistic content and production process are thus more fundamentally connected. It is a fulfillment of a historic artistic ambition. With the growing ambition of self-organization and artistic authorship, the relations in the structure around the same artistic object have thus reached maximum tension. This leads to different expectations from institutions, tensions, and, in the end, eruptions. Especially given the structural economic differences that exist here—precarity for artists and salaried positions in the institutions that leaves the schism in production intact and is an especially problematic aspect for artistic criticism—the conversation about this is essential.

The call for artistic practice to be the guiding principle again, as Van den Bunder mentioned, requires much more effort from the institutions themselves. Aside from a purely facilitating role, this also means self-critically examining their own production models and how to shape their relationship with artists in this. The degree of organization of artists is extremely important as a lever: at the very least, with the Standard for Artists’ Fees, artists are now on the same level as other workers in the chain. But this can’t be limited to a question of distribution; beyond securing one’s own position, it must also be about production as a whole and which economic values are at stake. The intra-institutional conversation about the position and functioning of the institution itself is at least equally important.



[1] The program was prompted by the exhibition Van Links Naar Rechts (From Left to Right), on neo-realistic painting and political polarization in the period between the two World Wars. In this Studio Talk, the theme of Platform BK’s political organization of artists was translated into the present in collaboration with Jelle Bouwhuis.

[2] In the Fair Practice Code, solidarity is defined as follows: “The necessity of a communal interest and dependence is recognized within the chain of creation, production, distribution, and exploitation within the sector itself, as well as in society as a whole. This means that it is self-evident to defend the interests of others and help one another, pursue collective (copyright) agreements, and to recognize and live up to the importance of collective responsibility for fair remuneration.”

About Jack Segbars

Jack Segbars is an artist and writer, who was one of the co-founders of Platform BK. Next to his praxis as visual artist, Segbars regularly writes reviews and articles on art and art-related subjects for Metropolis M., Open!, and PARSE, among other outlets.