Art and Cultural Workers Congress:  United we bargain, divided we beg 

Early July the Art and Cultural Workers Congress took place, organized by the BLOK – Local Base for Cultural Refreshment. It brought together various initiatives, professional associations and trade unions who are active in the fight for better working conditions in the cultural sector.

The central discussions of the recently held Art and Cultural Workers Congress in Zagreb, organized by the BLOK – Local Base for Cultural Refreshment with the support of The Croatian Film Directors Guild, focused on the various models and possibilities for introducing just and favourable wages in the cultural sector. Discussions also tackled questions of political organising in the cultural sector, its potentials and limitations, as well as opportunities and obstacles in amassing the struggles of precarious workers in the sector.

The motive to initiate the Congress, as members of BLOK explain, arose from the wider socio-political context, which is marked by increasingly difficult working conditions in the cultural field, unpaid work, lack of social protection, and increasingly precarious employment contracts:

“Quite contrary to the discourse proclaiming ‘democratisation and decentralisation’, the neoliberal invention of ‘project culture’ has profoundly transformed the role of art and culture in society. The cultural field, which for decades was partly ‘excluded’ from capitalist production relations, is now completely subsumed.”

In addition, members of BLOK emphasize that, with the dismantling of the welfare state and socialist cultural policies, artists and cultural workers became exposed to insecurity, risk of poverty and growing exploitation. “Therefore, today we urgently need self-regulation mechanisms that will bring a fairer distribution in the field both to the artists and the institutions, but also to the public”, they concluded in the introductory part of their presentations.

In order to oppose the growing trends in the field of culture, they brought together different organizations and initiatives to connect local struggles, exchange experiences, discuss different approaches, strategies and tactics, and empower each other.

Art and Cultural Workers Congress: Source: BLOK

In favour of a fair pay

W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) is a New York activist organization founded in 2008. Their mission, as their member Lise Soskolne explains, is to establish sustainable economic relations between artists and non-profit institutions that engage them, and introduce mechanisms for self-regulation in the field of art:

“This mission has evolved from the concept of wages that we developed, but we have always focused on one achievable goal –and that is to have regulations and regulated payment of fees for the artists engaged in the non-profit sector.”

Presenting her organization, Lise emphasized her awareness of the differences between the American and the European setups, and explained that W.A.G.E. has never campaigned for living wages or minimum wages, but for wages in general, because there were no guidelines or standards for compensating artists in the United States. She pointed out that, although artists are technically and legally considered workers in the USA, one of the big problems is that the artists themselves do not consider themselves to be workers.

At the same time, there is almost no financial support for the cultural sector, and most funding comes through philanthropy. Nonprofits, such as the W.A.G.E., stand somewhere in between these two concepts, as public charities.

Currently W.A.G.E. is also working on formulating a series of contracts that could be used by unaffiliated freelancers working in the field of conceptualising, materialisation, production, exhibiting and distribution of art. The series is expected to be published in October 2021.

In addition, Lise drew attention to a problem that plays a crucial role in all these processes, namely the invisible work of many workers engaged in the chain of art production, which enables the visibility of other artists. All the Congress participants, without exception, testified to such state of affairs, regardless of the differences in their working conditions, which stem from the differences of the socioeconomic contexts they work in. 

Lise emphasized the importance of unionizing workers in the cultural sector: “We really focus on ununionized freelance workforce. You probably know that there is a lot of trade union activity in USA at the moment, but there is really no protection for the type of workers we are talking about. With that in mind, we are currently developing employment contracts, customized employment contracts aimed at establishing new sectoral standards, and a set of standard legal contracts for hiring skilled workforce, namely those who provide artistic conceptualisation, production, exhibiting and circulation of art. Here we focus in particular on wage fairness and transparency, worker’s security, equal pay for representation, and classification of workers. We work with the workers on contracting and engagement and we collaborate with labour lawyers who are developing these forms that will rely on a huge database of different forms of work engagement”.

Although W.A.G.E.’s program primarily covers the field of visual arts, lately it has expanded to other artistic fields such as performance, music, publishing, etc.

Although Germany has inherited important infrastructure from the welfare state period, and artists and cultural workers can rely on a partially preserved system of social insurance, a professional association of artists from Berlin is facing similar problems. The berufsverband bildender künstler * innen berlin (BBK) is a professional association of Berlin visual artists founded in 1950. Today it has over 2,500 members, whose membership fees fund its independent work.

It was conceived as an association for the protection and advocacy of economic and social interests of visual artists. One of the association’s main goals is to support all visual artists by providing the necessary infrastructure and resources for the production of works of art. Bbk Berlin makes this possible through its non-profit affiliates that provide artists with affordable studios, sculpting, printing and new media workshops, and educational programs.

The association is also active in the field of cultural policy, engages in the issues of working conditions and the position of artists in the society, advocates towards the public, media and politicians on behalf of artists and in favour of their cultural, economic, legal and social interests.

Thanks to the association’s engagement during 2016, the so-called “Berlin model” for art fees was introduced, which has in the meantime become an inspiration for similar models in other cities. The “Berlin model” entails a special fund established in the budget of the federal state of Berlin, from which city galleries draw funding that is specifically allocated for art fees according to a minimum fee scale. The scale ranges from € 1,500 for solo exhibitions to € 100 (per artist) for group exhibitions. The guidelines for the minimum fee apply to all exhibitions funded by Berlin, and are not limited to exhibitions taking place in city institutions.

As their representative Zoë Claire Miller explained: “These are mandatory fees for exhibiting. Most artists in Berlin are very poor and poorly paid, 90% of us face poverty in old age, with average pensions of 357 euros a month, which is definitely not enough to cover the rent in Berlin”.

Presenting this model further, Zoe situated this turn towards advocating mandatory fees for exhibiting in 2009 and explained how it was directly influenced by the Swedish cultural policy of the times. Namely, during 2009, mandatory fees for artists were introduced in Sweden. The policy has become mandatory for all public institutions with exhibition practice, and the exhibition fee was defined as a kind of rent. The fees were specifically defined as fees for renting, that is, exhibiting artistic work during an exhibition in an institution that was financed from public funds.

The forming of the Coalition of the Independent Arts in Berlin in 2012 additionally contributed to the wider process of politicization of the Berlin cultural and artistic scene, pointed out Zoe. At the forefront of advocating for better working conditions was a plan of ten demands that later evolved into the Berlin financing model.

Through the mechanisms of pressure created over many years, through many actions and artists’ mutual solidarity, through the engagement of the mentioned actors, combining perseverance, structural planning and continuous cooperation with the network of municipal galleries, and with the support of the Berlin Secretariat for Culture, the Berlin model was established in 2016 with a budget of 300,000 euros per year only intended for financing exhibition fees. During 2018, this budget was increased to 400,000 euros per year. Fees are paid according to the guidelines established by the city / state of Berlin, together with all associated galleries.

“Fair payment” is a practice advocated also by IG Kultur from Austria, a cultural and political advocacy association that brings together about 1,000 autonomous cultural initiatives from all around Austria, which operate independently and continuously in the field of contemporary cultural production and mediation. Together with advocacy associations operating at the national level, they have been negotiating working conditions on behalf of their members for years, participating in setting cultural and political standards, advising and educating cultural workers, and producing, acquiring and distributing knowledge.

“Not only is the pay gap huge, but more than half of the institutions work in extremely precarious conditions, while more than half of the people working in the NGO sector earn an average of no more than 5,000 euros a year, far below the poverty line in Austria, which is 1,200 euros a month”.

These analyzes confirmed the necessity of having “fair practices” that provide regulations for fees for different jobs as well as a wage scale for five different tariff classes. The scale relies on salaries for, as they explain, already ranked work, titles and functions, which ensures transparency and visibility of all jobs in culture.

The need for a joint struggle for dignified working conditions and sustainable public financing of culture, as the only mechanism that can ensure its widest availability and enable the dignity of work in the field of culture, is also advocated by the Zagreb platform “For K.R.U.H.” (“For Bread”) established during the COVID-19 crisis. Their work represents a continuation of the activities of the initiative “Enough cuts!”, which in 2019 emerged as a broad and united front of cultural and media workers.

“Our struggle for bread began quite by accident in a pandemic year that completely exposed all the misery of cultural production in the shackles of its project financing, and left us without real economic, social and health security”, members of the platform explained. The “fight for bread” continues in 2021 with the establishment of the “Protocol of fair compensation for artistic and cultural work” and the introduction of self-regulatory mechanisms designed to create more equal economic relations between producers of cultural and artistic content and those who contract work. It also serves to open space for fairer cultural production and distribution.

United we bargain, divided we beg

As the discussions revealed, representative professional associations and other interest organizations operating in the cultural sector are the only actors with enough reliable information, precise data and necessary knowledge about the actual situation regarding precarious working conditions, unpaid work and the absence of social protection. This has proven to be true during the pandemic. Public cultural institutions in charge of monitoring and analyzing the state of affairs in culture have long been alienated from their primary activities.

One of the most important initiatives addressing the issue of work in the artfield in Serbia has come from the recently transformed the Association of Fine Artists of Serbia (ULUS). Mašina reported about it in detail. Their current project, Towards the Horizontality of Art, entails a series of researches on the problem of independent artists’ tax debts, their work and social status, the social role of art and theoretisation of fair practices regarding paid artwork.

By uniting in solidarity with other representative associations and advocacy initiatives and associations, such as the Independent Cultural Scene in Serbia (NKSS), during the pandemic, they managed to exert public pressure on the competent institutions to make them issue emergency measures to support independent artists. The organizations managed to self-organize to initiate a Solidarity Aid Fund to help the most vulnerable persons active in the cultural sector, those who remained “invisible” to the state due to their unrecognized and / or undefined employment status.

Italy and Greece are the rare European countries that lack legally defined minimum wage. A question arises – how to define and operationalise paying minimum wage for artists in such a framework?

Art Workers Italia (AWI) is the first organization in Italy founded with the aim of giving a voice to contemporary workers in the field of visual arts, established in 2020. Their representatives point out that every work, even unpaid voluntary work, must be based on a legal contract. An employment contract, in their view, is a necessary document that regulates the established employment relationship and which also creates awareness of the artist as a worker.

As a grassroots organization, AWI works in coordination with other initiatives in Italy and abroad to reform the sector and make it more inclusive, sustainable and transparent. According to their members Corinne Mazzoli and Alessio Mazzaro, AWI is specifically concerned with developing ethical, contractual and legal tools to protect artists.

Together with affiliated performing artists, they recently occupied the Piccollo Teatro Aperto in Milan. Their aim is to unite and connect contemporary struggles for paid work in the field of art, addressing artistic work in the cultural sector (such as acting, performing and many others, long-recognized forms of work in the cultural sector in Italy) as work. 

The fact that the independent dance scene has become more and more politically organized is also shown by the case of the Greek Trade Union of Dance Workers – Σ.Ε.ΧΩ.ΧΟ. It is the primary body of collective organizing of all who work in the field of dance, be them educators, dancers, choreographers. Under the slogan “collectivity-brotherhood-solidarity”, they organize actions and advocacy, strikes and demonstrations together with other art unions and organizations. According to Lina Vergopoúlou and Myrto Delimikháli, although this union has only existed for thirteen years, it has a strong public presence and works intensively to protect dance workers.

What makes this union stand out is the great attention it directs towards the political education of all those involved in the production process, including educational institutions, the stage with its participants, the audience, and the competent institutions. In this regard it is important to mention a campaign Σ.Ε.ΧΩ.ΧΟ. conducted, that puts emphasis on the does and don’ts within the existing framework , articulated in the form of a manifesto:

“It’s okay to joke in the classroom, but it’s not okay to make jokes with sexual connotations; it’s okay to think that a dancer’s body is one of their tools, but it’s not okay to think that it is your tool; it is okay to have clear terms of the agreement, but it is not okay to take my consent for granted; consent must be renewed at every stage of your artistic creation; it is okay to prepare me for the difficulties of our profession, but it is not okay to use this as an excuse for your bad behavior; it’s okay to focus on artistic creation, but it’s not okay to put it above the needs of the creator… “

When it comes to unionizing, one of the more militant contemporary unions is a union in Britain. Grassroots, anti-racist and non-hierarchical – United Voices of the World (UVW) was established in 2015, at a time when Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour Party and launched a campaign which once again turned public attention towards unionizing. Within this union, a sector dedicated to the field of culture has been developed. It is active under the name “Designers and Cultural Workers” run by the members themselves, and aimed at supporting and empowering the most vulnerable groups of precarious underpaid workers.

In the opinion of the union’s representatives, everyone who contributes to cultural production, be it a cultural worker – be it a designer, curator, film worker, an illustrator, a writer, a visual artist, an educator. It includes all those who work in their own studios, galleries, museums, art schools, theaters, fashion companies, but also those who work from their home. It applies whether they are full-time employed, hired by an agency, on a copyright contract, service contract, self-employed student on an internship, or working in maintenance, so that it and includes cleaners, technical staff, staff working in service activities in the cultural sector, and many others.

As the union’s representatives state: “Our goal is to react critically to the individualization of problems related to labour relations, regardless of whether they arise in the context of employment or freelance engagement. We need to recognize that our problems are common, connect atomized workers, educate and support each other”.

By running various campaigns advocating progressive changes in the field, they often address broader social issues, such as racism, class antagonism, sexism, and others, in order to link different progressive political struggles in an intersectional way. 

The cultural and political contexts presented at the Art and Cultural Workers Congress are de facto differently conditioned, and the mentioned organizations, that originated from different struggles, are heterogeneous. Some revive historical forms of strategies and tactics of struggle for paid wages, safer working conditions, social protection, which became engraved in their decades-long living structures, while others, the new ones, are unencumbered by a sluggish structure, but at the same time lack firm structure that takes years to built. Still, they have one thing in common. The struggle for decently paid work, as a common denominator, unites all the mentioned cases, whether they come from the United States, Greece, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Croatia or Serbia.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Jul 22, 2021.

The text was created within the project which is co-financed from the Budget of the Republic of Serbia – the Ministry of Culture and Information. The views expressed in the supported media project do not necessarily reflect the views of the body that allocated the funds.


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