On May 20th, in an intervention that took place on the Malieveld in The Hague, a series of statues, authored by Yuri Veerman, were erected with the support of Platform BK. The statues listed the “hero” jobs of the coronavirus pandemic. The jobs were accompanied by the yearly average salaries of each “hero”.
The salaries went something like this:
A supermarket shelf filler: 10.613 Euros
An artist: 18.340 Euros
A cleaner: 26.910 Euros
Garbage collector: 32.544 Euros
Nurse: 39,000 Euros
Police Agent: 53,000 Euros
Journalist: 55,000 Euros
Minister: 171,000 Euros
KLM CEO: 507,000 Euros (1)
I speak from the position of an artist and creative writer. I earn half the salary of a cleaner, in a good year. When the coronavirus regulations were implemented my practice was hit on a fundamental level. The regulations were meant to limit access to public space and gatherings over a certain number of people, an element which impacted on the functioning of festivals, museums, galleries, and any other type of art institutions. Surprisingly they didn’t impact arts state funding completely in the Netherlands, but even a practice like applying for funding needed some time to be reshaped in light of the crisis. The regulations were also meant to close borders worldwide and limit flights. This situation brought into sharp relief the fact that my sources of income could be obliterated in their entirety if every single avenue for expression at a market level and as state subsidy was to be either denied to me or postponed. Though what they also did was highlight not just the current moment, but the underlying precarity of artistic practices, which are generally set up on unstable ground.
This might have been the reason why, on April 30th, midway through the quarantine, I was contacted by Studio I with the following proposition:
“If you think it is possible to write an article about precarious work in the cultural (museum) field, in relation to inclusion, please let us know! Some practical information: for the article we offer a fee of 200 euros and in order to pay you we need to know if you are registered at the KVK. There is no set limit for characters I. was also wondering if it would be possible for you to make a suggestion for a (high-res, free of copyright) image. If not, I will try to find one myself”
As I processed the request that came my way I looked first at how the request was formatted. At the fact that there was already a set fee – in this case, € 200 – and that this was meant to cover an article and potentially an image. And that I would be expected to be a registered freelancer (in short, to work on commission) to be able to qualify and receive payment.
The further coordinates of the article went something like this:
“What we are personally seeing in the museum field is that institutions often work with a flexible pool of guest curators, freelance educators, temporary advisors, etc. to develop a more inclusive and polyvocal program and policy. At the same time, this flexible pool is of course very precarious because of the flexibility and temporality, which is all the more visible and urgent because of the current health crisis. As a platform for inclusion, we feel it is important to think about this, because we think fair practice and solidarity cannot be seen as separate from inclusion.”
I decided right then and there, by taking apart the assumptions of this commission, to focus on socioeconomic status as my topic. Socioeconomic status is the ability to support oneself and how that positions a person in society, and it’s capable of impacting on access to education, on leisure time, on diet through to political orientation.
I took the reference of the “heroes” work listed above as my guideline, but the work also comes with some addendums as far as artists are concerned, addendums which are specific to the Dutch market, where:
“More than 60% percent of artists are (quasi-)self-employed.”
“The compensation for self-employed entrepreneurs without employees (zzp’ers) is usually below the minimum wage (which is €9.54 per hour gross).”
along with the fact that:
“An artist who sells his or her own work or a performing artist who is just starting out sometimes earns less than €1 per hour.” (2)
As I wrote this down for myself, I realized my socioeconomic status wasn’t just precarious due to a global lockdown. If this would have been the main driver of my precarity, then it would have at the very least made some form of a sense.
However, no, my socio-economic status had been designed as precarious from the moment in which I stepped into professional life as an artist, due to the fact that the option of stable imployment became nonexistent within my particular profession, where work is made mainly on a self-employed basis. In addition to this there is always the need for some form of perceived innovation or another, innovation which should be supported by the artist’s capacity to juggle multiple income streams which can be invested in their practice. And my status is not at all helped by the fact that, even as a self-employed artists I cannot dictate the terms of my self-employment – since project budgets tend to be negotiated without artistic input, artists being informed of what they would be paid, rather than stating their working conditions. But in all honesty I’m assumed to be doing “something I love”, which translates into job satisfaction that doesn’t need to be remunerated according to the prescriptions of a living wage.
And this overall strategy is no better exemplified than by the coordinates of the article that I was commissioned to write, in which I would represent the “flexible pool of guest curators, freelance educators, temporary advisors, etc.” and the innovation task that I would be asked to develop, and which seems to be the new benchmark based on which cultural institutions are evaluated, would be to talk about my precarity to embody one of the voices needed to promote “inclusivity” as part of “polyvocal programming and policy”.
But who is Studio I to begin with? Who is giving me the chance to perform myself for a set fee? As I was about to find out Studio I is an initiative of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven. So with that knowledge in mind, I decided to go one step further, since I was already looking into finances and apply to them the logic of the “ heroes of the pandemic” piece, turning to the day of both museums.
According to indeed.nl here are some popular positions and what they might gather in terms of financial remuneration in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam:
Intern (m / f) – € 290 per week
Security guard (m / f) – € 2,292 per month
Human Resources Employee (m / f) – € 3,114 per month
Coordinator (m / f) – € 3,155 per month
Team leader (m / f) – € 2.686 per month (3)
Further supplemented by the entries on glassdoor.nl:
Guide: 20 k€ – 22 k€ per year
Project Manager events: 62 k€ – 68 k€ per year (4)
Though there is no indeed.nl entry for the director’s salary one can assume it hovers around the same sum that the previous director’s salary was: around 180,000 Euros (5). While for Van Abbemuseum the sums are even harder to find for higher up positions, one can be excused for thinking they most likely don’t differ that much from the ones at the Stedelijk. In fact, an expose which was made public as a retort to the “heroes” piece, painted a similar picture of the cultural sector’s inequality. (6)
Let’s then talk about shifting the current status quo as far as socioeconomic status goes. Let´s consider for a moment the thought of equalizing the playing field. If indeed the aim is one of showing solidarity among various players in the cultural field, then let’s start by viewing those players as the totality of the ones that make the cultural field possible. While I, as an artist, am being affected by the current crisis, who else is in this crisis alongside me? Who is to my left in the line and who is to my right?
In a piece entitled “ideas for a new art world” publicized on their website on May 3rd, Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente, aka The White Pube, proposed looking at the current corona crisis as a way of digging ourselves out of precarity by using one of the most obvious approaches – abolishing different pay scales for different jobs within art institutions, and I quote:
“On a less sweeping scale, regarding organisational structuring, we need more collective working practices. Make it standard practice to pay everyone in an organisation the same generous living wage. (…) The disparities in pay between the director-class, curatorial staff, and the rest of the invigilation catering & cleaning staff feels like a key fault line in the exact social inequalities across the industry that we need to dismantle. (…) Maybe our ability to take a more collective and inclusive approach to programming and running an institution will become easier when everyone’s got the same amount of monetary skin in the game. If not, then could a democratic art institute exist?” (7)
Questions which underline the discussion on inclusivity, questions such as: “Who has access to a museum from a standpoint of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability?” and “Who writes the story and for whom is the story written?” also make sense to be asked from the point of view of how employees or an ever more “flexible pool of guest curators, freelance educators, temporary advisors” participate in the making of a cultural institution, the daily grind, from its positioning on the local and global cultural map to wiping down its toilets and prepping them for the next round of visitors.
What does it say about an institution when its director earns 12 times more than its intern and 6 times more than its security guards? Do all the parties involved in keeping the institution going have the same skin in the game if they don’t all earn a living wage? And what is the position concerning all this of article writers hired on commission, with no job security, for a one time gig, meant to dissect their precarity for the sake of being included in the conversation and earning in one day almost as much as an intern makes in a 4-day workweek?
Do our museums reflect the same economically inclusive standards that they strive to reflect in terms of gender, race, and ability? Does their discourse align with their politics? Does the concept of solidarity, which they propose, fit with the type of solidarity which they implement?
I’d like to end this piece not with a series of answers since most answers can be deduced from the above pay scales, but with a way of paying it forward and making sure this conversation is developed further. I’d like to end this piece by going back to Platform BK (8), the supporters and initiators of the “heroes of the pandemic piece.”
I believe systemic change can be achieved, but it’s an uphill battle and in order to achieve it one needs to first work on transparency and from there on implementing methods of disolving inequality.
Over the past few years, Platform BK have been involved in advocating for fair pay for artists (the Artist Honorarium scale) (9), affordable studio spaces and housing (Atelier beleid) (10) and the need for including artists and their work as integral parts in the ecology of cities (Geen Stad Zonder Kunst) (11).
In order to show my own solidarity and illustrate the fact that we need to collectively show solidarity to these plights, the € 200 honorarium that will be earned as a result of writing the opinion piece will be donated to Platform BK. This will ensure that they can continue the promotion of transparency and equality within the arts. And my hope is that my example will be followed by those further up the payscale of Studio I and beyond.