Performing Austerity: Artists, Work, and Economic Speculation

The relationship between arts economies and austerity is a tumultuous one. We need only recall Stephen Harper’s sneering 2008 categorization of artists as rich complainers as evidence of the persistent myths that are used to devalue artistic work as “non-essential” during times of economic crisis. And yet, while the global commercial art market continues to experience steady growth and record-breaking auction sales, this profit-oriented circuit is neither possible nor desirable for many artists. Given the rich history of art works that engage with economic exchange–from artists’ storefronts and corporations to drop-out culture and performative actions of refusal–we are interested in considering the ways in which artists negotiate and respond to the simultaneous devaluation of artistic work, and increasing pressures on artists, cultural workers, and funding agencies to behave as financial speculators. In a climate of austerity budgets and precarious labour, we ask: how do artists, cultural workers, and institutions adapt and situate themselves? What kinds of identities–within cultural work and more broadly–are produced by capitalist accelerationism? On October 24 2014, as part of the UAAC conference held at OCADU in Toronto, I co-chaired a panel with Anthea Black on Performing Austerity: Artists, Work, and Economic Speculation. The panel included papers by Shannon Stratton, Michael Maranda, and Kirsty Robertson. To introduce the panel and frame some of the issues presented in the papers, we also drafted a letter to the UAAC community. What follows is a working draft of that letter that we are inviting our colleagues to read, sign, and comment on.

Dear Colleagues, artists and academics of the UAAC community,

It isn’t news that working conditions in academia and the economic landscape of higher education in arts and humanities have worsened in the last several years. On the occasion of the 24th annual University Art Association Conference we find ourselves challenged by the difficulties of working in this climate, just as we are heartened to once again join you in dialogue and scholarship. To introduce our panel on October 24 2014, Performing Austerity: Artists, Work, and Financial Speculation and our colleagues Kirsty Robertson, Michael Maranda, and Shannon Stratton, we read an open draft of this letter. The text that follows has been expanded to include commentary from a number of additional voices, and represents a desire to bring together artists, cultural workers, and academics for a discussion on what is to be done in the face of great economic pressure in the arts and beyond.

Over the course of our careers working as artists, independent arts writers, arts administrators, and academics, we’ve relished the ways that a single problem or research subject like “Performing Austerity” can be examined in multiple ways–and known more fully–by taking on various roles. “Wearing many hats” is a professional requirement for many in the Canadian arts community, though it is less often acknowledged as a survival tactic or a way to generate practice-based revenue. Like many artist-academics, we quite enjoy working in this way: what Michael Maranda calls a peer-driven “work preference economy.” [1] Or at least we thought we did. More recently, as we run ragged running interference between artist-run models, museums, funders, and academic institutions, not to mention the bank and the dentist, the bad affects of boundaryless work have caught up with us. Just as Gina Badger acknowledges in the editorial for the final issue of FUSE “…we have come to the conclusion that this is no longer a viable project under current conditions.” [2]

The irony of the situation does not escape us: as we circulated the call for this session to Canadian artists, critics, theorists, and writers who we consider essential voices in this conversation, we received much interest in reply. However, our colleagues–especially those working outside of academia or as part of the academic precariat–raised questions about speakers fees. They had a clear message, that they urged us to raise directly at UAAC: our respected colleagues were unwilling or unable to participate without remuneration for their labour. The myth of “exposure” should now be well understood as more exploitative than of real benefit for artists and cultural producers.

The reason we are writing to you today is to acknowledge that all who attend UAAC are paying to be here–whether we can afford it or not–and many more are not attending for this very reason. For those of us who practice as both artists and academics, that makes us financial speculators caught between two conflicting economic systems, neither of which offer a wholly viable way of making one’s way in the world. Academia, which is fueled by a highly exploitable labour force that is often all too hungry to pay-to-play at conferences like UAAC and College Art Association, increasingly mashes up against an art world marked by outworn myths that devalue artistic labour, and the greatest class disparity between artists in history. All the while, both the art world and academia continue to weather increasing corporatization and the effects of “neoliberal assault[s] on public sector funding.” [4] Canadian artists have already fought to establish artist’s fees through CARFAC, while new models are under development through the American activist group W.A.G.E.[5], and others still are working in off-grid, collective and DIY capacities.

While we understand that academic conference structures operate differently than the Canadian gallery and museum sectors, and their use of the CARFAC recommended fee schedule, these structures are not unrelated. It is time to open a space for dialogue and exchange around how (or even IF) our academic labour is being compensated. There must be other options. We desperately need to make room for dialogues and development of new economic systems–and ways of presenting work–in the arts.

Artists and academics are a surplus labour force, that is we are highly exploitable, and the functioning of both the art market and academia depend on it. But perhaps the greatest economic speculators in the field right now are our students, MFAs and PhDs in studio art programs, and sessional faculty. Student debt may well be the next mortgage crisis, with $15 billion owed to the Canadian Government, 8 Billion to provinces, banks, and private sources, and up to 1 Trillion in the United States. [6] Despite the undeniable social capital of working in the arts, participating in culture making and in higher education in the arts (either as a student or a faculty member) means assuming great financial risk. This is a trade many of us are willing to make, though we no longer model the ‘starving artist’ nor ‘rich complainer.’ Instead we assume identities as financial speculators, precarious workers, or dropouts. Enrollment is declining in arts and humanities and as Shannon Stratton discusses in her paper “Off the Grid Education, Autodidacts and Collectivity: Do we need institutional MFAs?” perhaps “dropping out” of academia, reimagining pedagogical models to suit us more, and working off-grid could be preferable to pursuing a costly terminal arts degree.

Performing austerity alongside these risks might have rich affective rewards: critical and commercial success, recognition, passion, international travel, “living the dream,” this list goes on, but doesn’t add up to a living wage. As Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble said in a recent lecture, the arts is a “tremendous pleasure economy” where “we just cannot get affect and reason to line up: we know we are being exploited, but we don’t want to feel like we’re being exploited.”[7] To put the wage struggle of artists in relation to the many pressing labour abuses of global capitalism, Canadian critic cheyanne turions reminds us that “the condition of precarity” [8] is experienced unevenly. While we have relative intellectual freedom to discuss the conditions of our labour through public dialogue, an entire global workforce remains exploited and largely invisible. Turions rightly calls for recognition of global labour issues, and solidarity with workers in other fields as an essential part of this conversation.

How do we imagine an organisation like UAAC working to respond to these concerns? First, the suggestions to increase subsidies for under-represented groups and to lower rates for non-tenured members that was discussed at the 2014 Annual General Meeting seems to have uptake amongst UAAC membership. Or more broadly, how can we work to find solidarity between academics and artists, who are arguably experiencing the same effects? We don’t have a solution to this yet but if we think–and act–collectively we could come up with one. We’re also compelled by how the sectoral bargaining strategies proposed by Winnie Ng, CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Ryerson University could work within the arts and academia [9]. Imagine for example, if faculty associations, academics at all stages of their careers, and our strong student unions, joined artist advocacy groups, artist-run associations, and employees at major galleries and museums to raise awareness about the value of public, accessible arts education and fair compensation across the sector? We consider this letter and the three papers given by Stratton, Maranda, and Robertson as way to begin a broad discussion amongst the UAAC membership on performing, analyzing, and critically thinking, austerity in these challenging economic times.

We would like to sign off by inviting you to sign onto this letter, circulate it, propose revisions, maybe fight a bit about the finer points, all with the goal of expanding the letter to address the broader UAAC community in good time [10].

Thank you,
Anthea Black, artist, Sessional Faculty Printmaking, Publications and Photography, OCAD University

Nicole Burisch, writer, Core Program Critic-in-Residence, Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Michael Maranda, Principal researcher, Waging Culture, Assistant Curator, Art Gallery of York University
Kirsty Robertson, Art History and Museum Studies, University of Western Ontario
Shannon Stratton, Executive Director, Threewalls, Chicago, Art History, Theory & Criticism and Fiber & Material Studies,The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

[1] Michael Maranda

[2] Gina Badger, “Editorial, Do Less With Less,” FUSE Magazine 37-1, Winter 2013-14,, (accessed Oct 29, 2014). After 38 years in operation, Canadian arts periodical FUSE Magazine closed up shop this year, signing off with a collectively-authored yet anonymous article, “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear.” The magazine was an important public platform for critical dialogue and exchange on the most pressing issues in contemporary arts, culture and politics. As contributors to this field, the membership of UAAC should be concerned about what it means when we lose yet another forum for the dissemination of our work.
[3] Waging Culture 2008 study, Art Gallery at York University.
[4] Anonymous. “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear,” FUSE Magazine 37-1, Winter 2013-14, (accessed Oct. 29, 2014).
[5] “Founded in 2008, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is a New York-based activist group whose advocacy is currently focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable model for best practices between artists and the institutions that contract their labor.” (Accessed October 31, 2014)
[6] Canadian Federation of Students. Student Debt in Canada: Education Shouldn’t be a Debt Sentence. Fall 2013. and “Student-Debt,” Wikipedia. Both accessed October 23, 2014.
[7] Steve Kurtz, public lecture, OCAD University, Toronto, Ontario. October 5, 2014.
[8] cheyanne turions, “Youth in Revolt: Precarious Labour, the Young Curator and Sectorial Burn Out in the Media Arts” (accessed Oct. 29 2014). A version of this text was also published in Syphon Vol. 2 Issue 3, Winter 2014.
[9] Winnie Ng, public lecture, “The evolution of the Academic Worker,” University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario. October 29, 2014.
[10] Thank you to the following individuals who offered critical feedback, editorial suggestions and support in preparing this letter: Risa Horowitz, artist and assistant professor of Visual Arts, University of Regina, Diana Sherlock, Independent Curator, Writer, Sessional Faculty, Alberta College of Art + Design; Heather Anderson, Assistant Curator, Carleton University Art Gallery; Robin Alex McDonald, PhD candidate, Queen’s University; Jennifer Crighton, artist; Mikiki, artist and harm-reduction activist; Lisa Vinebaum, Assistant Professor, department of Fiber and Material Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Mireille Perron, Permanent Faculty, Alberta College of Art + Design, Heather Davis, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Penn State; Maggie Flynn, Director, Whippersnapper Gallery; karen elaine spencer, artist; Gina Badger, artist and writer, cheyanne turions, independent curator, Amy Fung, writer, curator and Artistic Director, Images Festival; Sarah Smith, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Queen’s University; Scott Marsden, Director, Haida Gwaii Museum; Lane Relyea, Associate Professor and Chair of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University.

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