Arts Commentary: The View from Free — 2014 Edition

The exploitation of the free labor of artists may finally have hit a critical mass in 2014, generating enough publicity to make observers righteously angry.


Performance Artist Marina Abramović — why pay artists when they will work for free?

By Debra Cash

What do Marina Abramović, Lena Dunham, Oprah Winfrey, and Twyla Tharp have in common?

Yes, they’re all talented women. Given. That’s not what I was asking.

They have all expected performers with a lot fewer resources than they command to work for free.

2014 may have been the year when the instances of this kind of exploitation finally hit a critical mass, generating enough publicity to make observers stop scratching their heads and start getting righteously angry.

— In July, it was Abramović, the museum community’s favorite performance artist — no excuse me, exponent of “long durational and immaterial art” — now building a $20 million, 33,000 sq foot institute in Hudson, NY. Abramovic advertised for four part-time volunteers to work for her nonprofit. The job requirements included “proficiency in Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and basic HTML / CSS coding,” and “a college-level background in art history, performance art, and/or performance art studies. Strong writing skills required. Additional background in at least two of the following: the sciences, research assistance, curatorial practice, performing arts, fine arts, photography/ video.”

This after Abramović had already been slammed in 2011 for low remuneration as well as questionable taste when she asked naked and semi-naked performers to lay on a gala table during a Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art celebration, creating what avant-garde veteran Yvonne Rainer called a “grotesque spectacle.” (Debra Levine compared the working conditions of performers and bartenders at the gig, and the bartenders had it way better.)

— In September, Lena Dunham of Girls announced an 11-city book tour behind Not That Kind of Girl, for which she had gotten a $3.7 million advance. Tickets for each appearance were $38. For her warm-up acts, she had an open call for artists. None would be paid. When Gawker got hold of this information, she back-pedaled, tweeting that “as an artist raised by artists, no one believes more than I do that creators should be fairly compensated for their work.” A minute later she added that “some good points were raised and I’ve ensured that all opening acts will be compensated for their time, their labor and their talents.” The reversal of her decision made People Magazine.

— In November, an Oakland-based hula hooper (yes, you read that right) who calls herself Revolva thought she had finally  gotten some attention for her circus art when she was invited to be one of the warm-up acts on the stage outside Oprah Winfrey’s “The Life You Want” tour on its San Jose stop. Imagine her surprise when the media billionaire’s producer told her this was an unpaid gig. Revolva went public with a letter in which she admitted that criticizing Winfrey was scary, but noting that

In one day, your arena tour (capacity around 18,000, each ticket $99 to $999) is raking in more money than most people will make in a year. In ten years. In their entire lives. And yet, your side stage, featuring local acts, is paying in that old tap-dancing, phantom promise of “exposure.”

— Also in November, choreographer Twyla Tharp announced a workshop — some have called it an audition — “to develop ideas as she prepares to launch her new company.” Tharp may not be in the Oprah or maybe even in the Dunam financial bracket, but she presumably is receiving some Broadway residuals. There was no pay for the ‘workshop.’ Rebecca Lazier in an outraged Facebook post pointed out that for actors, Equity mandates a workshop stipend. That’s how new work gets tried out in professional settings.

What’s going on here? It’s clear that the same neoliberal economics that have led to a situation where CEOs at the 350 biggest American public companies earn on the order of 300 times more than they pay their workers has sloshed over into the ordinarily softer and gentler world of the arts.

In early December, artist and critic William Powhida published a report for Creative Time that explored some of the systemic problems that are contributing to the economic inequities currently plaguing the production and distribution of the visual arts. (He may be best known for his Griftopia, an elaborate chart containing the engineers of the 2008 recession.) While his focus in the Creative Time study was on painting and sculpture, not performance, many of its recommendations are easily extrapolated.

A detail from

A detail from William Powhida’s “Griftopia.”

The first, of course, is solidarity. If no one steps to the front of the line, bad behavior is not going to be rewarded. This may be a pipe dream, but it’s a start. Powhida outlines a number of nascent efforts, such as a certification system that will help ensure that nonprofit institutions pay artists minimum compensation for their work; flow charts to support ethical decision making about opportunities; and the creation of a “coalition of artist-led advocacy groups, economic/social justice organizations, environmental activists and other progressives” that would advocate for the fair compensation of artists.

But there’s a simple thought experiment that will help any performer or artist across the disciplines decide whether to work for free. It’s the notion that work done gratis should be seen as providing a subsidy. When an artist volunteers it should be viewed as a donation of valuable, in-kind services. Is the organization or individual that artist is being asked to volunteer for one to which he or she wants to contribute? Can it afford to pay? And are alternative ways to compensate artists for their unpaid efforts presented?

That rubric has been helpful to me when I decide to contribute articles that take many hours to write for The Arts Fuse, which pays me little, but runs on a resilient shoestring of hope and optimism. Evidence of shared sacrifice in the service of thoughtful commentary is a powerful inducement. (This is my entreaty for you to make a donation to keep this independent reporting and criticism coming!).

I always loved the sign on the studio door of the great graphic designer Milton Glaser (who designed I ♥ NY). It says Art Is Work. And now I can add another sentence penned by William Powhida: “Acting as if we are somehow above or outside of global capitalism is not a form of agency — it’s a form of delusion.”

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2015 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.

c 2015 Debra Cash


  1. Karen Klein on January 2, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    It’s a sad truth that artists think that working for free for some celebrity a million times more famous than they are will bring added luster to their resumes. When all it does is make them chumps for working for free for persons who can easily afford to pay them. If artists weren’t so desperate for exposure, for hoping that the famous person would somehow, someway be an “in” for them to get into a show, a gallery, meet another famous person who could help their careers, they would show more self-respect and agree to work only if they get paid for their labor.

  2. John Bell on January 2, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    The cases Debra mentions seem particularly egregious. I do think there is a difference between those cases and community performance events that welcome volunteer participants. This also connects to the increasing use of intern positions as unpaid work. Can reasonable or legitimate practices of involving volunteers or interns be separated from the kind of exploitation in which Abramovic et al. seem to be engaging?

  3. Ian Thal on January 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    And lest we forget, we should also acknowledge Boston’s own contributions to the exploitation of free creative labor:

    2012 marked Amanda Palmer asking for musicians to play in her band for beer, hugs, high-fives, a swag (I wrote about it here). Palmer has since monetized this experience into a TED talk appearance and her book, The Art of Asking.

    And this isn’t limited just to celebrity artists — even some non-profits are in on the game, as in 2013, the CitiCenter was asking artists to perform in an arts festival they were sponsoring for no compensation at all.

  4. Debra Cash on January 13, 2015 at 10:14 am

    The crisis is international — and international artists are beginning to come up with proposals. Check out Susan Jones’ comment from The Guardian in the UK.

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