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Creating Change: Industria on advocating for fair pay

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Creating Change is a new fortnightly column highlighting collectives and individuals who are working to nurture positive change within the art world and beyond. 

An artist-run network utilising collective, direct action to tackle imbalance of pay, Industria explains how they are using transparency as a tool to build coalitions out of shared political aims

There is no blueprint around how to navigate the “art world”. Artists are rarely taught how to negotiate fair pay and contracts, and the opaqueness around paying structures makes it difficult to ascertain whether you are being taken advantage of. Industria – an artist-run network that utilises collective, direct action to influence equitable shifts in the arts – are tackling this imbalance. 

After being denied a Freedom of Information Request asking how much Tate pay artists, Industria created Artist Leaks: an open-access data collation form that publicises institutions’ rates of pay. Whereas Industria’s initial action was objected by Tate, who cited it was not in their “commercial interest” to publicise artists’ and employees’ fees, Artist Leaks attempts to hack the system and bring this information into the public domain.

Long-term, the plan is to distribute the findings with the potential support of bodies such Artists’ Union England and a-n, in an attempt to counteract the mystique around how much artists and art workers are truly earning. Here, we speak to Industria about how their collective project is using transparency as a tool to build coalitions out of shared political aims.

“We want to find a way for artists to work beyond the idea of ‘taking what you can get’, and to recognise each other as workers with shared aims as part of a wide-reaching struggle.”

Industria

BJP: Through your project Artist Leaks, you’ve been collating research around how much artists are paid. What catalysed you to begin gathering information around this topic?

Industria: Institutions are clearly keen to avoid artists gaining the collective bargaining power that more transparency would give them. Artist Leaks is therefore an artist-to-artist solidarity project to bring this information into the public domain. Artist Leaks is an attempt to situate the conversation as a question of workers’ rights, not artistic exceptionalism.

BJP: The responses you’ve been sharing paint a stark picture about a sector-wide phenomena of small fees and unpaid work, is this the kind of response you anticipated?

Industria: We anticipated an outpouring of frustration that is part of a much larger picture than artist fees, but we didn’t anticipate respondents would be so open about the specific and profound kinds of mistreatment they have been put through by the art system. It felt important to share these specifically because they bear out the classism, racism, ableism, and sexism that dictate the payment and treatment of artists and art workers.

BJP: Do you have an intention to use the information collated in Artist Leaks to apply pressure to arts organisations to pay fairly, or is there another motivation?

Industria: Responses so far show that funding is frequently so stretched that artists aren’t even making minimum wage. It should be down to those in charge at public institutions to advocate for fees that would at the very least meet national employment laws. But we also want to find a way for artists to work beyond the idea of “taking what you can get”, and to recognise each other as workers with shared aims as part of a wide-reaching struggle.

BJP: Why do you think that arts institutions aren’t currently structured to protect art workers?

Industria: The “art world” isn’t an exceptional space, and the entire global political climate is stacked against workers. Strong unions are the thing that offer any form of protection within that system, and the art system produces branded, atomised individuals. In the “art world” the “flexibility” of zero hours positions are sold to artists as the ideal support for their art practices and packaged as “creative” jobs, when in fact they are part of a gig economy race to the bottom for workers’ rights.

BJP: A lot of Industria’s work focuses on protecting art workers within institutional settings, building solidarity and applying pressure for a change to working practices. Do you think institutional reform is possible?

Industria: In a way, much of what we are doing is a “meantime” project: trying to catch what is going on in the gaps in the system and make some kind of shared breathing space in these gaps. Ultimately, though, [the sector] feels irredeemable. The “art world” as it exists is a stratified capitalist project that we have to think beyond entirely. Our ultimate aim for Industria is to produce spaces and coalitions that, even in small ways, aim towards imagining and building new social universes.

Jamila Prowse

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher who uses her experiences as a mixed race, disabled person of Black parentage to understand and subvert barriers to working in the arts. She is currently working on a series of films tracing the history of her ancestry through her relationship with her late father Russell Herman, a South African jazz musician. Jamila holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. She has written for Frieze, Dazed, Elephant,GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.

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