Local One Million

By John Bonafede

The images are in from the recent international art fairs. By the looks of the photos being circulated through social media, contemporary performance art has taken the Art World if not the Art Market by storm. The interesting difference between the Art World and the Art Market is illustrated clearly in this medium. Because of its origins in conceptual art, the very value attributed to performance artwork was and still is tied to the ethereal, and transient nature of the medium. Non-commodification was its hallmark, at least in theory. Many now-known pioneers of the performance field had loosely aligned themselves with the preciousness of a live conceptual scenario played out for those present and thus making an ultra limited supply for an ever- increasing demand for the new. The audience draw for art openings, art events and trade fairs now seem to require some representation from the performance medium to make the mood more valuable.

Any new conceptual practice must have an abundance of tenacity and/or veracity in order to withstand a chorus of critics who will dismiss it from the outset. Performance art had an underpinning of non-commercialism and anti-market values thereby making it even more radical than those who created conceptual performance art scenarios for time-based mediums such as film or video. The art’s live moment trumping the documentation (memento) from that moment is what performance art taunted as its magical allure. One has to experience it live, and Value tied to the scarcity of live experiences creates demand. So, the places in the Art World and its fringes became bastions for this ultra valuable medium. The heady Art World, as if it was a specific place, was where the seeds were planted in the mid 20th Century and the crop has flourished. The Art Market then had to come up with ways to commodify this phenomenon in tangible, lasting ways that could be wrapped up and sold.

This sometimes seemed like the antithesis of what many of the pioneers of the medium had placed value in. The seemingly off-handed documentation of now-famous performances from the earlier days of performance art currently fetch handsome sums and help propagate the myth of performance artists as being unconcerned with the marketing and packaging of the live experience. Now we know that this was just a myth generated to increase the value of those artists focused on the power of heightened transient aesthetic experiences. Tacit acceptance or purposeful approaches to documentation is willing participation in its lasting quality and thereby a performance’s role as a thing to be sold.

The commodification of performance art led major galleries and cultural institutions to cash-in on these memoirs from magic moments past, thereby fusing the Art World experiences and the Art Market. Several generations later, this contradiction does not seem to be such a philosophical quandary for most artists or art critics. The penultimate manifestation of the capitalization of performance art can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s embrace of live performance art mixed with plastic documentation as art objects in the seminal “Artist Is Present: Marina Abramovic” exhibit in 2010.

Having participated in this blockbuster show, I gleaned insight into the new process of live “re-performing” as a creative means to deliver that live experience to the masses and hence capitalize on it. The ultra limited supply of an historical one-off performance was replicated daily for three months in museums world wide, meeting the demand of the market. Good money was finally made, by some, with performance art.

The momentum from the subsequent media blitz and its cross-over into pop culture, led by Marina Abramovic, has allowed for the general public to be aware, on some level, of what performance art is. Graduating from the ultra marginal sliver of the Art World to its proper place in the cannon of various art mediums shown in cultural institutions is a great victory.

There still remains the questions surrounding the Art Market and monies made from the increased popularity of the medium. Who makes the money from live performance art? Does the value of new work made decline since there is more of an accessible glut of this once rare, fleeting artwork? Does re-performing older performances give a “true” experience to the viewer as the author intended (tantamount to the original experience)?

Because performance art falls under the auspices of the Visual Arts, there seems to be an old adage that there is no budget for compensation like the other Performing Arts. And this very well may be true, to a degree. In essence the galleries and museums show their diversity and branding by having contemporary performance work showcased. Not to be left behind, the media and other markets use performance as a way of showing a cognizance about what is going on in the arts for the last fifty years. And because it all happens in the Visual Arts bubble, nobody expects to pay for those experiences, unless you pay an admission to a museum. So where does this leave the performance artist? The ones who toil in obscurity to bring these commercial and “non-profit” institutions their conceptual performance branding are often left with precious little (or nothing)! Like the fleeting, non-commercial praxis it was founded on, the artist gets to know that the critical minds respect them for doing such things without making money: a noble art martyr among a society of First World consumers.

“So where does this leave the performance artist? The ones who toil in obscurity to bring these commercial and “non-profit” institutions their conceptual performance branding are often left with precious little (or nothing)!”

Is that enough compensation in this neo- liberal culture war? Does ever-increasing Big Real Estate prices influence the politics of what is shown in metropolitan commercial spaces to the point where the house/ institution must keep the lion share of the profits?

The disparity is shocking when the average arts administrator’s salary at a museum or high-end gallery is looked at in comparison to most of the contemporary performance artists asked to perform at those same spaces. Few of these employees live under the poverty line (not to mention the salaries of Chief Curators, Directors, CEO’s, CTO’s and CFO’s) while many artists performing in these spaces do. The content, the artists delivering the work, is obtained at a fraction of what a material object in these institutions sell for. Some may argue that they are apples and oranges but since performance art got the public stamp of approval though the success of shows in places like MoMA and the Guggenheim to name a few, then certain burning questions remain. Where is all that money from admission fees, and merchandizing going? This is all part of the art market. Despite how divorced from the creative process an art market may seem, the after-the-fact reality is that there are many willing to pay for this content, a fact proven by places that charge admission to performance art. Art admin is an apple versus the artistic content provider as orange insofar as their training and lifestyle are usually different when it comes to work. The management of artists requires skill-sets and work hours usually associated with a more corporate work structure; hence the monetary remuneration expectations are more under the umbrella of trade compensations or corporate salary structures.

There are a few problems with getting the exact figures surrounding the MoMA show as far as attendance in relation to profits. “The Artist is Present: Marina Abramovic” show pulled about 750,000 attendees. A good percent of those viewers did not pay the full $20 admission price because of group tours, art student deals, and corporate or senior discounts; but, as an institution that makes money with concessions, dining and a gift shop, it is safe to say that the draw of 750K people made MoMA a ton of money. Where did that money go? Unofficial reports say that Marina only made $100K for the three months of continual performance during museum hours. Klaus Biesenbach, curator of “The Artist is Present,” failed to get MoMA to buy one of her pieces for their collection during the exhibit. This customary practice usually assuages the financial burdens of any artist having a retrospective. He later corrected this major misstep. The attitude is that after a major solo exhibit at MoMA the artist’s commercial value will go through the roof and their compensation is not as important at the moment. During Marina’s “Seven Easy Pieces” performance at the Guggenheim in 2008 she received no money whatsoever. She even had to pay for her taxis to and from the museum. I was also at that show, and witnessed her perform before a large audience. If performance artists are not getting the money from the door and the lower and middle management are being paid peanuts, again, where does it all go? The transparency for financial breakdowns of large institutions is admittedly complex. Looking into the percentages that an artist makes versus the operating costs and the admission fees museums charge visitors to see the work, is what proves interesting. Like an NFL athlete, do the players make about 1% of the team’s annual income? Is this proportionality applicable to the art market?

Like any big business, art museums are looking to make the maximum profit the market will allow. Love it or hate it, that is the backbone of Capitalism. So when negotiating contracts with performance artists (a relatively new dimension to their duties) they often attempt to categorize the content makers as temporary employees without benefits or as sub-contractors. We know that electricians, carpenters, plumbers and other contractors are all paid at union scale due to the history of exploitation in capitalist systems. Now a Trade Union or Trade Syndicate operates with somewhat more of a fixed set of parameters with easy to measure skill sets as requirements to gain access to such work. With an artist, the skill-set is up for more flexible interpretations and debate. This, however, has not prevented actors, musicians, dancers and commercial artists from forming practical unions to protect them from being exploited, and exploiting is exactly what the Art Market is currently seen doing to performance artists in the Art World. This is the focus of the Local One Million.

Here is the bottom line: the Performance Artist Union is here. The Local One Million is a concept long overdue. Aesthetic judgment aside, if an artist practices their performance craft and is included in exhibits of performance art, they should be paid to scale. Ten unbroken years of proven, regular (or semi-regular) experience should be the requirement. A Union Delegate should represent the artists to the various institutions to hammer out legal coverages in contracts. Each artist in The Local One Million should learn to practice the Art of Refusal. Any negotiation that the performer is not willing to walk away from is not really a fair one. Artists should be allowed to operate outside of the Union but inform it of the nature of the context. More specifics can be found in membership application.

Artists are usually fiercely independent spirits. The idea of joining a collective to represent their interests is often anathema to their life trajectory. When, however, the time comes to pay their bills like everybody else in this revved up world, having a group looking out for their interests will seem ever more appealing. Collective bargaining almost always has more power than what a lone artist possesses. The feeling of being alone can compromise one’s values and add to the isolation and helplessness necessary to be taken advantage of. Until the professionalism allotted to other artistic genres are given to performance artists, the Art Market is essentially raping the Art World and using fear of career suicide as a bargaining chip. Our most raw, vulnerable practitioners are left to the cunning maneuvers of bald capitalism with no protection.

Anyone can say that he or she is a performance artist: this is precisely what many of these institutions would say. In this post-post-modern era, self-declaration is easy, and along with a metro card, will get one on the subway. If, however, an artist shows over a decade of experience performing in artistic contexts, it may be evident that a dedication is present to warrant an admission into a trade union, especially if established commercial exhibition spaces and well-endowed museums or non-profit organizations request their work. The point of a union is to protect the health and welfare of those practicing within that field and to establish living wages for its members. Interpretations of those precepts are surely dependent upon variables such as geography, local laws, and economic viability of the institution requesting the work, etc. As history has pointed out, the politics and corruption that weaves its way into the establishment of any union almost makes the task too dirty for artists to sully themselves with. But, the truth of the matter is that the dirty deals that performance artists are receiving across the country and abroad reflect a dismissal of respect for the content (artists performing with their bodies) and a greed that has insofar gone unchecked. The assumption that we should be grateful for any opportunity and that there are plenty of hungry performance artists descending on cities every year looking for a scrap off he proverbial table is exactly the mindset these institutions are negotiating contracts with. Will a Performance Art Union hamstring a burgeoning new field on its rise to prominence? Not a chance. Will it give pause to institutions like MoMA who offered endurance performance artists $50/ day to re-perform Marina Abramovic’s demanding classic works for throngs of audiences? You bet. During the exhibition, the performers unofficially unionized. We didn’t sign our names under the grossly underpaid, physically vulnerable conditions they offered: Only one artist from (South America) crossed our picket line and signed. We were all very scared of losing the gig we prepared so much for, but ultimately we nominated a speaker among us who would graciously and eloquently represent the interests and concerns of the 35 performers to the assistant curator of the show. The curators conceded. Insider informers did tell me that if we all didn’t accept their new contract, they would have scrapped our whole group just weeks before the opening. Believe me when I say the show would have suffered greatly if that happened because of the intensive retreats and training we received in the months leading up to such a large exhibition.

Will it give pause to institutions like MoMA who offered endurance performance artists $50/ day to re-perform Marina Abramovic’s demanding classic works for throngs of audiences? You bet. During the exhibition, the performers unofficially unionized. We didn’t sign our names under the grossly underpaid, physically vulnerable conditions they offered…

Fifty dollars is not, in my experience, the worst compensation I have been offered for doing performance art. This is expected, especially in the first ten years of cutting one’s teeth in small galleries, alternative spaces or street contexts. Fifty dollars actually seems like a lot when nobody really is seeking what you are offering. But when performance art as a medium grows, and when the names of individual artists grow within the art community, so will the demand. MoMA, Guggenheim and others know how to promote and manufacture public demand. In the light of a $20 admission fee established around the year 2000, things have changed in public valuation of contemporary conceptual art. When looked at proportionately to what the house makes, the offer of $50/day is beyond insulting. It is less than 1% of the allotted budget for producing that exhibition. It would be like offering a starting NFL player less than minimum wage. I have since heard of MoMA offering performers even less than what we negotiated for in 2010. I can only imagine what institutions in smaller cities are offering (or not offering) their performance artists.

As far as DIY galleries go, I am acutely aware of the implications of a union. The concept of payment, however, should not be so foreign to small/ alternative art spaces. Even a token percentage of a suggested donation could suffice and fulfill the union performance artist’s requirement to be paid for their efforts. Hashing out the payment numbers or percentages they receive from the gallery is where the Local One Million can come in handy as a negotiator or advisor. No artist union wants to lead to the demise of artist institutions of ANY size or budget. The goal is to change the norm of non-payment into something more sustainable for the craft. It is also about getting the galleries to change the public perception that it should be free. A cover charge, a sliding scale donation, or even a pass-the-hat structure could be feasible alternatives.


“But, when the mouse realizes it is himself/herself that everyone is paying the Vendor to experience then the mouse can summon a 12′ inflatable rat to highlight this injustice and receive a greater portion of nuts.” Photo by John Bonafede

When a little mouse is dependent on the Street Vendor to get a nut to survive, the Vendor has all the power. But, when the mouse realizes it is himself/herself that everyone is paying the Vendor to experience, then the mouse can summon a 12′ inflatable rat to highlight this injustice and receive a greater portion of nuts. An artist would literally be nuts not to accept help in getting a fair share. There is plenty of nuttiness in the life and content surrounding the performance work so leaving the sane and logical part of the practice to the act of negotiating fees and wages is just smart.

John Bonafede

Performance Artist Union
Local One Million