‘…But We Can’t Pay You’: Performance Art and Money’s Knotty Relationship

Marina Abramović photographed at her New York City apartment on September 18. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Marina Abramović photographed at her New York City apartment on September 18.


A year ago, in a former bank in Brooklyn, RoseLee Goldberg hosted a postmodern fundraiser featuring a “special food performance” by artist Jennifer Rubell. The event was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Performa biennial, founded in 2004 by Goldberg, a scholar of performance art, to raise awareness of the art form. Meanwhile, across the East River from Performa’s feast, Sean Kelly Gallery was presenting the most recent exhibition of the world’s best-known performance artist, Marina Abramović. For the show, the artist had visitors don blindfolds and noise-canceling headphones and then wander for as long as they wished through a vast, empty exhibition space.

Arguably, Performa and Abramović have achieved more over the past decade to raise the profile of performance art than anyone or anything else. This month, in fact, Performa will hold its sixth biennial, featuring live works by a select group of artists, including Robin Rhode, Francesco Vezzoli, and Juliana Huxtable, in an array of venues around New York. The festival’s ten-year anniversary, though, arrives at a kind of crossroads for performance art. High-profile exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial are placing performance front and center in their programming. Museums are acquiring performances for their permanent collections and hiring curators devoted to the tricky task of preserving them, in many cases building special theaters for the purpose. Yet, at the same time, artists and organizations are raising questions about how performers should be paid for their labor, and Abramović is attracting attention for her ability to monetize the genre. Performance art was surely never a fast route to financial stability, but now the genre has garnered more institutional support than ever before.

Once a striving art student in Belgrade, Abramović is now an iconic figure, attracting some 800,000 people to her 2010 performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist Is Present. For the past several years, she has been attempting to raise money (bringing in nearly $700,000 with a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign) to realize her Marina Abramović Institute. There visitors will be taught the Abramović Method, “a series of exercises designed by Abramović over the course of 40 years to explore boundaries of body and mind,” according to the institute.

In 2014 Abramović was paid $150,000 to do a World Cup commercial with Adidas (she told Bloomberg she spent $50,000 making the film and that the spot “was the right thing to do for my institute”). While her life appears to be couched in the trappings of a bona fide celebrity—a recent visit to her stylishly stark Tribeca apartment revealed a huge walk-in closet stuffed with Givenchy (all gifts from her good friend Riccardo Tisci), and a visiting video editor from Brazil, who spends his days working in a spare office on her second documentary—she emphasized during a house call in September that she’s not really wealthy. “People send me all of this,” she said, gesturing vaguely at everything. I asked her if she had been paid to art-direct Givenchy’s first New York runway show during September’s fashion week. “Of course,” she said. “Are you kidding? I don’t work for free.”

Like many other performance artists, Abramovic sells photographs from her performances. During a gallery visit, sitting across from me in his well-appointed private library, Abramović’s longtime dealer Sean Kelly told me the prints sell for anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000. Compared with her artist peers who enjoy the same level of fame—Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons—relatively few of her works have made it to auction; her current auction record, set in May at Christie’s is $365,000 for a complete set of performance editions published in 1994 documenting performances between 1973 and 1975.

Abramović told me that, like most performance artists, she earns most of her living through teaching. In her apartment, the only artwork I saw was an enlarged photograph of her that had been taken during a performance; she can’t afford other artists’ work, she said, though she’s quite fond of Mark Rothko. Hirst, by contrast, has a 2,000-piece art collection that includes art by Francis Bacon, Sol LeWitt, and Andy Warhol. But even if her wealth doesn’t compare to Hirst’s estimated $1 billion net worth, Abramović is the only performance artist who has managed to nudge her way into the contemporary pop-culture canon.

“I think building your brand is involved in the amount of exposure you have, but that doesn’t always translate into money,” Kelly told me later. “That’s actually the trick that we’ve somehow managed to figure out. We’re the ones who figured it out, right? I think in part—I don’t mean to write your thesis for you—but part of the reason you’re sitting here talking to me is because we did figure it out, right? Or rather, there’s the perception that we figured it out.”

Abramović is undoubtedly the breakout star of the original generation of performance artists. Her success, fostered by her partnership with Kelly and by her own enterprising efforts, is, by any standard, exceptional. However, her fame has also had a controversial effect on the genre.

Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962/2012, performed at Chelsea Market Passage on the High Line, April 22, 2012. LIZ LIGON/COURTESY FRIENDS OF THE HIGH LINE

Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962/2012, performed at Chelsea Market Passage on the High Line, April 22, 2012.


“It’s more theatrical now,” said Alison Knowles one afternoon at James Fuentes Gallery, where we sat beholding her immersive installation The Boat Book (2014­–15). Her tone was reservedly neutral, polite. Along with Yoko Ono (who just had a MoMA retrospective and, like Abramović, has also achieved exceptional fame), Knowles is one of the surviving core members of Fluxus, the “anti-art” performance movement cultivated in abandoned SoHo warehouses in the 1960s by George Maciunas. One of Knowles’s more famous works from that period involved her preparing a gigantic salad in front of an audience, and then serving it to them. “When we started out, we were lucky to have a stage that had a spotlight,” she said. “Sound—oh, maybe not. Maybe there’d be a drummer, but usually a stage and some light was about it. And a microphone.”

In those days, if Knowles sold a work, it was because someone came up to talk with her after one of her performances and happened to walk away with a piece. “It seemed to me that the only way I made money from art was performing onstage at some university, or someone coming to my loft and saying ‘I really want that,’ ” she said. “And that didn’t happen very often. I got a good education in living minimally…and by not being in any way a spendthrift. I probably buy fewer clothes than anyone I know. What I’ve got on, I’ve had for 30 years.”

Despite being one of the most esteemed performance artists alive today, Knowles never made much money from her art. A few grants and fellowships have come her way recently, including the 2015 Francis J. Greenburger Award, and she began showing with James Fuentes, a younger dealer, in 2011. But back in the day, Knowles had to support her artistic output by working in another artist’s studio. “Nobody paid in those years,” she said.

In recent years, major art institutions have been giving more support to performance artists as well as participants in their productions. Throughout the past decade, performances have been steadily trickling into museum collections—one of the most notable acquisitions has been MoMA’s purchase of Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2003), in 2008, for a “knockdown” $70,000, according to a 2013 report in the Telegraph. Another recent museum acquisition of a performance piece came with a surprising concession.

In July the New York Times reported that the artists Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly, of performance duo Gerard & Kelly, had sold their piece Timelining (2014), on view for the Guggenheim’s recent “Storylines” exhibition, to the museum’s permanent collection. Gerard & Kelly, with the help of public-policy expert Heather McGhee (and sister of participating choreographer Hassan Christopher), had created a compensation plan detailing a method of payment for Timelining performers. It addressed what they told the Times was “a blind spot in how performance was entering collections.” Tying their payment system to New York’s “living wage” of $13.13 per hour, they stipulated that the eight-hour performance should result in each performer being paid a minimum of $105.04 per appearance. The Guggenheim complied readily, informing the Times that they ended up paying the performers a better rate.

Two months later the Art Newspaper published a piece reminding readers that while institutions like Tate and the Whitney are spending millions of dollars to create special spaces for live art, they may need to up their budgets when paying the performers as well as the artists becomes a de facto practice. (The paper pointed out that, while union protections exist for actors and musicians, there are no such standards for payment of performance artists.) The Art Newspaper quoted Walker Art Center performing arts senior curator Philip Bither saying he’d “talked to colleagues who are surprised when they mount live art in galleries that you have to pay people at all.”

Clifford Owens, one of today’s higher-profile performance artists (though still miles from Abramović’s mainstream celebrity status), echoed that sentiment. Owens spoke to me over the phone after a 12-hour bus ride from New York, where his work was on view in a solo exhibition at the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches. (Like Abramović, he supports himself partly through teaching gigs.) Before his Invisible-Exports show opened, he’d stayed at the gallery for a month, putting on a series of performances for limited audiences (as well as a public one over Labor Day weekend) in which he smoothed Vaseline over his body and then deposited coffee grounds onto paper to make what are, in effect, performance drawings. He told me that institutional invitations to contribute performances often include the caveat “but we can’t pay you.” Said Owens, “I always tell them, ‘Performance art is not free.’ ”

Clifford Owens photographed in New York City on September 28. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Clifford Owens photographed in New York City on September 28.


On the front lines of this fight is W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), an artist-led organization that is seeking to regulate artist fees from nonprofit art institutions. Performa, arguably the most visible showcase of performance art in the world, was actually the lowest-ranked institution in a 2010–11 W.A.G.E. survey report on nonprofits paying performers. Of people participating in Performa, 92.3 percent did not receive any payment, according to the survey. By comparison, the Kitchen, a New York-based alternative space that regularly hosts performance pieces, paid 100 percent of its performers.

In a statement e-mailed to ARTnews, Goldberg, Performa’s founder and director, countered that the W.A.G.E. survey was “flawed,” adding, “it does not distinguish between projects that Performa commissions and presents, and those presented by our Consortium Partners, which are independently curated and produced.

“Performa pays substantial fees to all artists it commissions and produces as a part of its biennial,” Goldberg continued. “These fees are in addition to the production costs for the performances. In addition, Performa pays all the actors, performers, musicians and dancers who perform in the artists’ commissions. Performa’s fees have been, and still are, higher than the recommended W.A.G.E. fees for both artists’ new commission fees and performers’ fees.”

(It’s worth noting that production costs are often not allocated in addition to the general performance fee. Abramović told the New York Times Magazine in 2012 that her fee for performing her star-making piece, The Artist Is Present, at MoMA was $100,000. That sounds like a substantial sum, until you consider that, over the three months that the show was on view, Abramović sat for a total of 736 hours. Additionally, compensation for the year it took her to prepare for the performance is not included in this number, nor were the three years that she has said it took her to physically recover from the experience. (If the Gerard & Kelly wage model were hypothetically applied to the performance, with Abramović as a hired performer rather than the artist, she would have earned $9,663.68.))

Then again, most artists wouldn’t say that they participate in Performa to make money. (“I don’t look to performance to sustain myself,” said Rashid Johnson, who participated in Performa in 2013 and now sits on the organization’s board. “I imagine it’s more complicated for an artist who really, truly lives the life of a performance artist,” the photographer, painter, and sculptor said, adding, however, that “one unique thing about Performa is that it brings in artists who have not had traditional performance backgrounds and engages them in performance.”)

Owens has been featured in Performa twice, in its inaugural 2005 biennial and again during Performa 13, and vouched for the idea that Performa has played a significant role in the promotion of participating artists’ careers. “Absolutely,” he said. “Not just in terms of their thousands of followers on social-media platforms”—he also benefited from the festival’s “intellectual, scholarly aspect.”

In 2011 MoMA acquired one of Owens’s works for its permanent collection. This was the same year in which the artist was the subject of a now-infamous solo exhibition at MoMA’s sister museum in Queens, PS1. When we spoke, however, Owens told me he was currently homeless, and had been so for four months. He had been couch-surfing; sometimes he slept on the subway.

“I didn’t become an artist because I thought it would make me rich,” he contended. “I never thought it would make me money.”

His PS1 show did make him a star, however, at least among people who follow contemporary art. In it, he commissioned performance scores—instructions for a variety of actions to be performed live—from a number of black artists. These ranged from the conceptual (“Annotate an existing performance score. Perform that performance annotated.”) to the controversial (“French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex.”). The show, despite being characteristic of the anti-commercial tendencies of both Owens and the medium of performance itself, was covered extensively by the press.

What money Owens makes from his work comes mainly from selling his drawings and photographs, the latter of which are often captures of his performances. By the time his Invisible-Exports show closed, in early October, the gallery had sold over half the pieces—those performance drawings among other works—at prices ranging from $3,000 to $20,000. “I’m not interested in documentation of a performance,” he said. “I’m interested in the performances that generate images—I call them discrete objects. I don’t want to come off as sounding crass about this, because the commodification of performance art is rather difficult—very few people do it, and I certainly don’t do it with any consistency. My homelessness would suggest that I don’t do it successfully.”

Hannah Ghorashi is on the editorial staff of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 54 under the title “ ‘…But We Can’t Pay You.’ ”

Clarification 11/04/2015, 2:30 p.m.: In the article as it originally appeared, the artists Gerard&Kelly’s Tool Kit for performer payment was hypothetically applied to Marina Abramovic’s performance “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art. The artists clarify that their Tool Kit’s formula is for minimum wage requirements for hired performers, not artists. This clarification is reflected in the article as it appears above.

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.