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Hoping to Alter Industry Compensation Standards, W.A.G.E. Launches Platform for Negotiating Artists’ Fees

The WAGENT logo.

COURTESY W.A.G.E.

At a lively event at Artists Space in New York on September 20, members of the art world came together to celebrate the launch of WAGENCY and the organization’s 10-year anniversary, a digital platform that aims to facilitate compensation for artists working in the nonprofit sector. Staged by the organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), the W.A.G.E. RAGER featured performances by Malik Gaines & Alexandro Segade and DJ JD Samson, among others, as well as a station for screen printing T-shirts.

Founded in 2008, W.A.G.E. has advocated for what it sees as fair compensation for artists for 10 years, and has established a certification program for art institutions that comply with its fee system. Among the 60 W.A.G.E.-certified organizations are the Swiss Institute, Participant Inc, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. But now W.A.G.E. has set its sights on certifying artists, too, with WAGENCY, the nonprofit’s latest invention.

The idea for WAGENCY was born three years ago, when artist Lise Soskolne, W.A.G.E.’s core organizer, and other W.A.G.E. leaders began thinking about the ways that artists could become more actively involved in the fight for better compensation. Created with the help of artist and developer Daniel Sauter, WAGENCY offers artists tools for negotiating their fees for their work, sending fee requests, and accepting or declining jobs with thousands of nonprofits in the United States. (For now, WAGENCY limits its services to institutions based in the United States.) To access the platform, artists must pay $5 a month.

“We want to make W.A.G.E. standards industry standards,” Soskolne said in a phone interview.

WAGENCY’s suggested fees are based on the kinds of work artists are producing and institutions’ total annual operating expenses. Artists become certified “WAGENTs,” as Soskolne calls them, when they either successfully negotiate W.A.G.E. fees or refuse to provide labor to institutions that do not comply with W.A.G.E. guidelines. The goal, Soskolne said, is to exert pressure on organizations to become W.A.G.E.-certified. Based on the information Soskolne receives through WAGENCY, W.A.G.E. may one day produce an aggregated and anonymized annual report “with the primary purpose of getting a better picture of the impact that WAGENCY is making on the art field and strengthening WAGENTS’ negotiating power,” according to W.A.G.E.’s user agreement and privacy policy.

According to Soskolne, the metric for WAGENCY’s success will be its number of users—and over 100 people signed up in its first week. “What’s required is that everyone does it, and there’s strength and power in numbers,” she said. “If people don’t use it, I’m really going to start to wonder if the idea of a union is just simply an idea, and if that’s enough for people.”

Soskolne added that, to meet some artists’ “idealized notions about labor unions and what it means to be involved in political struggle,” W.A.G.E. may organize an in-person annual meeting, as well as information sessions, for people registered with WAGENCY. “This idea that artists have about being in a union entails a lot of embodied participation,” she said. “I still think it’s important, and there have been plans to bring people together in real time.”

CORRECTION 10/04/2018, 11:28 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of W.A.G.E. certified institutions. A clarification regarding the organization's plans to produce an annual report has also been added.

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