The letter objects to MMoCA’s entry fee and the lack of compensation for artists. (Photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr.)
Editor’s note: A group of artists in Madison have sent Tone Madison the following letter about the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chroma event, scheduled to take place on April 17, 2020. Artists interesting in adding their signature to the letter can do so here, and signatures on this version of the letter will be periodically updated. The group of artists who wrote and signed the letter have also launched an Instagram account. MMoCA will be given the opportunity to respond in follow-up coverage. As of noon on Monday, December 16, the letter had 260 signatures from artists, musicians, and their supporters in the Madison area.
Full disclosure: Some of the artists who signed and helped author the letter are affiliated with Communication, Tone Madison’s non-profit partner organization.
This is an open letter on behalf of all the artists who are tired of working for free for institutions that claim to support them. This is an open critique of our major art institutions that use their platforms to perpetuate—rather than mitigate or end—systemic problems that hurt artists and obstruct diversity in the field.
On Monday, November 25th, MMoCA released a Call for Artists to apply for Chroma, a colorful art experience at the museum. Chroma is a ticketed event, with general tickets costing $15 and VIP tickets costing $100. This event is a revenue generator for MMoCA, yet no artists will be paid to participate. Instead, artists have to pay $25 just to apply, and those that get selected may have to pay an additional $100 to receive the museum’s support with installation. In other words, artists have to pay $25 to $125 for the “honor” of spending their free labor hours and materials to create a unique, one-time installation to entertain MMoCA’s members. Additionally, all participating artists agree to allow MMoCA the free use of images taken of their artwork for perpetuity. From the application: “Artists and designers agree to let MMoCA use photography of these artworks and designs for future publicity and commercial purposes.”
If this were a first time offense from MMoCA we might not have needed to write a public letter. But it is not the first time.
Chroma 2018 also entirely relied on the free labor of artists and event photographers. To our knowledge, only the DJs received payment for their time.
Outside of the Chroma event, MMoCA hosts unpaid internships, amidst international conversations about the privilege that’s required to work for free.
MMoCA’s 2019 Triennial event had 20 sponsors. Business sponsorships of MMoCA start at $2,500. If every donor donated at the minimum business sponsorship level, then the Triennial would have had a $50,000 budget. It begs the question: if an established institution has the influence to garner 20 sponsors for one event, why don’t they ask their donors to support the artists who make the event possible? Why does MMoCA not prioritize artists’ pay when underwriting the budget of a show?
MMoCA does not pay musicians who perform during Art Fair on the Square, claiming that “by performing pro-bono at Art Fair on the Square, you’re helping MMoCA offer free admission to nearly 200,000 visitors annually.”
As artists, we are outraged. For too long, many of us have supported museums, through our artwork and our membership. We have supported museums because we believe in the value of an organization and platform whose purpose it is to preserve, elevate, and celebrate culture. But we are at a time when more and more people are beginning to question–who does a nonprofit institution truly serve? At a museum like MMoCA, the art curator gets paid. The director gets paid. The assistants get paid. The event coordinators get paid. But the artists almost never get paid, even though it would be literally impossible to have an art museum without art.
The purpose of a nonprofit entity should be to help close social gaps. Closing social gaps is why nonprofits have fundraisers, grants, and major donors. Everyone understands that nonprofits have overhead to pay for. But when a nonprofit uses the population it is supposed to serve (in this case, artists) to fundraise to preserve the institution over the people, the nonprofit ceases to serve its public function. There is a reason that the “starving artist” stereotype and the “art is for the elite” stereotype exist in the same world. Their existence together sends a very clear message: artists (aka laborers) are valueless, and art (aka property/estate) is valuable. By relying on the free labor of artists, the art museum becomes not a place for artists, but rather an institution for the protection of property.
When a leader in the arts space like a museum perpetuates this lopsided power dynamic between artists and institutions, it calls into question whom this institution really serves. When the carrot that a museum dangles for artists is “prestige,” it reemphasizes the role of status in representation. When “diversity and inclusion” are cultural buzzwords, it matters whom we do and don’t pay.
It is the responsibility of the museum to resolve this systemic issue. We ask MMoCA to remove the application fee for Chroma and to pay the participating artists. We ask MMoCA to promise to have transparency for future initiatives on how artists will be paid for their work. We ask MMoCA to reconsider their role not solely in the enjoyment of the arts, but in the success and career sustainability of artists. Until this happens, it is the demand of the artists that they do so by boycotting this event: by refusing to apply, by publicly calling out the problem, and by telling the community not to purchase tickets when none of the revenue benefits the artists.
Artists, here is your call to action. The first action is to sign this letter. The second is to come to one of three organizing meetings (January 15, January 29, and February 4, at 6 pm at Madison Central Library), because this public letter to MMoCA, and other institutions that maintain the status quo, is only the beginning. It is time for artists to stand together, assert our rights, and fight exploitation. We hope the rest of you are listening.
Katie Avila Loughmiller
Emily BaerAnn Baer
Ian Baker Johnson
Caryn Ann Bendrick
Kim Charles Kay
Coral Conant Gilles
Melanie De Jesus
Chris Di Bernardo
christine dillon puchalsky
Luisa Fernanda Garcia Gomez
Mark Bodhisattva Hill
Beth Inglis Simmons
Emily Meredith Lewis
St PrinceXiaoyue Pu
Sallie Anna Steiner
Todd Todd Olson
William Grant Turnbull
Dan S Wang
Maria Amalia Wood
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