Artists sign letter protesting Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chroma event

The letter objects to MMoCA’s entry fee and the lack of compensation for artists.

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.

  1. 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. 

  2. Outside of the Chroma event, MMoCA hosts unpaid internships, amidst international conversations about the privilege that’s required to work for free. 

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

Sophia Allison
Julieta Alvarez
William Andersen
Pamela Anderson
Katie Avila Loughmiller
Emily BaerAnn Baer
Eric Baillies
Ian Baker Johnson
Emily Balsley
Tony Barba
Lisa Barcy
Jane Barnard
Terrance Barrett
Curtis Bartone
Jennifer Bastian
Reginald Baylor
Nina Bednarski
Caryn Ann Bendrick
Anna Benjamin
Hannah Bennett
Mary Bergs
CJ Bliss
Rosemary Bodolay
Nicolas Boehm
Josie Borchardt
Brit Borcher
Alaura Borealis
Roger Boulay
Katarina Brown
Danika Brubaker
Mark Brueggeman
Hanna Bruer
James Bryant
Ilana Bryne
Amy Callner
Kelty Carew
Laura Casey
Sage Caswell
Jody Chandler
Dara Chappie
Kim Charles Kay
Yeonhee Cheong
Esther Chovan
Tag Christof
Sara Coenen
Josh Cohen
Coral Conant Gilles
Angelica Contreras
Olivia Cook
Melissa Courtney
Melanie De Jesus
Rena Detrixhe
Laura Devin
Chris Di Bernardo
christine dillon puchalsky
Simone Doing
Patrick Downey
Martha Downs
Gillian Drier
pete driessen
Rachal Duggan
Mackenzie Dunn
Daniella Echeverria
Clay Elliott
john elmquist
Rhea Ewing
Ed Feeny
Aaron Fein
Gabrielle Fine
jamie flanigan
Shelby Gahm
Jenie Gao
Luisa Fernanda Garcia Gomez
chris gargan
Claire Gaynor
Aristotle Georgiades
Aaron Gochberg
Sharon Gould
Savanna Grayless
Gary Gresl
Natalia Hacerola
Steph Hagens
Karissa Hahn
Ken Halfmann
David Hamlow
Tracy Harris
David Hecht
Marcia Hero
Justin Hertel
Erica Hess
Mark Bodhisattva Hill
Jamie Ho
Marcia Hochstetter
J’Sun Howard
Wendy Hutton
Sylvia Ildsjel
Beth Inglis Simmons
Tristen Ives
Jayne Jackson
Julie Jilek
Sydney Johnson
Kristin Johnson
Barbara Justice
Corinne Kastning
Rebecca Kautz
Dale Knaak
Tiffany Knopow
Maia Koehnlein
Sarah Krause
Ethan Krause
Andrew Kraushaar
Amber Krueger
Taisia Kuklina
Nancy Lamers
Ryan Lammey
Sara Lash
Bonnie Lau
Aaron laux
Luke Leavitt
Kay LeClaire
Robin Lee
Elizabeth Lefebvre
Auden Lincoln-Vogel
Fides Linien
Vicki Liu
Dayna Long
Alyssa Lovely
Peter Ludt
Ashley Lusietto
Philip Lyons
Dakota Mace
Patrick Manning
Lisa Marine
Mollie Martin
Jaana Mattson
Gail Mccoy
John McCracken
James McKiernan
Jessica Merchant
Sara Meredith
Emily Meredith Lewis
Lon Michels
Marianna Milhorat
Monica Miller
Liz Miller
Quincy Millerjohn
Ryan Minard
Melissa Minkoff
Alex Miranda
Noel Miranda
Tim Morgan
Megan Mrozek
chris murphy
Laura Myntti
Henrique Nardi
Stella Nathan
Claire Nelson-Lifson
Sam Ness
Chris Norris
Michael Olson
Nicholas Pacetti
Sarah Pacetti
Jessica Pankratz
Christopher Patterson
db pedersen
Dana Pellebon
Jared Perez
Tessa Perez
Stephen Perkins
Jenny Persha
David Petersen
Yvette Pino
Jen Plants
Kelly Platner
Emily Popp
Jean Potocki
Denise Presnell
Christopher Priebe
St PrinceXiaoyue Pu
Max Puchalsky
Dave Puchalsky
Rob Pudloski
Chele Ramos
Meghan Randolph
Kelly Rauwerdink
Kristin Redman
Laurel Redmon
Scott Reed
Amy Regutti
Chris Reott
Jan Richardson
Bruce Rose
Virginia Rose
laurie rossbach
Lydia Roussos
Philip Salamone
Selia Salzsieder
Michael Sambar
Lily Sandholm
Will Santino
Kailea Saplan
Holly Schaal
Krystal Schader
Phoebe Schlough
Amy Schmutte
Rick Schneider
Jill Sebastian
Rae Senarighi
Paul Shambroom
Mallory Shotwell
Brian Shubat
Gail Simpson
Lynsey Singkofer
Lillian Sizemore
Heather Smith
roy staab
Terry Stanley
Nanette Stark
Aaron Steffes
Sallie Anna Steiner
Kaylie Steinhaus
Kayla Story
Micaela Sullivan-Fowler
Tegan Swanson
Gary Sweeney
Malena Szlam
Rebecca Tanda
Bernie Tennis
Casey Thibodeau
Chelsea Thompto
Todd Todd Olson
Roberto Torres
Lisa Truax
Rhonda Turnbough
William Grant Turnbull
Stick Vega
Michael Velliquette
Mary Vorndran
Bilhenry Walker
Dan S Wang
Maggie Welsh
Barbara Westfall
Sandra Westley
Gregory Wilkins
Ashley Wilkinson
Heather Williams
Cecil Wilson
Bernadette Witzack
Connie Wolfe
Maria Amalia Wood
April Wood
Marcia Yapp
Marcia Yapp
Amy Zaremba
Daina Zemliauskas
Araceli Zuniga

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