Is 'Free' Best for All?

Oct 28, 2015

Unpaid labor is a big problem in the arts. Artists, writers and a host of other creative professionals spend their early careers working for free in order to hack into the industry. This phase is often treated as a rite-of-passage, but now unpaid work persists well beyond these fledgling years. Artists and writers continue to be asked by institutions and non-profit organizations for their work, in exchange for “exposure.”

In 2011, the Huffington Post caught some heat for their ‘no-pay’ policy for their bloggers. While the writers agreed to this policy, what the Huffington Post offered instead of compensation was a wide audience and a chance to influence national and international conversations. This no-pay model is frighteningly common, and one that even I participate in as a community commentator for KMUW.

But should “exposure” be considered payment? Is that compensation? And, the bigger question, is this a sustainable model?

The New York-based activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy or W.A.G.E. formed in 2008 to directly address these issues. In their wo/manifesto, they take a clear stand that:

“…THE PROMISE OF EXPOSURE IS A LIABILITY IN A SYSTEM THAT DENIES THE VALUE OF OUR LABOR.”

W.A.G.E. recently created a voluntary certification program for organizations and developed a minimum fee calculator based on an organization’s Total Annual Operating Expenses. Their mission to establish sustainable labor practices between artists and institutions is one I fully support. We need to put an end to this demoralizing practice before all of our creative professionals die of exposure.