Asides: (Not) a Living Wage

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Widener Collection, 1942.9.97

Earlier this June, Artnet News released the results of a survey of “more than 300 art dealers about the economics of their operations: details on their salary ranges, responsibilities, demographics, and personal stories.” The study, conducted by Zachary Small and Eileen Kinsella, found “an industry beset with income inequality,” where the majority of gallery directors made “more than $100,000, with a few top earners reaching toward the millions,” but “those who identified as gallery assistants hit a ceiling of $35,000—about 30 percent less than what researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology define as a living wage in New York State. Over a 40-hour week, the sum comes in under $17 an hour.”

$35,000 a year is just about what I made, over a decade ago, when I worked in the commercial art world. I had a Master’s degree, and routinely worked 50-hour weeks. With my somewhat fancy title of ‘assistant gallery director’ (the gallery owner reserved the actual gallery director title for himself), I did everything at our gallery–from the more expected tasks of visiting artists’ studios and MFA shows, and writing wall texts and press releases, to less glamorous ones such as cleaning and painting the gallery, mixing drinks at openings, and arranging flowers for the gallery space. I went into the industry thinking I might open my own gallery at some point in the future, and left because I could see no way to achieve that goal. Opening–and running–a gallery requires an immense outlay of capital, and after the doors are open, the bills just keep coming. We burned cash to create that facade of glamour. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever earn enough to open a gallery. I could barely stockpile some cash for small personal emergencies. Back in those days, people didn’t talk too much about the financial side of art. These were supposedly businesses, but how did they work? I had a pretty good hunch, but no hard data to back it up.

The Artnet News report–and its accompanying podcast–confirmed some of my suspicions. Some galleries make a lot of money. Others are barely making it, or stretching resources as they oscillate between feast and famine. Many gallery owners rely on other sources of income to survive. A partner with deep pockets–or a substantial income–can make all the difference.

When I first went into the art world all those years ago, there was still a sense that art galleries were hobbies rather than businesses. One went into art because of “passion.” More than once, visitors to the gallery asked me if my husband bankrolled ‘my’ gallery so I could have something to do with my time. In the intervening decade or so, though, art has become increasingly financialized. In a lot of ways, it’s become a weird adjunct to the finance world, another form of asset, another way to create or shield wealth. In these lights, the fiction of an art world built on “passion” rather than profit is not only comical–it is damaging and exploitative. It was damaging and exploitative when I was in it, but, given the structural shifts around us, it is even more damaging and exploitative now. I’m not surprised that galleries and museums are no longer attracting younger workers. They have a lifetime ahead of them–why consign themselves to a permanent underclass?

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