Shop Talk 3 Respondent: Helena Keeffe

May 23, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Conversations

[On Thursday, May 12, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the last of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco's multiartist project Shadowshop, which closed May 1. We've been tracking the discussions in a number of posts here, and if you haven't had a chance to look at some of that material, I invite you to do so here. Today, artist Helena Keeffe responds to the final conversation.]

Is “No” a NoNo?

What are the economic realities for artists? This was the central question framing the final Shop Talk discussion at SFMOMA on May 12th. It’s a complicated one. There are so many parallel realities and different kinds of artists. Cheryl Meeker, Lara Durback, and the collaborative team of Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert each presented their take.

Meeker’s practice is a permeable overlap of the worlds of art and activism. The work she engages in operates outside of the market-driven system and often directly questions and opposes it, such as in her collaborative work Capitalism Is Over! If You Want It.

Durback runs NoNo Press and is a writer and letterpress printer with an extreme commitment to using salvaged resources in her work and life. She talked about using only free and recycled material as a strategy for economic independence. She also touched on her involvement in a project which was eventually revealed to be the experimental marketing tool of a large corporation (causing her to leave the project due to mistrust of the true motives driving it).

Reichert and Fletcher delivered a PowerPoint presentation fit for a board meeting (think hard-hitting statistics accompanied by animated pie charts), but with a message intended to debunk myths surrounding the economic realities for artists. I could spend the rest of this post trying to summarize the information-packed presentation, but I am told they will be making it available here online so I hope readers will check it out when it comes available. What most stands out for me in retrospect is their assertion that artists should embrace the two-job lifestyle and that until we begin making art that has real value in the greater culture we will be unable to convince others that we should be compensated for our work.

Rather than simply recap the conversation that followed these presentations I would like to add to this sampling of survival strategies with one of my own. The email thread posted below is an exchange I had with a gallery. Although I have passed up opportunities like this before, this was the first time I decided to let them know why I was not applying. It’s not that I think they care whether I apply or not but rather a way of acting on my belief that it is absolutely essential that artists advocate for what they want rather than spending energy lamenting the way things are.

And of course I am not alone in my efforts to find ways to bring these issues to light. In her presentation Meeker mentioned Nato Thompson’s interview with W.A.G.E in the March 2011 issue of Artforum. W.A.G.E. has decided to take on a very specific cause in their activism — compensation from institutions for artists and cultural workers. They are attempting to increase transparency by surveying artists about their experiences exhibiting with institutions, as well as developing standards for a W.A.G.E. Certified Exhibition.

A 2009 work by artist Steve Lambert comes to mind, as well. Lambert was invited to participate in a group exhibition at the ICA in San Jose, but the lack of funds available for him forced him to rethink his contribution. In the end he sent instructions to curator Ray Beldner to have a Plexiglas box constructed (similar in design to a standard museum donation collection vitrine, but oversized) with vinyl lettering reading, “This money will be divided between the artists in the exhibition because the SJICA does not budget for artists’ fees.”

I recently stumbled upon an example online of what I’ve come to call a reverse rejection letter. It is dated 1986 and condemns the Artists Guild for charging fees for a juried show. Though established institutions have largely done away with such fees it is a model that is still out there, and it persists because it preys on a kind of desperation and a fear of saying no.

As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t think demonizing institutions is the answer. If I’m an advocate for any one strategy it is giving oneself permission to say no. Someone once suggested I teach a workshop on this subject, and though I have not yet developed curriculum for my How to Say No seminar, I can offer one more recent example of my own reverse rejection letter writing. When I’ve shared these with friends and colleagues I have received mixed responses. Some express fear that I will burn bridges, while others think the language is not strong enough. I offer them up here in a spirit of transparency with the hope that they will spur much-needed discussion on this subject we all find ourselves grumbling about in private but rarely debate openly in public.


Helena Keeffe makes artworks based in situations and exchanges via collecting oral histories, producing publications, organizing public events, and inviting groups and individuals to work with her collaboratively. Recent projects include public art commissions with the cities of San Jose and San Francisco, as well as a Creative Work Fund–supported collaboration with Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. Keeffe received her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2000 and was a member of the Independent School of Art, San Francisco, from 2005 to 2006. She is cofounder of Alula Editions with Amber Cady.

9 Comments

  1. Steve Lambert Says:

    Evan Roth has some nice posts about this on his site including a pretty hilarious video I would embed directly if I could.

    And I think you might know Joseph DelPesco and the posters he made which touch on these themes.

  2. Joseph Young Says:

    art is an evolutionary requirement for the survival and flourishing of human culture. that sounds pretty high minded but it’s true–art begins, sustains, the societal integrations and disintegrations that make the politics and dialogue of culture possible. yet built into our thinking on art is that it does nothing, that it’s adornment and hobby, and most often of the most specious kind. this isn’t the thinking of the larger culture only but is largely internalized by artsits themselves. ‘what i do doesn’t matter, not unless is somehow find my way to the larger stage, most hopefully with more money’ is a predominant artist attitude. all sorts of pressures and processes combine to bring those feelings about. but the worth of one artist in her studio has little value to most anyone, even the artist, despite the evolutionary requirements of her work. in any case, artists won’t be compensated until such thinking comes to watershed and is shifted, if that is even possible. it would seem to me to be illuminating to the argument to consider how the transformation of fine art to advertising art occurs. how often does it happen that advertisement picks up on artistic trends, both little known in the wider culture and those trends of the meme type, and uses them not only to its own purposes but to its own purse as well. there is much money to be made in art–as advertisement–but often only when the original has been repackaged and repurposed for commercial ends. some day even Piss Christ, as a knockoff, will be worked into an ad.

  3. working artist Says:

    Would you be charging a fee for your “How To Say No Seminar”? If so, I politely decline, or, uh, how do you say… “no” ?

    You see, these often costly seminars (and I’m not saying yours is like this) that cater toward artists and their artistic careers, like the portfolio workshops, and marketing workshops tend to prey on individual artists who might possibly be at a crossroads and might possibly be looking for a formula for making a living through art. They are advertised as affordable, because it’s undeniably less costly than school, but in the end the value does not balance out. And they are led by artists who might simply be seeking more ways to increase their own revenue, and who really aren’t actually qualified to dispense advice.

    But this isn’t to say that what you have done with the fee-based juried show isn’t spot-on. I have been tempted more times than one to write back with a similar reply. One, because that money adds up for an artist, and his/her bottom line. Two, the overall quality of the shows in the end is pretty low, in my opinion. If a jury is selecting from a pool of entrants in which the only common denominator is an entry fee, or perhaps another arbitrary criteria, like area or demographic, the result is a mish-mash. And I only say this as an artist who has entered these competitions only to see my work in the shows and say “well, that was a waste of $40, this is a really boring show, and the boringness of this show makes my work sink to this boring level, not the other way around like I had hoped”.

    Makes me wonder why so many of these juried shows exist. Can the revenue stream from fee-based juried competitions outweigh, say, an institutional grant, or a sales-based exhibition? The individual selected to jury the show gets a fee, but is the fee that big? Some of these juried shows collect, in the end, tens of thousands of dollars.

    Perhaps the impetus for these shows though, is the glaringly obvious reality that there are more artists, probably inexperienced ones, seeking venues than there are institutional funding and commercial sales, and there will always be people wanting to exploit that.

    PS. why redact the names of these competitions? seems like it would benefit the public to know who these institutions are.

  4. Steve Lambert Says:

    @working artist,
    Your characterization of an artist workshop is pretty dismal. Sure, some must be bad and their leadership poorly motivated. But as an artist who has taught workshops with Creative Capital, Eyebeam, and run my own independent School for Creative Activism weekends, I can say everyone that’s been involved in workshops I’ve been a part of has been overwhelmingly qualified (and in the rare case where not, soon dropped) and every single leader is definitely not teaching for the money. (And as a side note – teachers need to and should be paid too)

    The true value, way beyond the paycheck, is in seeing an attendee on the brink of achieving something really amazing take a leap forward because they now have skills it may have taken them years, if ever, to achieve. That’s valuable for the participants and what makes it worthwhile to teach.

    So yes, bad workshops are bad. Agreed. But not all workshops are bad.

  5. Christine Wong Yap Says:

    @working artist: re: redaction…
    I differ. Certainly when an entity crosses a legal or moral line, calling attention to the injustice is a fitting journalistic response. But when an individual artist declines their opportunities based on personal criteria—not shared public standards—it seems unnecessary to publish and possibly shame the organization, especially in the case where the organization amended its policies in response to Helena’s letter.

  6. working artist Says:

    @ christine,

    I actually think the organizations that routinely practice this kind of model could use a little shame, or perhaps better put: accountability.

    I personally would like to see a statistical analysis of the business of fee based juried shows. Who stands to gain what?

  7. Christine Wong Yap Says:

    @working artist,
    Interesting–your call for statistical analysis coincides with a project I’m working on.

    In a few weeks, I’ll post infographics on art competition odds on Temporary Art Review. It will be focused on the odds—the number of applications compared to number of awards—only. My interest is in providing quantifiable comparisons to help artists decide which competition to apply to.

    I’ve undertaken some of the additional labor created by open calls as a juror and administrative assistant, so I’m not inclined to dig into the books of juried exhibitions. If that’s something that interests you, the data I publish might be a good springboard for you to calculate the income derived from particular calls, though it’d be up to you to research the overhead and expenses. The porous nature of Bay Area art media is what makes it exciting and unique to me, so I think you’d be able to find a platform for such an analysis.

  8. Christine Wong Yap Says:

    One last Shop Talk goodie: I think US artists ought to be envious of Canadian artists, who can refer to CARFAC, an annually-updated recommended fee schedule for artists’ services. See it here: http://www.carcc.ca/feeschedules.html

  9. Val Britton Says:

    Thank you for this, Helena. I just revisited your post as I have been wrestling with some related issues lately and found your piece inspirational and badass. I am often torn between my desire to participate versus the expense (not just monetary, but time and effort) and find myself weighing the costs and often deciding to sit things out. Pay to play exhibitions and opportunities with high application fees prey on artists’ desire to participate and contribute to something. I think we owe it to ourselves and to each other to ask for better, because it harms all artists when one of us accepts a low standard. It’s also hard to navigate the annual requests for art donations to the flood of auctions in town, but that’s another story…

    I recently came across a flashy “art prize” that, in the fine print, asks artists to transfer all the rights to the artwork and intellectual property to the corporation. Yikes.

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