On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by Gibson Cuyler, a fine artist who has supported his art making process working commercially in the culture industry for 19 years. He starting doing windows at Barneys New York at 23 and subsequently ran his own commercial display studio in NYC mainly for the fashion and music industries. Currently Gibson works through the Allied Crafts International Union for Entertainment (I.A.T.S.E. local 16) and for the SFO Museum. He is, and always will be, a Painter and a Musician.
Well, it is a sunny May Day today and I sit here at my computer and I am filled with thoughts and excitement for the possibilities for the future of labor and the arts. It is especially appropriate to think of these issues today, as May 1st...is the international day for Labor Awareness. I have always considered the delicate dance between Art and Commerce to be a fine art in itself. I have worked for free for my portfolio when I was young and also readily donated art for auction to galleries and organizations I appreciate and have been good to me ..Such as Momenta NY, White Columns NY, and the Bay Area Girls Rock Camp. How an artist is compensated and remunerated has a wide array of answers and varies greatly from individual to individual and I found it stimulating to hear others view points on this subject at the Practicum for labor in the arts recently in Berkeley.
What I most came away with was not from an artist at the Practicum, but from Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and research at San Francisco State. Her brief overview of the history of Labor and Unions in the 20th Century made me realize that I had a responsibility to share my knowledge and to help other artists who are marginalized in the marketplace by perceptions of labor, its difficulties, and intrinsic values, both monetarily and culturally. I was lucky to meet up with Aurora Crispin who has been diligently formimg the Bay Area Art Workers Alliance for over a year now and subsequently met her for a meal in Oakland and I realized that her Alliance and my work experience and Union affiliation with the International Allied Crafts can be useful to this end. She shared with me her pictures of her specific aesthetic brought to her from working behind the scenes as an art worker putting on shows. It did illuminate and codify something for me that has been a source of great interest to me for years. As both artists and workers it is necessary in this day and age for us to come together in strength and commonality in order to eventually highlight our individual artistic contributions. By realizing common needs in health and welfare both socially and financially, a stonger and more independant artistic voice can be born for artists working for themselves and within institutions such as Museums and Galleries.
Catherine Powell's advice to use the young workers toolkit -AFL-CIO is proving useful and made me realize a grey area does in reality... really exist in fair labor practices for fabricators, art installers, and artists themselves as we are patronized without a roadmap for adequate pay or benefits. Instead of becoming disenfranchised and frustrated, as I have seen so much before happen to talented people trying to "make it" as artists in the western capitalist paradigm; I have become empowered by this open discussion and I see the importance of a continued, open, unafraid, and honest dialogue about these most important issues facing all working fine artists today. It is my belief that a true and quantifiable position can be undersood and benefit both working artists and the institutions who showcase them. I must give thanks to artist David Wilson and his magical rug as I believe it has actually made community where it did not exist before and to artists Helena Keefe, and Caroline Woolard... who have addressed such necessary subjects without hesitation and with succinct language. I also must thank Catherine Powell for her insights into real labor and the artists who worked within it. The time is always now....but now the future is here and we will come together and we will not fall or falter as we make art and commerce for the next century.