Fair Work

Published May 2023

Ima-Abasi Okon, Falke Pisano and Fatoş Üstek respond to five set questions on the subject of Fair Work’.


Ima-Abasi Okon is an artist living between London and Amsterdam. Working across sculpture, video and sound Okon has exhibited, among others, at Tale of a Tub, Rotterdam, CAN – Centre d’art Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel (2023); Galerie Molitor, Berlin, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (2022); Tate Britain, London; Kunsthalle Basel, Basel; New Museum Triennial, New York, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, Contemporary Art Centre, Cincinnati (2021); Frans Hal Museum, Haarlem, Void, Derry, Galerie Neu, Berlin, Turf Projects, London (2020). She was a participant of the Amant Sienna Residency 2022 and awarded the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst 3Package Deal 2022.

Falke Pisano lives and works in Rotterdam. Her artistic practice involves research, and her artwork spans from sculpture and installation, and from performance to video and print publications. She often works in long-term research cycles that delve deep into specific subject matter. By insisting on a slower and continuous exchange between people, ideas, materials, and forms, she attempts to undermine conventional approaches to production schedules and knowledge frameworks. Relatedly, Pisano’s practice has often centered on the uses of language and governance. Her recent exhibitions and research residencies include SUPERHOST’ at Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium (2022) and Unboxing: Constructed Worlds’ at Centre Pompidou in Metz, France (2019). She participated in major groups exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennial in 2009 and Manifesta in 2008. Her performances have been presented at Museo Reina Sofia (2012) and the 5th Berlin Biennale (2008), among other institutions. Pisano is represented by Hollybush Gardens in London and Ellen de Bruijne Projects in Amsterdam; she had solo exhibitions in 2019 in both galleries.

Fatoş Üstek is an independent curator and writer based in London. She is curator of Frieze Sculpture 2023 in London, author of The Art Institution of Tomorrow, Reinventing the Model’, co-founding director of FRANK Fair Artist Pay and curator of Cascading Principles Expansions within Geometry, Philosophy and Interference’ at the Mathematical Institute, Oxford University in Oxford. Ustek sits on governance roles in the UK and Europe, she is Chair of New Contemporaries, serves on the advisory board of Urbane Kuenste Ruhr in Germany and Jan Van Eyck Academy in the Netherlands. Ustek acts as jury for art prizes and national pavilions, such as the Jindrich Chalupecky Award (2022 – 24), Dutch Pavilion in 2022 and 2024, Scottish Pavilion in 2022, Turner Prize in 2020. She is the founding member of Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA) and member of AICA UK, IKT and sits on the editorial advisory board of Extra Extra Magazine. fatosustek​.com

Could you talk about the relationship between ideas of fair work’ and fair pay’ and what each term means to you in relation to artists and their labour?

Ima-Abasi Okon: Any occasion to use the word fair suggests an absence of equality and equity. This is a wider structural issue. Therefore I am interested in attempts by organisations who have benefited from or perpetuated such to situate their problem solving at this level. If fairness is really the goal then it needs to be done properly; eliminating all inherited behaviours and systems.

Falke Pisano: It’s quite a big topic, so I will approach it sideways by talking about two projects I did last year.

One was a year-long project in a museum, more or less a carte blanche except there was, of course, a limited budget. The other was a commission to make a number of posters for a university lecture series. Both invitations came from people that I appreciate. For both projects there was a proposed honorarium that I accepted.

Before the first project had started (in public) and during the phase of conceptualisation there was additional fundraising and application writing and additional production required for the first opening. It was clear that this project would be far from fair pay for me. The curator felt bad and tried to compensate me in a couple of ways. I felt conflicted: I had raised the issue of the fee, but it seemed that there was nothing that could be done. And then I accepted. I had also written the project plan for the main funding application myself. I had described the project as performative research into the working conditions during the project. I felt I was in control, but admittedly I was not feeling comfortable.

Three months into the year, I received the invitation to make the posters. By then I had realised that I was not in as much control as I thought I was. So, to compensate and practice, I set an hourly rate for the work on the posters, limiting the hours I could spend on them. I was only able to do this – to bear the possibility of having to stop before I felt the work was good enough – because, again, I had made the working conditions part of the concept. I made clear on the posters, that the posters were what I could manage within this set fee, according to my own standard of fair pay. The rate I had set for myself was based on graphic designer or art production company fees, but a bit lower.

If I had applied the same rate of pay to the museum project fee, I could work 15 days on it in total. If I applied the day rate for artists (using the Dutch guidelines for artists fees as a standard, which are €111 a day based on the national minimum wage) then I could work on it for 54 days. These sector-supported guidelines allocate 65 days to the production of a solo show. Because an exhibition increases the chance of selling a work as well as the sale price, the day rate has been lowered by a standard, but undisclosed, amount.

What I want to say is that there are different ways to think about fair pay and different starting points for negotiations. I would advise to take time to figure out what is fair for you, and how specific situations compare to a possible general standard. It is good to practice talking about it, also if you don’t feel like it or it is uncomfortable, talk with friends, find allies and advocates and advocate for others. Make sure to examine if the assumptions contained in the different logics of fair pay suit your situation. Read the context and your own position, try to understand how work, responsibility, care and support are distributed, and adjust your standard accordingly. At least for yourself, then you can still decide that you’re not in a position to say no. Always stand and act in solidarity with those that have less bargaining power if you can.

Fatoş Üstek: Fair work means engaging in a transparently negotiated agreement with a commissioner/​organisation, with a clear outline of roles and responsibilities, fair working conditions, and fair pay.

Fair pay is the accurate remuneration (agreed by both parties) for the time, labour, expertise and professionalism invested in the delivery of an agreed project.

How might ideas of value’ and trust’ (in the context of creating a fair work’ environment for artists working with organisations) be reflected in artists’ working conditions?

Ima-Abasi Okon: Allowing the artists to set conditions around how they will be engaged during the period of employment is certainly a bridge toward trust. Such as an expanded version of a contract or tech rider which sets out the fee, but more importantly communicates their boundaries; i.e expected response time to emails and requests, housing and travel requirements, access needs etc.

Falke Pisano: In the year-long project I described in my answer to the previous question, I tried to understand better what was shaping the work taking place. When we develop and produce public events or exhibitions, what are the forces at play that co-shape what we do and the decisions we make? We give value to the things we find important, but we also work in a system that often gives different value to things. What is the friction there and how do we deal with it? And another question I wanted to address was: how to not internalise and individualise the things that are not working in this system of production? How to make space for sharing experiences that are related to working conditions?

Over the last years, I see that increased and rightful demands for care (besides fair pay) clash with the available resources and capacities. I’m intrigued by what is happening in this bottleneck moment and how we are going to get through it.

In the year-long project I mentioned earlier, I organised the care that I expected I would need (but suspected not to be available) by allocating some of the budget that would usually go into a public event or work to a rather specific process-support: an astrologist who I had monthly sessions with and a project doula who supported me and my main collaborators in the process of working together.

In the funding application this was presented as a durational performance. I was against this categorisation as art, but I did not feel confident enough to insist and then let it go. The discussion around the status of this non-public labour shows that however much ideas of process, care, fairness etc. seem to be valued in the art world, they are still often linked to public visibility. It is easier to find a budget for care or even simple access needs, when it is made part of the programming, than when it is needed in the office or during the process.

Fatoş Üstek: Fair work environments necessitate building trust and mutual valuing of each party involved in the collaboration. Both concepts necessitate a further elaboration of their meaning in the specific contexts that artists and commissioning parties operate.

Trust is a process based relationship that is backed with the meeting up of expectations on both sides. It necessitates the exercise of accountability for everyone involved. Trust is not immediate nor is given when two parties decide to work on a project together. It can flourish through sustained responsibility and care for one another.

Value is an amalgamation of values, that is social, emotional, cultural and economic. There is an intrinsic value to the willingness to work together and collaborate, however outcomes of collaborations can be devoid of value depending on the aspects of the process and its impact on both parties.

Regarding the value of work – any labour is valuable and deserves respectful recognition. However, any labour does not generate further value. For that to happen, everyone involved needs to invest in building something together aligned with their values and the values of the frameworks they operate within. For instance, a curator working at an institution has values of their own and they operate and make decisions with their own values and the values of the institution while engaging with an artist who also has their respective values and some of which are attributed to the artwork. So think of value as an abstract equation of a fusion and alignment of value systems. Projected and attributed values are part of this.

What expectations do commissioning organisations place on artists in terms of their labour during the process of developing a new work and what should change within current working practices (in terms of how time and labour are valued and remunerated)?

Ima-Abasi Okon: An expectation is that the artist and the commissioning organisation are operating from the same workflow. Often times, the commission is not be the only form of employment that the artist has. This is due to what has become an increasingly redundant form of financial renumeration for artistic labour: all commissioning organisations should do away with the fee/​honorarium structure and offer full salaries.

Falke Pisano: I want to leave this question unanswered, because if I spend more time on this commission, it will not be fairly paid anymore. I do not find that so easy to do, but at the same time, I wish there were more texts with gaps, unresolved passages, just because capacity or resource was lacking. We’re haunted by an idea of quality, that is very ephemeral, and that has a lot of influence on our working conditions. How do we know if we put enough labour into our work? When it is good enough? Can we even use the idea of good enough for art? Is there a way we can collectively challenge this notion of what we expect from a work? Or alternatively, learn to bear that a work is what is there when a practitioner, in relation to the rest of their life practices/​activities/​abilities, has put in enough?

Fatoş Üstek: In general, commissioning organisations operate with lump sums when assigning the fees for artists. These lump sums do not reflect on the workload that an artist takes on, after agreeing to partner with the organisation and deliver the commission. For instance, the preparation time for building the proposal, admin time for attending meetings and responding to emails, accessibility and care needs are not generally included in these estimated fees. Furthermore these fees do not identify the amount of time and labour the artist will invest in the new commission. For instance, some commissions demand three months of continuous work, others demand nine months to a year of part-time commitment from the artist.

Additionally, institutions when assigning these lump sums do not also consider the overall annual income of the artist. For instance, if we assume that the general fee is around 2K mark for a solo exhibition and an artist works for each exhibition for two to three months, they will end up making at most 8K for a whole year’s worth of work – way below the minimum wage. Thus institutions need to take into account the annual minimums the artist needs to make when assigning these fixed fees for each show in their premises.

How should financial precarity for artists be addressed in the current economic climate and how might publicly funded visual arts organisations (also financially precarious, as a sector and subject to inflation with standstill budgets) find better ways of supporting artists?

Ima-Abasi Okon: In addition to financial remuneration, timelines are important. How long has the artist been given to develop the project with you. Is it sympathetic to their practice and current reality or are they being asked to adopt a pre-existing schedule.

Falke Pisano: For many artists, especially young artists, the precarity of the art field, is not the only precarity they experience. The other jobs’ often also do not provide a stable income and security – whether it’s delivery or teaching; housing situations are difficult and unstable too. So, I think it is good to not separate these different forms of precarity too much, but form alliances and insist on solidarity. In other words, social and political action is really the way precarity needs to be addressed. I also don’t want to separate the artist from other actors in the field. It is important to differentiate and acknowledge asymmetries, but especially for younger cultural practitioners these often have more to do with things like visas and working permits, different forms of privilege and exclusion. The freelance curator who is curating the group exhibition you are part of, might very well be in similar circumstances of precarity and just as underpaid.

In that context, an arts organisation for me is really a space that should enable, and explicitly push for solidarity. At the basis. That’s the (un)learning for organisations: how to transform into spaces that do not resist but provide space to develop practices of solidarity.

And that means developing literacy amongst all who are working in or with the organisation, permanently or on a temporary basis. With developing literacy, I mean learning to understand what is going on, reading the room, positions, practices. To know what is going on with colleagues, to understand how you respond to certain pressures and demands in ways that exclude people and practices, to understand how other people respond and hold them accountable, to read who’s at the door, who’s not at the door, how to hold the door: to know what is going on in order to understand what solidarity looks like.

It is really not easy, and takes a lot of unlearning and collective effort and work. Unfortunately, many art organisations are also trapped in a logic of scarcity and competition.

While I was a board member of a publicly funded arts organisation, we went several times through the process of applying for the big multi-year public funding application’. We did this as friends and colleagues in other organisations were also working on it. I was involved in three consecutive rounds. We received the funding, but each time we realised afterwards, that, while we told each other in the process that we should be realistic, the programming we had proposed was still too dense and too ambitious. If you look at working conditions for everyone involved, at least. It’s just very difficult, when you know that an organisation and the people that run the organisation depend on funding, to not do this little extra that might set you apart from peers in the field. Of course, this is the same for artists applying for funding, and any funding applications, or any applications for anything anywhere that are based on assessment and selection. By now, finally, the team is working a lot less extra and unpaid hours, but still, the pay is not fair.

I’m for didactic budgets in applications, that make explicit in numbers and explain in words, what it means to develop more sustainable practices within the organisation. Not only for artists, but for all involved. Ideally, funding bodies, especially public ones, would collaborate to correct and balance expectations and performance agreements, also bringing this to policy makers.

Fatoş Üstek: We are operating in a sector that is economically and emotionally precarious. The current practices vary in accordance with the level of integrity that art institutions perform.

A mindset shift is most needed. The arts sector is still struggling with the archaic behaviour traits and inherited authoritarian frameworks with a tradition that has not fairly treated artists and also its sectoral workers. Even though the current financial situation is not looking strong for the sustainability of institutions, they cannot keep this as an excuse for unfair treatment of artists. We need a radical systemic transformation, where everyone is valued for their time, efforts and experience that they bring to the table. Institutions focused on instituting themselves may end up with no art in their premises, due to alienating artists with their maltreatment and concentrated focus on pleasing benefactors and stakeholders.

How should the role of the artist in society be (financially) protected?

Ima-Abasi Okon: There are a few value judgements in this question that I find difficult. I am not sure how the role of an artist and their relationship to society has anything to do with paying people fairly and adequately. The reform required can start at the institutional level. Take those risks. If paying an artist a salary means you have to make less commissions then so be it. The current access and diversity drives do not have to be affected by such a move if it’s done properly.

Falke Pisano: During winter break I was considering two options that I felt I could choose between, after five years of working on many things that I found important and necessary, with little concern for coherency or visibility. I was thinking terribly binary, but I will share it here to make my point:

Either, I thought, I could scale down my personal economy including my international movements for the long-term, continue to focus on my local roles in and outside of the art world, continue teaching, be intentional with my unpaid/​voluntary labour, continue my art practice in a minimal way in precise conditions, put myself on the mailing list of the housing cooperative that does not require any capital/​deposit.

Or, I could make an attempt to recompose my art practice into a coherent narrative, try to be disciplined and strategic for 10 years or so, while enjoying some travel and residencies in-between teaching. Hopefully at some point this will lead to institutional recognition and sales to the extent that I will be reasonably comfortable when I eventually want to, or need to, stop working.

The latter option might very well be delusional, but it comes from a privileged position: It includes me being employed with a permanent contract under conditions agreed in a collective labour agreement, while profiting from the speculative art market economy, by way of value producing mechanisms of institutions whose artist-payment-practices are increasingly monitored.

In the first option it is clear that the protection – not for the artist per se, but for the person who has different roles – besides relations – comes from political and collective action, and solidarity. But that is actually also the case for every form of real protection in the second option, namely the permanent contract and the guidelines for payment practices. It’s really a too general question, no? How should THE role of THE artist in [THE] society be protected? I think the best protection for the most people comes from politisation, collectivisation, unionising, etc.

Fatoş Üstek: I don’t think Universal Basic Income is a solution for financial protection. Instead it needs to be a legally binding law to pay artists and pay them fairly in alignment with principles. That is what we are working on at FRANK Fair Artist Pay, approaching the issue from semantic, ethical and philosophical perspectives and building guidelines and principles that may be used as a reference to filter the context and condition for each collaboration with an artist. Rates help, but as long as they reflect on the fact that being an artist is a profession. In the UK artists are mostly paid teachers wages and workers wages which is fair when artists are working as teachers or as workers but it does not recognise artists working as artists. If there will be a rate suggestion that needs to be done in alignment with the sectoral and cross sectoral rates.

If artists are paid for the work they do, they would not need any further protection such as universal basic income. They are not dependent on the recognition of authorities – it is contrary, institutions depend on artists to exist.

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