019 — Real talk about servitude disguised as potential growth. Come design your new portfolio site with us. Napkin math strikes again.
We have a handful of openings for our BLACKMARKET PSYCHOANALYSIS sessions, our signature one-on-one consultation and coaching package. Meeting once a week, we work with our clients to develop a range of intellectual property including grant proposals, business plans, career materials, and branding kits.
Starting in November 2023, we’ll be raising our prices for all new clients — though we’ll still offer a sliding scale. Inquire now to lock in our current rates.
This year, we’ve helped our BLACKMARKET PSYCHOANALYSIS clients:
← Land solo exhibitions, residencies, and fellowships
← Develop project proposals, sample portfolios, website extensions, and other forms of intellectual property
← Build websites, branding and media kits, and social media strategy
← Create studio bibles and business manuals for arts-related businesses, ensuring their business remains profitable and sellable
← Monetize arts-related business that combine studio practice and B2B service offerings like producing YouTube-ready videos and educational content
October 27 - 29, 2023
During the last weekend of October, we’re hosting a three-day research sprint that recaps and continues our investigations into portfolio websites. An extension of our summer intensive IS MY BODY MEANT TO BE READ?, this sprint examines online workspaces as forms of investment and digital real estate. Considering a handful of unique, dynamic artist portfolio sites as well as artist-run online stores, we’ll probe how these artists navigate topics typically relegated to marketers, promoters, and the gallerist-agents who hire them.
Tickets are $200 per person and limited to 20 participants. Access to the recordings will be made available for a month after the event. Participants may bundle their purchase with discounted editorial and consultation hours.
Friday, October 27, 2023
2pm - 4pm ET
We’ll investigate three artist websites that exemplify unique, strategic uses of online space then review participant websites to gather feedback about their current state.
JAM SESSION / OPEN TO PUBLIC
Saturday, October 28, 2023
1pm - 2pm ET
Our weekend Jam Sessions are open to the public. Workshop participants who want extra facetime with their peers are encouraged to drop in.
Saturday, October 28, 2023
2pm - 4pm ET
Working as a group, participants will identify unique value propositions — statements that illuminate why their work is financially and culturally valuable — located on their respective portfolio sites.
Sunday, October 29, 2023
2pm - 4pm ET
Participants will share their updated websites and gather feedback for future web-based projects.
ARE YOU CHOOSING SLAVERY?
The studio assistantship program at the Penland School of Craft illustrates why you need to focus on the commercial aspects of your creative practice — not pipe dreams about escaping the demands of real life.
Thanks to ProPublica for their amazing 990 database, Nonprofit Explorer, which provided much of the data reviewed below. Please note that the figures and statements included here are drawn from documents that may be revised at later dates or contain incomplete information.
← Do the napkin math before committing to a break-even opportunity
← Orgs lead with their worst offer, demand more to discern the real budget
← Check nonprofit arts organizations’ 990 forms before declaring them broke and dedicating your body to their means of production
NOT AN OPPORTUNITY, BUT SURELY A GUARANTEE
There is a specter haunting the creative industries and plaguing artists everywhere. Guaranteed Non-Opportunities (GNOs) — the term we use to describe unpaid teaching, residencies, nonprofit exhibitions, fellowships, and other pseudo-funded activities that put artists in the red — promise resources or social capital in exchange for labor. In reality, these non-opportunities are gaping pits of inequity where artists foot the institutional bill.
Earlier this month, we found ourselves reviewing the Penland School of Craft website trying to understand the logic behind their “studio assistantship” program. Nested out of immediate sight in the “Workshops” menu under “Scholarships,” the studio assistantship “covers tuition, housing (a double room with a common bath), and meals.” In exchange, selected assistants are asked to work “25–40 hours each week,” including a 9am-5pm stint on the day before their session. They are still expected to pay a $5 application fee, a $25 “non-refundable processing fee” if selected, and pay their own travel expenses. (The processing fee is particularly unhinged because Penland faculty often personally invite their assistants.) To add insult to injury, there is a separate studio fee meant to recuperate the cost of “supplies used by the group,” which is calculated at the end of the session. That’s right, assistants are on the hook for the materials whose use they help facilitate.
To understand exactly how heinous this scenario is, let’s first look at how much it costs to attend a Penland workshop. For the cheapest four-day session at Penland, tuition starts at $1,049 (about $262 per day). Housing and meals for those four days start at $607 (about $152 per day), in which case you would stay in a “quad” with three other people. That brings your total expenses to about $1,656 ($414 per day) before your travel costs and studio fee. And, sure, you can also forgo housing and food, but that means finding somewhere to stay and eat in rural North Carolina where the nearest town’s population is less than 500 people. By comparison, you could easily pay the same amount (or less) to sublet a furnished studio for at least a month. Or buy a quality used camera to document your work.
Tuition for the 8-week spring workshop starts at $5,817 (about $104 per day). Housing and meals start at $4,793 (about $86 per day). In this scenario, your expenses would be about $10,610 (about $189 per day) plus your travel costs and the studio fee you split with your peers. Again, for the same amount of money, you could rent a dedicated studio for an entire year. Or purchase quality equipment that would likely cost less and last longer. Either option would be a better investment of your time and resources.
Now let’s return to the assistantship. To start, working 40 hours per week is a full-time job. Even 25 hours per week (about 5 hours per work day) would eat up most of the time you could spend in the studio while the rest of your peers are there using materials you will pay for.
THE NAPKIN MATH
PART-TIME STUDIO ASSISTANTSHIP
25 hours per week x 8 weeks = 200 working hours
$10,610 in waived fees / 200 working hours = about $53 per hour
5 hours per day at $53 per hour = $265 in estimated credits per work day
$265 in work credits x 5 work days = $1,325 in work credits per week
$189 fees x 7 days = $1,323 in fees per week
$1,325 - $1,323 = $2 in net profit for the art worker
FULL-TIME STUDIO ASSISTANTSHIP
40 hours per week x 8 weeks = 320 working hours
$10, 610 in waived fees / 320 hours = about $33 per hour
8 hours per day at $33 per hour = $264 in estimated credits per work day
$264 work credits x 5 work days = $1,320 in work credits per week
$189 fees x 7 days = $1,323 in fees per week
$1,320 - $1,323 = -$3 in net profit for the art worker
The napkin math above assumes assistants don’t work weekends — if they did, they would lose about $3,000 in sum wages. If these figures seem fair to you, it’s because you haven’t yet acclimated to the fact these are not actual dollars being paid to the assistants. Rather, this is Penland’s flat-fee valuation of an assistant’s labor as it is exchanged for access to their facilities. In other words, as an assistant, you’d be working off the debt you’d agreed to owe Penland, not profiting from exposure or experience. And the thing about assisting in a physically demanding art studio is that you can’t really work another job on the side. Any expenses you accrue during this time will have to come out of your savings, which you must have if you’re seriously considering this blatant GNO.
Let’s consider the travel costs. If you’re coming from somewhere like Los Angeles or Chicago, your flights will probably cost between $300-$400 roundtrip — not bad. Hopefully, that trip will take you to the nearest airport, Tri-Cities Regional in Tennessee, so you can drive another 52 miles to attend the workshop. Will you rent a car (at least $200 each way), call an Uber (maybe you can carpool), or arrange for a buddy to drive you the rest of the way? Regardless, you’re looking at least another $400 in expenses unless you have a local connect, bringing your travel costs to a solid $700-$800 at minimum.
The condensed version of these complaints is that committing to an assistantship like Penland’s is a surefire economic loss wrapped in self-sabotage. Assistants acquired under these conditions unburden Penland’s already expansive coffers while putting themselves into debt. Worse, by going along with this grift, these misguided assistants incentivize Penland and orgs like it to keep scheming up and circulating disingenuous opportunities.
THE BREAD LOAF OF IT ALL
When we mentioned the Penland assistantship to an artist in San Diego last week, she laughed. “Everyone knows Penland is a ripoff,” she said.
But do they?
This particular artist has retired and now focuses on their studio practice full-time. Her work has substance. She has enjoyed some institutional support throughout the years. But those experiences have also given her top-down insight about the nature of this exploitative work-study game, which at this point she has the luxury of avoiding altogether or participating in as an instructor. Lucky her.
For others, the situation is more precarious. Residencies and workshops are framed as subsidized time in a studio as opposed to what they frequently are — networking opportunities where those with intergenerational wealth relax, find friends, and make art while their less fortunate peers participate in some kind of labor exchange that resembles the situation at Bread Loaf. For the uninitiated, imagine serving your peers food and drink so you could work alongside them in a workshop or studio. It’s worth quoting in full this passage from a 2019 New York Times article about the termination of Bread Loaf’s wait-scholar program to understand the level of clusterfuck we’re talking about here.
“. . . [Bread Loaf’s] new director, Jennifer Grotz, said this month that she was ending the wait-scholar program and that the conference would instead direct the program’s funds to scholarships with no work requirements. In an interview, Grotz, a former Bread Loaf waiter herself, cited concerns raised by waiters in 2016 ranging from sexual harassment to racism to the work cutting into the seminars they came for in the first place. She also noticed that waiters were often young writers of color, serving fellow writers who were mostly older and white.”
Grotz’s decision was implemented only four COVID-shrunk years ago. Aside from the brief and performative gestures toward equity that followed the George Floyd uprisings in 2020, we’ve seen mostly regression from art orgs since.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO COMMERCE
The GNO problem is a constant uphill battle for us. On the one hand, we write grants for artists and loudly emphasize that they should focus on further developing that intellectual property if they want to actually monetize their practice — not the promise of potential startup capital from a grant-awarding institution that have yet to identify. Grants are great opportunities for social capital and deeper, more meaningful public attention on your work. But the amount of time and waiting it takes to maybe get grant funds, which are taxed like any other form of self-employment income, means that even if you do get the grant, you’ll walk away with the ability to spend about half of it without the tax burden outweighing the financial gift. Without this information in mind, you’ll end up owing the government money, too.
This doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t seek grants. Money is money, and money that comes with prestige and a self-propelling promotion machine is even better. Grants are just not solutions to the problem of making your practice self-sustaining. Commercialization is, and it always will be.
The evidence that proves this point can be found in some of Penland’s recent 990 tax forms, where the organization is legally required to disclose their financials.
← In 2022, the nonprofit reported $361,085 in net income (also known as profit) while they had $72,963,458 in stockpiled assets.
← In 2021, Penland reported even higher profit margins, claiming $879,154 in net income alongside their $79,675,761 in stockpiled assets.
← 2020, the dreaded year of COVID-induced market volatility, was a financially painful year for the nonprofit, which lost $437,319 and claimed $66,480,806 in assets. But in 2019 and 2019, Penland reported $28,808,129 and $1,257,518 in profits, respectively (their assets hovered just above $40,000,000 during this time).
Given that there are only 40 possible studio assistantship positions listed for the summer session, we think it’s safe to assume that some of those millions could be paid out to the artist-workers in actual cash. So what’s preventing artists from making this demand?
THE EMOTIONAL BOTTOM
At the heart of these insanely bad deals is the reality that many artists, including and especially those who go into debt for art school, have never been given a proper financial education. Coddled, debt-destined cash cows who support the teaching salaries of their similarly broke instructors, these artists are forced to compete with each other in a series of GNOs during college that ultimately set the stage for future ones to appear like legitimate, glowing opportunities.
Most heinous about the GNO gaslighting debacle is the near ubiquitous presence of critical theory, especially theory centered in institutional critique, in collegiate art programs. People can wax poetic about Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s collaborative critique the undercommons: fugitive planning & black study without a single cell in their body raising an alarm when presented with a racially inflected (and thus doubly certified) GNO. In those circles, where capitalism is conflated with business and entrepreneurship is left to the suits in MBA programs, widespread delusion about money remains the rule. By continuing this career delusion while resisting commercialization, artists make themselves the target of all kinds of predatory schemes that masquerade as philanthropy and goodwill. It does not benefit anyone to pretend otherwise.
Yes, there are other opportunities that, while imperfect, are better than Penland’s studio assistantship program. Will any of them give your practice the economic engine it needs so you can stay in the studio every day producing new work with a renewed sense of clarity about your task as an artist? Absolutely not, because it’s not their function.
It takes but a few minutes of educating yourself on the workings of nonprofits and similar business associations to learn that any entity with a board of directors has a legally and financially compelling incentive for those board members to protect, enrich, and grow the entity they represent — not the constituent or patrons they serve.
If that’s a tough pill to swallow, we recommend that you take a second to collect yourself. We haven’t even gotten to the difficult parts yet. There are still the feelings of powerlessness that must be addressed through the work and transformed into economic gain. There are still the hours of restructured practice you must integrate with your financial decision-making. There is still a world of painfully earned business savvy you must acquire in tidbits over the course of years. These are the basic elements of keeping a creative practice alive and enduring those ceaseless financial obstacles that arise. As we like to say, the work makes you, and it’s not always kind.
Above all, if you don’t rid yourself of the myth that you must indefinitely suffer to be a successful artist, how will you even begin to make the work? Call us heartless and money-hungry if you want, but we don’t think art is art until the artist attaches a monetary value to their work. And before anyone accuses us of being unclear, unfair, or narrow-minded, we define art as the production of transformative experiences that permit encounters with the painful fact that two identical things can acquire exponentially distant, unstable, and irreconcilable values. To declare anything as artwork which falls short of that exercise — especially when the work in question holds no practical value — is a demand so outlandish it makes the predatory purveyors of GNOs look neighborly. Unless none of this information is actually new or relevant to you, in which case the pay-to-play art world must feel quite accommodating.
— AFTERS —
— FIN —
WYATT CODAY is intersex and autistic. She lives between Los Angeles and Chicago, where she is a practicing financial dominatrix. She is the director of NOR RESEARCH STUDIO.
GRIEVANCE is a column that features short-first person essays about labor disputes and broader economic inequity in the arts.
NOR RESEARCH STUDIO is a design research studio that develops didactic media, exhibitions, publications, and other forms of intellectual property for artists, nonprofits, and creative businesses.