IN CONVERSATION WITH GIORGIA CACCIATORE
Last April, a group called NYC Art Workers started an online petition urging museums to retain their staff amid the current crisis. “[A] collection of objects alone”, they stated, “does not make a museum. Museums are made, maintained, and brought to life by workers”. However precisely the workers that assure museums to perform their function, i.e. display artworks and receive audiences, are being the most heavily impacted by the measures taken in response to the ongoing pandemic. Workers performing reproductive jobs such as janitorial and security staff, front of house, and museum educators, have not only been the most exposed to contamination, but have largely been put on furlough or laid off. As NYC Art Workers have noted, these often outsourced roles also happen to be disproportionally occupied by people of colour and/or in low-income households, in an otherwise overwhelmingly white and middle class art world.
Understanding feminist struggles around social reproduction then, becomes more urgent than ever to reckon with structural issues within the arts sector, and imagine institutions anew entering the world after the pandemic. In the following, I begin by revisiting the work of feminist artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles in the light of the current events. I continue by offering an overview of feminist labour theories, and showing how these have been employed within feminist and anti-capitalist accounts of institutional critique of the art world. This will allow me to bring to the fore the ‘hidden’ reproductive labour underpinning art institutions, and unmask the seemingly natural hierarchies amongst positions in the sector.
Art as work, work as art
In 1969 American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who recently became a mother, coins the term Maintenance Art as a way to address the split she suddenly embodies, that of artist/mother, accompanied by the classification work/nonwork. Her Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969) builds on this false dichotomy between what she defines as “development” (creative and intellectual work), prerogative of men and associated with the public sphere, and the secondary role attributed to maintenance, performed by women in the private realm. This is conceived as tedious, repetitive and unskilled labour that does not produce any meaningful contribution per se. Rather, it merely sustains the “pure individual creation” and the advancements owed to the minds of (male) avantgarde artists and intellectuals. As Ukeles incisively puts it, maintenance work (i.e. women’s work) is picking up the garbage after the revolution, both metaphorically and literally. Testament to the hierarchy between productive and reproductive labours is also their economic reward: “The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay”. Ukeles’ work from the manifesto onwards can be seen as an effort to challenge this binary.
For example, her work Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside (1973), pictured here, is a performance that took place at the entrance of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, where members of the public approaching the building could see the artist diligently washing the staircase. By showing the institution being “maintained in full public view”, Ukeles extracts reproductive labour from its hidden status and places it front and centre. The same can be said for I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), a series of photographs portraying 300 maintenance workers between cleaners, guards and technicians while performing their jobs at the Whitney Museum. This was the result of a five weeks long collaboration in which the workers labelled their usual work as art for one hour in their day. Through this symbolic act Ukeles dissolves the equally arbitrary dichotomy between development and maintenance, creating a dimension in which they exist on the same plane.
Ukeles’ work can be understood in the context of second-wave feminism, which fought some of its major battles within the sphere of social reproduction. Socialist strands within the movement urged a rethinking of labour theories as formulated by Marx, calling for a shift in focus from the (male) worker’s waged labour aimed at producing commodities (productive labour), to women’s unwaged domestic work aimed at producing the worker (reproductive labour). The famous Wages for Housework campaign (1972-), consisting of strike actions and other strategies of withdrawal from work, aimed precisely at making visible the effects of the labour not regulated by wage relation performed by women within the domestic realm, bringing attention to its invisibilised nature. As Marxist feminist Silvia Federici, a key figure in the campaign, puts it:
hen we said that housework is actually work for capital, that although it is unpaid work it contributes to the accumulation of capital, we established something extremely important about the nature of capitalism as a system of production. We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it is not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave-like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised. […] We became able to conceive of a fight against housework now understood as the reproduction of labor-power, the reproduction of the most important commodity capital has: the worker’s “capacity to work,” the worker’s capacity to be exploited.
The back of the building
Art historian Angela Dimitrakaki, who has extensively analysed labour in the arts sector through social reproduction theory, has highlighted that “works of art can, and tend to, be the outputs of different kinds of labour, only one of which could be characterised as ‘artistic labour’”. Following the shift advocated by feminists, her interest lies in moving the spotlight from the artwork to the labouring subjects behind it, exposing what she has defined as the “art’s hidden abode of production”. Differences of status, remuneration and social background associated with said labours and labourers seem to run along the division between tangible and intangible output.[i] That is, between what is considered to be productive and what reproductive labour. Maintenance, public-facing and administrative roles find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid in the sector, albeit in very different ways.[ii] Scholars and curators Danielle Child, Helena Reckitt and Jenny Richards have noted how “[i]nstitutionally, art educators have been treated as if they occupy the lowest ranks of curatorial and programming teams. This hierarchy no doubt stems from educators’ primary contact with the ‘unschooled’ general public, and their association with reproductive, rather than productive, labour, which doesn’t leave a tangible – or saleable – trace”. The aforementioned petition started by NYC art workers has highlighted precisely these hierarchies, calling out museums on the huge disparity among salaries between museum directors, trustees and upper management and all other workers. Museum educators are particularly present in the ongoing debate in the US, however as NYC art workers’ statement stresses, these issues have merely been exposed by the current situation:
These workers are regularly denied health benefits and job security even in more stable circumstances, and their summary dismissal reveals not only a systemic undervaluing of the expertise of their employees but also a fundamental lack of commitment to their publics. Educators are often a visitor’s first entry into an artwork, thoughtfully creating curricula, facilitating workshops, and otherwise fostering critical dialogue that stretches the limits of artistic discourse.
The statement goes on to call attention to other deeply problematic groups of art labourers, namely the front of house staff, whose “work remains some of the most undervalued in both perception and practice” and whose roles are regulated by extremely unstable contracts. And unpaid interns, whose exploitation not only puts them in a highly vulnerable position, but also “perpetuat[es] a cycle of inaccessibility and exploitation that keeps the museum world run predominantly by the white and independently wealthy”.
Artist and writer Gregory Sholette has laid bare just the extent to which “the art factory system” relies on unpaid labour. As argued by Sholette, the art world extracts value from the work that “the army of under- and semi-employed cultural workers” performs in order to make itself more attractive to the labour market. “These ‘invisibles’ help reproduce the art world through their purchase of art supplies, journal subscriptions, museum memberships, teaching assignments, but also their informal conversation and gossip, which reasserts the status of leading art brands at openings, on blog sites, at parties, and so forth”.
Emotional skills of the art worker
Even when waged however, jobs in this sector structurally rely on work that lies outside of the wage relation. The practice-based research project Manual Labours (2013-ongoing) led by curators Jenny Richards and Sophie Hope has highlighted precisely how paid and unpaid labour in cultural work are “intensively intertwined”. The project investigates the boundaries between life and work, focusing on the embodied and emotional effects of the porosity between the two. As Hope and Richards explain, their “methodology is informed through our training as artists and mobilises aesthetic and performative tools to find ways to gather, generate and share knowledge”. The research relies mainly on workshops with exercises designed to elicit self-reflection and conversation between participants. The series of workshops conducted in 2014 specifically addressed cultural work, the latter understood as “an umbrella expression to capture a myriad of working roles, processes and contexts with people describing themselves as visual artists, craftswomen, curators, arts administrators and performers”. What the activities revealed is that the working week of the cultural worker appears as made of “invisible, hidden, unpaid” work that cannot be clearly discerned from ‘proper’ work. Participants in the workshops expressed frustration at “[t]he never-ending funding applications, for example,” or the labour involved in “improving our own self-image and portfolio careers”. Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, in their analysis of cultural work, have denounced that “the fears (of getting left behind, of not finding work), the competitiveness, the experience of socializing not simply as pleasurable potential, but as a compulsory means of securing future work […] the anxiety, insecurity and individualized shame […] are endemic features of fields in which you are judged on what you produce”. Workers across entertainment, media, and creative industries have been praised as “paradigms of entrepreneurial selfhood” and presented as role models for future workers. However, this high individualization also means that responsibilities for such negative feelings are attributed entirely to the worker: “not to find and express […] enjoyment [at work] becomes a mark of personal failure”. Carolyn Veldstra explains what’s at stake in the confluence of emotional labour and precarity:
the emotional labour of managing unwanted affects is itself productive under neoliberalism, and specifically productive of a socio-economic belonging that enforces compliance with punishing norms. Affective labour includes the work of managing, internalizing, and ultimately obscuring the contradictions of capital and precarity as they are experienced at an individual level, thereby reducing precarity to a problem of attitude to be remedied through more careful emotional tailoring.
In this sense, it can be argued that when emotional labour is paired with dire working conditions, it becomes a biopolitical tool that assures the maintaining of such conditions. When “these corporate tactics become wide-spread, they calcify as common sense” thus becoming invisible. In this context, one’s own reproduction, assuring one’s own physical and mental health, setting boundaries and carving out time for (actual) leisure, become particularly arduous tasks. As Isabell Lorey puts it, “these kinds of reproductive practices usually have to be learned anew. They are lacking in any self-evidence and have to be fought for bitterly against oneself and others”.
Where we are now
The NYC art workers’ statement concludes by calling “institutions to stand behind the values they claim to uphold, and to offer material support to all of their employees, especially the most vulnerable”. Their demand is one for shared responsibility and shared hardship among the entirety of the workers that make up the museum, including the “seven-figure museum director”. The disparities between these roles repose on racial, gendered and class divides that are systematically concealed and naturalised. What we are witnessing as the current crisis unfolds is showing us that, brought to its extreme consequences, the artificial hierarchy between productive and unproductive labour determines who gets to survive. Some have been emphatically stressing the urgency for a serious discussion on social reproduction in the art world for several years. Many are looking at this historical moment as a turning point: “Now is the time for museums to model a radical future for art and labor”. Zarina Muhammad, part of the independent art critic duo working under the name The White Pube, has regularly called out museums on their inertia when it comes to address deeply rooted inequalities and implement a truly “collective and inclusive approach to programming and running an institution”. As she has recently argued, an essential step towards achieving this is abolishing wage disparities and exploitation. “Make it standard practice to pay everyone in an organisation the same generous living wage […] [pay] everyone that does any kind of work […] the same hourly wage. […] Abolish volunteers, stop outsourcing cleaning and catering staff, certainly no more zero-hours/precarious contracts”. As Muhammad notes, there are already examples of arts organisations following these principles. Child, Reckitt and Richards offer what I believe are valuable tools for art workers who want to make a difference. In the feminist spirit of self-reflection, they perform “a collective brainstorming session to identify some of the bad habits we currently practice”. Some of these are “[p]resenting the ‘clean gallery’ and the ‘welcoming smile’ and so mystifying the labour within cultural work […] [f]acilitating unpaid internships at prestigious galleries and institutions (because students want the work experience) without pressurising those organisations to pay […]
rganising events or curating exhibitions that deal with artistic and cultural labour but which do not interrogate the conditions under which our, and our collaborators’ labour, occurs”. Reflecting on what our role is as art workers in reproducing inequalities is fundamental, however such soul-searching has to be scaled up at an institutional level for actual change to take place. As Dimitrakaki puts it, “[t]he struggle carried through in the name of the ‘art worker’ will be of limited transformative potential until it subverts the market’s regulation of the division between productive and unproductive labor”.
Giorgia Cacciatore holds a master’s degree in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths University of London and is currently a student of the RMA Media, Arts and Performance Studies at Utrecht University. She has several years’ experience working in the arts and culture sector as administrator, and more recently as organiser at the intersection of arts and activism.
i This cult of the quantifiable is accentuated by neoliberal policies pushing towards measuring so-called impact in the arts.
ii It’s worth noting that work conditions vary greatly among the mentioned roles. My intention here is not to collapse specificities but rather to expose how these roles are equally necessary.
Brook, Orian, O’Brien, David & Taylor, Mark. Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries. (2018).
Child, Danielle, Reckitt, Helena. & Richards, Jenny. “Labours of Love: A Conversation on Art, Gender and Social Reproduction”. Third Text 31, no. 1, 2017.
Dimitrakaki, Angela. “What Is an Art Worker? Five Theses on the Complexity of a Struggle”, in Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by M. Hlavajova and S. Sheikh. MIT Press, 2017.
Dimitrakaki, Angela. “Feminism, Art, Contradictions“. e-flux, 2018.
Dimitrakaki, Angela. “Art’s hidden abode of production”. [Review of the book Working Aesthetics: Labour, Art and Capitalism, by Danielle Child]. Burlington Contemporary 5 June, 2019.
Dimitrakaki, Angela & Lloyd, Kirsten. Session 17 – Labours of Love, Works of Passion: The social (re)production of art workers from industrialisation to globalisation. AAH annual conference, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 2016.
Federici, Silvia. “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint”. Variant, 2008.
Gill, Rosalind and Pratt, Andy. “Precarity and cultural work in the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work”. ONCURATING Journal The precarious labour in the field of art 16 (2013).
Hope, Sophie. and Richards, Jenny. “Loving work: Drawing attention to pleasure and pain in the body of the cultural worker”. European Journal of Cultural Studies 1, no. 25 (2014).
Laderman Ukeles, Mierle. MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969! Proposal for an exhibition: “CARE”. (1969).
Lorey, Isabell. Governmentality and self-precarization. On the normalization of cultural producers. Transversal, January 2006.
Muhammad, Zarina. “Ideas for a new art world”. The White Pube. April 3, 2020.
NYC Art Workers. Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis. Change.org, 2020.
Sholette, Gregory. “Glut, overproduction, redundancy!”. In Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. Pluto Press, 2010.
1 NYC Art Workers, “Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis”, April 2020.
2 Brook, Orian; O’Brien, David; Taylor, Mark. Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries (2018).
3 Dimitrakaki, Angela. “Feminism, Art, Contradictions”. e-flux, June 2018.
4 Laderman Ukeles, Mierle. MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969! Proposal for an exhibition: “CARE” (1969).
7 Federici, Silvia. “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint”. Variant, 2008.
8 Dimitrakaki, Angela. “Art’s hidden abode of production”. Burlington Contemporary. 5 June, 2019.
10 Child, Danielle, Reckitt, Helena & Richards, Jenny “Labours of Love: A Conversation on Art, Gender and Social Reproduction”. Third Text 31, no. 1 (2017): 156.
11 NYC Art Workers, “Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis”, April 2020.
14 Sholette, Gregory, “Glut, overproduction, redundancy!”, in Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Pluto Press, 2010).
15 Ibid, 120.
17 Hope, Sophie and Richards, Jenny. “Loving work: Drawing attention to pleasure and pain in the body of the cultural worker”. European Journal of Cultural Studies 1, no. 25 (2014): 6.
18 Ibid, 4.
19 Ibid, 5.
20 Ibid, 6.
21 Ibid, 17.
22 Gill, Rosalind and Pratt, Andy “Precarity and cultural work in the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work”. ONCURATING Journal The precarious labour in the field of art 16 (2013): 34.
23 Ibid, 33.
24 McRobbie, Angela quoted in Veldstra, Carolyn “Bad feeling at work: emotional labour, precarity, and the affective economy”. Cultural Studies 34, no. 1 (2020): 13.
25 Ibid, 12.
26 Ibid, 13.
27 Lorey, Isabell. “Governmentality and self-precarization. On the normalization of cultural producers”. Transversal. January 2006.
28 NYC Art Workers, “Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis”, April 2020.
30 Dimitrakaki, Angela and Lloyd, Kirsten. Session 17 – Labours of Love, Works of Passion: The social (re)production of art workers from industrialisation to globalisation. AAH annual conference, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 2016.
31 NYC Art Workers, Open Letter Calling on Museums to Retain Staff During COVID-19 Crisis, April 2020.
32 Muhammad, Zarina. “Ideas for a new art world”. The White Pube. April 3, 2020.
34 Child, Danielle, Reckitt, Helena & Richards, Jenny “Labours of Love: A Conversation on Art, Gender and Social Reproduction”. Third Text 31, no. 1 (2017): 156.
35 Ibid, 156-157.
36 Dimitrikaki, Angela. “What Is an Art Worker? Five Theses on the Complexity of a Struggle”, in Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by M. Hlavajova and S. Sheikh, 416. MIT Press, 2017.