Art Workers Unite!
In January 2010, an exhibition titled Blue-Collar Blues took place in Tallinn Art Hall. Curated by Anders Härm, the exhibition was coined as a critical reaction against the new labor legislation in Estonia which had been set in force earlier that year in order to flexibilize the labor market. The exhibition was followed by heated debates. However, the controversy took place in the informal circles of the art field, focusing predominantly on the fact that the local artists didn’t get paid for producing works for an exhibition that was largely addressing the notion of precarious work. This obvious contradiction became a catalyst for a wider art workers movement which started off after a discussion event organized in the framework of Blue-Collar Blues.
A year later, the movement is still in the phase of formation, while at the same time facing a constant danger of dissolution. Currently it operates as an informal network of some 80 art practitioners who are connected over a mailing list, whereas the active core group counts some 5-10 members. Looking back to the passed year, the activities of this advocacy group have circled around three areas: mapping the material conditions of art production, discussing possible models for organizing, and addressing the formulated problems on a wider scale, including art institutions, cultural administration, policy-making level and mainstream media.
The economic conditions of the art sector in Estonia are not very different from the situation in other countries in Europe – compared to other fields of cultural production, art funding tends to be considerably smaller; art production relies heavily on unpaid work and freelance art workers are lacking basic social guarantees, such as health insurance. However, the challenge of putting pressure on art institutions and cultural administration is somewhat more complicated in Estonia, since there are only a few art institutions that regularly commission work from artists or freelance curators. The majority of exhibition practice takes place on voluntary basis, with artists applying for gallery spaces and funding. The obligation to pay rent for those gallery spaces, to perform unpaid work, as well as to invest personal finances into the exhibition project is often perceived as inevitable, since there are apparently not many alternatives other than stopping practicing as an exhibiting artist. None of the existing art institutions have a fixed budget that would include artist fees – these have to be fundraised separately for each exhibition project. According to the board of Cultural Endowment of Estonia, which is the central foundation distributing project grants in the art sector, fees are not always applied for, neither by institutions nor by artists. This, however, doesn’t mean they would be granted once asked – the logic of distributing public funding prefers cultural diversity over proper working conditions, granting a little bit funding for as many projects as possible, but not enough for any of those. Work performed in the framework of exhibition practice is therefore paid on case-by-case basis, depending on the success of the fundraising process. The material conditions of each individual exhibition are rarely talked about and virtually never addressed outside of the professional circles. It is therefore quite usual that even art professionals lack knowledge about the exploitative economic conditions in the art field, often perceiving the lack of payment as an individual failure and sustaining a collective phantom belief that other colleagues get paid for their work.
The main demands articulated by the informal group of art workers that emerged in January 2010 are predominantly centered around the exhibition practice, not only because this is the most evident form of work relation in the art field, but also because the work performed in the framework of an exhibition is relatively easy to quantify. These demands are actually very simple – recognition of artist’s work as work and fair pay for that work. An adjacent issue is the question of social guarantees which is not only connected to unpaid work and low salaries, but also to the fact that the type of written contracts used in the art field mostly don’t include social taxes. However, while articulating those demands to various agents in the art field, the system quickly short-circuits – artists are channeling their expectations to curators and art institutions, curators and art institutions are arguing that exhibition budgets depend on the funding structures, the latter ones are expecting the ministry of culture to fight for increased funding in the art field, and the ministry is accusing the (newly re-elected) neoliberal government which is focused on reducing taxes and thinning down the state. All hands are supposedly tied and no-one takes responsibility. How can a grassroots initiative act in such situation?
The official representative organ of art workers is Estonian Artists' Association (EAA), an umbrella organization uniting several professional unions of artists and art historians (Kunstwissenschaftler_innen). Established in 1943, the organization initially functioned as a trade union, providing health care, studios, flats, vacation vouchers and pension for its members. After the collapse of the Soviet system, it has been rather helpless in terms of redefining its position as an organization that would defend the economic and social rights of its members. However, the discussions about possible organizing models in the art field have largely centered around the idea to trade unionize the existing model of artist’s association, either by infiltrating the EAA and changing it from inside or by starting a new one. Nevertheless, forming a trade union for art workers appears to be a complicated task – the traditional model of trade unionism presumes a fixed employer, whereas the art field is dominated by freelance workers whose working relations with different institutions are temporary, irregular and constantly changing. In Estonia, there is currently only one good example of trade-unionizing the cultural associations that were founded during Soviet era – the Association of Actors which has been able to establish collective contracts, minimum tariffs, etc. However, differently from art workers, the majority of actors are employed in state-funded theatre houses, which obviously facilitates the negotiating process.
In the face of such dilemmas, the art workers movement currently operates as an informal network and advocacy group that is trying to convince different institutional agents into taking action. This process includes attempts to intrude the policy-making level by forming working groups within existing cultural organizations, initiating discussion events with representatives of art administration and politicians, and occasional petitioning. However, apart from this very reformist agenda of lobbying and negotiating, there are also attempts to constitute a grassroots movement which would be based on solidarity with other social groups subjected to precarious working conditions. An initial step in that process has been the appropriation of the term “art worker” – a neologism in the Estonian context which to some extent also marks a dividing line between the two scenarios about the future of the initiative. The “pragmatic” scenario would include looking for a minimum consensus among the wide spectrum of art practitioners in order to reform the current art funding system and make demands for increased funding in the field. In that case, the preferred self-definition appears to be “professional artist”, “curator”, etc. in order to stress the particular problems of the art sector. At the same time, there also exists a more “radical” wing that would prefer to thematize the art workers struggle from a more general perspective of precarious work.
A fracture between those two positions became evident in a recent debate over a planned protest action which was supposed to address art workers demands in connection to pacifist statements during a military parade. The intervention was eventually cancelled due to force majeure, but the controversy that was raised around it in the planning stage actually highlights one of the biggest dilemmas that the forming movement is currently facing – whether to remain located in the art field, while trying to involve even the most conservative art practitioners working in the art sector, or to keep functioning as a rather small group of art workers with leftist affiliations whose voice in the policy-making process will most probably remain rather marginal.