Open Letter to Artists from Sara Wookey

Sara Wookey performing "Trio A"
(1966) by Yvonne Rainer at VIVA! Performance Festival in Montreal.
Photo: Guy L'Heureux.

I participated in an audition on November 7th for performance artist Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. I auditioned because I wanted to participate in the project of an artist whose work I have followed with interest for many years and because it was affiliated with MOCA, an institution that I have a connection with as a Los Angeles-based artist. Out of approximately eight hundred applicants, I was one of two hundred selected to audition. Ultimately, I was offered the role of one of six nude females to re-enact Abramović’s signature work, Nude with Skeleton (2002), at the center of tables with seats priced at up to $100,000 each. For reasons I detail here—reasons that I strongly believe need to be made public—I turned it down.

I am writing to address three main points: One, to add my voice to the discourse around this event as an artist who was critical of the experience and decided to walk away, a voice which I feel has been absent thus far in the LA Times and New York Times coverage; Two, to clarify my identity as the informant about the conditions being asked of artists and make clear why I chose, up till now, to be anonymous in regards to my email to Yvonne Rainer; And three, to prompt a shift of thinking of cultural workers to consider, when either accepting or rejecting work of any kind, the short- and long-term impact of our personal choices on the entire field. Each point is to support my overriding interest in organizing and forming a union that secures labor standards and fair wages for fine and performing artists in Los Angeles and beyond.

I refused to participate as a performer because what I anticipated would be a few hours of creative labor, a meal, and the chance to network with like-minded colleagues turned out to be an unfairly remunerated job. I was expected to lie naked and speechless on a slowly rotating table, starting from before guests arrived and lasting until after they left (a total of nearly four hours). I was expected to ignore (by staying in what Abramović refers to as “performance mode”) any potential physical or verbal harassment while performing. I was expected to commit to fifteen hours of rehearsal time, and sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating that if I spoke to anyone about what happened in the audition I was liable for being sued by Bounce Events, Marketing, Inc., the event’s producer, for a sum of $1 million dollars plus attorney fees.

I was to be paid $150. During the audition, there was no mention of safeguards, signs, or signals for performers in distress, and when I asked about what protection would be provided I was told it could not be guaranteed. What I experienced as an auditionee for this work was extremely problematic, exploitative, and potentially abusive.

I am a professional dancer and choreographer with 16 years of experience working in the United States, Canada and Europe, and I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in Dance from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a professional artist working towards earning a middle class living in Los Angeles, I am outraged that there are no official or even unofficial standard practice measures for working conditions, compensation, and benefits for artists and performers, or for relations between creator, performer, presenting venue and production company in regard to such highly respected and professionalized individuals and institutions such as Abramović and MOCA. In Europe I produced over a dozen performance works involving casts of up to 15 to 20 artists. When I hired dancers, I was obliged to follow a national union pay scale agreement based on each artist’s number of years of experience. In Canada, where I recently performed a work by another artist, I was paid $350 for one performance that lasted 15 minutes, not including rehearsal time that was supported by another fee for up to 35 hours, in accordance with the standards set by CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front Des Artistes Canadiens) established in 1968.

If my call for labor standards for artists seems out of bounds, think of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, established 1933), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM, founded 1896), or the umbrella organization the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the 4A’s, founded in 1919), which hold the film, theater and music industries to regulatory and best practice standards for commercial working artists and entertainers. If there is any group of cultural workers that deserves basic standards of labor, it is us performers working in museums, whose medium is our own bodies and deserve humane treatment and respect. Artists of all disciplines deserve fair and equal treatment and can organize if we care enough to put the effort into it. I would rather be the face of the outspoken artist than the silenced, slowly rotating head (or, worse, “centerpiece”) at the table. I want a voice, loud and clear.

Abramović’s call for artists was, as the LA Times quoted, for “strong, silent types.” I am certainly strong but I am not comfortable with silence in this situation. I refuse to be a silent artist regarding issues that affect my livelihood and the culture of my practice. There are issues too important to be silenced and I just happen to be the one to speak out, to break that silence. I spoke out in response to ethics, not artistic material or content, and I know that I am not the only one who feels the way I do.

I rejected the offer to work with Abramović and MOCA—to participate in perpetuating unethical, exploitative and discriminatory labor practices—with my community in mind. It has moved me to work towards the establishment of ethical standards, labor rights and equal pay for artists, especially dancers, who tend to be some of the lowest paid artists.

The time has come for artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to unite, organize, and work toward changing the degenerate discrepancies between the wealthy and powerful funders of art and the artists, mainly poor, who are at its service and are expected to provide so-called avant-garde, prescient content or “entertainment,” as is increasingly the case—that is nonetheless merchandise in the service of money. We must do this not because of what happened at MOCA but in response to a greater need (painfully demonstrated by the events at MOCA) for equity and justice for cultural workers.

I am not judging my colleagues who accepted their roles in this work and I, too, am vulnerable to the cult of charisma surrounding celebrity artists. I am judging, rather, the current social, cultural, and economic conditions that have rendered the exploitation of cultural workers commonplace, natural, and even horrifically banal, whether its perpetrated by entities such as MOCA and Abramović or self-imposed by the artists themselves.

I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohorts and all who will come after us.

To conclude, I am grateful to Rainer for utilizing her position (without a request from me) of cultural authority and respect to make these issues public for the sake of launching a debate that has been overlooked for too long. Jeffrey Deitch, director of MOCA, was quoted in the LA Times as saying, in response to receiving my anonymous email and Rainer’s letter, “Art is about dialogue.” While I agree, Deitch’s idea of dialogue here is only a palliative. It obscures a situation of injustice in which both artist and institution have proven irresponsible in their unwillingness to recognize that art is not immune to ethical standards. Let’s have a new discourse that begins on this thought.

Sara Wookey

9 Responses to “Open Letter to Artists from Sara Wookey”

  1. I am familiar with CARFAC’s guidelines and they also include fees for artists who exhibit work in museums and not-for-profits. It would certainly revolutionize the American system if museums were forced to observe the practice of artist fees, which do not begin to cover the real costs to the artist of mounting a show but at least honor the fact of their participation instead of relying on the idea that artists show because it will benefit their market and reputation. Why is it that artists are so often expected to be grateful to museums and galleries for the “opportunity” to present their work in whatever context, instead of the other way around? (The ideal, of course, is a situation of mutual gratitude and respect. I’m just suggesting there should be much more of a balance.)

    Same goes for artists asked to donate to auctions. The collective financial benefit of works donated and auctioned is often more than that of major donors who are endlessly credited in various publications and wall texts, as well as at special events. Artists should receive equal credit for their (utterly essential) support of any not-for-profit institution.

  2. liz duffy adams Says:

    I’m a playwright, not an artist or (anymore) performer, but I think this is pretty resonant for lots of art practitioners. It’s a pretty widespread attitude that we should be grateful our work is being seen (or in this case, grateful to be a part of someone else’s work) and that to raise issues of fair labor practices and financial equity is sordid, petty, or beneath us. I think you’re brave, and I hope the dialogue you’ve sparked is a fruitful one.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. As a professional dancer living in New York City, I have too often been expected to sign on to participate in projects without sufficient explanation of what exactly my role will be, and in certain situations, seen complete omission of some of the tasks and or risks involved. Not to mention that most of these “creative opportunities” were paying minimum wage or below, without benefits or any kind of support had I been injured. It is high time that we as dancers develop standards for fairness in the workplace, and insist on them no matter what.

  4. Sara
    Thanks so much for articulating a wide range of issues, most importantly that we as artists are professional adults who have not only the right, but the duty, to ask questions, to insist on clear answers, and to be critical of the systems within which we are expected to do our work.

    That those systems are intimately tied, often, to international social elites and (at least relatively) big money is one inescapable factor in how hard it can be to ask those questions, and to act accordingly.

    Success to you in your commitment to a professional life that IS professional–

  5. Tommy Smith Says:

    The problem with establishing a union is, you can’t get a fucking thing done if you’re in the 99% of artists working with little or no budgets. Actors Equity has single-handedly kneecapped the growth of American playwriting in the last three decades. In my native Seattle, you can’t even get a 16 performance showcase using Equity actors, to see if the piece even works on its feet or not. As a playwright and director, I can put in 80 hours a week into a show (the time needed sometimes for it to get off the ground) but if I’m working at an Union house, I can’t even work through my lunch because there needs to be a stagehand to turn on the lights. Beware of craving bureaucracy in a system that cannot support it. I agree that artists like Abramović who are charging $10,000 a head need to compensate their collaborators according to the ticket price – and maybe this is where we should concentrate our efforts – but don’t take your knee jerk response to the 1%ers and apply it as something that needs to be changed for the rest of us, who will die like hothouse flowers under the glaring sun of a union.

  6. CARFAC is a nice example of how it can be done. CARFAC is not a union. It is a set of guidelines set forth and periodically revised, based on Fair Market Value. A small company or curator with a minimal budget isn’t obligated to pay out full CARFAC fees, it’s just the ideal to aim for. And then if that juicy grant comes in, or if those ticket sales go through the roof, and the money does become available, then the company or the curator can pay those fair artist fees.

  7. Thanks Tommy for your comment. Totally agree with it.
    I am a dance artist in NY and I DO NOT need an Union!!!!!!

  8. Kelly Doyle Says:

    Thank you so much for putting yourself out there in a way I see as being far more vulnerable, even, than spinning naked as a centerpiece on a table. However, in this venue, the benefits far outweigh the risks because you are addressing an issue that, if heard and acted upon in a satisfactory manner, will bring a positive outcome for many, many artists, and I thank you for that. There is a certain irony here that I can’t help muse upon. I have also been in similar positions where I felt that twinge of exploitation, yet discussion of the matter was limited to cursory dismissal. It has also been suggested to myself and others who speak out about this issue are perhaps being “difficult” – the scarlet letter of the performer’s or playwright’s career. Anyway, thank you for this effort.

  9. […] not even sure the problem is systemic, but as Sara Wookey’s letter addressing the equity controversy at the MOCA Gala points out, there is definitely a problem. Since […]

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