Ask any of the 50 artists invited into Asheville Art Museum’s “Appalachia Now!” exhibition and, to a person, they’ll tell you they were honored and elated. Many were motivated to stretch themselves artistically to create what they regard as their most ambitious works.
For good reason. “Appalachia Now!” is the flagship exhibition that reopened the Asheville Art Museum last November and few of the artists had ever experienced exposure on this level. The exhibition closes Feb. 3.
But here’s another truth: Even the museum director acknowledges the artists were largely paid with exposure. The museum raised $24 million for its renovation and only distributed stipends of $100 each to the “Appalachia Now!” artists, regardless of whether they simply loaned pieces out of their studios or created major new works at the request of the exhibition’s curator.
"The stipend was a thank-you for participating with us on this project. It wasn’t a compensation,” said Pam Myers, who is in her 24th year as the museum’s director. “The intention from the beginning was to open with an exhibition of contemporary artists from the region to support the artists and bring national attention to their work, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
Artists looking to establish themselves often get requests to perform or otherwise lend their creative skills to conferences, private parties, businesses and assorted projects for the promised payment of exposure. But what does it say about the value of an artist’s work when a city’s leading arts institution does the same?
Let’s be clear: The museum didn’t commission artwork for acquisition. Indeed, Myers said that, at this point, the museum hasn’t decided whether to purchase and bring any of the “Appalachia Now!” works into the permanent collection. (NOTE: The museum announced Feb. 7 it is acquiring 15 works in this exhibition from seven artists). But the handful of artists asked to create work for this show spent many months conceiving, crafting and installing complex pieces and installations.
“Sure, it’s tough for 50 artists to each only get $100 for the show,” said Molly Sawyer, an Asheville sculptor who said she spent close to a year working on the installation she made for “Appalachia Now!”
“I suppose on one end while I appreciate the contribution, it’s such a drop in the bucket that I’m not really sure what they hoped to accomplish with that,” she said. “It bought me a tank of gas and lunch.”
Even Jason Andrew, the independent curator from Brooklyn who curated “Appalachia Now!,” believes the exhibition’s artists should have at least received a production fee for the time and materials they invested in making new work.
“It was something I was insistent on because I knew we wanted this to be as ambitious as we could make it,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that went into those more ambitious projects, and should those artists have been compensated, at least for the shipping to and from? Yes, and that’s an easy litmus.”
For perspective, HCA Healthcare spent $700,000 to purchase and permanently place work from 160 regional artists throughout Mission Hospital’s new North Tower, which opened around the time of the museum’s reopening. The tower’s construction budget was $400 million. A comparable percentage of investment would have had the museum spend $42,000 on the artwork of “Appalachia Now!” That’s more than eight times the total stipends distributed to the 50 artists.
James Burns is an independent museum and artist adviser in Arizona who chairs the curatorial committee for the American Alliance of Museums, of which the Asheville Art Museum is a member.
“There is definitely a debate in the museum and art world and an increasing feeling that artists should be paid for their time,” Burns said. “This is the challenge in a field like ours. There is not currently a standard or best practice relating to the topic we’re talking here, nor do I think there are any guidelines.”
Hayden Wilson is a glass artist in Spruce Pine. He said he never expected payment when Andrew asked him to make new work for “Appalachia Now!” and he credits the exhibition with the motivation to break new artistic territory.
“I totally understand the point of taking artists seriously and compensating them for their time and we need to not propagate this idea of the starving artist. You just can’t wait around to get paid to make something, either,” Wilson said. “This was pushing my more conceptual work. If not monetarily, it’s paid off in this idea of coming up with new work, and that’s payment enough.”
Molly Sawyer echoed his sentiment.
“Many times people ask me, over the years, they have restaurants, coffee shops, parties, they present it to artists as ‘Here, we’re offering you this opportunity to decorate our space,’ but really it’s ‘decorate our space for free and thanks, we’ll give you the exposure,’” she said. “In this case, it’s the Asheville Art Museum and it is big exposure for me as an artist. Personally, I am going to say yes, that is enough payment.”
And that is part of Myers’ rationale for framing artist compensation beyond financial. She points to the glossy exhibition catalog, the museum’s public relations and marketing and the status of having work exhibited at the museum as of material value.
“The museum was mounting a major exhibition that had a significant budget for all its elements,” she said.
Still, no payments of any kind were broached with artists until the museum reopened, and then only the $100 stipends.
“I think it’s very fair of an artist to come to me or to the museum or a curator and say ‘I want to do X. Is there any support for making this new piece?’” Myers said. “If that happens, the curatorial team would see if there are finances available to do so.”
Andrew, the curator for “Appalachia Now!,” said few emerging artists are likely to ask institutions such as the Asheville Art Museum to reimburse costs for fear of being labeled difficult to work with.
“Can you imagine how naive it is for a museum director to say ‘Well, these artists didn’t even ask me to be compensated?’ No, it’s your job to anticipate that compensation,” he said. “It’s your job to give them the kind of leverage and show the kind of commitment that they are bringing to the table.”
Burns, of the American Alliance of Museums, sees it as an issue of equity.
“As we in museums look at, in particular, issues surrounding diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, this is certainly part of the conversation," Burns said. "Is it really fair to ask an artist to take X amount of time off the table do work for the museum that they wouldn’t have done otherwise?”
“A more established artist with a larger name would never agree to delivering and installing a major sculpture without being compensated, and probably with a rental fee,” Andrew said.
“If we’re going to compensate one artist because they’ve achieved great acclaim and they now have the gravitas to negotiate, is it really fair we wouldn’t do it for somebody else who, for all we know, is going to become the next Warhol?” Burns asked.
“This is a systemic issue a lot of smaller institutions grapple with,” Andrew added. “It all depends on how outward-thinking and ambitious a director or a chief curator or head of the board wants to be in relationship to the contemporary artists that they have a mission to serve.”
Myers is quick to defend the Asheville Art Museum’s history and currency with artists.
“This institution, since the 1950s, has been supporting artists by collecting their work, by stewarding their work, by publishing their work, by having artists who speak and are compensated for their participation in public programs,” she said. “At the same time, the museum also advocates for artists through its very premise. It’s not just about exposure, it’s the collaborative working environment the museum has with artists.
"I would say we (as an industry) should be moving towards being fairer and, by and large, museums and the American Alliance of Museums, which establishes benchmarks, is trying to do that," she continued. "And I’d say this particular institution is at the forefront of that, not the back end of that.”