Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center is excited to announce our certification with Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) for exhibitions and events in fiscal year 2017. We are the first organization in Western New York to be part of this program.
W.A.G.E. is a New York-based activist organization focused on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions and establishing a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that contract work. W.A.G.E. Certification is a voluntary program initiated and operated by W.A.G.E. that publicly recognizes those nonprofit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet minimum payment standards.
W.A.G.E. began in 2008 with a series of informal discussions between a small group of visual and performing artists and independent curators in New York City who shared their experiences working with art institutions, and specifically the common practice of non-payment. W.A.G.E. received its 501c3 non-profit status in 2011, and after 3 years of consciousness raising and aggregating data from the field, the group chose to focus exclusively on establishing W.A.G.E. Certification and on consolidating their resources in order to support the kind of sustained, internal work necessary to achieving policy change. There are now 40 organizations around the United States that are W.A.G.E. Certified; Squeaky Wheel is proud to be amongst these organizations that are arguing for greater accountability in the nation at large.
As part of this program, Squeaky Wheel is committing to: include “artist fees” as a line item in both operating and exhibition budgets; ensure that the coverage of production costs is negotiated between artist and ourselves and that their coverage is not treated as a form of payment; meet minimum standards of compensation for artists who contribute to our programs; and provide documentation annually to demonstrate that we meet these standards. More information about W.A.G.E. can be found on their website: wageforwork.com
Squeaky Wheel (A.K.A. Buffalo Media Resources Inc.) was established in 1985 by the likes of artists Tony Conrad, Chris Hill, and Julie Zando in the aftermath of the closing of a micro-cinema called Media Study Buffalo (as distinct from the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo.) The closing of that institution brought about a sense of urgency, as it ostensibly meant that there wasn’t a dedicated non-profit in Buffalo that could receive grant funding to support media arts. Legend has it that 70 people came together to form our organization. 29 grant applications to support Squeaky Wheel were sent that same year to the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA), who were reportedly put off by this initial onslaught, but after investigation, recognized the necessity of our mission to the city, and continue to be one of our most vital supporters.
Becoming W.A.G.E. Certified is not without its challenges. We recently celebrated our 30th year; however, our age belies our stability. We operate in the third poorest, sixth most segregated city in the United States. There were years where as an organization we had to make urgent calls to our community for support, when all seemed in danger. It is also difficult for this small organization to make such a commitment with the reported threat of the dissolution of the National Endowment of the Arts, which not only funds some of our operations directly, but also helps fund NYSCA (among other state arts councils nationwide.)
We naturally assume that people, including artists, should be compensated for their labor. However that is a far cry from reality. Statistics culled from the W.A.G.E. Survey in 2010 are stark reminders of a continuing, symptomatic inequality. As long as we ask artists to work for little or no wage—enabling those who can, pushing away those who can’t—we are doing nothing other than being complicit in an unfair system, enabling divisions among sex, race, class, and robbing the word “community” of its meaning.
We want to emphasize that W.A.G.E. Certification is essentially a modest endeavor. There is much work to be done, including establishing standardized screening fees, offering paid internships, and more. We hope for this to be a first step. We are proud to be amongst other organizations that argue for greater change.
Countless arts institutions are attempting to address our current cultural atmosphere in a variety of different ways, bringing with them questions regarding the impotency of art organizations, the hopelessness that accompanies gestures, and questions on how we can be here for each other. We recognize the difficulties, and we reject any cynicism. We believe that without structural change, whatever other efforts we make towards civic engagement are at best undercut, and at worst, a lie.
If we are reimagining our organizational structure to be with W.A.G.E, it is because we believe that artists provide ways to reimagine ourselves and our futures. It’s not about answers, and it’s not about metrics. It’s about the process of finding a different way to see, be, and live. We cannot do this as long as we depend on labor that is not properly compensated. The word “community” must mean something if the futures we imagine are to exist. We were founded to provide education, access, and exhibition opportunities to our city, so everyone would have a chance to learn, make, and showcase work. Joining Working Artists and the Greater Economy is a natural step in our mission.
Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center has a mission to continue a legacy of innovation in media arts through access, education, and exhibition. We envision a community that uses electronic media and film to celebrate freedom of expression and diversity of voice.
Squeaky Wheel’s exhibitions and events are made possible with generous support by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, Erie County Arts & Cultural Funding, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, individual members, businesses, and supporters. You can become a member or donate here.
Cover image of early Squeaky Wheel members as they collated issues of The Squealer. Photo by Ellen Spiro.