The Art of „Living in Luxury“: Interview with Alina Lupu on Precarious Work in Art

Sasi Moran15. februára 2022385
photo: Alina Lupu

Artists as part of the precariat

Slovak version

Alina Lupu was born and raised in Romania. She works in the Netherlands as a writer and post-conceptual artist. The focus of her work is on the precarious living and working conditions of art workers and laborers in general. She has worked for a variety of platforms, including Deliveroo, Helpling, or Uber. Her pension will be rounded off to about 2 euros a month. Since 2021, Alina has also been a general board member of Platform BK, a Dutch-based non-profit organization that investigates the role of art in society and campaigns for a better art policy. Alina is committed to improving the position of (international) artists and to stimulating the debate about the social role of the visual arts.

The first thing you could explain is why you talk about working in art as precarious. What is precarious about it?

What is precarious about it is the lack of transparency in terms of budgets for projects, the fact that much of employment is freelance – you work from project to project, you never have certainty about when the payment is going to come in. There is no stability, regularity of your income. It’s a lot of applying for things – spending time doing applications for things that might work or that might not work. You are always projecting yourself to the future, but you don’t have that certainty that you will get that project you are working for. You are kind of a project manager half of the time. Precarity for me relates to the fact that you can’t accurately plan for your future. You are always running from one thing to the next. And never mind talking about pension and stability in the long term.

There is a lot of competition, often you participate in things because you know someone who knows someone. If you get a teaching gig, it is because someone knows you, not because you applied for a job, because there is no job listed anywhere. Now things are changing a little bit, as there are more positions being listed but even so, you get invited because, for example, you had a drink with someone at a certain point and that person works in the academy.

What is precarity within the arts? Lack of planning for the future, lack of knowing how to get opportunities and lack of transparency in relation to them.

It is seen as a choice to become self-employed or freelancer, in that you gain some flexibility and lose some stability. Do you think it is a choice to become a freelancer in art or is there a lack of positions that require standard employment?

I am also a board member of Platform BK, which is a solidarity organization within the arts. They regularly feed the discourse around flexible work within the arts. They recently focused their publishing and activities on the topic of preparing future generations of art students for more sustainable practice. The majority of people that enter the labor markets within the visual arts end up self-employed as freelancers. But they don’t do this because of choice, they do this because it is hard to predict when opportunities come up. If you go on a residency, you get a certain stipend for that particular residency. Or if you apply for funding, you might get it, but nobody hires you as an artist within a longer employment framework. You get a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time but it’s not really an employment contract and nobody really looks at things like hourly rates, to be honest.

Although, there is such a thing called “Kunstenaarshonorarium” (Guideline for artists’ fees) which one of the elements of the Fair Practice Code, that was implemented a few years back in the Netherlands and for which there are some equivalents in Belgium, for example. The Kunstenaarshonorarium is a nifty calculator that you can use as an indication of how much you should be paid. But it’s never really a guarantee and it doesn’t look at your life situation in general. It is just how much you should be asking for this or that (example: one show, with five participants, that lasts two months), so nobody factors in all of the actual work that goes into building something. They just set what sounds decent, what they are going to use as a sliding scale of how much you should be paid.

It also doesn’t factor in another interesting thing, which is that there are artist fees and there are production budgets. Sometimes, before exhibitions, you get just one single pile of money and that is supposed to function as your artist fee and your production budget. And you can’t really negotiate on that because that is already the budget that exists. So sometimes (and I do this a lot of time, because I want to make a work that is going to look or function a certain way), I spend my own artist fee in order to make the work. So my money comes from different places in order to finance the production or it comes out of my artist fee, “supposed artist fee”, and there is no regulation for this. No one makes sure that artists set aside 9 euros per hour for themselves out of this fee. 9 Euros being the bare minimum within the Netherlands. They just say: “These are the fees, production, artist fee or just fee in general, go make work. What do you want to make?” And then you could go: “I don’t know, I can’t make anything out of it because it doesn’t actually fit within what you told me it is going to cost.” But you never do that because as an artist you actually want to make nice work, so you end up sacrificing your own well-being in order to do that.

Would you say that institutions attempt to help artists to lift themselves out of precariousness? Or do they maintain the precarious position of artists in that they set these kinds of standards?

There are interesting examples of how you can help artists out of precarity. There was one regulation from the Mondriaan Fund, which is supposed to give funds to visual artists. If you, as an institution, made a show and you paid half of the fee for the artist, they would supplement that with another half, so they would double what you’re being offered. In doing that, they recognize the fact that you as an institution might not be able to afford to pay the artist fee that is appropriate, but they’re willing to help as long as you’re even saying that you would like to pay the proper fee. I even think they, at a certain point, had money spilling over because institutions were not applying, which I find fascinating. But this regulation wasn’t embedded within the institution. You could apply it as an institution if you cared about your artists, or if you were aware this regulation exists. And I have seen that happen, I had one show in which the institution applied, and they got the funding, so I got properly paid.

I do know that in protest to the impossibility of paying artists, there’s for example, the Veem House for Performance, which is a performing arts based institution. When they experienced budget cuts and knew they couldn’t pay their people, they tried to scale down their programming to only 100 days in the year. They decided to be closed for the other 265 days. This is what they could afford, and they wanted to keep to their standards. But it was also a way of making a point. This solution was only temporary. So people are trying, sometimes it’s a statement, but most of the time it kind of goes just under the radar. It’s just that people don’t really talk about it.

There is a minimum wage that applies in these cases, specifically to what they call the ‘opdrachten’ (assignments). Legally, this should not be an issue, this can be implemented to work in art. People don’t often even know that this minimum wage applies in these cases.

Yes, and here I will go back to the fact that the problem is we as artists don’t necessarily get an education in these things. There is, of course, passion and dedication to the craft but there is no awareness of your rights. There is an article that talks about the need for academies to better prepare the future graduates within the labor market, within the arts. But what also happens is that people say, as one person did when I shared this article on Facebook: “We shouldn’t use the word “labor market” because it’s kind of like a disgrace. Because it’s work and you as an artist aren’t doing just manual labor.” When I said that that’s not what labor means, it just means you are getting paid for your work, be that physical or intellectual or whatever it is, he said he is a romantic at heart and thinks that we bring much more to the table.

You have to fight against this idea of the autonomous romantic artists, which is very dated. And that autonomous romantic artist, he or she (mostly he) always relied on other sources of funding, like asking money from your brother (here you can talk about Van Gogh). This is the sort of idea that you always rely on someone else, which is part of the story, but it’s not the most important part. It’s you, the creative person, that needs to be producing no matter what, and somebody will support you somehow or you’ll starve. But you don’t really talk about your rights, claiming or understanding them, because it’s something that doesn’t interest you. It’s separate from your preoccupations of an artist, which I find to be a big problem.

Would you say that the precarious situation is worse for marginalized people? Those from lower classes, queer people, people of color, immigrants, women, etc.? 

I would say that indeed they are almost by default in a precarious position. I will link it to my definition from before, which is the idea of planning ahead for your future. In many cases you cannot do that if you’re always worried about paying rent, or you might be kicked out from your studio, or buying groceries by the end of the week. That is precarity. And, of course, if you have less earnings, less access to the labor market in general (not just to working as an artist) then you will be excluded from the profession gradually. Many people quit because they cannot make it. I have many friends that I graduated with that quit because they had to focus on just making a living and they couldn’t reconcile those two aspects of their practice, which is their earnings with their artistic output. That just leads to people exiting the field, which is a waste.

But what is the role of the government? Is the government creating certain standards to mend the labor market?

Well, not really. In the art field, the Fair Practice Code came from the field itself and then the government liked it, so they implemented it as a guideline. In the platform economy, you often have workers that are of a migrant background or people with a precarious situation anyway, who are not going to stick around for two years for a trial, since what’s happening is people break labor agreements and these have to be mended in court. It’s a reactive approach to setting labor laws at this point, not a proactive one. By the time a regulation within the labor field is settled in court, the people doing the work, precarious as they are, may be moved to another country, never mind to another profession. Same with the arts. It’s the perfect place to continue being precarious because you don’t have the backing to fight for your rights, and the government doesn’t do anything because it doesn’t really understand how the art field works. I think, sometimes, not even funding institutions understand how the art field works. They are supposed to be helping artists, but they don’t understand what these artists actually want with their lives because there’s a really big divide between us.

Would you say it is a global issue that the art field is precarious or is it better in certain places? And what is this that makes it better?

I don’t think we can talk about the art field on a global scale (although we have a lot of movement between artists and different countries) because you still have countries that lead in terms of how much they support their artists. And although I complain a lot about it, the Netherlands still supports artists more than most countries out there.

In the Netherlands there was and there still is an understanding that the economy of the art is quite special. You’re not expected to, and that it’s quite an exception, manage to make a living just as an artist. Therefore, there were all these provisions made throughout time which have been reduced in the last ten years. But they existed since the 1930s, 40s, 50s, in the Netherlands, to support the artists. People understood they need to give financial backing to a certain group of people. There were welfare provisions for many more categories in the Netherlands. This still exists in Nordic countries for example – you still might be rewarded better as an artist there. Where I come from, Romania, that’s not the case. There’s a small scene of artists, which exists in four cities mostly, and one funding institution per city or so, that shapes the cultural program in that city.

So, there is no global art scene in that sense, but there are certain conditions that unite us. This precarity is a recurring topic even in the Netherlands.

Is the Netherlands addressing the issue of migrant workers in art or is it just profiting off of it? Is the Netherlands seen in the world as some kind of place where they can come and study and then stay (or leave)?

For sure, it adds to the prestige, openness, tolerance, and image of the country, the fact that they can accommodate so many nationalities. But I would argue differently: it’s fine if you come here to study, the question is whether you want to stay afterwards (if you can afford it). I personally encountered the problem that in order to apply for structural funding I needed to wait one year after I graduated from my bachelor program – that’s already one year in which I still have to be active within the field. I still have to make connections. I still have to make work. But I don’t yet get money in a structural way as an artist, I have to get my own gigs somehow, or I might not even get paid for the work that I do. And this year already filters you as an international student. It especially filters you as a person that doesn’t come from the EU. At least I had the advantage that I didn’t need to apply for a visa as well, where the requirements would even be greater because you need to have a certain income.

I think the country actively works against you if you want to stay. It even does the same thing if you just come for a longer residency, where there’s certain funding that exists for you to come for one year. It’s really hard to get this sort of arrangement depending on the country you come from. While it looks good on paper that there are so many nationalities that pass through the Netherlands, in the long term it’s not a welcoming country in that sense. You’re fighting a lot of friction if you decide to stay, which is a shame. You have to apply for all so many things, there is certain paperwork that nobody tells you about. Even the issue of language, which is not really stressed as a requirement when you decide to stay in the Netherlands. As an artist, I find these things are filters, which make you decide: “I will just go back to my own country.” I think they want that. Otherwise these sorts of borders would be less moderate there. Metaphorical borders, but they would be less aggressive towards artists.

Do you experience issues with having to deal with taxes and social insurance contributions as an artist?

Yes, I do not have an accountant, I’m responsible for my administration, alongside making the physical work. I’m responsible for project managing everything that I do within a certain production. I’m responsible for things like social media promotion, writing my own texts and bio, even curating myself sometimes. I do a lot of the work. You become not just a project manager, but you’re like an institution in yourself. So then of course, a lot of the administration work is not necessarily taken into account when you make something for an institution. I cannot put all of my spent time in the contracts because budgets are limited.

So are you compensated for all this labor that you’re doing?

No, I clearly am not. I also mentioned that I apply for things, open calls, “opportunities”. I started listing those in my CV when they’re unsuccessful as well because I found that they are part of the work that I do. Sometimes it’s hours upon hours of work that never gets paid. You’re just shooting something into the void and hope that something happens.

There are some changes in this sort of application procedure. For example, institutions where you apply with an initial sketch of an idea and then they give you a budget to further develop your idea into an actual proposal. But that’s kind of the exception. Usually you just have to have a really clear idea of what you want to make by the end, they have to look at what you’re proposing to see whether it is feasible, and then they will give you the money (or not). If it’s about funding, and if you’re applying to an open call, they just have to like you and see potential. But they don’t invest in your preparation time. There’s a lot of unseen labor that happens for an artist.

Do you think there is a way that the institutions can also accommodate for this and remunerate you for all this additional work?

I wonder what would happen if I would make transparent all of the work that goes into preparing something. As an experiment, not necessarily expecting to be paid, but I wonder what the reaction would be.

But that’s part of the problem – somebody already decides how much money you’re supposed to be getting as an artist on a project, rather than you saying this is what I need, give me this in order to make. Maybe further on in your career, you can call these shots, you can say that you need this amount of money. But I’m not so sure. It’s something that needs to be fought for and accepted as labor. For example, building up a social media profile and making posts for the institution. That’s work, I don’t see it any other way. I’m not casually scrolling up and down Instagram and I decide to post these wonderful things about my work. No, sometimes it’s actual labor. It’s building up the institution’s profile, therefore it should be accounted as labor.

What would you say are the possibilities for artists to fight this? The freedom of association and right to strike are fundamental freedoms that should be granted to everyone – is that possible in the structure of work in art? Does it make it difficult for artists to work together?

You’re right, we’re also educated in very individualistic ways, so we’re not taught to come together, never mind fight for our rights, but not even to work together. Everyone is their own individual, or at least they’re made to think of themselves as that. The way in which we should fight for that is becoming more transparent about our individual condition, if this is our starting point. And from that if more people are transparent, that begins to move into the right direction because we’re acknowledging our condition, which is that of (self-)exploitation. And this can move in the direction of saying: “OK, this is unfair, but what would be fair?” This is a form of class consciousness – it’s an awareness of the fact that it’s not just your situation to begin with, there are others like you. And this unites us as artists across the board. There are organizations that try to promote this sort of attitude of solidarity but it’s a process. Since there isn’t that much respect for solidarity within the working field anyway, anywhere, it’s not the trendiest thing to have. It’s really hard to find it within the arts.

What do you think about preparation for the future? You also talk a lot about motherhood. If you’re working in standard employment, motherhood is accounted for as a social risk and that’s why you get some social benefits in case you are in this situation – how can you deal with that as an artist? Can you get any social benefits?

There are still social benefits that are offered to you for your child anyway. But since you are not really employed by any one institution, then you probably are reliant on your own reserves of money (or your partner’s reserves of money if you have one). It’s a problematic position to be in. I do have friends that have gotten pregnant during the last year because corona offered the opportunity to get more state support than usual. Which was interesting for me to see – you get this sort of moment in time, when people are starting to consider that: “Oh yeah, I can totally have a kid. The government is going to give me a corona allowance, alongside the child’s allowance.”

But I don’t know of any provisions within the arts which accommodate the fact that you are a new mother and you’re supposed to be in a vulnerable, precarious position for a while, until your child can be accepted into day care. There are no residencies that take into account the fact that you are a mother, and you need childcare. There is no such thing. It’s better to not have kids within the arts, but of course people do reproduce still, and they just rely on their immediate support structure. Which I would also be doing. It’s something to be discussed at length. But we have so many things to fight for already within the arts, so I don’t think it’s going to be a priority unfortunately.

What policy decisions can the government make to elevate artists out of poverty and precarity?

I don’t know what kind of regulatory body you would need to implement this idea that indeed, as an artist, you’re entitled to a minimum wage. There is probably not enough working force to check in on every contract (and lack of contract) that exists within the arts, but this would need to exist. And there should be a possibility for you as an artist to go and report these sorts of irregularities somewhere. We have a Fair practice code, which is not the same thing as a collective labor agreement, but it is some sort of guideline. The government agreed that there should be such a code, which institutions should implement. But they also cut the budgets for this. They should also supplement the budget for the arts because that was the initial problem we were facing within our field. You cannot implement fair pay if it is also supposed to come from funding bodies, which are supposed to be trickling down towards artists. This doesn’t really happen, so there’s not enough money to ensure that you can implement the Fair practice code. It’s a budgeting issue. You can have ideals but then in practice you cannot implement them because you don’t have the money.

In an interview for KAJET DIGITAL you said that: “Most of my works have actually been in spite of systems of labor, display and distribution. Most of my works are rejected on principle, but I try not to jump to conclusions. I might end up dabbing in glamor in the future. Stay tuned! Do you dream of glamor in the future of art?

I don’t necessarily dream of glamor, otherwise I would have focused my energies better on it. I dream of more fairness within the field of arts. I dream of more solidarity. Of course it was kind of a joke to say that I’m going to be dabbing in glamor because that’s not really me. I dream of more sustainable practices, not just in terms of being able to make work, but more awareness of the context in which you make the work and the money. Where does the money come from? How are you embedded into this artistic ecosystem?

I also don’t necessarily dream of making work. It just happened. I’m a bit surprised to be honest. When I graduated, I didn’t really know where my practice would lead me, and I didn’t even know I would have a practice five years in. Because I’m precarious, I let myself be a bit guided by what comes to me. I don’t really plan ahead because I can’t. But I’m impressed that I’m still hanging in here for five years. I’ve also in time refined my understanding of what I’m doing, not just the fact that I’m hanging in here. It’s become clearer what I do as an artist, and I also dream of studying more. That’s part of the plan. I would like to learn more and understand what I do a bit more. It would also be like a much-needed moment of reflection if I get to study again.

Alina Lupu was interviewed by Sasi Moran.

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