Organizing Dark Matter: W.A.G.E. as Alternative Worker Organization

Greig de Peuter (forthcoming) “Organizing Dark Matter: W.A.G.E. as Alternative Worker Organization.” In J. Compton, N. Dyer-Witheford, A. Grzyb, and A. Hearn, eds. Organizing Equality: Global Struggles in an Age of Right-Wing Ascendancy. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Since its founding in 2008, W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) has worked to reform the economic habits of nonprofit art institutions in the United States. In 2014, W.A.G.E. launched its signature policy initiative, W.A.G.E. Certification, a voluntary program recognizing nonprofit galleries and museums that pay artist fees as set by W.A.G.E. Inside a decade, W.A.G.E. went from a small grassroots collective to an internationally recognized, yet lean, organization, which not only advocates for labour standards in the nonprofit art sector, but also develops practical tools to begin the work of doing better by equality. 

W.A.G.E.’s lineage could be mapped from multiple branches internal to contemporary art—the tradition of institutional critique; the embrace of the collective as a way of working; the practice of artists creating and managing their own institutions such as artist-run centres; or the recent spike of interest in labour issues, artistic labour especially, among artists, theorists, and curators. But W.A.G.E. is only partly locatable within practices more or less unique to the art world. W.A.G.E.’s aspirations—to redistribute wealth and raise compensation to benefit the people who produce value in the art economy—are squarely within the traditions of unionism. Formally, W.A.G.E. is not a union. Nor does its dispersed artist constituency easily lend itself to organizing or have work relationships that neatly fit traditional models of collective representation. Setting out to improve artists’ livelihoods despite these challenging conditions, W.A.G.E. is an example of what Immanuel Ness terms “new forms of worker organization,” permutations of which range from worker centres to rank-and-file-led unions. 

This chapter presents a case study of W.A.G.E., which has received only passing attention in cultural labour studies. Informed by W.A.G.E.-authored texts, media coverage of W.A.G.E., and interviews with the group’s core organizer and programmer, the chapter surveys W.A.G.E.’s strategies for organizing “dark matter,” a concept Gregory Sholette has repurposed from physics as a metaphor for the majority of artists and activities that populate the art world and uphold and subsidize its most visible and commercially successful figures. This chapter explores W.A.G.E. in five registers: its practice of parrhesia, algorithm of fairness, strategy of certification, post-horizontalist form of organization, and platformization of labour politics. While W.A.G.E. has been tackling dilemmas specific to the nonprofit arts, its strategies hold wider relevance to confronting the challenge of organizing workers who are outside of an employment relationship, who lack access to unions, and for whom the opportunity to be self-expressive or the promise of exposure may be regarded as compensation enough.

Access a pre-publication version of the chapter here.

Image credit: W.A.G.E.