Questions Arise For Cultural Institutions When It Comes to Feasibility of Paying Minimum Wage

Should certain organizations be exempt from paying artists a minimum wage? This question becomes difficult to tackle when lines between 'work' and 'play' become blurred. At the same time, some of these institutions are able to get away with paying workers nothing.

Pushes to raise the minimum wage across the United States have been met with fairly predictable responses. The folks you'd expect to get excited are excited. The people you'd expect to get mad are mad. But as Chris Jones writes in the Chicago Tribune, any talk of the minimum wage results in head-scratching in the arts community: 

"An argument can be made, of course, that some nonprofit sectors of the arts business operate in a mushy middle-ground between employment and leisure activity and/or educational opportunity. With their evening and weekend rehearsal schedules, these sectors make it possible for a serious artist to have a day job and an artistic career — a Faustian bargain, maybe, but an implicit bargain nonetheless. Nobody is forcing an actor to work for little or no money in an oversubscribed profession nor forcing a dancer to stay late to get a piece of choreography just right nor obliging a comic to tell jokes for beers. If it was all about the money, artists would make different choices."

Jones notes that in many cases, sets and spectacles are constructed by fleets of unpaid interns. Non-union performers, who are not considered wage-employees, often get paid paltry amounts for multi-week productions. Most of the time these artists understand that they're working more for exposure rather than pay. It's not an optimal situation but understandable when money is tight all around. As Jones writes, if artists were in it just for the money we'd have a lot fewer artists out there.

The big problem is when arts institutions use unpaid or underpaid workers when it's feasible for them to bring on a fair-pay worker. Some of the cultural institutions that cry poor are paying their executives well into the six figures. Just as you don't want a minimum wage requirement to cripple fledgling organizations, you really don't want a wage exemption to lead to exploitation. 

Read Jones full article below and let us know what you think.

Read more at the Chicago Tribune

Photo credit: GlebStock / Shutterstock

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