We are so grateful that this summer and fall we have been able to return to many beloved venues, festivals and cultural experiences. It feels like a blessing to be able to return to the connection and meaning that these arts activities bring to our communities and lives. Even as we celebrate this return, we are all carrying with us the impact of the last two years and a recognition that so many things need to change. Rather than just return to “normal”, we need to take the things that were revealed, the lessons we learned, the gaps we felt and understood more deeply and turn them into action and lasting change in big and small ways. More ethical and values-aligned contracts with artists is a tangible and practical place that arts organizations can start.
Artists were among the first to lose their jobs and contracts as the bottom fell out at the beginning of the pandemic– nearly 95% of artists reported income loss. And even now, more than two years into the pandemic, the National Endowment for the Arts reports that the overall unemployment rate for artists is still twice what it was pre-pandemic. The pandemic revealed the precarity of many artists’ livelihoods and employment arrangements. Just like many other self-employed, gig-workers and small business owners, artists are often putting together a mosaic of contracts to make ends meet. When these contracts are extractive, unethical or just thoughtless it makes it that much harder for artists to bring their contributions to our communities.
Many organizations are using contracts that have been passed down from previous staff or board members, or have downloaded templates from legal websites and too often we have not asked whether these contracts are aligned with our organizational values.
We know that it is an incredibly difficult time for arts organizations and venues. The pressure of trying to sustain an organization through the uncertainty and grief of the last two years is exhausting and those feelings often encourage us to turn towards self-preservation or to protect our scarce resources. Focusing on people, relationships and values is the only way to get through a crisis, though. And, bluntly, if we are not thinking about how to support the people who make the work, what are we even doing?
Even small changes can feel daunting, so where to start? The most important place to start is with your organizational values or guiding principles. Ask questions about how your contracts (and other policies) can be aligned with the values you put on your website. Part of why we name our values is to hold ourselves accountable and to use those values to help us make decisions. Use your values and principles to guide you through these starting points to creating more ethical and values aligned contracts:
Fair compensation: Are you compensating artists for prep time? Have you done the math to understand how your stipend translates to an hourly rate? Have you considered how much time you are asking for and what time that leaves for an artist to do the other work they need to do to make a living? If you have a small budget for your project, consider naming your available stipend and asking artists to propose to you what they can do for that amount of money.
Timely and transparent process: It’s not just what’s in the contract that matters, but also the process you use to write, review and fulfill the terms of the contract. A contract should be agreed to and signed before you expect an artist to begin work on a project and the contract should have a schedule for prompt payment that you adhere to faithfully. If you work inside an organization that has a practice of waiting until the last minute to cut checks or waiting for contractors to request payment before processing invoices, can you advocate internally for faster payments or counteract these processes in the contract? Remember that many artists are putting together a complicated mosaic of contracts to make ends meet and a payment that may seem small to you or your organization could be the money a contractor is counting on to make rent.
Equitable intellectual property practices: Many contract templates assume that the institution wants and needs to own an artist’s intellectual property in perpetuity and for all uses. Can you make your intentions and needs around IP explicit and specific to the situation? For example, instead of a standard “work for hire” contract, try a tailored licensing perspective with language that specifies “non-exclusivity”. For example: “Presenter hereby grants a nonexclusive license to present and deliver the Event.” This kind of language can help make sure that artists can use their work for future projects or to generate income in a different way. Can you share photos and video with the artist so that they have good documentation of their work?
Realistic cancellation policies: Things are uncertain and we all know there are no sure things these days, so building in contingencies and worst case scenarios is important. Can you structure your contract so that you compensate artists as they work on a project vs. only at the completion of a project? Can you be clear with funders or supporters that if a project is canceled you will pay the artists anyway? Use the contract to lay out multiple scenarios if a project needs to be rescheduled or canceled so an artist can better plan and make sure to include a “kill clause” that details a payment you will make to the artist if the event or project needs to be canceled.
Work with an attorney who understands your values: A lawyer works for the person/entity who hires them, which means that their priority is usually to give you advice that protects you and maximizes your advantage in a contract. Can you talk with your attorney about your values and what you are trying to accomplish? What if you ask a lawyer to help you accomplish your values vs. asking them to protect you at all costs? Creative, community-centered businesses should have creative, community-centered contracts.
As venues and organizations continue to re-open and hire artists again, it is vital that we learn the lessons of the past two years and make changes to the structures and systems that support artists. Most people agree that things need to change, but it often seems impossible to see how. One place where arts organizations, venues and producers can start is with more ethical and equitable contracts for artists. We know we urgently need the contributions that artists can make to a more human, equitable and just future. While we continue to push for the large system changes our communities need and deserve, we can also start in our own organizations to make life as an artist more sustainable and more equitable.
Need some places to start? Check out these resources!
Cover photo: Mnisota 2055, Postcards from An imPossible Future , a project of 100 Campaign at Northern Spark 2022. Photo credit: Drew Arrieta.