Marina Abramovic Institute responds to critics of unpaid positions

There's work to be had at Marina Abramovic's nonprofit. Just don't expect to get paid

Art blogger Jillian Steinhauer of Hyperallergic picked up on an intriguing series of job postings Thursday on the website for the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). The not-for-profit Marina Abramovic Institute foundation (MAI), established by Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic, was seeking unpaid "volunteers" for a series of part-time positions.

The various postings — there were four of them in total — were quite specific in their requirements, which cumulatively demanded a college-level knowledge of art history, "a familiarity with non-profit administration" and a working knowledge of Internet programs such as Javascript, HTML5 and Squarespace. (You can read Hyperallergic's article here and see the original NYFA jobs post here.)

The story touches on a very big nerve about inequity in the art world, where a small group of well-to-do artists frequently benefits from the unpaid or underpaid labor of others — as this story in Gallerist NY noted last week. (Income inequality in the art world is no different from income inequality in the country at large. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that it's worse.)

In a statement issued by MAI to the Los Angeles Times on the matter, communications director Siena Oristaglio responded to the uproar over the story:

"Marina Abramovic Institute, like all independent non-profit organizations, relies on the good will and contributions of its supporters. We embrace the tradition of offering education, community, and participation to those who feel they will personally or professionally benefit from volunteering. I began as a volunteer for MAI and found that my connection to this community of artists, scientists, and organizations provided profound transformational opportunities in my career and in my life. In my case, working as a volunteer developed into a full-time position at MAI, and we hope to provide similar opportunities for other volunteers as we expand our organizational capacities through fund-raising endeavors. Other MAI volunteers have gone on to receive job opportunities at organizations working within in the arts and sciences via our wide professional network...

"We are committed to providing our volunteers with mentorship and experience, but most importantly with an opportunity to contribute to the creation of the first arts organization in history dedicated to long durational work at the intersection of art, sciences, and humanities. We believe in the transformational power of immaterial art and multidisciplinary collaboration and we seek volunteers who feel the same way to join us to create a future for our Institute." 

(To read the full statement issued by MAI, scroll down to the bottom of this post.) 

To be fair, MAI isn't the only organization seeking unpaid arts workers on the NYFA website. For-profit businesses, including commercial galleries and art fair companies, can often be found trolling for unpaid workers online (though generally at the intern level). 

It is also worth noting that Abramovic has donated her own time and assets to support MAI, a registered 501(c)3. In addition, 990 tax forms filed by MAI in 2011 and 2012 show that no salaries were claimed by any of the institute's founders as the organization was getting off the ground. (That is likely to change, however, when 990s are filed for 2013, since MAI now has a New York City office, four full-time staff members and one part-timer.)

But MAI's statement in response to Hyperallergic's story sounds a little bit like the refrain that artists and cultural workers of all stripes constantly hear as an excuse for not getting paid: You'll get exposure. You'll develop skills. You'll meet people. It will help set you up for the next job. All very nice things, except that, as far as I'm aware, no one has ever paid rent, or their art school debt or their food bill with "exposure."

(On a side note, the issue of remuneration was widely discussed when Abramovic organized performances for a gala staged by the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles back in 2011.)

Certainly, it is important not to confuse Abramovic the artist with the not-for-profit foundation that bears her name. And it is worth noting that there will be individuals who share a passion for Abramovic's work and simply want to volunteer (something addressed in Oristaglio's full statement below).

But the come-work-for-free ad — I mean, "volunteer" — strikes a dissonant note when the foundation's namesake has her multimillion-dollar real estate transactions regularly covered on Curbed. And when the organization seeking the unpaid work is fund-raising for a $20-million headquarters in New York's Hudson Valley designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas. Not to mention that the skills the institute is demanding for these positions is quite specialized.

These unpaid positions are frequently pitched as being full of benefits for those who aren't getting paid. But who really benefits? My guess is that it will be the woman whose name will reside on the building.

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Full statement issued by the Marina Abramovic Institute:

Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI), like all independent non-profit organizations, relies on the good will and contributions of its supporters. We embrace the tradition of offering education, community, and participation to those who feel they will personally or professionally benefit from volunteering. I began as a volunteer for MAI and found that my connection to this community of artists, scientists, and organizations provided profound transformational opportunities in my career and in my life. In my case, working as a volunteer developed into a full-time position at MAI, and we hope to provide similar opportunities for other volunteers as we expand our organizational capacities through fundraising endeavors. Other MAI volunteers have gone on to receive job opportunities at organizations working within in the arts and sciences via our wide professional network.

MAI is dedicated to the preservation and advancement of long durational and immaterial art. We have four full-time and one part-time staff member and we collaborate with a wide network of artists, writers, scientists, and partner organizations. All of our staff and collaborators are excited to share their professional experience with volunteers. We feel that seeking volunteers is an important way to include interested individuals in our community even when we have no paid positions available.

The Kickstarter we ran last year successfully funded phase one of the Institute’s development, and the community that grew out of this campaign allowed us to launch programs like IMMATERIAL, our digital journal, and a series of workshops, marathon readings, and installations around the world. Since then, MAI has received frequent unsolicited requests to volunteer and collaborate. We are committed to providing our volunteers with mentorship and experience, but most importantly with an opportunity to contribute to the creation of the first arts organization in history dedicated to long durational work at the intersection of art, sciences, and humanities. We believe in the transformational power of immaterial art and multidisciplinary collaboration and we seek volunteers who feel the same way to join us to create a future for our Institute.

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