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Invisible Labor Inquiry (San Francisco, USA)

July 18, 2014

Dear YBCA [Yerba Buena Center for the Arts],


Please accept my deep congratulations for your inclusion of Bay Area Art Workers Alliance in Bay Area Now. I’m writing in support of B.A.A.W.A., whose project “Invisible Labor” has the potential to act as the most provocative contemporary use of a Bay Area museum to celebrate and reveal the work that maintains it. As you know, B.A.A.W.A. draws support from a group of 200 people, and fifty of those art workers are currently and anonymously installing works in the museum. The significance of the title is not to be underestimated– not only are preparators necessarily unseen by common museum viewers and administration, they are invisible to one and (an)other. This is due to the type of labor required of a prepator’s work—many B.A.A.W.A. workers have little institutional security, are on-call, temporary, independent contractors, freelancers and project-based workers, working odd hours, at night, and competing for jobs. To clarify, all of these people are using their unpaid hours to install work as a way to demonstrate solidarity with their trade and their community for the first time.

In the process of administering this project, it is possible that the meaning of “Invisible Labor” slipped from YBCA’s attention—and with this letter I hoped to highlight what I find to be at the core of the work. This exhibit is a decoy—it looks like a ‘art installation’, but the real work being accomplished by the installation is the revealing of an unseen network of people (to each other and to the public) who make the museum function. The work in the show is most powerful when it is seen as a byproduct of the alliance of people who care for the museums and institutions of the Bay Area. The real exhibit is of a community of alienated precarious workers who see themselves and each other as a part of a mutual aid network that offers infinite care and visibility. This community is the beautiful product of the “Invisible Labor”, and it must be revealed as such, for free, at the opening of Bay Area Now this Friday.

It has been stated by YBCA in its communication with B.A.A.W.A. that only 25 out of 200 art workers who are a part of this work will be invited to attend the opening of Bay Area Now for free this Friday. This decision has been described to us a fiscal necessity for YBCA, and as such, 175 of our members will be asked to pay $15 to attend the opening night of their own project. This is a contradictory decision that will cost the museum significant support by B.A.A.W.A. members, many of whom will not be able or willing to pay to see their labor. At the rate of $15 per B.A.A.W.A. member, YBCA stands to earn $2625 from the sale of tickets to the 175 members not comped for Friday’s event. That is $125 more than YBCA spent on the budget for this exhibit. While you give yourself the potential to break even on costs, you also risk the total failure of your commission to B.A.A.W.A. : the project of revealing the people behind the “Invisible Labor” will remain invisible—to you, to the visitors, and most importantly to each other. In this way, you stand to completely miss the point of the work that you commissioned, and to trap the exhibition in a cycle of fiscally responsible irony.

I am also aware of your labor, and your beautiful attempt to make impossible moments happen within the confines of a huge institution.  With this awareness, I would like to offer you a B.A.A.W.A. membership card, which will allow you free admittance to any and all museums and institutions that are a part of the infinite network of care and visibility.


Thanks for your time and attention,

Cassie Thornton

The Feminist Economics Department (the FED)



Dear Cassie,


Thank you so much for contacting us with your well articulated and thought provoking email. We certainly agree that the economic structure of labor and the work force in the United States is changing with more people working as independent contractors on a project basis. We also agree that the B.A.A.W.A. “Invisible Labor” exhibition, one of 15 exhibitions presented in Bay Area Now 7, does a wonderful job at highlighting important aspects of these issues.

We are thrilled to be presenting the work of artists selected by curators from 15 Bay Area visual arts partners. We are committed to valuing each partnership equally.

I will take the opportunity here to respond to the segment of your email specifically referencing YBCA’s policy on complimentary tickets for our opening night party. The arrangement for all of our partners is articulated in the signed contract:

“Complimentary tickets:

ii. YBCA will provide ORGANIZATION 25 complimentary tickets for the opening night party on July 18, 2014. These tickets are to be used in any way that ORGANIZATION sees fit, including invitations for the artists and their guests.”

In addition an email was sent to the partner organizations articulating how the groups can obtain their complimentary tickets.

YBCA deeply believes that partnerships are central to its success. We worked across department to develop an equitable approach for all of our partners for the opening night reception that we believe is both generous and fair to every participating organization regardless of their range in size and membership. Our strategy represents our enormous respect for the artists, curators, and the entire Bay Area arts community. In addition to providing 25 complimentary tickets for the opening night party, each organization is also provided 50 complimentary tickets for their own public program, and an 25 additional complimentary tickets to be used at their discretion throughout the exhibition. That is a total of 1500 complimentary tickets!

We also always welcome dialogue and exchange about YBCA, the economy, labor and the arts, and any other important topic of interest to the Bay Area community.  We welcome your thoughts about how we can deepen our partnership in order to have these conversations.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with us and for the important work you and B.A.A.W.A. are doing. We look forward to seeing you at the opening night reception and hope you will join us for some of our many public programs. YBCA is free to the public every firstTuesday of the month and from 4-8 pm on every third Thursday of the month.



Betti-Sue Hertz

Director of Visual Arts



Dear Betti-Sue,

Thank you for the thoughtful and detailed reply. It means a great deal to me that you care enough to write.

My specific concern and request is that YBCA offer complimentary passes to the preparators in the exhibition, if not all preparators. Perhaps a portion of the complimentary passes not used by other organizations could be reallocated to them and left at the door? My request is based on the principle of letting something that is RIGHT happen over pre-determined RULES: because we are working within an art context. My participation in any art comes out of a belief that art can transcend common limitations in order to do something that is really really good. This is why I am a paying member of YBCA, whose core values include risk, innovation, inclusion, and adaptation in pursuit of radical community.

I understand that you mean to create a sense of equity between the groups in the show. However, as an art institution, it seems like there is an opportunity for meaning-making to prevail over blanket rule-making. After years of being on the artist’s side of the institution, I believe in the necessary softness of contracts. I also think that the other groups, if given the chance, would choose to support BAAWA’s initiative by getting preparators in for free (especially since it was the preparators at YBCA who allowed this show to take place). 

I was (and am now more so, thanks to your email) aware of the contract that offers 25 tickets to the opening exhibition. However, it is clear to me that the nature of the exhibit requires completely free entry at least for the exhibiting preparators, as a way to celebrate the network of solidarity that is being launched with Bay Area Now.

Please do consider the opportunity to let the work you have commissioned do the work it has the potential to do. I believe in the power of art to overcome a sense of what is impossible, and right now we are so close to letting something that is RIGHT happen in spite of the RULES. We live in a world of regulation, this is the perfect moment to let art in to make what is truly ‘equitable’ (aka just), possible. I will be in attendance on Friday if I don’t give my free tickets (from my membership at YBCA) to the preparators who worked on the show.

Thank you again for your considered response, I know this is an extremely busy time for you.

All the best!


Bay Area Art Workers Alliance is a support network of laborers involved in the installation and fabrication of exhibitions within art institutions. BAAWA fosters a mutually supportive relationship between these art workers and their contractors, by facilitating open dialogue, as well as providing an educational resource regarding best practices for the installation, collection, transportation, storage and archiving of artworks.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was founded in 1993 out of an expressed need for an accessible, high-profile San Francisco venue devoted to contemporary visual art, performance, and film/video representing diverse cultural and artistic perspectives. Distinguished by its support for contemporary artists from around the world, YBCA is also recognized for the important role the organization plays in the San Francisco Bay Area arts ecology and in the community at large.

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