The Performance Club


This article was written on 23 Nov 2011, and is filed under Claudia's Blog.

Open Letter to Artists

Sara Wookey performing "Trio A" at VIVA! Performance Festival in Montreal. Photo credit: Guy L'Heureux

I participated in an audition on November 7th for performance artist Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. I auditioned because I wanted to participate in the project of an artist whose work I have followed with interest for many years and because it was affiliated with MOCA, an institution that I have a connection with as a Los Angeles-based artist. Out of approximately eight hundred applicants, I was one of two hundred selected to audition. Ultimately, I was offered the role of one of six nude females to re-enact Abramović’s signature work, Nude with Skeleton (2002), at the center of tables with seats priced at up to $100,000 each. For reasons I detail here—reasons which I strongly believe need to be made public—I turned it down.

I am writing to address three main points: One, to add my voice to the discourse around this event as an artist who was critical of the experience and decided to walk away, a voice which I feel has been absent thus far in the LA Times and New York Times coverage; Two, to clarify my identity as the informant about the conditions being asked of artists and make clear why I chose, up till now, to be anonymous in regards to my email to Yvonne Rainer; And three, to prompt a shift of thinking of cultural workers to consider, when either accepting or rejecting work of any kind, the short- and long-term impact of our personal choices on the entire field. Each point is to support my overriding interest in organizing and forming a union that secures labor standards and fair wages for fine and performing artists in Los Angeles and beyond.

I refused to participate as a performer because what I anticipated would be a few hours of creative labor, a meal, and the chance to network with like-minded colleagues turned out to be an unfairly remunerated job. I was expected to lie naked and speechless on a slowly rotating table, starting from before guests arrived and lasting until after they left (a total of nearly four hours. I was expected to ignore (by staying in what Abramović refers to as “performance mode”) any potential physical or verbal harassment while performing. I was expected to commit to fifteen hours of rehearsal time, and sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating that if I spoke to anyone about what happened in the audition I was liable for being sued by Bounce Events, Marketing, Inc., the event’s producer, for a sum of $1 million dollars plus attorney fees.

I was to be paid $150. During the audition, there was no mention of safeguards, signs, or signals for performers in distress, and when I asked about what protection would be provided I was told it could not be guaranteed. What I experienced as an auditionee for this work was extremely problematic, exploitative, and potentially abusive.

I am a professional dancer and choreographer with 16 years of experience working in the United States, Canada and Europe, and I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in Dance from the University of California, Los Angeles. As a professional artist working towards earning a middle class living in Los Angeles, I am outraged that there are no official or even unofficial standard practice measures for working conditions, compensation, and benefits for artists and performers, or for relations between creator, performer, presenting venue and production company in regard to such highly respected and professionalized individuals and institutions such as Abramović and MOCA. In Europe I produced over a dozen performance works involving casts up to 15 to 20 artists. When I hired dancers, I was obliged to follow a national union pay scale agreement based on each artist’s number of years of experience. In Canada, where I recently performed a work by another artist, I was paid $350 for one performance that lasted 15 minutes, not including rehearsal time that was supported by another fee for up to 35 hours, in accordance with the standards set by CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front Des Artistes Canadiens) established in 1968.

If my call for labor standards for artists seems out of bounds, think of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, established 1933), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM, founded 1896), or the umbrella organization the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (the 4A’s, founded in 1919), which hold the film, theater and music industries to regulatory and best practice standards for commercial working artists and entertainers. If there is any group of cultural workers that deserves basic standards of labor, it is us performers working in museums, whose medium is our own bodies and deserve humane treatment and respect. Artists of all disciplines deserve fair and equal treatment and can organize if we care enough to put the effort into it. I would rather be the face of the outspoken artist then the silenced, slowly rotating head (or, worse, “centerpiece”) at the table. I want a voice, loud and clear.

Abramović’s call for artists was, as the LA Times quoted, for “strong, silent types.” I am certainly strong but I am not comfortable with silence in this situation. I refuse to be a silent artist regarding issues that affect my livelihood and the culture of my practice. There are issues too important to be silenced and I just happen to be the one to speak out, to break that silence. I spoke out in response to ethics, not artistic material or content, and I know that I am not the only one who feels the way I do.

I rejected the offer to work with Abramović and MOCA—to participate in perpetuating unethical, exploitative and discriminatory labor practices—with my community in mind. It has moved me to work towards the establishment of ethical standards, labor rights and equal pay for artists, especially dancers, who tend to be some of the lowest paid artists.

The time has come for artists in Los Angeles and elsewhere to unite, organize, and work toward changing the degenerate discrepancies between the wealthy and powerful funders of art and the artists, mainly poor, who are at its service and are expected to provide so-called avant-garde, prescient content or “entertainment,” as is increasingly the case—what is nonetheless merchandise in the service of money. We must do this not because of what happened at MOCA but in response to a greater need (painfully demonstrated by the events at MOCA) for equity and justice for cultural workers.

I am not judging my colleagues who accepted their roles in this work and I, too, am vulnerable to the cult of charisma surrounding celebrity artists. I am judging, rather, the current social, cultural, and economic conditions that have rendered the exploitation of cultural workers commonplace, natural, and even horrifically banal, whether it’s perpetrated by entities such as MOCA and Abramović or self-imposed by the artists themselves.

I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us.

To conclude, I am grateful to Rainer for utilizing her position (without a request from me) of cultural authority and respect to make these issues public for the sake of launching a debate that has been overlooked for too long. Jeffrey Deitch, Director of MOCA, was quoted in the LA Times as saying, in response to receiving my anonymous email and Rainer’s letter, “Art is about dialogue.” While I agree, Deitch’s idea of dialogue here is only a palliative. It obscures a situation of injustice in which both artist and institution have proven irresponsible in their unwillingness to recognize that art is not immune to ethical standards. Let’s have a new discourse that begins on this thought.

Sara Wookey




  1. Mary Anna Pomonis
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you so much for coming out and sharing your identity. Thank you for standing up for your beliefs and for the rights of artists. When artists retain their voices they retain power. I had a conversation yesterday with Debra Burchette Lere the director of the Sam Francis Foundation. The Foundation is legally pursuing auction houses nationally who violate state laws and continue to profit re-selling artwork and refuse to pay five percent to the artist. Artists have few rights if any in this country and it doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t uncool to speak out, its time. Although I believe Marina Abramovic is still one of the most talented living artistsand I love her work; I think asking people to do what she does is impossible and abusive. It is abusive however, only if no one speaks out. Perhaps the event represents a tipping point, where the institution itself has to re-calibrate where it sits in regards to the artistic community that supports its existence. No doubt the controversy on many levels helped the museum. Now perhaps the museum and society as a whole will turn around and help the many young artists who are so willing to suffer, just to get inside that institution and survive.

  2. Maria Mykolenko
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you so much for a thought provoking statement that must have taken a lot of courage to write and then post.
    Maria Mykolenko (sound artist/composer-Bard MFA

  3. rebecca niederlander
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you so much, Sara! You state so clearly what needed to be said. You have done our whole cultural ecology a tremendous service by writing this.

  4. Erin Jourdan
    November 23, 2011

    As a writer I appreciate the clarity and passion with which you lay out your argument. There is a lot of inequity and “scarcity mentality” in the arts that I believe decreases dialogue by instilling fear of reprisals. I do not believe in “NDA” art. I believe in free speech and the ability for artists who participate in a piece, paid or unpaid, to have the freedom to talk about it. Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront.

  5. Kayan L.
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you for speaking out. This is the exact reason why I am no longer a participant of the dance world. While I am willing to work hard for my art, I am not willing to suffer for my art. The art world sometimes can be quite cruel and not compassionate to the artists… Many times I am so shocked by the lack of consideration for others and we are expected to accepted if we love our art. I was told that it is not personal, just get over it. You know what, it is personal, dance is part of me, so if I am insulted, my art is attacked too, and if you insult my art, you are insulting me personally. I am glad in many ways even though I miss dancing that I no longer have to put up with the lack of compassion for artists.
    Thank you again for speaking up for all the artists who are made to believe that their rights and dignity must suffer in order to be recognized as artists.

  6. martha rosler
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you for your courage and for your ability to step back from something you were enmeshed in and to see it for what it was. Unfortunately, the performers were being asked to act as animatronic props in a Halloween spectacle. There are many analogies that one might draw to how people are induced to “serve” the rich at tables and elsewhere, but this was not an appropriate way to involve others in acting out that idea.

    • Milena Placentile
      November 26, 2011

      Sara, you rock! Thank you for so bravely speaking out against institutional power. Whether the prepetrators be organizations or individuals or systems, they need to be called out. They only have license to treat others as mere objects if we let them do as they please, but you didn’t, and by sharing this account, perhaps more people will be inspired to do the same.

      • Milena Placentile
        November 26, 2011

        Whoops, sorry! That wasn’t supposed to be a “reply to” <=-)

  7. pat
    November 23, 2011

    Glad to see someone had the sense to turn Abramović’s idea down. But apart from all the painfully ethical reasons for rejecting participation in such a vulgar and desperate gala stunt, there is something else to remember.

    Marina Abramović has done very little to add to her contribution to art since about 1985, give or take- which is ok. It’s a fact that even the strongest artists are rarely able to keep up to their best work consistently over a lifetime.

    The problem with Abramović is that she tries too hard. What was once an honest autobiographic exploration into a dark, temporal condition of human vulnerability has turned into a narcissistic obsession for attention and spectacle.

    Abramović has pandered her art into a burlesque of what it once was- and worse, her current activity is feeding back on her former work, raising questions as to what her intentions were of her early work.

    • Lee, New York
      November 28, 2011

      Much needed and long overdue critique of Marina’s increaingly sensationalistic and prurient (there, I said it) work. It’s been an empty and boring spectacle for quite some time in exhibition contexts; now somehow it’s fitting that she would enact it this time in the context of a Deitch-initiated “benefit.”

      Get down off your bicycle seat throne, Marina and leave your body (and everyone else’s) alone.

  8. Valeria Primost
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you so much for this action!, I´m totally proud and supportive, right now from a bit of a hard context for dance: Buenos Aires. So, I so much understand the pressure we are brought into in such situations. Your voice is giving the hope and it depends on all of us to make it a huge move!
    Thank you again!

  9. Elizabeth McClain
    November 23, 2011

    I am impressed with your extremely well-thought response and ideas. Dancers have always just felt that we had to deal with the “hand we are dealt” no matter what- especially because we seldom get paid much. I once worked for a choreographer who promised me $150 for two performances (of course the rehearsals were not paid) and when the time came to pay us I got a check for $75 – I know this is a different situation but the point is- thank you for standing up for all of us!

  10. V Tomova
    November 23, 2011

    Thank you for standing up and being so strong! It is inspiring!!!

    Warmest wishes from New York,


  11. Jess MacCormack
    November 23, 2011

    Go Sara! It is about time the art world acknowledges the realities of labour practices within its institutions. White walls does not make for a bubble.

    Cultural capital does equal power.

    ps I think of you every time I see my bruised nail. Wonder twin powers activate!

  12. David
    November 24, 2011

    Well done, Sara…I read your well-written, articulate letter, twice…thanks for having the guts and being strong enough to stand up and say: “I am not going along with this exploitive art crap!” Jeez! $100,000 vs $150! Come on! Enough!

  13. donnamiranda
    November 24, 2011

    I like the part when you say, “I, too, am vulnerable to the cult of charisma surrounding celebrity artists.” because it is so true and why pass up the chance of working with an artist whose life and practice have mark some significant traditions in performance making. I am curious though, if exploitation was a concern that Abramovic was trying to tease out in this work — with performers expected to lie naked speechless on a slowly rotating table, while the guests ate and went about their business — if so did she articulate that? Was she trying to pull off a Santiago Sierra ala “The wall of a gallery pulled out, leaning over by 60 degrees from the ground and held by 5 people”? work by exposing the exploitative and violent relations in producing art? If so then, perhaps that would have been interesting but that there is no articulation as to her motivations leaves a big question mark as regards to how ethical is she approaching this work and people she is working with. To my mind if Abramovic was hinting at that then she should have just went on ahead and proposed that no one get paid, underscoring her cult status as an artist.

  14. Kyli
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you for posting this! There is a lot of sense here. Self-sacrifice is deeply entrenched in the performing arts–particularly dance. “Going without” is romanticized and exploited in a cyclone of defeat and insecurity. There are organizations that build their entire infrastructure on the backs of unpaid interns and unpaid artists. This is absurd.

    However; who, then, gets to make work? Only those with the most money? Only those with the most clout? What type of work is produced under that model? What about bartering goods or services or performing in one another’s work as a way to balance the scales? Let’s not bow to the Almighty Dollar as the determining factor of standard ethical practices. We’re more creative than that.

  15. Kyli
    November 24, 2011

    …But, yes, god yes. I need to emphasize that yes, $150 is fucking ridiculous for Marina Abramovic at MOCA. FUCKING RIDICULOUS.

  16. Dont Rhine
    November 24, 2011

    Dear Sara, thank you so much for taking the time and careful thought to write this post. I am reminded of another situation occurring at the moment where the norm of “procedure” and is being used to justify a disgusting institutional practice. In the UC responses to the police abuses against OWS students at Berkeley and Davis, we have heard over and again the claim that these tactics are normal operating procedure. Of course, no-one in the administration bothered to first speak with students who experienced the violence to find out just how “normal” it is to be forcibly attacked in non-violent protest situations. While Abramovic isn’t pepper spray, I find it chilling to the bone that the MOCA officials and Abramovic herself would respond with justifications rather than actually listen the criticisms. So when Deitsch says “dialogue,” he clearly doesn’t consider listening on the part of the institution to be a part of dialogue. Thanks again, Sara. Workers of the world unite, you only have your chains — or skeletons — to lose.

  17. Sarah Wilbur
    November 24, 2011

    This is so well articulated, Sara.

    I anxiously await the future debates that your protest has catalyzed and appreciate your generosity in exposing the symbolic hierarchies that continue to cripple the field of experimental performance in the U.S.

    Your refusal underscores the ridiculous degree to which symbolic capital remains unquestioned in the western arts market and reminds experimental artists to self-reflect on their own positionality and privilege as evidence of whose experiment “counts” at whose expense in U.S. cultural production.

    Regardless of what Abromovic has done or will continue to do for experimental performance practice, your rejection of the MOCA performance contract defiles the myth of the silent dancer and raises crucial tensions surrounding how notable artists frequently elide the social responsibility of performance practice. Abramovic’s use of human capital in the MOCA context was, in my opinion, rightly called to question.

    Thanks a million, for audaciously accepting the experience you were dealt by pushing back.

    Sarah Wilbur

  18. Simone
    November 24, 2011

    Thanks for your action. I believe you decided not to participate because you are a professional dancer and have thus learned that your performance should not only be paid but also be protected somehow. As fine artist, I have often encouraged artists to refuse the fee for open call submissions, or the -again increasing- incredible conditions to show. Lately, I found in conditions to participate that the work would be kept by the museum so that they could build a collection, for free! I questioned the organiser on that point and received the usual response that the artist can count him/herself honoured to be part of a museum collection. Enough artists sent in their work and thus honoured the organiser’s way of treating the artist, not a single artist dared to comment on my public questioning. On the contrary, I have been personally told that I risked being avoided by the artist community in the future. In the visual arts, we are very far from your request and thinking. Certainly, it is so hard to unite fine artists, because we don’t work in team (as musicians and performers do). I only bring up this point, because apparently your experience may lie in the fact that the organisers do not come from a theatre, music or performance background, but from the fine arts where conditions are far worse. That, of course, is no excuse and I hope that more artist from all disciplines speak up so one day we’ll have more decent work conditions.

  19. Rayya
    November 24, 2011

    thank you on behalf of a global artist, ( LA Based) also very much involve in the performing arts world and that of dance. we must be empowered by such acts of courage

  20. anja reinhardt
    November 24, 2011

    dear sara, very happy that you share this. the way you articulate is very clear! it is true that there are differences in diffrent countries (i work and live in holland) and at least we have the COA (national union pay scale agreement). but the tendencies of exploitation, that you talk about, are happening here in europe as well. i just heard that professional dancers of a well subventioned theater in germany were offerd 50 euro per performance (of more than an hour), not included the travelcosts. nothing will change as long as we accept this to happen. thank you for breaking the silence! anja reinhardt

  21. [...] Open Letter to Artists | The Performance Club Important letter adding to the Abramovic exploitation discussions (via @superanne)… Source: [...]

  22. Daphne
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you for being another firm voice in the industry and standing up for the safety and dignity of the profession. Coming from a country with no union for artists, no official standards, where artists are sometimes expected to work for next to nothing (and sometimes, nothing at all), where companies sometimes renege on payment or ignore safety, and artists are often not regarded with any kind of respect, it’s voices like yours that inspire us to keep pressing on to improve our working conditions.

  23. Jessica Fenlon
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you for being you, choosing to do right when faced with this. Thank you for choosing your way out of being an object for the audience. Thank you for not participating in a bullshit “collaboration” that serves only to consolidate the power and prestige of those providing a stage.

    Thank you for respecting yourself, and as a corollary, all creators.

  24. Robin Pacific
    November 24, 2011

    Sara – very courageous, i applaud and support you. Visual artists in Canada do have a union called CAR – Canadian Artists Representation, which has made many gains for artists, including set exhibition fees, lobbying around copyright issues and so on.
    Check it out, I think it’s an excellent model and I know they would be generous with their time and expertise. And good luck!

  25. maenadery
    November 24, 2011

    I’m an actor in Singapore and I empathize with your situation. We have no actors’ unions or guilds over here, and unless you’re one of the few big names in our little pond, payment for jobs tend to suck, and there’s very little protection for actors. The idea of having to go nude and lie still while people stare at you is daunting enough. But doing that for a measly $150 while they’re charging $100,000 per head for it is plain insulting. Come on! And I thought that sort of nonsense was something us Asian nations with our penny pinching bosses would do. And the lack of protection for the artists scares me too. No one can pay me enough to be molested.

  26. Sarah d.
    November 24, 2011

    There is not much that boils my blood more than artists, but more specifically dancers who get taken so damn advantage of.. As a dancer for over 15 years of creating and touring with some well established companies,I know all too well the struggle of fighting for fair pay and treatment, and the sometimes harsh reality of fighting alone. And despite my experience, being asked and expected time and time again to work for either insulting pay, or ‘ the experience and exposure’.
    Thank you, a million times over for giving this issue a voice. I’ve often considered, especially now since I am winding down my career as dancer and pursuing other options, of getting politically involved and doing what I can to reverse this downward spiral of utter abuse of performing artists.
    So, if you ever need help, there’s a feisty and pissed off dancer just beggin for the chance to take to task the 100 000$ versus 150$ issue.
    You rule. And made my day.

  27. ololo
    November 24, 2011

    The show was about abuse. That does not excuse the abusive nature of the presentation. The idea that ‘the abused becomes the abuser’ is an excuse for perpetuating the cycle.

  28. Samuael Topiary
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful letter and thank you for your activism. I am grateful to read about your experience and to understand the details of Marina’s piece from your personal perspective. Right on.

  29. andrea beugger
    November 24, 2011

    i support you in all…
    thanks for the truth…
    thanks for your courage…

  30. Elizabeth Johnson
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you for your articulate voice. Though I’ve followed this fray loosely, I appreciate the widening and deepening of perspective your letter affords us all. As a performer, choreographer, small company director and teacher, I maintain a low grade, dysthymic depression over the state of the arts and artists–particularly dancers–in our culture/country. Though there are so many threads running through this warped tapestry (issues of empowerment, representation, and the specifics of performativity aside), your insistence on reasonable and humane work conditions and pay merit a scrutiny we so often ignore just so we can continue to “do what we do.” In my particular community, though I blog, scream, and holler, it is more for my own need for empowerment and expression than any true dialogue.

    I once had a brief discussion/argument with a gentleman who generously supports a particular contemporary company in town (he and his wife had donated $75-$100 to a fund raising silent auction I had). He asked why I wasn’t non-profit so I could take advantage of the perhaps yearly $5000-8000 for which my company might be competitive. I answered saying that the extra work, time, trouble and subsequent fund raising blackouts could not be offset by amounts that still don’t cover the bills or compensate my dancers fairly. I asked him if he knew how much the dancers in the company he supports so much earned and if he understood how many other serving or teaching jobs they had to cobble together to survive. When I told him (these dancers perform and rehearse for perhaps $2000 per yearly contract–I don’t want to know what that breaks down to hourly over 9 months), I found his response so troubling. He was fine with the fact that college educated dancers–some with graduate degrees–could manage to teach and “do other things” so they COULD keep dancing. It made me want to climb the walls of his lakefront penthouse.

    How can we change all of this when we are in such a habit of accepting the impossible all the time? When most of us dancing are women culturally habituated to “making do” instead of expecting/demanding equity and buying/promoting the story that we have the alternative privilege of substituting our passion for a living wage? That both are not possible or deserved.

    Thank you for your courage. I will look forward to hearing and seeing more concerning your story.

    In solidarity…

  31. Aaron Mattocks
    November 24, 2011

    Sara – I would be very interested in discussing the possibility of creating a freelance dancer’s labor agreement within the NYC dance scene like the ones you discuss in Europe and Canada. I agree – this is the time for change. I have attended numerous auditions and been in discussions with various choreographers about projects, some of whom have been around for many, many years, and the topic of money NEVER came up. I just don’t understand why I always have to be the one to say – what is the fee? As though it wouldn’t be patent to the discussion that I have to plan the rest of my life around how much I will make from the given commitment. I would love to take action.

  32. Joseph DeLappe
    November 24, 2011

    I am a visual artist. Sadly in the United States it is still routine to show an artist’s work without any compensation. Honestly I am thrilled when I am given opportunities exhibit my work abroad as fees for artists are much more common, particularly in Europe. Thank you, Sara, for writing an important piece and for taking a stand for fair pay and treatment of creative professionals.

  33. Adam Broinowski
    November 24, 2011

    I wonder:
    How much was Marina Abramovic paid?
    How much did the company Bounce take?
    What was the profession of people paying for a $100,000 seat?
    What was the price of the cheapest seat?
    While I understand the need for fundraising, where that money then goes is a serious concern.
    It’s good to see dancers understanding the need for a union. For roughly 30 – 40 years neo-liberalism has pitted artists against each other in the spirit of innovation and competition and opposed to perceived laziness, indulgence and complacency.
    It has been difficult in these years to make the argument that artists actually make good if not better work without those factors hampering the necessary relations of trust and deeper engagement. There is a serious need in these economies for artists to re-consider what the word solidarity means.

    • Vallejo
      November 28, 2011

      Not sure a union is the answer here Adam – Actors Equity is a prime example of all thats gone wrong. I think it is really about understanding that our ability to function within the institutions that pay our wage and living is totally based on the backs of the artists whom we present, and unless they make that point (and we behave honourably) the situation will not improve.

  34. Rosebud Baker
    November 24, 2011

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you…

  35. chris lloyd
    November 24, 2011

    great letter Sara, very courageous.

  36. Jane Goodall
    November 24, 2011

    An important statement. In association with the issues about artists’ rights and protections, maybe some bluff calling is also needed. When celebrity becomes the basis for a hierarchy in which those with the name recruit assistants to work in conditions bordering on the abusive, all of us need to jack up and say no. If we don’t we deserve what we get. The ‘silence’ issue here is especially problematic. Those who like to impose the condition of silence include dictators of all kinds.

    • Johanna MacDonald
      November 26, 2011

      Spot on… I too would have difficulty turning down working with Abramovic, simply because she’s Abramovic. Is the work good? I’m not sure that I’m actually able to say, but the work cannot be separated from the large presence that is Abramovic and everything that goes along with her. Celebrity in performance art should be problematised by us as a community.

  37. Noah Mickens
    November 25, 2011

    You get it though, right? She has this performance in mind, and for that performance she needs people who can sit there and ignore whatever crazy shit the customers at the tables are doing. That’s the performance she has in mind, so the audition was intended to evaluate whether or not candidates were able to perform the role for which they were auditioning. And for that matter, it was a chance for artists like yourself to try it out in a controlled environment and decide whether or not you wanted to go through with it. Lots of performance artists go through lots of different painful and dangerous and unconventional circumstances to make their art, and these were the requirements of the piece. To me, what I’m witnessing with you and Yvonne Rainer and everybody else is a huge overreaction. I am myself a performing artist of varied background and practice, including forms of durational and in some cases truly hazardous and painful performance, so it’s not that I speak from a lack of experience.

    • Lisa Newman
      November 25, 2011

      Noah – I think there are a few key issues here that you’re missing: Yes, lots of artists put themselves in risky or difficult situations in their performances, but usually as part of making their own work. When you’ve agreed to do something like, say, hang from fleshhooks in a performance, isn’t it often for a project that is collaborative with other artists and a skill of yours that you’re able to contribute to the overall vision of the piece? I see the Marina gala performance as being a piece that she wanted to see happen and was, I would assume, paid well as part of a commission. She needed bodies who could follow orders to the letter – I don’t see it as being collaborative in any way, and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for personal expression or creativity from the performers. And yes, people have every right to participate in something like this, and even enjoy themselves – it does look great on a CV, right? What I agree with in Sara’s letter here is that this kind of unequal, unstandardized treatment of performers does set a precedence for the potential for exploitation of labor, especially on the scale of something like a celebrity charity event or a museum exhibition. I don’t really see why in the example of the gala piece the participants weren’t treated exactly like actors or dancers and contracted accordingly to industry standards.

      I’m guessing that because performance art has historically defied commodification, institutionalization, and defined categories it’s now being abused as a way for institutions to sidestep or get out of the labor practices associated with other established art forms. I think people confuse a frustration with the constraints and hierarchies in the art market with a dislike of money – and this just isn’t the case.

    • Daniela Bernoulli
      November 25, 2011

      Noah, you’re in a matrix, or suffering from the Stockholm syndrome- your reaction is spot on what this issue is about. you are taken hostage by this widely supported idea of how suffering makes you a ‘ better’ artist; Lets keep this simple. I personally can see great art and beauty in putting your own body and integrity consciously at stake in a performance. (And I also do not speak from any lack of experience :-) but I find your suggestion that this makes a difference to the value of your opinion ridiculous) But putting other peoples bodies and personal integrity at stake without any compensation to speak of for your art, thats abuse.

      • Noah Mickens
        January 8, 2012

        I’m sure that my experience with this sort of durational performance really does make a difference in the value of my opinion. These days all of my shows are like big fun circus shows. A lot of the time, I hire other people to be in my shows. In fact, sometimes, for small roles or for less commercially-viable shows, people perform FOR FREE! What’s even worse, sometimes I perform for free in other people’s shows! We are all abusing one another, many times per year, exploiting each other by not paying each other to perform! I am in The Matrix!

  38. Paul Lempke
    November 25, 2011

    Very well put. I would hate to deal with a union every time I tried to do anything, but there is clearly an element of exploitation here.

  39. Marco Berrettini *MELK PROD.
    November 25, 2011

    I have read your letter with great interest. Here in Europe, many have discussed about Marina’s performance. Of course, we don’t know the details as well as you there, such as salaries et cetera, but we “felt” since Rainer had wrote his statement, that something was wrong. Maybe that Marina, getting older, has changed her political convictions. From an artist who was considered left-wing when she started, is now considered right-wing becaue of the performance and mainly because of how she handles to work with people, to audition people, to pay them, and to put them in certain positions towards themselves, and the society. If one can smile about Peter Greenaway’s movies and how mankind is treated in his films, we do so because evrybody is playing a role in the movie. But the dancers and performers for Marina’s event do their work “live”. There’s somthing profoundly cynical in selling human souffrance to rich museum visitors. As we use to say it here in Europe since Nietzsche wrote Zarathoustra: ” Dieu est mort, vive Dieu”. So: “Marina is dead, great is Marina”. P.S. 150$ ? scandalous

  40. Sonja Augart
    November 25, 2011

    I think this was wonderful what you did. We need more of this ‘ artist’ who not gonna stay silence.
    Thanks a lot and I hope it will help for the postion of the performer/artist in the future.\

  41. SC Fallou
    November 25, 2011

    Thank you for bringing up salient issues around performer compensation and sustainability, issues which have been discussed alongside other aspects of artist support systems long prior to your post. A reminder and discussion on the matter is always useful, and I want to commend and acknowledge many cultural workers and advocates out there working for years in the trenches trying to make it a better place for artists within the progressively challenging American arts ecology today.

    That aside, a few points I have to repsond to:

    You wrote: “I am not judging my colleagues who accepted their roles in this work and I, too, am vulnerable to the cult of charisma surrounding celebrity artists.”

    As a participant in this piece, I was hardly star-struck by MA or the gala attendees, nor expected validation either as an artist or a person by affiliation to this event. I’m not trying to be a MA apologist either, nor come to her defense for her artistic choices. Rather, I take umbrage at such blanket judgment in your sentence, my gut reaction to it reminiscent of my first reaction to YR’s letter portraying us as exploited, desperate fame whores. I feel a certain righteous tone belies the rightful perspectives in your post, a tone which invalidates each artist’s will and choices involved in this event.

    That said, I have to continue by pointing out that you broke the clear and transparent confidentiality disclosure and straight up sabotaged someone’s artistic process. I don’t care if she is a celebrity or not. Whether she has a team of lawyers (who played it straight in their transparency BTW) working for her or not. I don’t care if you liked or agreed with her work or not. You signed a waiver in good faith and integrity. You walked away from the gig as you had every right to do. You couldn’t wait to disclose before its time, though, and *that* undermines and sours your lofty words.

    Was your violating of disclosure by “leaking” to YR and co. a truly subversive and effective strategy against the disparities you are railing against? I don’t think so. Was your subsequent “coming out” after the fact somehow revolutionary and risk-taking in its challenge of the the symbolic and actual 1% which so many of us artists have been already fighting as we persevere to make work, advocate for artist rights, practice artistic respect (through financial compensation, communication, transparency) and protesting?

    Ultimately your leak, its ensuing chain of events and your post sadly casts YR (whom I deeply admire and respect), the other signatories and yourself as righteous bullies rallying for just, real causes while throwing other artist(s) under the bus. Not cool.

    Flash judgments and analysis of an artist’s process before it can even be allowed to exist, before the artist even knows how it will turn out? Not cool.

    The flare up instigated by your anonymous leak definitely contributed to the odd sensationalist and unfortunate false narrative of “Team YR vs. Team MA” which detracts from actual strategic actions to improve the lives of American and/or US-based artists, and instead plays right into MOCA director Geoffrey Dietch’s publicity-hungry sensibilities, reinforcing a cult(ure) of personality and buzz buzz buzz.

    The pool of power, money and resources represented under that tent that night, and the systems which the event symbolized are indeed the issues which need to be addressed, not a single artist’s choices nor the tip-of-the-iceberg banal (albeit interesting-weird in this case) gala format itself. Your statement–too little, too late–is oddly a parallel equivalent to the blip of an event that this gala was. I was compelled to respond to your post only because I am surprised at how relatively one-sided the comments are.

    No joke, I’m left now to fantasize Yvonne Rainer being selected as the artistic director for the MOCA gala 2012 + (insert pop icon here) should Deitch’s blunt formula continue to play itself out. That would be a bold move on Deitch’s end, based on Yvonne’s existing disdain, and excites me to ask “What would Yvonne do?” I doubt, though, that Deitch would be so risk taking.

    In any case, beyond your noble-toned account, I wish you powerful action on behalf of making a better place for artists in today’s American art world.

    • dredrouge
      November 25, 2011

      You really should talk to a doctor and take the appropriate medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder, please.

      • dredrouge
        November 25, 2011

        The above comment was directed to the previous comment by SC FALLOU only.

    • Sara Wookey
      November 25, 2011

      Dear SC Fallou,

      I appreciate your response as another perspective.

      I do, however, want to clarify that the NDA that you and I signed explicitly states that we, by having signed, agree to not speak about the “Confidential Information” either before or after the Gala event or the information is in the public domain. That means forever. That also means that any performer who has either posted, emailed, interviewed, etc. about the “Confidential Information” to this point are liable. Below is an excerpt from point number 3 (out of 8 of the NDA).

      It states “I shall not at any time, to any person or entity (…) or otherwise, directly or indirectly in any manner or method disclose, disseminate, duplicate, post, publish, reveal, report, transfer or otherwise distribute or use any of the Confidential Information, regardless of whether any information regarding the Events or Producer are or later becomes publicly available”. *

      So, I ask you, are you comfortable with being silenced?

      I am not and therefore I sent a personal email to Yvonne Rainer to express my anger. She took decisions on her own from there. I never intended to leak information prior to the event beyond expressing my concern to a close friend. Yes, I broke the contract. I would also argue the contract is bogus.

      I will consider your other points and I appreciate, again, your opinion. I respond not to take a righteous approach, but to work towards an understanding of the way artists are sometimes treated and to improve conditions for artists. I regret that you feel my attempts are self-serving over community-focused but you are certainly entitled to your own opinion. Thanks for keeping the dialogue moving forward.

      *I was not offered a copy of the NDA but I did take a copy for myself and I had a contract lawyer look at it to be clear.

      • Sara Wookey
        November 25, 2011

        My response should read “Below is an excerpt from point number 3 (out of 8 of the NDA):”

    • Name *
      November 29, 2011

      I can only say that Sara is a very brave person and i don’t mind that she did brake the rule of this transparent confidentiality disclosure. anyway it is idiotic that you all had to sign a paper. if we were all like sara, this would not happen anymore. and i am asking myself, what is so interesting for a dancer to lie naked on a table for so little money? i can understand it when you get a lot of money for this.
      i am very curious: why did you do this for so less money? why they did not take death corpes, haha? any models who work for painters who are used to take a position for a long time and stand naked for 10 euro per hour?
      anyway, just a few questions, i am really curious.

  42. Frank Landamore
    November 25, 2011

    Good on you Sara – more power to your elbow. Yours is unfortunately a familiar and growing problem here in Europe as well (I’m English).

    I have heard enough horror stories to know that performers earn a living despite the (sometimes) appalling treatment and (always) pathetic pay, as they scramble around for short-term freelance contracts at their own expense and often in different countries.

    I have heard stories of female performers called to auditions in Europe (some had travelled from Japan) who were rejected at the door because the director was casting short, dark men – but hadn’t told anyone that. Don’t producers and directors – the very same (well-paid) people who promote the myth that artists need to suffer in order to improve – even know how to read performers’ CVs?

    Performers’ unions don’t grasp the nettle of demanding realistic pay and conditions anywhere, as far as I can see. While understanding the dilemmas (organising creative artists would be like herding cats), the demand for it to happen must come from the performers themselves.

    Well done.

  43. Wagner Schwartz
    November 25, 2011

    Dear Sara,

    “To live almost alone attracts, little by little, the absolutely alone.”
    Maria Gabriela Llansol

    My name is Wagner Schwartz. I am a Brazilian choreographer.
    I am relieved to see that I am no longer alone.

    In 2010, I made a decision to do not participate in two major contemporary dance festivals in Brazil because I could not agree with their logistics proposal.

    Knowing that I was not the only one who was perplexed by the whole situation, I decided to write a letter, to all Brazilian artists, as an invitation to re-evaluate the working standards we help to persist.

    I created an organized with some friends a website called Movimento Contrapartida [“Counterpart Movement”], to invite people to post their experiences with the letter and to develop it in any other direction that could, at least, lead us to a common “official or even unofficial standard practice measures for working conditions”.

    I got the support of 50 artists. Unfortunately, the directors of those two festivals decided to spread out that my problem was personal and that I was trying, with my letter, to destroy their work [in which, I know by heart, is not easy to do, concerning the extremely weak politics we have in Brazil for the cultural development].

    My friends and I decided to delete the website, as the tension was palpable. I spend almost one year depressed, but at the same time clear about my decision. If before the occurred I could have some money with performances I use to do regularly in Brazil, after that I was ignored by some part of the cultural market and called as the “polemic artist”.

    But I want to underline that I am NOT a victim. And I am not writing it to judge people as well, but the state we are still living in.

    I grew up in a country where politics are, in its sense, very obscure – after colonization and dictatorship that still remains as part of the Brazilians environment. And as a person-and-an-artist, who is not fine with that, I try my best to create other perspectives and access to political patterns, choreographing their parameters in which we are particularly subjecting. At some point, it can give action to fear. In another one, it can put you apart.

    I want with this letter to say that I am grateful with your action and Yvonne Rainer’s. And I am here with you, embracing this cause, conscious of its complexity by experience.

    Friendly yours,


    Link for the letter [but only in Portuguese]:

  44. Lodie Kardouss
    November 25, 2011

    Sara Thank You

  45. Brian Rogers
    November 25, 2011

    If ever there was a time to revisit The Dancers Compact, this is probably it.

  46. Tea Tiller
    November 25, 2011

    Hard to believe, but not surprising that at even at such a “high level” of an art event, the artists are expected to work practically for free, just because it is for a “big name” and will be such “good experience”. If the artist was hiring interns fine, but the performers should be paid like actors, or form a union or something. Instead it sound like they were paid immigrant wages, albeit with the big name artist’s good graces .

    Even low level art events, like my town’s art events, artists are not paid for performing.

    (my comment is not making sense, but I am posting it anyway. art is about confusing dialogue.)

  47. Ks Christopher Robson
    November 25, 2011

    Sarah, you are a brave woman and I hope that all you have said does not fall on deaf ears as far as authotiries, promoters, agents, artists, performers is concerned. Much of what you say is absolutely right and spot on. As an opera singer who had a relatively successful career, it has always appauled me that dancers and performance artists, particularly those who are not involved in the development of a piece, are so abysmally paid when others around them are usually better paid. You and your colleagues, like singers and instrumentalists, need to have some sort of back-up both morally and practically when it comes to projects such as this. And although I understand that a lot of work does involve some sort of confidentiality when it comes to certain aspects like renumeration, I thinkl you are absolutely right to blow the whistle on this case – it is blatant exploitation! I have a feeling that a high-class pole dancer or stripper may earn mopre than $150 a night and also have certain physical safeguards arround her to ensure her safety and comfort zone.

    Although the “Work” belongs to Abramovitch, it would be very interesting to know what her fee for this “exhibition” would be. I doubt that she would complain about it.

    Well done!

  48. Marie Thone, long-term art model, entrepreneur, curator
    November 25, 2011

    There is WAY too much art-speak in this dialogue—please SIMPLIFY my friends, if you want more than us nutty under-employed grad student types to engage here. Our whole point in doing our art is connection, right?

    But the general intention here is absolutely correct. We need to unionize, and now! I’d also like to hear a direct talk with Abramovitch about why she would allow this kind of shaming and devaluing of PEOPLE to happen under her watch. There’s some kind of elite disconnect going on that taints this project irrevocably. Thank you BIG TIME for taking the time and energy to speak out about this bullshit.

  49. Agostina D'Alessandro
    November 25, 2011

    Great Sara, this is one way to start the big change…You’re not longer alone, and us either. Let’s be strong together!

  50. Susanne Bentley
    November 25, 2011

    Thank you for your courage and commitment to speak out!!

  51. purplemaf
    November 25, 2011

    As artists we must stop working for no/ little money even if it means not doing things we would like to do. Politically this is the only way to change the lives of future dance artists.
    Thank you for this.

  52. Peter Stock
    November 25, 2011

    Thanks for the well-articulated protest, Sara Wookey. Here’s another relevant one about exploitation of artists…. (from O.F. Wilde, 19th. Century)
    EACH ACT OF ARTISTIC CREATION supports publishers, critics, libraries, galleries, dealers, playhouses, concert halls, printers, framers, ushers, cleaners, academics, art councils, organisers of cultural exchanges, arts administrators, Ministers for the Arts and so forth…. the weight can seem excessive, the rewards astonishingly little, and society’s expectations that the artist will do it for free (or just enough to keep them subsisting and still producing) for sheer abstract love of form and beauty….
    Art, oh Art – while those who are parasitical upon the artist steal ownership of the work, credit for the ideas… and command for themselves adulation, high salaries and higher status… oh, intolerable, extraordinary! (freely adapted from Mr. O Wilde)

  53. Dino Dinco
    November 25, 2011

    This is copied from a lengthy and rich discussion thread started by Macklin Kowal on facebook, involving artists, dancers, armchair critics, etc. Macklin (among others chiming in on the thread) participated in the MOCA performance. For those interested, this is a link to the thread: (and I hope it’s available publicly.)

    The talk about money is a difficult one. How much is enough? Is money a motivator for making work, especially performance? I suppose for some, it is, but for the majority, it’s expected to spend money to make performance. Not saying it’s right or wrong, but I’ve always understood that part of what makes performance art attractive is the non-salability of it. It doesn’t want to / need to compete in the same way with other media and if money’s the / a goal, artists maybe should pick a different discipline OR come up with an art making business model that makes them happy.

    It’s an issue that I deal with as part of my curating residency at LACE: money. [As the Performance Art Curator in Residence at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions], I am grateful for the modest budget (“modest” : such a relative term) that I’ve been given to curate a year’s worth of programming. The stipends are small, but the fact that LACE, a true non-profit that’s certainly demonstrated a genuine commitment to performance since I started going there in the 80s — can offer a stipend AT ALL is a welcome gesture to most artists, even if that money is quickly consumed through labor and production expenses. So how much it enough? How much will ever be enough?

    Not only did YR’s letter have this awful, ma-/paternalistic tone and myopic scale, it failed to acknowledge that people… artists.. HAPPILY PAY LOADS OF MONEY TO WORK WITH ESTABLISHED ARTISTS IN WORKSHOPS ALL THE TIME. It’s part of one’s education and experience, along the same lines (or arguably, far more useful and relevant) as going to art school. On a similar note, the ICI offers a performance curatorial intensive in New York City: a 10 day stint that coincides with Performa. The fee: $ 1,900 plus you have to provide your own travel, room and board.

    Even if I cringe that this dinner theater experiment was MA’s first Los Angeles appearance, I look at the experience as a rare opportunity of meaning and value: performers (from Los Angeles, San Francisco, from Europe) got a tiny stipend to participate in an internally non-hierarchical workshop (meaning, the open call, no experience necessary) with a seasoned performance artist, one who is an inspiration to many. It was an experience that many would have PAID to take part in, as part of their education and craft experience.

    The MOCA gala was on-the-job training. A crash course. It was Debbie Allen rapping her wooden staff on the dance studio floor telling her students “You want fame? … Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat.” [I'm adding this: Durational performance is a celebrated and respected facet of performance and not everyone wants to or can do it. MA acknowledged this and the limitations of her own body at her age. For those interested in durational work, what better introduction to its physical and mental demands than one like this? Icing on the cake is that this experience is immediately part of that particular tier of art market agency, for good or for worse. Not only is there cozy (dis)comfort with some serious art market funders, but you get to watch them eat and drink at close range: true demystifiers.]

    (end copy)

    I admire your goal to instigate a more balanced / fair relationship for artists and their labor but I have to also agree with Fallou regarding your signing and breaking of the (transparent) NDA. It doesn’t reflect as a very wise or credible decision on your part, especially in the context of arguing for the integrity or credibility of art labor compensation and was it worth making yourself vulnerable to a costly suit against you for a gig that, in hindsight, may not even have been worth fighting for / over?

    Also, for those who’ve voiced “concern” for the physical well being of the performers: physical, mental, social risks come with the territory of performance art. These risks are constantly being negotiated and challenged — and expected — as they are, to some extent in dance, but they are part and parcel with the discipline. You wouldn’t think of going to the ballet and jumping on stage, screaming, “This must not go on! This is a disgusting abuse of their digestion and their ankles for the pleasure of the rich!!”

    As someone who also makes performance, the opportunities that I get to work with people whom I respect, to participate in something fulfilling to me are special and rare. And really, if it was all about money and a traditional participation in art market capitalism, it just wouldn’t be as interesting to me. When I work with friends, there’s a very cool bartering system taking place that’s far more satisfying than X amount of dollars. Stipends, grants and residencies are nice — and they surely exist — but I wouldn’t want them to ever control or impede my production. And it’s also worth taking a look at well-funded / well-compensated work: it’s not always strong or interesting work, it’s sometimes just expensive.

  54. Brennan Gerard
    November 25, 2011

    Thank you, Sara, for your thoughtful letter, your courage, and your impressive ability to structure a space for reflection in this situation and this debate.

    Your letter comes as a relief. So much of what I’ve read in the press has been symptomatic of the art world’s near-total incapacity to own up to the real issues at stake right now: labor, money, power, ethical relations.

    Of course, I look forward to continuing the conversation.



  55. Lukas van Buuren
    November 26, 2011

    I will spread this words of new thinking. A sort of similar thing i experienced myself when i was a student at the Dance academy in 2003. Now i am making my point as a student in graphic design. My research is all about Dance and Design.

  56. Dino Dinco
    November 26, 2011

    Hi, all. It’s looking like I’m going to be organizing a public discussion surrounding the gala event, the letter, ethics in art labor, pre / post performance criticism, first hand reports from the dinner tables, etc. As the event occurred in Los Angeles and the bulk of those involved live here, it will also be in Los Angeles and I’m thinking it should occur in the next couple of weeks. Not sure of the venue yet. I’ve approached LACE with the idea and will also hit up MOCA (maybe they’ll arrange a dinner for us?)

    It’s critical that Honey McMoney and Macklin Kowal attend in person, so 1) it will need to be during a time when you’re both available to come to Los Angeles for a few days and 2) I want to instigate a travel fund for you to cover at least gas money to and from (assuming that one of you have a car) and a modest per diem, if not car rental & gas and /or air fare. It all depends on community generosity. Let me know if you need places to stay while you’re here.

    If anyone can get me the roster of those who participated in the gala (with contact info), I would appreciate it. A master casting list would be ideal, but I’ll take what I can get. We’ll also do an outreach in the same way they did the open call to grab some of those who auditioned. I’ll extend the invitation to Yvonne and to Marina and to those who co-signed Yvonne’s letter, Sara Wookey, Carrie McILwain, etc.

    Thanks to Doran George, Jennifer Doyle and others who have suggested this talk.

    Curious to see what shakes out of this.

    Anyone should feel free to contact me at with comments, suggestions, etc.



    • Alexandra Shilling
      November 27, 2011

      Please include me as you organize.
      I was a partial participant.

  57. dhyan mukuta
    November 26, 2011

    you should have been treated with respect
    a way to show respect is to pay well
    especially when a naked (vulnerable) body is part of the work
    i dont know if Marina is directly responsible but she ought to be in control.
    I think what you do is great and brave
    and Marina should be treated as outcast, as this is no way to deal with people

  58. Erwin Wauters
    November 26, 2011

    That this is still a situation of these days is unacceptable. Heads should roll at that stage! People like Abramovic should be publicly outraged for offering work with these terrible conditions!

    More people should speak out in these situations. I also refused dance jobs in the past, because of these reasons.

    Good going, miss Wooky, for giving this voice!

  59. ana lu
    November 26, 2011

    thanks for the inspiration and example

  60. Marion hübener
    November 27, 2011

    Well done, we in germany fight and go to none payed productions, like the dancer from Nederlande said, ,me, an fine art and objekt artist, also teacher on my own one woman school, skipped everything, because th ROOM where I have to BUNKER my artpeaces, which were as big and heavy, just to get it moving myself, stop it, too much is not good for making the workless fee it is getting the golden PATINA, resting in the cellar of my old aunt, waiting for the TIME to coming out, when my son has in the farer FUTURE ,when I am dead, the guts to stand in for the “FEEMAILE” and very life producing ARTPEACES, the peace of being human and not exploitation, not degrading FEMALES making live as lovegiving correspondence, between the vast differences of conditions we all over the world have to exist, now i just dicovered the lovely wide connection to talk to all other connected ARTISTS OF THE WORLD, we are a whole community, and give to the MARKET our FEELINGS and withut our SWEAT AND TEARS theworld would be aCORPSE HOUSE, an PUBLIC HOUSE of payable CORPSES, which you also could hire, but this would be , like in a film or book, what I read recently, too expensive, stinking and making ugly spots on the white 100-000 Dollar chairs, who wants to recicle them? With love to other Artists, we are feeling and still talking, not mouthshot by the overwhealmig POWER of MONEY, which starts not to let the world go round, Marion

  61. ken ehrlich
    November 27, 2011

    wonderful, thoughtful letter. thanks for writing it.

  62. Simon Early
    November 27, 2011

    Well Sara, you’ve certainly got balls. Or rather, a big black one now you’ve gone public!
    As a fellow artist, I wholeheartedly condone your actions and applaud that you’ve had the guts to speak out about what is in essence, exploitation.
    My view is very simple – I take on “work”, be they projects, gigs or whatever for enjoyment, financial reward or “career progression”. You’d be amazed at how many times venues effectively have a “pay to play” policy. In fact, you probably wouldnt.
    If the business is earning out of the deal, then so should the artist. PLain and simple. Otherwise it’s a collaboration and should be seen (and rewarded) as such. Payment for your labour, OR a slice of the pie – or both! Otherwise, it’s just exploitation, pure and simple.
    Venues should have a mandatory minimum fee structure in place for all who supply their labour to them, be they bar staff, cleaners or performers. I’m sick and tired of earning less than the bar staff (no offence) when I drive for hours, hump heavy gear onto and off stages, perform, entertain and generally put money in the venues pockets and end up with half the minimum wage – or less!
    Good luck.
    I hope you remain gainfully employable!

  63. Paula Jeanine
    November 27, 2011

    As a professional musician, we have a saying:
    “When they pay you peanuts, they treat you like a monkey”.
    Kudos to you for not agreeing to be exploited.
    Warm regards,
    Paula Jeanine

  64. Rob List
    November 27, 2011

    Hi Sara – I wondered what you were up to since we last met – now your letter is resonating like a bell all over, especially with many like-minded artists, including me! Admiration and best regards, Rob

  65. Eva
    November 27, 2011

    Very brave and so just! It is a shame that marina and this museum act like did she react on this statement? i was always surprised that dancers nearly never, as far as i know, stand up for themselves.

  66. Doran George
    November 27, 2011

    I agree with some of the points you make Sara about living conditions for performers. Yet I am concerned that you patronize participants in Abramovic’s event similiarly to Yvonne Rainer and make disturbing conflations between “live art” practice and exploitation.
    Despite your claim that your agenda is ethical rather than artistic criticism, you use the performance practice of silence and duration as the metaphor for enduring an ethically and economically dubious situation. Within your narrative it is therefore impossible to understand how a performer’s experience can have been anything but one of subjugation: unconscious submission to power. This is exacerbated by your admission that you too are vulnerable to celebrity artist charisma, as if that could be the only reason someone would do such an event. And when you suggest that as performers when we agree to working conditions we create the conditions for the future, it is hard not to view this as an accusation the Abramovic’s performers have created negative future conditions. So while you claims not to judge the participation of your colleagues, you nevertheless rob them of any other experience than the one that supports your broader agenda which is basically that Abramovic’s gala event is the archetype of contemporary exploitation of performing artists.

    My concern is that even though, like yourself and many artists, I am concerned about the conditions for all artists, “live art” is too easily wrapped up with exploitation because historically it has been misunderstood, and often explicitly engages with power in its practice. An important insight of “live art” practice, is that the intentional presence of a body can intervene into, or at least reflect upon the operations of power in a situation by critically participating in those operations of power. Like you I auditioned and did not to perform, but my opting out was due to illness. I have performed in, and had performers execute, a number of works in which silence, duration and meeting the gaze of my audience were all central elements. I have been bothered by developments in Abramovic’s work such as her MOMA retrospective, which seemed empty of any potential for the performance practice to reflect on the operations of power in the circumstances. My interest in performing Abramovic’s vision at MOCA, however, was to encounter and work with the very power dynamics that the work clearly raised and reflected upon using my performance practice stillness and the use of my gaze. I was under no illusion that my participation would change the conditions of power, but rather I was interested in the opportunity to interrogate them from within my own established practice using Abramovic’s event as a vehicle.
    Of course my interest in the work doesn’t erase the general problem of artists pay and conditions, and like you I was bothered the length of the rehearsal, and the early call time in relation to the meager fee. However poor conditions for performers are a much bigger problem than the gala event and I am concerned that yours and Yvonne’s finger pointing inadvertently muddy a bigger issue. The fact our attention has been drawn to the problems of MOCA’s regular fundraiser is something that was embedded in and made possible by the work to a degree. In a discussion about the shameless disparity of wealth between diners and performers it would be strange to ignore Abramovic’s decision to ask all the diners to wear lab coats. I would therefore like to see the particular artistic issues separated out from the broader economic ones in any continuing dialog.

  67. [...] spectacle. Sara Wookey, a  dancer who auditioned for the gala but pulled out, wrote an open letter to artists. The letter is shocking, an incitement of Abramović and MOCA who had made an audition call for [...]

  68. Kevin Gaffney
    November 27, 2011

    “I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us.”

    This is very true. For every artist that works for free as an “intern” or waivers a fee for the sake of “good experience,” or works at a level that is insanely below the legal minimum wage, it makes it harder for the next artist to justify payment for their work. Recently, I was offered to be paid €200 for a fourteen day on-location film shoot, as a main performer, which had a budget of €70,000. When you work this out to the hour, it is beyond offensive for anybody who has studied and worked in their profession for years. The argument seems to be “we can get anybody else to fill your shoes for free”…. but do they not cast/use us for our expertise in the first place? Yet, then say this expertise is worthless? This type of offer is simultaneously an insult and a devaluation of everything you know you are good at and qualified to do. Ultimately, MOCA & Ambromavic have devalued themselves by showing a lack of ethics or respect… it is similar to exploiting illegal immigrants for cheap labour, they know they are in a vulnerable position and can’t ignore the chance to work so they pressurise them into believing that they are disposable. For an institution and artist that claim to be so high brow, this is all really low and shameful.

  69. Heather
    November 28, 2011

    HAHAHA! YESSSSS!!! Major props to you Sara for doing what was right for you. It is very very hard to do that… when you say “NO” you are actually saying “YES”.. Yes to yourself! Because you are manifesting better conditions/jobs/rights in that moment. I would like to call myself a hybrid dancer.. I am trained in contemporary/modern dance.. but I couldn’t stand the conditions of that “world” so I decided to dance and act in films, commercials, TV, and theatre. And why would I do that?? Because I can pay my rent and do my own art on the side and not have to wait tables or teach. I am a part of several unions and I am grateful. I agree that dancers should make one as well.

    It is a travesty and quite frankly disgusting that dancers don’t get paid properly. I can’t believe it. I never take a job now if I don’t have a proper schedule, with a proper contract, and with a proper fee. Sorry kids… dying for art? No that’s a bunch of bullshit… when you are being treated right, working healthy hours, and paying your rent on time you can think clearly, problem-solve, have dialogue.. basically you can make shit better. Because you don’t have to deal with decision fatigue (look it up! it’s real) and high stress levels you are actually a better performer/artist. I like Marina’s work, but I think she’s cheap and lame for not giving her performers a proper fee. It’s a very dated mentality… it’s actually laughable to me. THIS IS 2011… what is going on??! I can’t even go to a rehearsal anymore and be present if I know I’m not being paid… I apologize but it’s the truth… (unless I specifically volunteered and was helping out a very close friend who’s vision I really believe in… ) I literally cannot pick up what is going on because I’m thinking is this really what I’m worth… me giving you all this free time for nothing in return? TIME IS PRECIOUS. I don’t think Marina would disagree with that….

  70. stephanie hanna
    November 28, 2011

    yes, you are completely right to speak out, and even more, i see your reaction and publication has made abramovics work come to live, again. at its best, her works actually adressed questions of body ethics and spectators comfort zones through involvement. instead of being musealized and de-contextualized – expectations and codes have changed quite a bit since the sixties – now there is again a chance to be shaken and debate what is actually happening, under which conditions these restagings are made, and what for, actually !?!

  71. Lisa Paul Streitfeld
    November 28, 2011

    You have done a great service in speaking out, so clearly and eloquently, on this atrocity. As with all of Abramovic’s actions, this is not without archetypal meaning. I was a lone critic who reviewed the photos of Abramovic with the skeleton when they premiered at University of Connecticut Art Gallery. Along with her pentagram portraits, I viewed the image as a peak, transformational moment in her art form — and then came the NY celebrity and inevitable slide into the vulgar demands of the marketplace. Hiring other female performance artists to repeat her embrace with the skeleton “performance” under such horrendous conditions can mean only one thing: the dance with the devil that artists will do to succeed in the marketplace.

  72. mukuta
    November 28, 2011

    and a bit sideways : i have a porn magazine from 1972 , as i collect vintage nude material, the magazine ifs full of sex with a skeleton so MArina how original are you ?

  73. mukuta
    November 28, 2011

    and: i used to help building expositions called the forum in middelburg. we did get paid
    10 usd every hour we where there , so no matter thinking , peeing eating , building.
    and that was around 1990.
    If you asist a well paid artist not only should you get credit , but also value in money
    Otherwise it is exploitation, end exploitation should have been fineshed after Shaft

  74. David Allan
    November 28, 2011

    Well done. I am sure that this was a simple, but far from easy decision, and you are to be admired for making a stand, and for doing so in public !

  75. Sarah Small
    November 28, 2011

    Hi Sara – I would like to talk to you on the phone at some point, if you have the time.
    I can be reached at or
    I make large scale performances ( and audition participants of all ages and all backgrounds in various states of dress and undress. I ask a lot from my models too. I would like to learn from your experience. If you have a moment…
    photographer, performance director, film-maker, singer
    Sarah Small

  76. The Time for Change is NOW!
    November 28, 2011

    I am an aerialist and a dancer. I perform internationally for many different types of shows/events/etc. It is a well known fact that dancers and performers of all kinds have been experiencing these same dilemmas all across America for ages. It is about time we stand up for ourselves! We need to unite! The problem stems from trying to underbid each other for the sake of getting that one gig. This not only harms us financially, but it also waters down the art form. We can no longer do this to each other or to ourselves!
    There is a Dancers’ Alliance that is starting to make big movements nationwide. Even though it is currently geared toward music video dancers, it is a big step in the right direction for all dancers and all performers alike. These dancers are united, forcing a change in the industry! The goal is make these changes legal. We must all learn from this and apply it to our own area of performance art. We must all support each other and have faith in our various alliances, organizations, unions, etc. The key is setting a standard and everyone sticking to it.
    I plan to reach out to aerialists, as it is an art form growing in popularity, it too is becoming subjected to performers working for little or no money in dangerous conditions. This is especially true for those who are gigging, events, or club performers.This is unacceptable, and will no longer be tolerated! As dancers we all know how much stress is put on the body, imagine that of an aerialist who is risking their life in every performance! I plan to do my part in trying to make a difference for dancers, aerialists, and other performing artists…. do you???
    Please take a look at the Dancers’ Alliance website:

  77. claudia
    November 28, 2011

    Three Reperformers from “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present” Respond to the MOCA Gala Performances:

  78. Irina
    November 28, 2011

    An NDA? Are you kidding me? What is this? Art as a trade secret? Seems to me that this is fear mongering by having a 1M lawsuit hanging over a poor artist’s head to get what she wants.

    Art is open and free. It’s not a trade secret.

    • gary lai
      November 29, 2011

      nda – non disclosures should be illegal and unconstitutional (at least past the performance period). free speech should not be signed away for business interests.

      • Jeremy
        December 2, 2011

        Yeah, that’s crazy, right?
        Who knows why the NDA was so important, but it doesn’t really seem in the spirit of things.
        What were the lawyers so concerned about happening? This exact sort of thing?

  79. gotlind timmermanns,munich
    November 29, 2011

    I guess in USA the situation for artists is even worse than in Europe. Here there still is a credo that supporting art is also a matter of governmental or public money.
    But still if it comes to collect private money for public museums, things turn to be absurd. Like the membership for ‘Freundeskreis” (friendship circle) is more than 600.-€, so that never an (normal) artist would be able or willing to pay it. Charity dinners or auctions are the same.
    All because the scene likes to celebrate itselve. It´s a game, but we as the artists should make the rules.
    As Seneca said: ambitio et luxuria et impotentia scaenam desiderant (ambition, luxury and inability need a stage)

  80. lady miss kier
    November 29, 2011

    THE TRUTH……thanks for telling us . I agree whole heartedly.

  81. [...] Wookey, a professional artist, dancer and choreographer, posted a passionate and well informed appeal to all artists to unite to form fair and ethical work standards based on the story of her treatment [...]

  82. Evita
    November 29, 2011

    A long time ago I worked as an actress 9in holland) with 2 dancers, The production offered me 25 guilders (about 12,50 dollars /i think) per performance. I laughed at the produktion and said: “this must be a joke”.
    I got more.
    After a while I found out that the dancers just accepted it, and the 2 other actors and me got more money because we did not accept this.

  83. Kevin
    November 29, 2011

    While I applaud Sarah Wookey’s efforts, I am surprised that she kept them to herself as long as she did or that she took the anonymous route originally. Things must be far worse then I thought. Recently, a long standing artist’s community (619-Weatern) in Seattle, Washington which consisted of 6 floors with over 110+ artists were displaced for an underground transit tunnel that no one, excluding the downtown land owners were in favor of.

    I had a studio space on the second floor and for one short opening a gallery on the first floor. We were given eviction notices for March, 2012 in the spring of 2011. As the DOT (Department of Transportation) which is overseeing the project inspected the building, they realized that they had neglected to do a follow-up inspection after an earthquake a dozen years before. They also realized that the building owners received a substantial (millions) settlement from their insurance company and failed to do the required upgrades needed to keep the tenets (all artists) safe. So the eviction date changed from 6/2012 to 10/2011, leaving the artists caught off guard and having to scramble to find new studio space, while the DOT fell short on its promises to many of the artists.

    Why the discrepancy between the value of artistic energy? This is a question some of us from the 619 western building have been asking ourselves for quite a while now. We have, as a group, begun working towards a union for many of the reasons touched on by Sarah. We are “Local 619” and we have begun a 5013-c and are on the verge of opening a 13,000 square foot art space on Capital hill. We are going to vigorously pursue an even playing field for all artists. All artists should have union representation on both a local and national level. This will take a coordinated effort that artists in Seattle have already begun. We are working in our community to support as we want to be supported. We have raised money for the relief effort in Japan following the tsunami. We are supporting all artists and the arts into our mission. We have supported and given exposure to the artist in our art community that has attracted national attention.

    We have a Facebook page that shows some of the work we have done. has kindly extended an opportunity to have an open discourse on all aspects of this issue. As a represtitive of “Local 619” I would like to attend representing our group of artist in hopes of bringing some of our common goals together.

    Kevin D’Amelio

  84. [...] Sara Wookey has written on a similar theme at the Performance Club. Wookey turned down a job in Marina Abramovic’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles due to what she – quite rightly – saw as exploitative conditions. She hopes “to prompt a shift of thinking of cultural workers to consider, when either accepting or rejecting work of any kind, the short- and long-term impact of our personal choices on the entire field”. To finish that particular story, MOCA’s director Jeffrey Deitch has opened a dialogue on the case in question. [...]

  85. M. Bauer
    November 30, 2011

    Abramovic je srpska.

  86. Richard Spear
    November 30, 2011

    Brava! for a very articulate and persuasive analysis of (s)exploitation. If CAA is “our” organization looking after our welfare, then this issue should be taken up by the CAA Board with an aim of developing professional guidelines that artists could and should follow in such circumstances.

  87. David Williams
    November 30, 2011

    hello sara, thanks very much for your thoughtful and courageous text, it’s enormously appreciated. a long time since last we met – i wish you really well. thanks again, and all best to you, david

  88. Name *
    November 30, 2011

    Bravo, Sara for speaking out against this universal humiliating exploitation of artists.

  89. Jeannie Simms
    December 1, 2011

    Thanks for such a detailed and lucid letter Sara. I too have been dismayed by the way the messengers got shot down and healthy criticality was so quickly clobbered. And it was those with power did the clobbering. It’s important for us to exchange, dialogue and take action about real issues with real consequences.

  90. Lawrence Goldhuber
    December 1, 2011

    Lawrence Goldhuber This event and letter has certainly received more attention than any arts issue since Arlene Croce’s dismissal of Jones’ Still/Here. And while I agree that we artists always need to get paid more and be sensitive to what we ask others to do in our service (I never ask anyone to work without some fee), this event was, after all, a benefit for the museum. We subsidize the arts and art institutions with our very lives. Sure, the writer declined to participate in the end- she is an experienced working choreographer. Leave it to the young, less formed performers to ‘pay their dues’ by working with a famous artist. A fee of $150 for this work sounds right to me…

  91. Margaret Heller
    December 1, 2011

    I am not a dancer but a retired chiropractor. I too refused to join monopolistic managed care company that exploited doctors by taking any and all contracts by undercutting all other competing entities and putting them out of business. 15 years later I am “retired”. The chiropractors who signed the contracts are getting even less than half what they were promised in 1997 with added overhead expenses due to the need for more paperwork and staff.
    I see this performance piece as merely symbolic of the conditions of all workers in the U.S. at this time. While it was noble of me to hold out – no one ultimately cared. Like the gentleman above said – there will be young desperate dancers (chiropractors) who will gladly take the money. In this case taking a client results in a net loss of income due to expenses. I would be better off sitting alone in an empty office.

  92. [...] Interesting letter regarding performers/artists and the potential for exploitation Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Dance, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  93. Marco
    December 1, 2011

    Thanks Sara for your text. I’m attaching a link to a piece by Chris Kasper about art and labor I think you’d like it.

  94. Jon Jackson
    December 7, 2011

    Thank you for your courage

  95. Dino Dinco
    December 8, 2011

    On performance art, ethics and criticality in the wake of Marina Abramović’s 2011 MOCA gala performance and Yvonne Rainer’s critical letter of said performance.

    Please join us for a moderated open forum instigated by the outpouring of reactions and criticality surrounding, although not limited to, Abramović’s recent performance as part of MOCA’s fundraising gala. Using Abramović’s Los Angeles performance as one example, we hope that this forum will expand the depth and scope of performance art practice in the face of art / money / power, will investigate modes of working and programming that are seen as successful and not, and will serve to examine more deeply the role and function of performance art in museums and art spaces.

    We encourage those who participated in the performance at MOCA to attend this open forum and share their experience and their thoughts, as well as those who were guests at the dinner, those who worked as food servers during the dinner, those who were selected to perform but decided against it, performance art bloggers, MOCA staff, Debbie Harry, the cosigners of Yvonne Rainer’s letter, etc. All are welcome.

    An abundance of thought and reaction to this event (as an event, but also as a mode and model of production) has been documented on blogs and on facebook, at numerous dinners and privately over drinks. We look forward to coming together in the same room to further the investment and interest in some of these very important issues surrounding contemporary performance art practice.

    Saturday, 17 December 2011

    1:00 PM – 4:00 PM

    Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions / LACE
    6522 Hollywood Blvd.
    Los Angeles CA 90028

    LACE is equidistant from the Hollywood / Highland and Hollywood / Vine stations of the MTA Red Line

    Free admission and open to the public.

    Facebook event page:


    Dino Dinco, multi-disciplinary artist and curator and Performance Art Curator in Residence, LACE

    Jennifer Doyle, UC Riverside Professor, author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006) and Hold It Against Me: Difficulty, Emotion and Contemporary Art (forthcoming, 2012).

    Matias Viegener, Professor of Literature and Critical Theory, CalArts and co-founder of the participatory art collective, Fallen Fruit

    * Please note: We will be taking up a monetary collection for a couple of performers who were part of the gala performance and who will be traveling from San Francisco to participate in this discussion. These two artists were some of the first to write extensively about their experience, helping to ignite the broad and often spicy discussions documented online.

    Please extend some true Los Angeles art community hospitality to our out-of-town artist guests in helping to make their presence possible.

    Thank you.

  96. [...] Open Letter to Artists | The Performance Club.  I participated in an audition on November 7th for performance artist Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. I auditioned because I wanted to participate in the project of an artist whose work I have followed with interest for many years and because it was affiliated with MOCA, an institution that I have a connection with as a Los Angeles-based artist. Out of approximately eight hundred applicants, I was one of two hundred selected to audition. Ultimately, I was offered the role of one of six nude females to re-enact Abramović’s signature work, Nude with Skeleton (2002), at the center of tables with seats priced at up to $100,000 each. For reasons I detail here—reasons which I strongly believe need to be made public—I turned it down…. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Who Will Rein Her In? Marina Abramovic versus Yvonne Rainer / artcritical [...]

  97. José Drummond
    December 14, 2011

    So? What’s the big news? I wonder why people think they are this important. Conditions are what they are. You’re little. Your letter proves it. Accept it or not. Maybe you better do something else.

  98. My Homepage
    December 16, 2011

    … [Trackback]…

    [...] Read More Infos here: [...]…

  99. [...] up all around us, and very visibly within the art world context on many levels. For instance the letter that was circulating in relation to Marina Abramović’s performance at the Museum of [...]

  100. [...] I developed these tools for dance artists in collaboration with dance artists working in the US, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, inspired by Sara Wookey’s Open Letter to Artists. [...]

  101. [...] The discussion and debate around Marina Abramović’s gala performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles continues, in Catherine Wagley’s report for LA [...]

  102. hi Sara’ , i understand that there is esploitation going On every where in the world AND WE SHOULD NOT ACCEPT IT , but this does not really sums up.
    as you show you are an adult in a western society and chose not to be “exploited ” which i respect , but that is your choice , other have and had the choice to take part in this event by marina abramovich and as willing adults did .
    maybe you should write to president obama and ask him to improve the labour rights over all in america and the rest of the world , and i”m sure you never owned a nike or adidas item being a dancer .
    i’m sorry but i’m suspicious of this saga and anty marina abromovich crusade and why is going on.
    exploitation is exploitation it does not matter what ever you are paid 150 dollars or 10000 dollars for the same task , what makes is expoitation is if one does not have a choice in the matter, which i find extremely hard to believe in this case.
    what ever one agrees or not or would want to put them self in the circumstance you are upset about it in contest and the world that this is taking plaice i think is a farce and offensive to the meaning of the word exploitation.
    Im sorry but you are not credible
    franko b

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