Art In America
January, 1993

Studio Assistants in
Allan McCollum's studio.

Making Art
Making Artists

[excerpted: Interview with Allan McCollum]

In a new variant on the apprenticeship system, many artists
now employ paid assistants for tasks ranging from menial labor
to creative collaboration in the production of their art works.

[Below, comments by the author and an
interview with Allan McCollum are reproduced;
the original magazine article offered
similar interviews with 23 artists]


"Who are you?" he asked, looking from one to the other. "Your assistants," they answered. . ."What?" said K.; "are you my old assistants, whom I told to follow me and whom I am expecting?" They answered in the affirmative. "That's good," observed K. after a short pause; I'm glad you've come."
— Franz Kafka, The Castle, 1926

Bob Morris is really into craft. You know he operates the forklift when the fabricator delivers his work.
— Robert Smithson, 1970

Whenever I work on modeled sculptures (not on metal ones), I have women assistants. Their voices, their gestures are, if I may plagiarize Matisse, the sources of vibrations and sensations that I wish to transmit in my art.
— Alain Kirili, 1992

A reader of art magazines might never notice that artists today regularly hire assistants to help them to make their work. One does not see photographs of artists and assistants working together. Pictures of Henry Moore, for example, frequently show him chopping away at large plaster sculptures. But in fact, for the last thirty years of his life, virtually all of Moore's plasters were enlarged by assistants from his palm-sized maquettes, and then slipped off to bronze foundries. Nevertheless, Moore repeatedly posed for photographers and film-makers in attitudes that perpetuated the myth of the lonly creator. Myths notwithstanding, in recent decades a change has occurred in the way a number of artists work. The change, though obvious from inside the art world, has been little noticed by the public. Since the late 60's artists have turned to paid assistants to help with drawings, paintings, and sculptures. In the last 15 years or so working as an artist's assistant has become the employment of choice for younger artists, particularly for those living in New York City, replacing such traditional secondary jobs as housepainting, light construction, art moving, framing, restaurant work, hacking, pasteup and window-display design. It used to be that writers wouldn't work as editors, painters wouldn't do commercial illustration and sculptors wouldn't work as industrial designers for fear of misspending their creative energy. Now young artists seek jobs in their own discipline, hoping to learn while they earn. They may feel that success in today's art world hinges as much on who you know as on what you do.

As an artist who once worked as an assistant and who now employs younger artists as studio assistants, I decided to write this article as a way of throwing some light on the question of who really makes the art these days. ....The interviews were taped and edited, then approved by the interviewees .... in an effort to get people to speak frankly, I promised they could delete things they regretted having said.[....]

[the reader is encouraged to read the article in its entirety: HERE]

Allan McCollum

Born 1944, Los Angeles. Currently lives in New York. Most recent exhibition at Galería Weber, Alexander y Cobo, Madrid, fall 1992. Forthcoming solo exhibition at Centre d'Art Contemporain, Geneva, 1993.

For the first half of my adult life, I worked in unskilled jobs for near-minimum wages, as I never continued my education beyond high school. When I moved from Los Angeles to New York in 1975, I worked for many years in art-world related jobs, usually art-handling and crating, and I developed some of these skills by working in local museums and galleries, eventually on a fairly steady free-lance basis. From my late teens to my early 40's, I learned the difference between jobs that ate away at my self esteem and those that added to it.

As an artist, my projects had always been oriented towards the philosophy of mass production, and I had always produced my works somehow as if they had been made by other people, but of course I did everything myself because I didn't have the money to pay for an assistant. For the first dozen or so years of my career, my work seemed almost to be about my own obsessional need to produce objects in large quantities. But at a certain point, mainly for philosophical reasons, I concluded that my personal output wasn't enough; I wanted my work to reflect labor beyond my own so that it would express itself as having been made by a group of people.

I developed a desire to design a series of projects that could be worked on communally, in a sociable setting, instead of being produced by one lonely artist. And I wanted the people who looked at my work to recognize this, to say to themselves, "It must have taken a lot of people to do this." This change in studio methods became possible in the middle '80s because I was being offered more exhibitions, and the demand for my work was multiplying somewhat. I needed the help of others, even though I had very little money to pay them. During this transitional period, several times I found myself working an outside job on my own to pay assistants in my studio a higher wage than I was making myself. I remember thinking this was a kind of lunacy.

As I continued to develop my ideas about mass production as a serious form of expression, and began to use the actual techniques of mass-production in my studio instead of merely referring to them, I had to learn what people do when they run small factories and workshops. Beyond theory, philosophy and esthetics, I also had to address some legal and ethical issues, to learn about occupational safety and health, unemployment and disability insurance, social security taxes and so on - like any other small businessman. I read all the New York labor laws, and I was impressed with how the statutes are designed to protect working people. It's easier to be a good employer if you pay attention to these regulations; they address issues I might not have considered on my own.

Because my art work is so labor intensive, I generally have many assistants, and a large percentage of my income goes to pay for them. I'm aware of having a new motivation for making money, because I have to think in terms of keeping my assistants employed. I've had more than 20 people working for me when there was a really big project, but in terms of steady, full-time people, I've usually had around nine employees. At present I have seven. One of my assistants handles payroll records and bookkeeping; I also have a tax accountant and a payroll service that sends the paychecks out to us every week with my signature already on them. I have two people collecting unemployment currently; everyone is covered by workers' compensation and disability insurance, and their social security and income taxes are withheld in the usual way. It makes me feel safer knowing my assistants have this backup.

I pay my assistants an hourly wage, but they also get a small bonus based on the studio's productivity. Every object we make has a "premium" connected to it: a "Plaster Surrogate" of a certain size has a corresponding dollar amount attached as a premium, a "Perfect Vehicle" has a different premium, a "Drawing" another one again, and so on. At the end of each three months we add up the premiums for everything the studio has produced for that period, and then we divide it up based on each person's percentage of total hours worked. This way, if one person is feeling lazy on a particular day the others have the incentive to tell him to get moving. The hourly wages are the bulk of what they get, of course - the bonus is more like extra pocket money. Also, my administrative assistant gets a small bonus based on my gross income, and for art collectors my studio manager repairs my work and does conservation on a free-lance basis. As time goes by, I hope I can work out more ways for my assistants to have a financial interest in my work. The more motivated they are to run my studio well, the freer I feel to travel and to pursue new projects.

The responsibilities have become very diffused in my studio, and sometimes you wouldn't realize I was the artist in charge. A lot of the actual labor - making molds, casting, painting, packing, installing - is often done by fabricators and assistants. For better or for worse, I'm often reduced to a kind of manager and production engineer.

I am frequently influenced by my assistants. For instance, my present assistant in charge of painting the "Plaster Surrogates" is much more finicky than I am: it has always been his decision to give something "just one more coat" of paint to make it look even better. As the years have passed, I have come to expect these works to match his standards. It has taken me a while to realize that an assistant, properly motivated,. might do the job even better than I would.

Having assistants has changed my personal life in unexpected ways. My need for socializing has altered, because I'm with people in my studio all day long. I learn about their lives and become involved with them in a peripheral way. At first, this became so engrossing that I didn't know how to maintain a personal life of my own. I was hypnotized by the richness of having other people's lives around me. I've also learned attitudes from my assistants that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. Unlike me, a lot of artists come from professional families, and have been to college or art school. And because my studio is generally filled with assistants, I tend to develop my ideas while traveling, when I'm alone in motels.

I've changed the way I think about hiring. I started out hiring an assistant who was a friend of a friend, then I let her hire her friends, and they hired their friends, and so on. I got a lot of people from the same circles, usually from Cooper Union or the Whitney Independent Study Program. Lately, I've learned that it makes sense to run an ad in the paper - I don't list my name - and interview applicants from a wider field. I look for people who really want the job and will enjoy it, people who appreciate the effort I make to give them a regular eight-hour day of work when there might not be any work to do. I tend to resent those who approach the job solely as a way of making contacts.

My assistants tell me that working for me has influenced their work, but it's usually in ways that you wouldn't guess. People often tell me that they are influenced by my painting style, for instance; and I notice that they all are influenced by the way I run my studio operation, because they don't learn this in school. They don't learn about packing and shipping, or how galleries and museums function. I've never had an assistant who seemed greatly influenced by the philosophy of my work. I do like to know what my assistants' life goals are; I had an assistant for three years who hoped to run an art gallery some day, and so I enjoyed steering her toward those tasks that would help her learn how this area of the art world functions.

The idea of having my own little factory obviously appeals to me, although my studio has never functioned like a real factory where every object is a replica of every other object, all exactly alike. It's usually central to my production routine, in fact, that each object is completely unique. For the show of the "Lost Objects" [see A.i.A., June '92], for instance, I had 15 different molds for the dinosaur bones, and 50 different colors of paint; we were able to make 750 different works without repeating. My "Plaster Surrogates" are done according to a similar system. My "Drawings" and my "Individual Works" require very elaborate organization to maintain the individuality of each piece; I've made over 38,000 of these two kinds of objects, each completely unique, which are displayed and sold in very large collections. My studio manager is in charge of maintaining these systems, which we call "cycling." She keeps track to make sure nothing is ever duplicated, and it's the most important job in my studio.

However, to really appreciate my work I think it's important to understand that I design my projects with a certain type of social behavior in mind. My assistants often work sitting around a table, listening to music and talking to each other as they paint the objects. This communal process is an important part of the narrative I want my work to convey, and it is this conviviality that I most enjoy in running my studio.

April, 1992
New York City

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"Making Art, Making Artists"

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