Andrea Fraser’s “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction”

Christa Noel Robbins

“We are all always already serving”: An Introduction to Andrea Fraser’s “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction”

Early in 1969 a group of artists came together under the name “Art Worker’s Coalition” (AWC) in order to advocate for the rights of artists. Initially formed in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s mistreatment of a sculpture by a living artist and subsequent refusal to take that artist’s desires into consideration, the AWC quickly expanded into an activist group that agitated not only for artistic integrity and compensation, but also, and most visibly, for equal rights and an end to the Vietnam War. Not two years later, in response to perceived inequities in an increasingly speculative art market, the gallerist and impresario Seth Siegelaub, himself an early member of AWC, drew up The Artist’s Reserved Rights of Transfer and Sales Agreement, with the help of the lawyer Robert Projansky. The Agreement can be viewed as an extension of the AWC’s advocacy for artists’ rights, over which it had become increasingly difficult to maintain any monetary or creative control due to the rise of conceptual practices that shunned direct authorship and material form. However, the Agreement can also be regarded as an expansion of the reach of the market into what was often presented, in the late-sixties and early-seventies, as an art resistant to what Lucy Lippard called the “art-world commodity status.”[1] What began with AWC as an activist effort, in line with the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, was quickly transformed in Siegelaub’s hands into a bureaucratic provision. Siegelaub’s Agreement, while written with the perfectly reasonable intention of protecting artist’s rights and expanding their control over their work, had a counter effect: it expanded the very system from which artists sought protections.[2]

Something very similar may appear to be at work in Andrea Fraser’s various engagements with so-called “service” work in the arts. Fraser’s interest in artistic services arose out of conversations she was having with fellow artists who, like Fraser, were involved in “project work”: temporary and ephemeral works that took the form of installations, group-collaborations and professional residencies and that tended to be managed and designed by teams in coordination with institutionally established goals. This was a common mode of production in the early nineties when Fraser first began her Services project, which mainly took the form of a working-group discussion and exhibition in January 1994 at the Kunstraum of Lüneburg University in Germany. Artists such as Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, Judith Barry and Renée Green were at that time engaged in research-based activities—curating, archiving, reporting—that very often took on the look of services rendered and very seldom resulted, at least in the mid-nineties, in material objects or permanent displays. In the early moments of this shift in working practices, artists were placed in increasingly precarious situations; they not only struggled to maintain control over their creative work, but often had to take on the financial burden of installing a show only to be refused a fee at the show’s end.[3] The working-group exhibition, organized by Fraser and the art historian and curator Helmut Draxler, was meant to redress these difficulties. In the working-group setting, first-hand accounts of interactions with institutions were collected, a history of similar practices was researched and the results of the group meetings were exhaustively recorded. After opening in Lüneburg, the Services exhibition and working-group traveled to four additional countries between 1994 and 1997.[4]

The text we’ve reproduced here, Fraser’s “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction,” was first delivered as a talk in October 1994. Fraser says that she hopes the talk could eventually be used as an introduction to something like a guidebook for future “project work”—a “methodology,” in Fraser’s words, “which could function as a basis for a self-regulating profession of artistic service provision.” One of the main services such an introduction could perform would be to provide a working definition for “project work,” one that could distinguish it from other forms of labor. In rendering services, “project work,” according to Fraser, takes on the structure of other professional models—in Fraser’s exhaustive list: “curators, gallerists, educators, public relations and employee-management relations consultants, security consultants, architects and exhibition designers, researchers, archivists, et cetera.” Given these resemblances, Fraser states, artists must seek protections that would safeguard their positions as both artists and laborers. However, Fraser asks, is it the case that in insisting on fees and legal protections for “services rendered,” artists risk relinquishing their special status as artists?

Fraser’s answer is “no.” For, she argues here, artists are “always already serving”; all “project work” does is reveal this condition. “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction” does something along the same lines: it lays bare the false discord between the very real need to seek stability and compensation from the art world—which Fraser, a board member of W.A.G.E., remains deeply committed to promoting—and the desire embedded in aesthetic work to transgress such base concerns. Just how the talk-cum-introduction-to-a-guidebook reveals the relationship between art and professional expectations can be glimpsed in the ease with which Fraser slips between assertions that artists must maintain their “autonomy” from institutions and markets and her insistence that artists demand “compensation” in return for services rendered. Fraser is too savvy a critic of art’s economic structures not to have intended this juxtaposition to be felt by listeners and readers. How incompatible, she seems to ask, are these two demands, one for freedom and one for fees? For Fraser, not only are they not incompatible, they’re absolutely codependent. For freedom, Fraser argues here, and in so much of her work, always comes at a cost. No work makes this more clear than the extraordinarily problematic Untitled (2003), an hour-long video-recording of Fraser having sex with an art collector for $20,000. “My first thought was, If I’m going to have to sell it, I might as well sell it,” Guy Trebay of the New York Times reports her as saying. In such works Fraser acts out not the limits of her freedom as an artist, but its cost. As she states below: “dependence is the condition of our autonomy.”

The Jason Isbell epigraph with which Kris and I began this issue makes a similar point: we are all working, Isbell says, for “something more than free.” The sentiment is moving, transcendent: we are all working for a state not simply free of fees and services, but absent the bondage of such economic calculus. But the phrase is also meant to deflate such a transgressive move: it tethers the concept of freedom to wage labor. To be “working for something more than free” is to work for something just above nothing. In a similarly deflationary fashion, Fraser shifts from an assertion of artists’ hard-won and necessary “autonomy” to their equally necessary demand for “fees,” demonstrating the unprisable relationship between art and commerce. In maintaining that art is always already serving, Fraser reminds us that simply advocating for artists’ rights is not always enough. The work art itself performs should strive to reveal its place within the economic field it serves.

This talk, itself a kind of performance not unlike Fraser’s other acts of exposure, provides just such a revelation: what distinguishes “project work” from its professional analogs is its freedom to “self-regulate,” to, at the end of the day, not remain obliged to the institutions and managers to whom it provides a service. And yet, that “self-regulation” and “freedom” always comes at a cost; in this case the cost is inhabiting those very managerial positions in order to protect your rights as an artist. In keeping that cost always in view, in making so much of her work about the very mechanisms deployed to mask the cost of artistic freedom, Fraser’s Services works distinguish themselves from Siegelaub’s bureaucratic provision. Instead of drawing up legally binding contracts to protect artists against the institution, Fraser points us to art’s interior position to its workings, which it never seeks to transcend or escape. As she said in 2005, looking back on the manner by which her critical practice could be perceived to have been “institutionalized,” because included in the very institutions her work seemed to critique: “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.” [5]

(We would like to thank Andrea Fraser for allowing us to reproduce this talk.)

[1] Lucy Lippard, “Postface,” Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1967), 265.

[2] For a detailed account of the drift from avant-garde conceptual practice to bureaucratic technique see Alexander Alberro Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) and Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 105-143.

[3] See Fraser’s “Services: A Working-Group Exhibition,” in Beatrice von Bismarck, Diethelm Stoller, Ulf Wuggenig (eds.), Games, Fights, Collaboration. Das Spiel von Grenze und Überschreitung (Stuttgart: Cantz 1996).

[4] For a detailed account of the what the working-group and exhibition entailed see Eric Golo Stone’s “Responding to the Relations and Conditions of Exhibitions: The ‘Services’ Working-Group Discussion Forum,” in  Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, & Enquiry 35 (Spring2014), 116-125.

[5] Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, “Artforum 44 (September 2005), 278.



Andrea Fraser’ “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction”

First presented at the Depot, Vienna, October 1994 [1]

In our initial proposal for  the “working-group exhibition” Services, Helmut Draxler and I offered the term “service” to describe what appeared to be a determining feature of what has come to be called “project work.” We wrote:

It appears to us that, related variously to institutional critique, productivist, activist and political documentary traditions as well    post-studio, site-specific and/or public art activities, the practices currently characterized as ‘project work’ do not necessarily share a thematic, ideological or procedural basis. What they do seem to share is the fact that they all involve expending an amount of labor which is either in excess of, or independent of, any specific material production and which cannot be transacted as or along with a product. This labor, which in economic terms would be called service provision (as opposed to goods production), may include:

  • the work of the interpretation or analysis of sites and situations in and outside of cultural institutions;
  • the work of presentation and installation;
  • the work of public education in and outside of cultural institutions;
  • advocacy and other community based work, including organizing, education, documentary production and the creation of alternative structures.

“Providing a service,” in the sense described in our proposal, is neither an intention (such as benefiting society) attributed to particular artists nor a content (such as museum education or security) characterizing a group of works. Rather, we proposed “service provision” to describe the economic condition of project work as well as the nature of the social relations under which it is carried out. On the most basic level we could even claim that the prevalence of practices such as the payment of fees to artists by cultural institutions indicates that the emergence of art-as-service-provision is simply an economic fact.

We went on to write:

there seems to be a growing consensus among both artists and curators that the new set of relations [emerging around project work]…needs clarification. While curators are increasingly interested in asking artists to produce work in response to specific existing or constructed situations, the labor necessary to respond to those demands is often not recognized or adequately compensated. Conversely, many curators committed to project development are frustrated by finding themselves in the role of producers for commercial galleries, or a “service department” for artists….

The project Services was organized as an occasion to consider some of these practical and material problems, as well as the historical developments which may have contributed to the emergence of artistic service provision, and to provide a forum for discussion of the impact this development has had on the relations among artists, curators and institutions.


As an artist I have a particular interest in these questions. My motive for initiating Services came from the complications and conflicts I experienced as a result of entering into relations with curators and organizations which were not regulated by accepted standards of professional practice, as well as from the frustration of working full time and for very prestigious exhibitions yet still not being able to make a living. Services—and related activities I was involved in as I prepared the proposal— represented an effort by artists to represent and safeguard their practical and material interests by creating such forums for the discussion of those interests; by collecting information from a range of artists about their preferred working arrangements in order to prepare a set of general guidelines and perhaps a basic contract; by combining to form some sort of association.

What is implied in all of these activities is less a trade-union model of collective bargaining than a professional model of collective self-regulation. Like collective bargaining, this latter model could also, potentially, provide a certain leverage for artists in dealing with cultural institutions and other commissioning organizations, but achieving this would require a clarification of procedure and, perhaps, the development of a basic methodology in reference to which legitimate needs and demands could be collectively determined. For example, the fact that some artists collect a fee from an institution and then sell project results undermines the legitimacy of demands for fees. Should fees be opposed to sales? How should the integrity of project work be conceived? Do projects that require a high degree of participation by the institution give that institution some rights to alter the work or determine its disposition?

As Helmut Draxler and I wrote in our proposal, “resolutions on practical problems often represent political decisions which may impact not only the working conditions of artists but also the function and meaning of their activity.”

I am speaking only for myself (and not for the project Services) when I say that my interest in all of these organizational activities derived as much from the possibility of art practice developing into something like a self-regulating profession as from the hope of gaining leverage in dealing with art institutions. Professional self-regulation is a matter of professional ethics as well as professional interests. In the artistic field, it is also a matter of the ethics of artistic practice. And, because of the reach of artistic practice from private homes to public buildings and streets, it is a matter of the ethics of the social and subjective relations manifest in and through artistic practices.

Proposing to talk about “How to Provide an Artistic Service” is part of an experiment I want to undertake to see if it’s possible to develop a methodology which could function as a basis for a self-regulating profession of artistic service provision. This experiment will take the form of a book— called How to Provide an Artistic Service—the model for which will be handbooks of professional conduct and technique common in other fields… books like The Psychiatric Interview or Organizational Diagnosis or Freud’s papers on technique, to name three that I have found particularly useful.[2]

What I’m presenting tonight would be something like the introduction to such a book, or an argument for why such a book might be necessary.


In addition to the material concerns motivating the project Services, a central question was the potential loss of autonomy consequent to appropriating rom other professional fields such models as contracts and fee structures as a means of resolving practical problems. Critical acceptance had created a demand for projects within cultural organizations that was clearly not only a demand for particular individual artists. This demand provided for the possibility of acting collectively to determine and defend our interests—particularly economic interests—as well as to consider the history of that kind of action. But it was also clear that this demand, expressed in invitations to undertake projects in response to situations and under conditions explicitly defined by others, represented a threat to artistic autonomy. Designing contracts to safeguard our practical and material interests, or even simply demanding fees in compensation for our services, might further compromise our independence by turning us into functionaries of “client” organizations.

While many of us had taken up, in our work, the positions and activities of curators, gallerists, educators, public relations and employee-management relations consultants, security consultants, architects and exhibition designers, researchers, archivists, et cetera, we certainly did not do so to have our practices reduced to the functions of these professions. What would—should—differentiate our practices from them is precisely our autonomy. That autonomy is represented, most importantly, in our relative freedom from the rationalization of our activity in the service of specific interests defined by the individuals or organizations with which we work. Included in this is freedom from the rationalization of the language and forms we use—a freedom which may or may not manifest itself in recognizably “aesthetic” forms. Also included is the freedom of speech and conscience—guaranteed by accepted professional practices as well as the First Amendment—which is supposed to safeguard our right to express critical opinions and engaged in controversial activity.

We are demanding fees as compensation for work within organizations. Fees are, by definition, payment for services. If we are, then, accepting payment in exchange for our services, does that mean we are serving those who pay us? If not, who are we serving and on what basis are we demanding payment (and should we be demanding payment)? Or, if so, how are we serving them (and what are we serving)?

Such questions are not exclusive to project-based practice, whether or not such practice is defined as a service; project-based practice simply makes it necessary to pose them. I would say, rather, that we are all always already serving. Studio practice conceals this condition by separating production from the interests it meets and the demands it responds to at its point of material or symbolic consumption. Because a service can be defined, in economic terms, as a value which is consumed at the same time it is produced, the service element of project-based practice eliminates such separation.

An invitation to produce a specific work in response to a specific situation is a very direct demand, the motivating interests of which are often barely concealed and difficult to ignore. I know that if I accept that invitation I will be serving those interests—unless I work very hard to do otherwise.


The interests contained in any demand for art, whether or not it is expressed in an invitation to undertake a project, would make up a very large section of a book on “how to provide an artistic service.” It would begin with a discussion of the objective character of the demand for art. This would be to counter the subjective experience I believe most artists have of the purely individual nature of demand (addressed to themselves or others): the myth that there’s no demand for art as such, but only for individual artists of particular genius, etc., and, as if, in the absence of such artists, the entire contemporary art apparatus would just disappear. Of course, this is not the case. Museums have been built and must be filled. Critics and curators are trained and have an interest in being employed, gallerists need new art to show and sell. Investments have been made and the field must reproduce itself.

This primary demand to supply the reproduction of the field is conditioned by the next level of demand: that invested with interests related to competitive struggles between and among artists, curators, critics, gallerists, and so on. Struggles to maintain and improve one’s status vis-à-vis one’s peers and to impose the principle of status (that is, of legitimacy) and the criteria of value by which the position of others will be defined: such struggles are the dynamics through which the field reproduces itself. The demand for art addressed to artists is often also directly related to competition between institutions themselves: competition for funding, for press, for audiences, and all the other indices of influence over the popular and professional perception of legitimate culture and legitimate cultural discourse.

But cultural institutions are not unitary entities. They are composed of different sectors—for example, professional and voluntary—which are themselves in conflict. As a practitioner of so-called institutional critique, I have often been asked, “Well, if you’re so critical, why do they invite you?” It took me some time to realize that I was being invited in by one sector of an institution to produce a critique of the other.

Pierre Bourdieu writes: “Products developed in the competitive struggles of which . . . [the field] is the site, and which are the source of the incessant changing of [its] products, meet, without having expressly to seek it, the demand which is shaped in the objectively or subjectively antagonistic relations between the different classes or class fractions over material or cultural consumer goods.” This is why, he continues, “producers can be totally involved and absorbed in their struggles with other producers, convinced that only specific artistic interests are at stake and that they are otherwise totally disinvested while remaining unaware of the social functions they fulfill, in the long run, for a particular audience, and without ever ceasing to respond to the expectations of a particular class.”[3]

The demand an art work meets when consumed materially by an art collector, or symbolically by a museum visitor, may thus be conditioned by the struggles constitutive of the field of cultural production—where “supply,” Bourdieu writes, “always exerts an effect of symbolic imposition.” But as far as the interests, the needs, the wants invested in that demand are concerned, the object is indifferent, as the demand itself is subject to perpetual displacement following the course of particular struggles within the field. I would even say that the demand generated by the competition among and between art collectors and museum visitors over the quantity and quality of cultural consumption is itself displaced from another locus, and could just as easily attach itself to another field.

The cynical, debased version of this kind of analysis is that art is no different from any other market in luxury goods. They all serve social competition for status and prestige. But status is not a matter of status symbols, and prestige is not a luxury. The pursuit of prestige is only the dominant form of struggles for legitimacy of which culture is a primary site. The intimate character of the adequacy and competence at stake in these struggles is evident in the anxiety even the most socially dominant person may exhibit when confronted with an institutionally consecrated art work. Nor does one enter into these struggles voluntarily, as if as a result of some form of vanity. Rather they are mandated, for example, by museums which, as public institutions, impose the competencies necessary to comprehend the culture they define as legitimate as a condition of adequacy within the cities or states which support them.

There are no artists I can think of who could credibly suggest that the functions their works serve have nothing to do with them or their artistic activity, as all artists are called upon to augment these functions for organizations and individuals at openings, dinner parties, press conferences, and so on. They would be right, in any case, to say that they serve no one, if—as Pierre Bourdieu writes—”they serve objectively only because, in all sincerity, they serve their own interests, specific, highly sublimated and euphemized interests.”[4]

Am I really serving my own interests? According to the logic of artistic autonomy, we work only or ourselves; for our own satisfaction, for the satisfaction of our own criteria of judgment, subject only to the internal logic of our practice, the demands of our consciences or our drives. It has been my experience that the freedom gained in this form of autonomy is often no more than the basis for self-exploitation. Perhaps it is because the privilege of recognizing ourselves and being recognized in the products of our labor must be purchased (like the “freedom” to labor as such, according to Marx), at the price of surplus labor, generating surplus value, or profit, to be appropriated by another. In our case, it is primarily symbolic profit that we generate. And it is conditioned precisely on the freedom from economic necessity that we express in our self-exploitation.

Because we are working for our own satisfaction, our labor is supposed to be its own compensation. It often feels as if all our professional relations are organized as if the entire art apparatus—including cultural institutions and galleries—was established to provide us so generously with the opportunity to fulfill our exhibitionistic desires in a public display. It isn’t difficult to see what kind of labor market we provide with ideological justification by investing in such a representation.


The subjective freedom, autonomy of conscience and empowerment of individual will that constitute artistic privilege are matched by economic and social disempowerment. This disempowerment is only partly a result of the atomization of artists: the individualism and competition which consigns each producer to conducting her or his business in isolation, if not in a kind of secrecy. Attempts by artists to form associations—some of which of which are documented in the project Services—can only go a short way in alleviating such atomization and the dependence it produces. Its greater part lies not in material conditions of production but in the mechanisms of the system of belief which produce the value of works of art, and affirm the legitimacy of our activity. The divisions of labor within the field between production, distribution and reception are effectively divisions of interest. The Kantian model is alive and well: these divisions of interest are necessary to create the appearance of disinterest essential to the production of belief in the judgment of artistic value. It is a system of belief that requires the judgment of others—people whose interests do not coincide with ours, and do not include that of serving us with their evaluations. If curators and dealers appear to be working for artists their judgment loses its “disinterested” character and thus its value—and they lose their powers to consecrate and sell. Similarly, whereas under the normal conditions of competition, the judgment by artists of their peers has a high degree of credibility, if those same evaluations appear to be based, rather, on an identification of interests (for example, as with cooperative galleries), they become worthless.

The contradictory principle of our professional lives can thus be articulated a follows: dependence is the condition of our autonomy. We may work for ourselves, for our own satisfaction, responding only to internal demands, following only an internal logic, but in doing to so we forfeit the capacity to regulate the social and economic conditions of our activity. And in forfeiting the right to regulate our activity according to our professional interests, we may also forfeit the ability to determine the meaning and effects of our activity according to our interests as social subjects also subject to the effects of the symbolic system we produce and reproduce. As long as the system of belief on which the status of our activity depends is defined according to a principle of autonomy that bars us from pursuing the production of specific social use value, we are consigned to producing only prestige value.

If we are always already serving, artistic freedom can only consist in determining for ourselves—to the extent that we can—who and how we serve. This is, I think, the only course to a less contradictory principle of autonomy.

[1] This text relates to “Services: Conditions and Relations of Project Oriented Artistic Practice,” an ongoing exhibition and working group organized by Helmut Draxler and Andrea Fraser, which originated at the Kunstraum der Universitat Luneburg, January 29 – February 20, 1994. It toured to Stuttgart, Munich, Geneva, Vienna, and Hasselt, Belgium. Participants in the exhibition and working group included Judith Barry, Ute-Meta Bauer, Ulrich Bischoff, Iwona Blazwick, Buro Bert, Susan Cahan, Clegg & Guttman, Stefan Dillemuth, Helmut Draxler, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Christian Philipp Muller, Fritz Rahmann, and Fred Wilson. Reprinted in Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, Alexander Alberro, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2003.

[2] Harry Stack Sullivan, The Psychiatric Interview (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970); Harry Levinson, Organizational Diagnosis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972); Sigmund Freud, Therapy and Technique, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1962).

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984): 230, 234.

[4] Ibid. 240.