Art and Labor

I grew up in Dearborn Michigan.  For those of you unaware, Dearborn is the home of Ford Motor Company and is immediately adjacent to the City of Detroit. I mention this because there is something very unique about this particular environment.  That uniqueness, is in the intense intermingling of labor and art. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, home to one of the six most important art collections in the world.

Diego Rivera

In 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned to create a series of frescos, twenty-seven panel in all, the two primary panels are 17’ tall by 45’ wide, and the entire installation fills the walls three museum stories tall. In all, the twenty-seven images that cover more than 4000 sq. ft., and these walls dominate and overwhelm any that enter the court. The subject of the murals, is the poetry of the laborers at the Ford Rouge Plant, in harmony with the machinery, the promise of better things to come, the pride of work. It draws us in and tells thousands of stories.

Aside from the sheer size of the work, the emotional impact of the murals screams volumes. And while the work itself is a must see, the fact that in came into being is a bit of miracle in and of itself. The funding for the work was paid for by the Ford Motor Company. Edsel Ford himself contributed $20,000 just for the material cost of the project. Why is that surprising? It’s that Diego Rivera was known to have communist leanings, and while enamored with the industrialization of America, he was very much a proponent of labor. At the same time, Ford Motor Company, was in the middle of its’ brutal sometimes deadly fight against the Unionization of the Ford Facilities. Despite the differences, this monumental work was completed and has been celebrated since.

Now this is all a lengthy preamble to my concerns for the current conflict that is having a devastating effect upon the culture of Los Angeles. In short, Actors’ Equity Association, (AEA) has decided that the 7,000 actors that live in LA county, may no longer participate in intimate theatre, with a few exceptions, unless they are paid minimum wage. On the surface, who can argue with that, after all, it’s important that we all be able to support ourselves while we pursue our dreams.

diego rivera workers detroit
The Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts

But the reality is far different. The economic impact is such, that many small theatres will no longer have access to talent, talent that want to do the work, in spite of the fact that there’s no money available for pay. In fact, by an overwhelming vote of the local membership, a 2 to 1 vote against the change, by the largest turnout in the history of AEA elections, the union is moving forward without further discussion. What looms even more darkly, is that should AEA prevail in its’ effort to impose reciprocity on members of any other performing union, they too in turn will not be allowed to participate in intimate theatre. That would mean that the pool of actors for intimate theatre would be reduced from the current population of over 250,00 members of SAF-AFTRA, AEA and the other performing unions to only actors that have no union standing what-so-ever.

While we can spend years, and in fact have, arguing about the feasibility of increasing the cost of productions by tens of thousands of dollars, the growth of income to the theatres has never suggested that these increase in costs could be supported by ticket sales. When our major houses, such as the Ahmanson and Geffen and Pasadena Playhouse, make some of their seating available to discounters, the indication is that the growth of income will not in fact meet the need.

So why is it that a union, AEA, where less then 10% of its’ membership makes a living wage, can’t find the courage to meet itss own constitutional commitment to foster the art of theatre?

diego rivera workers painting detroitHenry and Edsel Ford in the midst of the Great Depression, in the midst of battling unionization, overcame their principals of personal gain, and supported not just an artist in conflict with their avowed politics, but funded an art instillation that would come to be a symbol of the labor movement.

Perhaps these men, just short of being robber barons, understood that art has an intrinsic value that supersedes personal interest. Perhaps they understood that in supporting art they were supporting culture. Perhaps, they had sufficient vision to see a greater good. Now in all fairness, Henry Ford, I understand hated the piece, and refused further funding of the Art Institute. However, in time that changed, and Edsel continued to be a patron throughout his life.

I submit that part of the problem, is that as artists, we the actors, I am a member of AEA, have not taken a close enough look at what our role is in the great machine of our society. Because we call ourselves union members, just what do we have in common with say a steel worker?

My friends that I grew up with all aspired to become something, many of them, in the process understood that they had to do something else to survive while building to their dreams. Joining the Teamsters or the United Auto Workers was not their goal, it was a result of taking jobs they had to take to survive. Are they proud union members, most of them yes, was that their aspiration? However, what budding thespian does not dream of one day holding an Equity card.

How many of those that pursue work as an actor were told, “no, you can’t be a doctor”, “no you can’t be an accountant”, “no, you can’t be an engineer”, “you have to become an actor!” I’m pretty much willing to bet those words have yet to be uttered by any parent to any child. Yet when the words are “you need to work”, “I can get you a job at the plant”, “you can learn to be a plumber…” you get the idea. That’s not to demean any trade, most are filled with workers that pride themselves in what they do, but the work came as a result of necessity, not aspiration.

Lest we get lost in the weeds here, I do not imply that artists should not be paid. I only state that artists upon adopting the life of arts must face the reality that what they offer for sale may not demand the price an artist think he’s worth. Should that stop the artist?


Artists are paid for excellence, Diego Rivera was not commission because he was a member of the painters union, he was commissioned because he had a vision and an ability to express that vision in a fashion that loosed the pockets of those fighting labor. Diego Rivera himself was a task master, 15 hour days without breaks was not unheard of, did that make him less a prominent of labor?

AEA must retool, it’s early 20th century perception of what a union means to artists is arcane. We are no longer faced with the same challenges our early brethren met, we are faced with the challenge of helping artists find a way to build careers, not by eliminating opportunity for them to practice their craft nor denying them an opportunity to be seen.

Actors’ Equity is now rumored to be considering rewriting their constitution, the intent is said to be to eliminate the notion of fostering theatre as an art. Perhaps AEA should rework their constitution and redefine themselves as an artists’ guild, that would have far longer reaching consequence then forcing minimum wage into a conversation where it has no place.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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