Open For Business at ‘The Work Office’

BY Arts Desk  July 24, 2009 at 1:07 PM EST

Think your paycheck is small? Try getting a gig at The Work Office, where New York City artists have contributed to a WPA-style collaborative art project for Depression-era wages.

The Work Office (or TWO) is the brain-child of Katarina Jerinic and Naomi Miller, who came up with the idea last November, as the financial crisis was escalating and the presidential election had pundits everywhere considering how the country (and government) was about to change. Would we get an updated WPA for the 21st century? many wondered. Jerinic and Miller didn’t think so, but they have a wistful nostalgia for the America that recognized that being an artist is actually a job.

Running their own “office,” they interview prospective “employees,” who have applied for an assignment. Assignments are as pragmatic as “build a bridge” (which can be broadly interpreted) and as whimsical as “give a concert for your houseplant.” Artists have only one week to finish their assignment. The range of projects include a play, a photo documentary of a street in Brooklyn and a quilt. Despite the time constraint, the boss-ladies have been impressed with the ambitious results.

At the end of that week, The Work Office throws a “payday party” for its artists—it’s an opening, but it’s also part of the art, a performance between the employers and employees. The artists are called up by name and handsigned checks for $23.50 are doled out—the weekly wage of an artist employed by the WPA (an updated wage would be equivalent to a little over $300). Even though that’s basically enough to buy a couple of drinks at the party, the artists “appreciate the gesture,” says Miller.

The flock of New York City artists who gather tonight at the Chashama Gallery near Times Square definitely won’t be able to quit their day jobs off their earnings, but they’ll be getting something more, hope Miller and Jerinic. They say that when artists used to line up to receive their checks from WPA offices, they would socialize and get to know each other. At TWO’s openings, the idea is to expand everyone’s social resources, to build community if not pad their wallets.

Listen to Naomi Miller and Katarina Jerinic discuss how they came up with the idea, and why they think a new federal WPA initiative is unlikely to happen, despite the financial crisis.