The battle to increase the minimum wage for Minnesota workers has long been deadlocked. Last Monday, a breakthrough was finally achieved, with Senate lawmakers signaling they were willing to back a hike to $9.50 an hour, from the current minimum hourly wage of $7.25, under the condition that it would apply only to big businesses. According to Governor Dayton, this increase could potentially provide 350,000 working Minnesotans with a raise. Still, there are many details to be worked out by the House and Senate before an increase can officially be mandated.
This Saturday, Gamut Gallery in downtown Minneapolis will work in conjunction with the artists of Rogue Citizen to host an exhibit seeking to raise awareness for low-wage workers in Minnesota. The show will feature over 40 pieces to be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis for a price of the purchasers' choosing, at or above minimum wage.
The first edition of "Minimum Wage" was a solo show at Stevens Square Center for the Arts by Rogue Citizen artist Matt "Lizardman" Wells in 2009. The concept behind the exhibit has a personal connection to Rogue Citizen, whose founders met working jobs as security guards and members of Minnesota's Property Services Union, Local 26.
"Around the same time that we started getting serious about what we were doing, the union wanted to build arts and cultural and musical presence in demonstrations and outreach work," Wells says. "There are many artists and musicians that are employed in their day job with Local 26, so a couple of the organizers realized that they could start using the talents that their union members had by sourcing that kind of thing for banners and performance art and protest signs." When the debate over a minimum wage increase began to heat up in the Legislature recently, the artists of Rogue Citizen were inspired to begin creating work for a second exhibition.
Each artwork was created within one hour. There were no expectations set for the type of piece, or medium to be used. "When I was picturing it, I was picturing the same size over and over like your work week; it's your one hour, your one size," says Gamut director Jade Patrick. "Instead, they've used unique frames, sizes, and materials, and many found objects. It's going to give the show more of a creative voice, and help it come alive." The resulting body of work features over 40 pieces from each of the five Rogue Citizen artists, including graphics on matchbooks, paintings on three-foot canvas, and re-purposed plaques.
The "Minimum Wage" event will be hosted by SEIU Local 26 president Javier Morillo-Alicea, beginning with a rally featuring guest speakers as the work is unveiled. "We are going to have a couple hours where there's no buying, so everyone can view the art, get some suspense going, some build up and anticipation," Patrick says. When the sale officially begins, pieces will be sold to the first bidder, so guests are encouraged to arrive early.
"We have a history of calling into question the value of the art object and making certain kinds of aesthetic accessible to people," says Wells. "With this, it's really up to someone to decide, on a first-come, first-served basis, what the art object is worth, as opposed to a gallery that caters to 13 wealthy art buyers deciding what that art object is worth, causing it to become no longer accessible to anyone else." The idea of selling artwork for minimum wage not only serves to make the art more accessible to all, but also prompts buyers to consider how much an hour's worth of work is worth, alluding to the plight of low-wage workers and the high demands placed upon the quality of their labor.
The event will also feature live music by local hip-hop and spoken-word artist Guante and Doomtree affiliate Ander Other. Guante has requested to be compensated by service industry minimum wage, plus tips. Other performers include Jeremy Carpenter (previously of KMOJ), activist and acoustic guitarist Pilar Vatres, and Skip Grandz and Mark Kreazy from the new MNworks compilation album. A grant from the Arts and Democracy project has covered all of the event overhead, including performers' wages. This grant will allow all proceeds from the evening to be donated to three local community low-wage worker organizations: Minnesota Young Workers, Centro de Trabajadores en Lucha (CTUL), and Greater Minnesota Worker Center.
A recent report by the Jobs Now Coalition found that raising the Minnesota minimum wage to the proposed $9.50 an hour would increase state spending power by $472 million, while improving economic security for 357,000 Minnesota workers and 137,000 children. The effected wage-earners are not just teens with summer jobs; more than 75 percent are over the age of 20, and are predominately women.
These men and women are some of Minnesota's hardest workers currently earning its lowest wages, many of whom are financially supporting a family. The Economic Policy Institute recently analyzed our local economy, finding the average annual income needed for a family of four to be $73,526 in order "to live free of serious economic deprivation" -- a figure that may seem staggering to those currently earning just $7.25 an hour, or in some cases, $6.15.
IF YOU GO:
4-11 p.m. Saturday, March 8
Blue plate special by neighboring restaurant Devil's Advocate