We are deeply saddened and disturbed, but unfortunately not surprised by the Penland administration’s response to a whistleblower (the classic conservative corporate response).
Penland portrays itself as a progressive, caring, and liberal institution for artists and craftspeople, yet it has exploited the people most responsible for facilitating its arts and crafts programs. Not only is it egregious that Penland administrators violated labor laws in the first place, but it’s worse that all coordinators were not sought out and fully compensated for every hour of every year that they worked. Penland administrators have taken a legalistic approach instead of appropriately compensating all workers and apologizing to them—including the whistleblower, John Britt. This would have been a more healing and compassionate response and would have benefited everyone (notably Penland’s public image) at relatively little cost.
We were also disappointed to learn about coordinators’ low hourly wages. A handful of people—the coordinators—ran the creative programs for abysmal pay (even without considering the overtime violations). How much did the director make during this same period? The gap in pay between front-line workers and administrators should be an economic justice issue for Penland’s board to resolve if they believe Penland is a truly progressive arts and crafts institution...and not a Wal-Mart-like institution. The comparison to Wal-Mart is not a fluke—it, too, has been found guilty of wage and labor violations in the past in the name of maximizing profits.
The current Penland administration focuses heavily on fundraising, courting donors, and touting physical plant improvements. There should be a stronger focus on valuing the heart and soul of Penland, which is the amazing community of artists and craftspeople and their work. Maybe it’s time to revisit what Penland’s priorities should be for the future. Penland should set an example for how artists and craftspeople can be fairly compensated for their efforts, rather than perpetuate the stereotype that exploiting artists is OK.
Potential students and artists planning to teach at Penland should consider seeking opportunities at other crafts schools (are they doing any better?) until Penland rectifies this situation through full restitution and public apologies. Donors should likewise boycott Penland until it can justify their generous support. The rights of working artists and the Penland community spirit have been damaged by the administration’s past violations and inadequate remedy.
Jeff Supplee (former student, studio assistant, and Penland donor)
Martha Copp (Penland donor)