Even Before COVID-19, Artists Were Badly Paid. This Needs to Change

Courtesy Tate United

Trickle-down arts policy in the UK has been disastrous

It’s hard to imagine now, in the midst of the arts emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of the Arts Council of Great Britain’s founding aspirations was to enable artists’ pursuit of art for art’s sake. Back in 1945, giving artists ‘courage, confidence and opportunity’ to ‘walk where the breath of the spirit’ took them was a guiding principle. But three decades of arts policies dedicated to forging a hierarchy of building-based arts organisations, in the expectation that social and economic benefits would trickle down to artists, has side-lined concepts of keeping their interests at heart or putting arts policy at the service of improving artists’ social status.  

Even in the 1980s the Arts Council in England believed passionately that ‘all artists should benefit from public consumption of their work’, so much so that they instituted payments to artists presenting exhibitions in public galleries. Nationwide application of this as an ‘Exhibition Payment Right’ for artists came with the threat in one English region at least of pulling grants to galleries who didn’t comply. The millennium saw expansive arts policy claims for the one-off ‘Year of the Artist 2000’. Dreamed up by a consortia of arts councils and regional arts boards, 1,000 artists’ residencies promised to provide ‘lasting opportunities for artists creatively, structurally and financially’. Both these grand levelling up strategies failed. In economic terms, only 5% of galleries actually paid the exhibition fees due to artists and despite establishing minimum residency pay rates, Year of the Artist grant recipients commonly got half the designated fee.

The ‘golden age’ of arts under Tony Blair’s New Labour government saw an unprecedented government increase to Arts Council England (ACE), with massive arts infrastructural growth. Lumping the arts into the creative industries characterised by low pay and uncertain prospects exacerbated existing patterns of exploitation of artists. Any policy notions of fair pay for artists were forgotten about. The raft of new shiny arts buildings resulting from National Lottery capital awards and their expanded tiers of staffing were financially fragile. Premised on a commercial revenue model, arts policy’s misplaced expectation has been that the ingredients for long-term resilience are strong and well-paid leadership, an up-skilled salaried workforce, with consistent fundraising and multiple earned income strands augmenting what ACE now prefers to call ‘investment’ rather than what it really is – subsidy.

Installation view of Mahtab Hussain, Dr A Shahid and Ember (2020) at Southbank Centre’s Everyday Heroes. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Linda Nylind

2008’s crash and austerity period revealed the underlying problem: earned income strands are by nature unreliable. The South Bank’s current financial mess is just one contemporary example of the fragility running right through the funded arts sector. However polished an organisation’s fundraising effort, competition for grants, funding and earned income is fierce and relentless. There’s some irony that even in ACE’s ‘good’ 2003-2006 period – in which policy trumpeted artists as ‘central’ – its own research revealed that half of visual arts organisations ‘couldn’t afford’ to pay the artists on which their public programmes and earned income strands depended. Austerity cutbacks a decade ago exacerbated the problem, when ACE decided to preserve the public-facing at all costs, with the caveat that funded galleries would also take responsibility for artists’ welfare without dedicated resourcing.

It turns out the affirmative policy action to ensure artists were paid at fair rates that ACE energetically promoted from the millennium era was a passing fashion. In arts policy’s eyes nowadays, artists’ sole value is as a ubiquitous pool of talent, ‘spottable’ career fodder for the ever-growing band of gatekeepers – the curators, commissioners, agents and consultants – whose own career ascendancy depends on playing the arts institutions’ game. It’s no surprise that artists are kept at an awkward ‘social distance’ from policy and the default position is that looking after artists’ interests is never mission-critical. As former Arts Council England CEO Peter Hewitt confirmed in a recent report for a-n The Artists Information Company, it’s the artists who ‘always get lost’ in the funding reality. Inevitably, almost anything or anyone else – particularly senior arts jobs – are judged more important than artists’ livelihoods.

I’m not the first person to point to ACE’s complicity in retaining the exploitative and precarious conditions the majority of visual artists have to live with. The net result of successive policies to secure ‘world-class’ arts for the public to enjoy by amplifying arts leadership and prioritising business resilience and workforce development is that visual artists are financially no better off now than 35 years ago. Some may argue that there are ‘too many artists’, yet the percentage of artists is smaller in a visual arts workforce which is now 40 percent larger than two decades ago.

Tate United protest, August 2020. Courtesy Tate United; photograph: Juliane Sonntag

Artists’ economic precarity is exacerbated by an ambiguous employment status. Although three-quarters of artists are self-employed, most art opportunities offered to them have little or no leeway to negotiate terms and contracts on a freelance basis. Artists are treated like any other commodity, brought in on fixed rates and budgets ‘just in time’, their ‘outputs’ pre-determined. Artists inevitably supplement low art incomes with other jobs which tend to treat them as employees, further undermining their self-employed status. As illustration of the livelihood implications of artists’ ambiguous employment status, artists’ charity Acme’s submission to the DCMS Committee considering COVID-19’s impacts shows the majority of their artists ineligible for government and ACE emergency funding.

In the ‘new normal’ of a COVID-19 world, delivering ‘human thriving’ in and through the arts – including fair pay for artists without whom there’s no art – calls for a substantial systems shift rather than ACE’s manageable reset. By devolving arts funding to local authorities, the Fabian Society’s recommendations counter some inbuilt inequities in arts delivery. But by underplaying artists’ distinctive contributions and its assumption that ACE always knows best, these don’t go far enough and won’t lead to cultural democracy.

ACE’s inclusivity and creativity agenda may sound good on paper but can’t be delivered in the ‘trickle down’ arts development economy it’s wedded to. It’s time to get rid of the deadweight by leaving no institutional ‘stone’ unturned. Only stringent editing of slow-moving hierarchical institutions in the regularly-funded portfolio – including through mothballing some and the merger of others – will clear the decks.

Artsrewild and CulturePlanB are amongst those reimagining the cultural sector’s future ecology, with artists’ welfare at the heart of a discourse around inclusive alternative radical strategies. Achieving nuanced artistic and economic conditions for artists and their broad communities of interest rests on three transfers of power. It’s the co-validation arising from sustained, personalised, working relationships between individual artists and their collaborators – rather than insidious gatekeeping – that enables artists to get ahead artistically and economically. Micro-scale cooperative developments building localised capacity and resilience for artists and their collaborators – such as artist-led Artgene’s Extreme Views initiative and Idle Women’s immersive artists’ residencies – are preferable to eking out funding to few artists through ultracompetitive, top down grants. Such initiatives that are democratising and rebalancing arts policy and funding are far better placed than our current clique of regularly funded organisations to tackle the rocky, uncharted territory of the ‘new arts normal’ ahead.

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