Artists' livelihood strategies
Artists' livelihood strategies
Emily Speed looks at the complex nature of making a living as an artist with reference to profiles of four artists, all based in Austria and Germany, whom she worked alongside at the Salzamt, Linz.
Do any of the following statements apply to you as an artist?
- I swing madly between conviction in and utter mistrust of my abilities
- I don't know if I can succeed
- I'm not sure what is expected of me in some situations
- I had a great experience, felt like I was getting the hang of it all, only to then be faced with the next challenge, where I felt completely out of my depth and like the least experienced, youngest or oldest (whichever is worse), and most lacking in confidence of anyone else involved.
I think these statements describe the feelings most people have when starting a new job and that's just the problem; artists are constantly starting new jobs. Nothing stays the same; projects may build and grow, but they always involve new territory. This brings with it the impossibility of being completely prepared. Artists build up valuable skills, become adaptable and creative problem solvers (skills very easily transferred to other spheres), but rarely repeat specific experiences. As Arts Council England put it: "Visual artists are often risk takers. They cross disciplines and work in many contexts."1 Nor is it a straightforward trajectory up through the pay ranks like most industries. Income is inconsistent, unpredictable, and self-employed artists will often find invoices are slow to be paid. Artists' income can also fluctuate wildly, for example, from a couple of hundred pounds per day for education work to working for free on a loss leader; an interesting project that may bring longer-term benefits, good contacts or credibility.
But what does it take to navigate all of these constantly changing working conditions? There are numerous roles to cover as a self-employed artist. The more easily identified include time-management, accounts, marketing, and any specialised skills that the work you make may involve. The acceptance of the four artists I profiled that that is the case seems to make it easier for them - they do not complain or bury their heads in the sand even though they don't find it easy. Their approach is to make these parts of your practice as simple and routine as possible, so there is more time (and headspace) for making work.
The New Economics Foundation's study of different professions states that "job satisfaction is related to a number of factors. Autonomy, control in the workplace, income and status all contribute towards a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment at work."2 On the face of it then, we artists should be fairly happy; we are often largely autonomous, can control what we do in our day-to-day practice and in a cultural sense have a high standing in society. The reality is that although we may be happy, we generally have very low incomes, need to have second jobs where we almost certainly lack autonomy, and we often feel powerless about the lack of control over our own futures. The conversations I had in Linz revealed that these four artists also suffer from this unavoidable inability to plan ahead. They are glad about what they have achieved and earned so far, but also know how precarious that is. But, importantly, they are not sitting back doing nothing; they are working hard and trying to steer their careers as best they can. As Katharina Gruzei said about trying to incorporate long-term planning into your practice: "There are always two aspects you can't control, money and the other people. So you have to rely on yourself."
The funding culture of Austria and Germany is fairly similar to that in the UK in that there are equivalent organisations to our arts councils. There are some extra costs such as health insurance (it is a mix of NHS and private style health service), but there is also help available for people on a low income and historically, artists' needs have been specifically recognised within the benefits system in Germany and Austria. Additionally, because university has also been free until very recently, with low cost loans available, these artists won't have the same financial pressure on them as, for example, current UK graduates might. There are parallels in our education systems too: the CCS Visual Arts Blueprint states that "Students... do not necessarily get effective advice on career and training options in the visual arts."3 This also seems to be the case in Germany and Austria as all of the artists stated that they received little or no professional practice at university.
The four artists have all started working professionally whilst studying, partly, I suspect, because there is a slightly different pace of progression in Europe. Austria and Germany still have conscription for men over eigtheen, for at least six and nine months respectively. In both countries conscientious objectors can do alternative civilian service in place of military service. A year or two out before study is also commonplace. There is, in general, a different attitude towards study in Europe and it is not uncommon to spend up to eight years studying for a Bachelor or Masters level qualification, although this is changing. For example, Germany has recently introduced a maximum term of eight semesters on free education, designed to stop people taking advantage and to get students through university more efficiently. Jagersberger says of Austrians, "we are not the fastest students, but that provides enough time and space for discussions, experiments and thinking".
The artists' choice of location may also afford them time and space. These four artists, based in Linz and Dortmund, are all in places that, like Liverpool, where I am based, have a strong industrial heritage but are increasingly turning to cultural tourism for income. This means there are a good amount of galleries for the city's size, but these places are not saturated with artists like art centres such as London and Berlin. The artists chose this environment for a reason and as Maximillian Haidacher says, "you don't get such a competitive feeling here, so maybe you can work more freely". I asked Holger Jagersberger, Director of the Salzamt, whether he thought Linz was a good place for artists. He replied that "compared to Vienna or Berlin it's more money per head. But there is just a very small scene of art market, no collectors, so maybe the city is not too inspiring." The choice of where to base yourself as an artist is a vital decision that will affect how you work, whether you can get paid work or afford a studio, and your proximity to galleries, collectors and curators. Having an online presence will of course broaden the reach you have, as would the ability to travel and work at short notice. Three of the artists were considering moving to Vienna, London or somewhere bigger than Linz in the future, but it seems to work well as a base during their early careers, with fairly good links between the institutions and local artists. Indeed, Linz and Dortmund are only bases for these artists, as all of their practices involve travel, in Austria and internationally.
So what can be learned from the way these artists manage their practices? They seem to be very level headed and business-like about their practice, but they do acknowledge that plenty of their peers persist in the image of the bohemian artist, so this may be an individual trait rather than a general one. All of the artists are very clear about the need to be organised, to be good managers, and to think about money carefully. They all express a clear desire to make a living from art and are very open about the commercial side of their practices and other work they may undertake. There is also little desire to compromise; they are flexible in their approach to work, but the quality of projects is valued more highly than income by all four. Often, an artist's work is invested with a lot of emotion and is therefore tied up with the personal need to succeed. This can mean that recognition or gaining credibility is more important to a lot of artists than earning money and it is then difficult to separate the economics of practice from the personal. I was impressed by the ability of these artists to see their own situations so clearly.
I think, in general, that these four artists accept that not everything they dislike about the art world can be changed by them as an individual, but they are not afraid to ask for money, stand up for their rights or negotiate their position when necessary. Jens Sundheim, for example, insisted on payment when having his work collected by a museum and Clemens Kogler sued his employer after they published images not agreed in their contract.
One thing I suspect is that UK artists may be better at is networking. Only one of the four artists said they were part of a network although they all acknowledged the need for support when going through a difficult or busy period. Jens Sundheim on the other hand, has chosen to live and work in an arts centre, surrounding himself with artists, although he confessed not to have much contact with the other artists. Although they all professed to work in quite a solitary fashion, each of the artists did say they had a close support network made up of a few friends and/or partners. Katharina Gruzei for example, understands the importance of building the right support structure around her and rather than join a local groups or network, she maintains relationships with a number of artists around Europe who have similar practices or approaches.
So, alongside the management and administrative side of being self-employed, there are also the more intangible tasks such as maintaining the morale of your business and your own confidence in your product. How does one do that? I don't think there is a simple answer as it depends on the motivations, work, interests and personality of each artist. One thing these four artists all have in common is a self-sufficiency that provides a foundation for the growth of their practice and that allows them to keep abreast of developments in the art world without losing sight of their own personal direction.
1Arts Council England, Visual Arts Policy, www.artscouncil.org.uk/artforms/visual-arts/
2A Bit Rich: Calculating the real value to society of different professions, New Economics Foundation, December 2009, ISBN 978-1-90488269-0-5. A Free PDF version is available from www.neweconomics.org/publications/bit-rich
3Creative and Cutural Skills Council, Visual Arts Blueprint, November 2009, p13, ISBN 978-0-9564298-0-3. A free PDF version is available from www.ccskills.org.uk/Industrystrategies/CreativeBlueprint/tabid/81/Default.aspx
Salzamt Atelierhaus/International studio house Linz: The former Salt Authority in Linz was converted into an international meeting place for artists in time for Linz's year as Capital of Culture in 2009. The project cost around 3.6 million Euros with support from the European Commission and aims to support local, Upper Austrian and international artists through residencies and the provision of studios and exhibition space. Bringing contemporary artists to work in Linz and to interact with the city is also vital to the aims of the project. Holger Jargersberger, artist and Director of the Salzamt, describes it as "a platform for young, local and international visual artists to network and exchange experiences and to support their early careers." Partners in the exchange project at the Salzamt include: K'nstlerhaus Dortmund; Internationale Gesellschaft der Bildende Künste, Berlin; Foundation Talinn 2011, Estonia; Platform Garanti, Istanbul and Liverpool Biennial.
Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture official website.
Liverpool Biennale Urban Interventions programme
Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center
Internationale Gesellschaft der Bildenden K'nste (IGBK)a lobbygroup representing the interests of visual artists.
The European Commission
Employment status survey
Scottish Artists Union
Visual Artists Ireland
Do It Yourself: Creative and Cultural Self-Employment in Hard Times
*Use the 'Artists' livelihood strategies' Tag search to find all articles in the paper.
Emily Speed is an artist based in Liverpool.
First published: Research papers May 2010
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