Making a living as an artist
Making a living as an artist
Text-only version of Debra Savages case study-based research into the realities of professional artistic practice.
Foreword by Rohini Malik Okon
This is the second publication in a-ns series of Research papers, which build on Future forecast1 and open up questions around artists professional development and financial sustainability. Here, Debra Savage gives us a glimpse into the working lives of artists as she highlights discrepancies between the perceptions and realities of professional artistic practice, and reveals not only some of the obstacles encountered, but also strategies adopted, in order to make a living as a creative practitioner.
A picture emerges of serious, hard working and highly adaptable individuals whose average incomes are consistently lower than those of other professionals who have undergone a similar level of training, and who are required to undertake a variety of paid activities in addition to their practice to ensure some level of financial sustainability. By exposing the disparity between the profile of the arts sector as a source of creativity, dynamism and, paradoxically, economic growth, and its actual conditions of employment and levels of income, Savage asks a number of questions about the perception of the artists role in society and the validation of artistic practice as a legitimate profession. Her research can be read in the context of a number of other investigations and reports which explore career trajectories and income levels in the arts sector.2
Reviewing the current and future position of Higher Education Art and Design graduates in the labour market, Linda Ball (2003)3 asserts that while there has been a general shift in Higher Education in recent years towards widening participation and developing students employability, in the art and design sector there is sometimes a tension between the pursuit of creative practice for its intrinsic values and preparing graduates for employment. The findings of ArtsProfessionals recent salary survey4 expose low incomes across the sector, while one of the key priorities of Arts Council Englands Turning Point strategy for the contemporary visual arts is to improve conditions and opportunities for artists in an environment where, they assert, more than 50% of arts organisations cannot afford to pay artists for exhibitions and where artists workspaces have been squeezed out of many inner cities, having played a major role early on in their regeneration.
While the following paper reveals artists creativity in tackling financial difficulties, as well as the considerable non-material rewards associated with creative practice, we are left in no doubt as to the amount of unpaid hours that many artists devote to developing their work and profile, and hence to the importance of funded opportunities that do not necessarily demand a finished outcome but offer a chance to critically reflect upon ones practice.
1 The Future forecast research and publishing programme was an enquiry into the future and resources for contemporary visual artists to mark a-ns 25th year in 2005/06, www.a-n.co.uk/future_forecast
2 See the first Research paper Indexing intelligence on www.a-n.co.uk/indexing_intelligence for accessible facts and figures, research studies, conference reports, publications and other resources pertinent to the visual arts.
3 Ball, L. (2003) Future Directions for Employability Research in the Creative Industries, ADC-LTSN
4 ArtsProfessional, no. 132, October 2006
The term artist is readily accepted as an accurate job description. For many artists, however, the practical application of this term often refers to a single career that comprises a portfolio of jobs; additional activities such as lecturing, curating, commissions, or part-time employment that are used to supplement the income derived from making work.
This aspect of the arts profession is accepted as a condition of the job, but is often overlooked. The idea of an entrepreneurial artist, adapting to encompass new roles in order to make a living and further their practice is often hidden by the necessity and desire to promote the creative aspects of the job.
Instead, the dominant images of bohemian artists accepting a life of struggle for the sake of their work, or con-artists duping public bodies into paying for lavish jokes, still control the perception of what it means to be an artist. This invariably helps to create unrealistic expectations about how a professional artist makes their living, and many people (artists and non-artists) are surprised to learn that there is very little funding available for practitioners to simply spend time making their own work. It is this dichotomy between the perception and actuality of the arts profession that has led to the production of this piece of research.
My aim is to take a glimpse into the working lives of artists, to try and unpick what it means to be a professional artist. In order to do this, I surveyed ten artists working in the UK, from a range of disciplines and at varying stages in their career. Such a small sample cannot be deemed representative, but by collecting anecdotal evidence, it is clear that their experiences are far from uncommon amongst other practitioners.
The economic position of artists and their working conditions is, of course, a subject that has fostered a lot of interest over the years. It therefore seems useful to start by orientating this piece of work within the existing body of research and theory relating to art and the economy.
It is widely known that the Arts Council of England (ACE) and a-n The Artists Information Company have conducted research into artists fees and payment practices. In 2005, ACE revised its recommended daily rate from £150 (developed during the Year of the Artist, 20002001) and suggested that in 2005 artists fees should start at £175 and rise depending on their experience.1 Research by a-n, such as the Artists Fees and Payments2 publication has focused on encouraging artists to set their own rates of pay by providing a framework and online toolkit that can help artists to calculate fees based on their individual experience and overhead costs. For example, the September 2006 issue suggested that a recent graduate with overhead costs of £10k should charge a day rate of £183, increasing to £262 for an artist with ten years experience.3
Outside of the art world, the 2005 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) found that the mean weekly pay for a full-time employee was £431 (£22,412 per annum).4 Within this, the top 10% earn over £851 per week, and the bottom 10% earn less than £235. Artists in Figures: A Statistical Portrait of Cultural Occupations5 found that those employed in cultural occupations generally earn less than equivalent occupations given the same Standard Occupation Classification. The same report also found that 79% of those employed in cultural occupations as a second job are self-employed compared with 26% of those with a second job in non-cultural occupations.6
These findings are unsurprising, but do help to highlight two issues. Firstly, that, despite its resistance, the art world is inextricably linked to the wider world of commerce and economics, and secondly, the disparity between the profile of the arts sector and conditions of employment. A large proportion of those employed in the cultural sector are low-earners, self-employed or working under temporary contracts, yet the sector is seen as a source of quality, dynamism, and almost perversely, as promoting economic growth7 and regeneration.
Artists are increasingly confronted by a Pop world permeated by the interests of transnational businesses, image-enhancing cultural forms or competitively oriented city marketing. Urban organisers in Berlin, for instance, have long since discovered the young art scene as a factor enhancing the citys attractiveness and promote it accordingly. (Dirk Luckow, 2002, p.246)8
In this sense, artists, their ideas and their work are all tradable commodities within an economic system that recognises the benefit of a vibrant cultural sector.
This assertion that artists are a force for regeneration can be seen throughout the UK in each urban regeneration programme that seeks artistic input and each national award that is sponsored by a business trying to align itself with the kudos of the art world. It is a position that can be endlessly discussed, but in this context serves to highlight why art and economics cannot be viewed as separate entities. As Santiago Sierra (an artist whose work examines the exploitative nature of the global economy) states in an interview with Claudia Spinelli:
The idea of the artist as a brilliant outsider is a myth that has outlived its time. Artists have long since become global players who, like other producers, must assert themselves within the value system of a worldwide economy.9
Hans Abbing, an artist and economist, argues that the ideal of the bohemian artist was invented by Romanticism, which turned artists from skilled artisans into the purveyors of authenticity.10
Beginning with the Renaissance and up to Romanticism, some artists were held in high esteem but they did not offer an alternative to the bourgeois lifestyle, which was firmly implanted in the world of business and commerce. However, over the last one hundred and fifty years artists and the arts have become symbols of an alternative to the bourgeois lifestyle. It was a romantic, not realistic alternative; and this probably added to its allure.11
This is often translated to mean that artists have to suffer for their work in order to preserve their autonomy and therefore authenticity, to the extent that it has become part of our general education.12 In effect, a line has been drawn between the commercial and non-commercial artist, which states that one is to be looked down upon, the other held in the highest esteem.
Although this is a very simple presentation of a complex argument, it does highlight a key area of the arts market, which is the buying and selling of authenticity. Both art and economics are symbolic systems where values are attached. The trading of cultural objects is the trading of cultural knowledge the non-materialistic qualities of ideas, values, desires and information.13 This allows the purchaser to acquire symbolic profit14, a clear statement about themselves and their social standing. In contrast, to place an economic value on a piece of work devalues that work and the artist who created it; once art is priced it is compared with other art and other consumer goods. (Hans Abbing, 2002)15
In the same way, if the arts become just another profession, artists will be comparable to everyone else and therefore loose their authenticity, making it far more attractive to caricature the struggling artist than a highly educated professional with bills to pay.
Following this line of argument, it is clear that the artist is in a no-win situation. To be considered a true artist, they must suffer for their work (ie an object, experience, service, etc) yet to be able to work, they must be able to survive. The most logical way to do this is by selling work, but placing a price on the value of their work devalues that work and questions the validity of their claim to the term artist. Determining a daily rate, fee, or price then becomes more than just a calculation of costs, but a judgement of artistic integrity.
It is impossible to find the answer to this problem, which is ingrained throughout various systems, and which may not want to be solved. But it is possible to look at the working lives and attitudes of artists to see if these theories bear any resemblance to day-to-day life, and examine some of the strategies artists have developed that allow them to exist within such systems.
1 This recommendation no longer appears on the ACE website.
2 Available from www.a-n.co.uk
3 Based on 177 paid days work per annum and excludes external factors such as an artists track record, unique attributes and market forces.
4 For men, the mean annual pay is £23,492 and for women it is £19,344.
5 Davies, R. & Lindley, R, (2003) Artists in Figures: a statistical portrait of cultural occupations, London: Arts Council of England, p xv.
6 ibid, p xiv.
7 Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R & Scheibl, F, (2002) A Balancing Act: Artists Labour Markets and the Tax and Benefit System, Warwick, University of Warwick, p 13.
8 Luckow, Dirk, (2002) On (Un)-Thinkable Co-operations Between Art and Economics: Economic Visions, in Art and Economy, Cantz, H (ed.), Hamburg, Deichtorhallen Hambourg & Siemens Art Programme.
9 Spinelli, Claudia Artists as Exploiter: Santiago Sierra, in Art & Economy, (2002) Cantz, H (ed).
10 Abbing, Hans, (2002) Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, p 26.
12 ibid, p 89.
13 Felix, Z, Hentschel, B & Luckow, D, in Art and Economy, (2002), Cantz, H (ed), p 242.
14 Bourdieu, P, (1979), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London, Routledge, p 270.
15 Abbing, Hans, (2002) Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, p 22.
Profile of participating artists
Ten artists living in the UK were asked to take part in a survey exploring their career, income, and attitudes to making a living from their work. Artists were selected primarily for their breadth of practice, location, and experience. The sample can be broken down in the following ways:
5 men and 5 women.
3 live in rural locations, 2 live in London, and 5 live in various other urban locations
5 of the respondents are single, 5 have partners, 3 of which have at least one child.
All respondents have at least one BA; 3 have MAs and 1 has two BAs.
Respondents have been practising for between 2 and 25 years; some started practising immediately after university, others came to the profession later on in life.
Represented practices include metal work, digital work, photography, film, installation, performance, public interventions / collaborations, painting, book publishing, curating, and writing.
This selection is not meant to represent all practitioners, as an industry driven by self-employment is difficult to accurately characterise. It does, however, provide an indication of what it is like to be a professional artist, raise concerns and highlight models of working. Hopefully all practitioners will be able to find some elements drawn from this survey that resonate with their own experiences and ways of working.
The Destinations and Reflections: Careers of British Art, Craft and Design Graduates survey published by the Centre for Research and Quality found that graduates in this field tend to take longer to develop a career, as establishing a portfolio, setting up in business, developing contacts for freelance and commissioned work all take time.16 Unlike, for example, doctors or accountants, the entry into the profession is less defined and reliant on these networks and reputations, which is perhaps why beginners need family assistance as well as talent and commitment to survive the early years.17
The difficulty of the early years is something that is common amongst all of the respondents, including those that came to the profession later in life. As one artist commented:
For the first three years of my professional practice as an artist, I exhibited almost constantly and made absolutely no money at all! I supported myself during this time by taking the odd commercial web design job, disability advisory work, sporadic teaching and taking in ironing!
It is important to highlight that family assistance does not necessarily mean financial assistance; none of the artists surveyed mentioned monetary support from their families during the early years (although this does not necessarily mean it did not happen). Looking at households now, four out of the five artists with partners have a partner who is also self-employed within the creative sector, and only one artist mentioned receiving extended family support during a substantial period of ill health. Instead, the support offered by families seems to be on an emotional and practical level:
My partner works with me in the arts, which has its trials, but also means that we both know what it is like and make exceptions that other professions dont have to make.
During these early years, financial support might come from an individual artists networks. One respondent described how she graduated in the early 1990s and spent four years claiming income support, which helped to sustain her performative work.
Hardly having any money became a tactic at the time, a resource in itself as friends and I explored routes to do things cheaply or for free and to access as many resources as possible, I started [a studio group], setting up an agreement with the landlord that we pay a minimum peppercorn rent in exchange for keeping the building maintained.
To some degree, emerging artists expect to earn little or no income from their work during the early stages of their career. One artist who has graduated within the last two years commented: I am still gaining experience so I am temporarily doing a lot of voluntary or work in kind. This can lead to what another respondent (who has been practising for six years, but being paid for three), terms a snowball of opportunity where there is a certain amount of difficulty in deciding when to start charging for time spent on a project, and being able to quantify how much that time is worth.
At the level I am working, we keep getting handed the Poison chalice, the unmissable opportunity to take part in an event, alongside other big names; but there is no (or little) pay. Can I refuse and not be involved? Or is it worth a few unpaid late nights?
One artist who had slightly different experience was also a participant on the Crafts Council Next Move scheme. The advice they were given helped them to develop a business-like approach to their work:
The coordinator of the scheme gave me lots of advice in terms of business, so from the beginning I was aware that I needed to start selling my work as soon as possible. As my visa status does not allow me to become employed, that means there was only one way: make a living out of my art work.
The majority of artists in the UK do not have the added pressure of conforming to a visa status, but it is interesting to highlight that the only artist involved on a professional development scheme found it easier to start making a living from their work. Although this may not be appropriate for everyone, it does suggest that practitioners do benefit from having some business guidance at the start of their career. Perhaps this is because this artist quickly learnt the lessons another artist had learned through experience:
At school, it was being able to draw well that indicated success, through college years being able to think well indicated success. Since then I have learnt that it is a combination of these things with an entrepreneurial edge that can point you towards success.
The expectation for artists to work for little money and the need for an entrepreneurial edge means that artists have to be skilled at more than just their trade. This highlights the need for professional practice to be incorporated into arts training from an early stage, encouraging and acknowledging the fact that being an artist is not just a vocation, but a legitimate way of making a living.
16 Destinations and Reflections: Careers of British Art, Craft and Design Graduates, the Centre For Research and Quality, accessed via www.uce.ac.uk 04/08/2006.
17 Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R & Scheibl, F, (2002) A Balancing Act: Artists Labour Markets and the Tax and Benefit System, p 16.
Rates of pay
Except for two artists, all of the respondents in this survey based their daily rates on ACEs guidelines; however, only two quoted the revised minimum of £175, the rest using the previous guide of £150. The artists that have not calculated a day rate tend to accept the set fees offered by commissions or gallery work.
For some, the calculation of their daily rate was simple. One artist with six years experience charges a day rate of £250; £120 overheads, £30 income tax and £100 wage. For others, the calculation is more complicated as it varies according to the kind of work being carried out:
When paid opportunities arise, I currently charge (approximately) £150 a day for workshops and £200 a day for studio time. These figures were initially based on information support (such as a-n and ACE guidelines) but later developed in light of going rates and experience.
Some artists also varied their rate based on their perception of how much the employer / commissioning body can afford. Responding to the question How do you calculate your rates, one artist replied, On what they are willing to pay me I cant afford to set a high rate.
Amongst the ten artists surveyed, there was also a common feeling that if a project is considered to have an added value, either in terms of developing their practice or promoting their work, it is worth pursuing regardless of the level of remuneration. One artist who has been practising for fifteen years commented:
For commissioned projects I try to go for a daily rate minimum of £200 but rarely actually achieve this. I will usually go for a commission because I think it is an interesting prospect, or because it may help my practice or profile. Likewise I generally work on a project till it is finished which usually means working more days than Im paid for. But I generally dont work for nothing anymore.
From this brief snapshot, we can ascertain that practical considerations such as overheads, the kind of work being produced, perceptions of the commissioning party and project, going rates, and an estimation of a practitioners experience can all be used to arrive at a daily rate. As this last quote suggests however, it is also important to examine what is not included when calculating a daily rate. As Galloway et al state, freelance artists absorb many hidden costs, including fees associated with maintaining performance standards, time spent on proposals and auditions, meeting potential sponsors and promoting new work.18
All of the artists surveyed indicate that fees and rates often do not cover the amount of work that actually takes place. One artist echoed Galloway et als comments, stating I could never have foreseen the sheer amounts of time and form filling involved in obtaining the smallest of artists opportunities, or I will usually do more work than the fee covers or pay for things like travel expenses when they are not included in the budget. In other words, time and money often doesnt equate. This is even more of an issue for artists who work collaboratively, where fees have to be shared: For one performance we would be very lucky to get £150 each, although we would have worked seven days plus.
To me, this indicates that in many cases, although commissioners, galleries, institutions, etc, are willing to pay for a unique end product or process, they are less willing to acknowledge the cost of an idea.19 Although it can be argued that this is the same for all self-employed workers, unlike other professions, practitioners often have to research and develop a new idea for each proposal. Added to this, is the fact that each time an artist accepts a commission or exhibition, it is their reputation that is on the line and not that of the institution, making it virtually impossible not to put in the extra hours required to realise an idea.
This view is supported by some of the comments made by the artists, indicating that the larger institutions are more difficult to work with. After incorrectly assuming that a large city gallery would provide an artists fee, one artist commented it appears to be artist-led initiatives and smaller spaces that strive to ensure artists are paid, and another feels the art world is too elitist, pandering to white middle class sensibilities and aesthetic values rather than allowing good quality work to naturally rise to the top.
To this extent, Abbings notion of artists serving art20 does seem to bear some truth. He argues that for artists, making money is a means rather than an end any extra profit equates to more time making work rather than increasing personal wealth. As an economist, he presents this argument as a negative, whereas other artists prefer to focus on the positive aspects of self-funding their time. An artist who has recently graduated gave perhaps the most idealistic response stating, I have often self-funded projects as I try not to compromise my work too much, whereas a digital artist who has been practicing for six years and has three children takes the more pragmatic view:
I enjoy both the creative freedom and absence of a demand for resolution of a piece ... self-funding presents the challenge that you have to make exciting, inventive work with basic technology immediately available to you a process much more akin to traditional art methodologies.
As a digital artist, she is lucky that, without including the cost of time, this self-funding can be done for the price of a cinema ticket. For an artist with much larger overheads, a more strategic approach is required:
I normally work on an existing series for two years, and then I take one slightly easy year doing more research to develop new series and travelling to get inspired. This three-year cycle seems to suit me. Of course in the third year I have less income, but I have time to create something new.
It is unsurprising then that average (and median) incomes in the arts are consistently lower than in comparable professions that require a similar level of training. The precariousness of artists incomes are further exacerbated by the nature of the sector:
[Artists] experience a lack of control over their working lives, not only in the uncertainty over jobs or contracts which is familiar to self-employed people in other occupations, but also because their income from such work is unusually low.21 (Galloway et al 2002, p 15)
Unlike other self-employed professions, low incomes mean that if there is a period when artists are unable to find work, or work due to sickness, for the majority of professional artists, there will be very few reserves to fall back on. This is reflected by comments such as it is only through family tax credits that we actually manage to survive. We have no disposable income or I have never made a sustainable income from my work and My parents are artists and told me never to become an artist; instead I should do something useful like be an architect, because I could earn more money.
Levels of income
Looking at the incomes of these ten artists, it is also easy to see that not only are they poorly paid in comparison to other professionals, but unlike other professions, there seems to be little increase in earnings as their careers have progressed. Regardless of experience, the majority earned between £8,000 and £11,400 in 2005-2006. There are some notable exceptions; an artist within two years of graduating earned just under £5,000. One artist earned £25,000, £18,000 of which was from a permanent part-time job, £2,500 from producing work, and the remainder from other freelance work. An artist who is represented by an agent earned £26,400; and an artist who had been awarded a significant fellowship earned £36,000. For the latter of these artists the majority of their income had come from the fellowship, but now that this has ended their level of income for the following year is significantly reduced:
I imagine the current year will not be as rosy from a financial perspective. I will also have to think about different ways of bringing in extra income to cover the expenses of my practice.
These figures are also all made up of additional activities (other than commissions, gallery fees, grants or sales) or more than one strand of practice. Typical work includes lecturing, teaching workshops, design activity, writing fees, technician fees, or curatorial work. Only two artists mentioned non-arts related jobs, both of which were menial labour (ironing and working as a hotel chambermaid).
Income earned from a second job can be destructive rather than constructive and difficult to manage. One artist complained that:
Everything I do is arts-related. Most of the time this is highly beneficial, but there will be occasions where I am designing for an art project and cannot then submit work. There is also a conflict in that I will sometimes have to remind people who I work for regularly that I make work as well as do design.
Another artist feels unemployable: My diary is always full with sporadic dates possible dates, and projects, committing to a job (non-art) would mean dropping those projects, and the possible networks and opportunities that these things might lead to. Others, however, incorporate their second jobs into their practice, for example, running artist-led projects or curating, and even use this second job to inform their practice. One artist describes how lecturing has affected her approach to work as expanding my own practice and developing a personal interest in education on many levels which influenced my approach to art making.
Regardless of whether a second job is seen as a hindrance or a help, working in multiple jobs generally results in working long hours, typically forty plus a week. This has a massive impact on personal choices as well as artists careers, and could help, for example, to provide some clues as to why the majority of women in cultural occupations are aged between 25-3522. One female artist commented:
A low and uncertain income makes family life hard to imagine and probably quite a struggle without private funds. If I had settled down and had a family I think I would either have had to change or give up my practice.
Another artist described how a three-month residency changed her attitude to work and led her to reassess her priorities:
Until then, I was working non-stop without holidays and weekends off. Three months dislocation was a catalyst to think about my career as more of a philosophical lifestyle. What sort of a life did I want to have its not just making a living is it?
In addition to these various streams of income, all of the artists have received one or more grants during their career so far. Regardless of the level of grant, all of the artists have regarded these awards as being beneficial in a practical sense, (I also got a video camera from the project which I was able to keep), for career development, (funding from ACE paid for marketing, mentoring, research, travel and materials), and the freedom to develop new work, (an ACE Individual Artist Grant allowed me to produce a multi-platform installation that gained me my first London-based solo exhibition).
Perhaps the most deceptive aspect of grant funding in the arts is that, on the surface, it appears to provide a good income. One artist has received two sizable grants from the Arts Council of England since 2003, totalling £34.5k, of which, £13k was used as income, an approximate annual income of £4,333. These figures, along with these artists levels of income, echo Ruth Towses 1996 research, The Economics of Artists Labour Markets (Arts Council of Great Britain). Towse noted that:
Artists... appear to be committed to ploughing any money which might be available back into their current and next projects rather then seeking to pay themselves any kind of realistic wage... it is no surprise that an artists income does not tend to rise in tandem with his/her status or reputation within the art world.23
These comments are also reflected in some of the other negative impacts that were continually mentioned by the participating artists, the first of which has already been alluded to a number of times the need to continually justify ones position as an artist. All respondents mentioned the endless amounts of form filling and having to convince funding bodies that they are worth investing in. Funding bodies obviously have to find some way of making their processes transparent, but it seems that a successful track record does not equate to less form filling. As one artist commented:
There seem to be two major issues that conspire to make making a living difficult. One is that artists have and continue to seek some kind of autonomous position within the system (whilst realising that there is no such thing as pure autonomy). The other is a simple case of supply and demand lots of artists in a small market place.
This second point, that the number of artists affects each individual artists ability to make a living, is one shared by Abbing. He argues that grant giving leads to structural poverty: Extra funding will never increase income levels but merely increase the number of practising artists. (2002, p 130). This is an extremely difficult problem to address and one there is no easy answer to, particularly within a funding system that is somewhat beholden to the will of government (as is shown by current debates surrounding the relationship between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Arts Council of Wales).
Whilst recognising the importance of funding in aiding artists to develop and thus improve the cultural output of the UK, it is also important to recognise the impact of other schemes in terms of professional development. Echoing the sentiments expressed about the personal decisions made during a three-month residency, respondents also cited mentoring, support for marketing, applying or being nominated for awards, as enabling them to reassess their practice:
Three unsuccessful nominations for prestigious arts prizes / awards in the last year or so have made me reconsider what I do. Sounds odd, because I didnt win, but receiving nominations from people I hadnt known were aware of my work, and looking at the other nominees gave me a boost ... [and] a review in Art Monthly uncovered aspects to my work I hadnt previously considered.
This is not to say that these sorts of schemes or prizes should replace direct funding or the arts, but that the presence of a critiquing and support system is equally necessary to sustain a vibrant cultural landscape.
By working in such a precarious way, these artists are facing an uncertain future. Out of the ten respondents, four have pensions from stable part-time work. Five own property (three of which also have pensions), which has the ability to provide some security for later life. A low and vulnerable income makes providing for retirement and/or affording a mortgage very difficult and some artists can do little more than survive on a day-to-day basis.24
I have just been through a time where I was unable to work for six months, which was, quite frankly, hell. Thankfully, family supported us and my husband was able to still work during this time. At present I have a college pension, which might pay me twenty-five pence a week when Im ninety, which adds to my usual insomnia. In all seriousness, at present it looks like I will still be working until I basically die.
This is obviously not an ideal situation and is currently under examination through a piece of research commissioned by ACE.25 Recent changes to the pensions law may also make pensions schemes more suited to artists needs as a greater flexibility will enable pension payments to reflect changeable levels of income.
22 Davies, R. & Lindley, R, (2003) Artists in Figures: a statistical portrait of cultural occupations, p xiii.
23 Quote taken from Measuring the Experience: the scope and value of artist-led organisations, Susan Jones, AN Publications 1996.
24 Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R & Scheibl, F, (2002) A Balancing Act: Artists Labour Markets and the Tax and Benefit System, p.98.
Although it is possible to blame funding structures, etc, for keeping incomes lower than those of counterparts in other professions, the use of ACEs suggested daily rates by the participating artists does indicate that artists themselves do have the ability to demand a higher level of remuneration. This is supported by the fact that, contrary to popular mythology, every artist in this survey and who I have met feels they should be paid for their work: We are extremely talented and well educated, and in return we should be rewarded for the time and commitment to our work. Or another artist commented:
I am often astounded that in the UK the artist is expected to solve all manner of social ills, to operate in solitude for the good of it all, to philosophise/criticise/generate economic regeneration wherever they go, yet their financial treatment is as gifted amateurs.
It is likely that the establishment of a nationally representative body would help to improve working conditions and set realistic rates of pay26, but it is incredibly difficult to standardise a profession that trades on its uniqueness and authenticity. One solution to this is to encourage artist to confidently calculate their own rates of pay based on their experience and financial needs rather than on an outdated minimum rate.27
From these conversations, I also feel it would be productive to continue exposing the realities of making a living as an artist. At the risk of destroying some of the glamour and mystique, replacing the image of the bohemian artist suffering for their work with one of a hard working, committed and, above all, valuable addition to society, will help to produce a better understanding of what it means to be an artist and perhaps help improve payment practices. In this sense, the focus remains strongly on what is the most important side of the profession developing and making work.
Money is always an issue, economics is part of the work, what has been most valuable throughout is working with others to initiate and imagine possibilities of standing by doing what you believe and trying to find ways to do it!
From this glimpse into the working lives of artists, it becomes apparent that a large part of being an artist is being adaptable and entrepreneurial. Unlike other professions, the driving force behind this entrepreneurial attitude may not be financial, but to seek other, non-materialistic rewards such as freedom, creativity and personal satisfaction.
24 Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R & Scheibl, F, (2002) A Balancing Act: Artists Labour Markets and the Tax and Benefit System, p.98.
26 As has been demonstrated by bodies like the Scottish Artists Union and Equity.
27 For example, using The Artists Fees Toolkit
Debra Savage is a freelance writer based in Cardiff. Alongside writing reviews and features for a variety of publications, she has worked closely with a number of artists, artist-led galleries, and public bodies to produce reports and co-ordinate local and international events. Savage has an ongoing interest in how the arts are represented and debated outside of the creative sector, which formed the basis of her MA in Journalism Studies for the University of Cardiff in 2003. She has also worked for Cultural Enterprise, the Business Support Agency for creative practitioners in Wales.
Rohini Malik Okon is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently completing her PhD in the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths College, and is Project and Events Co-ordinator at Independent Photography, an arts organisation delivering participatory programmes across the London Borough of Greenwich. She was previously Projects Curator (Education and Research) at inIVA, and managed the research project Translating the Image Cross Cultural Contemporary Arts at Goldsmiths College.
Devised and edited by Debra Savage.
Rohini Malik Okon.
First published: Research papers December 2006
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