“If sustain implies increasing the population of artists by seeing to it that enough youngsters enter the arts and by preventing artists from leaving the profession, there is no need for any policy. The artists’ population is very good in sustaining itself. This is because the arts are still extremely attractive.

“This is shown by the fact that artists are willing to work for very low incomes. (In the Netherlands almost half of the professional visual artists are poor in the sense that their overall income is at or below the level of social benefits. Moreover, 75% of artists can not make a living from their art work while 40% cannot cover their costs.)

“The moment more money flows into the arts – whether from more demand (including more public commissions) or support (including subsidies and donations) – the number of artists tends to grow and so does the number of poor artists. In the case of support this is problematic: support leads to more artists being poor while hardly increasing the amount of art that reaches the public.

“However, when the aim is to sustain a healthy and productive population of artists which does not have to worry too much about money, policy is called for. But, at the same time the mission is almost impossible. How to encourage artists without increasing the attractiveness of the arts? How to encourage them by increasing the demand for their work and their contribution to society and thus enthuse them and increase their professional pride? And how to simultaneously decrease the attractiveness of the arts in order to prevent more artists entering the profession than before or, better, reduce the number of artists, so that more artists do not have to worry about money?”

Hans Abbing is a visual artist and economist. He is Professor in art sociology at University of Amsterdam and author of Why are artists Poor. The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, Amsterdam University Press, 2002

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a-n.co.uk October 2009