I’ve been doing some informal research for a while about how we survive in the UK, as artists, creative practitioners, professionals, after and during college etc. I wanted somewhere to bring it all together, and I thought the AN blog would be a brilliant place, that other creative practitioners might get to read it and contribute if desired.

I wasn’t ever one of those creatives who could live the popularly known Van Gough dream of extreme poverty and fevered creation.  I’ve had times where I’ve lived in slight poverty and didn’t enjoy it – nothing very extreme, but there was a year I had to wait to go to have a summer picnic with my mother before I could eat fresh fruit and I felt really rubbish after that year. Rather than producing the best work of my life, I juggled several service industry jobs and woke up at 3am worrying about eviction. My partner at the time was in a similar position (both artists and of course both studying as continuous professional development is a thing we artists take seriously apparently). So after a few years of that, we both decided that particular art dream wasn’t for us.

On the whole though I’ve been lucky and able to support myself, though not always through art. I did a BTEC in the 1990s and worked as a really great lipstick and shampoo sales woman for years. Then I finally got to do the creative design work, including illustration and special effects makeup, that I had wanted to in film. It was about then that I first discovered that entry in to creative jobs is often via many years of free work and some other alchemic process that I never was actually party to.

Having had experience from doing actual paid jobs in the beauty industry, I managed to mostly circumvent the unpaid phases. Since then I’ve returned to study several times and now work a lot more with my own work, still on other productions and with illustration, plus I teach. In some shape or form I’ve been working for about 23 years, and even though I bought too many avocados with my lipstick commission rather than investment in the property ladder, I think the situation for all of us is arguably a lot tougher now that it was back then. For a start the cost of living has skyrocketed.

So this blog is about that, and what we as artists can do to help our industry be an abundant place to work in. Nobody reading this should fear that this notion in itself points to the aforementioned alchemy. We are not talking about making gold from an old, crusty watercolour pan: In November 2017, a UK government press release* announced the record £92bn contribution the creative sector makes to the economy. It also stated that it is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the UK economy.

We work in a vibrant industry that has human connection and social cohesion at its heart, offering a moral compass to life as well as inspiring invention and innovation. These things mean that both economically, and for the greater good we are essential. I also feel it is essential that we start to help ourselves more in finding ways for that £92bn industry to sustain the livelihoods of people who work in it at all levels.

I’ll be covering lots of topics on that theme in this blog, but my hope is to also learn by starting a conversation. Please comment, or make requests for blog posts if you are interested.

*(Creative Industries Record Contribution to The Economy: UK Govt; Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-record-contribution-to-uk-economy)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Image: From Windrush to Brexit by Rita Lazaro.
 

When studying fine art there is often no obvious choice of a first job role after a BA, or even MA course. It evidently isn’t like studying dentistry or accountancy, where there is a vocational clue in the title of the degree. So most students don’t expect to walk in to a job as a fine artist. An arts education, however, can give sharp transferable skills that may or may not be recognised as such in the jobs market thereafter. As well as learning to make and produce things within an on-going and sustainable creative practice, my own fine art degree contained units on the ethical field of an artist, critical theory, collaborative practice as well as a fictive dissertation on Lefebvre, that also managed to involve researching food supply chains (knowledge that has been useful in the run up to Brexit).

However, in all I found my higher degree a lot more useful than the BA for boosting my professional earnings, though that might be for a number of personal reasons as well as those specific to what and where I studied. I have always had one foot in the ‘commercial arts,’ ever since first studying an art and design BTEC in the 1990s, so I might not be a typical fine-art graduate. Since that first ‘90s foray in to art education, I never took too much notice of exhibiting opportunities because I always preferred storytelling and books to the gallery wall. (Although I like do to dip a toe in the water sometimes). So I was always quite happy to combine academic development with my previous vocational training to apply to actual jobs, sell lipstick, draw something to someone else’s brief etc.

Yet people I know who wanted to have a go at becoming exhibiting artists only seemed to have one clear right of passage, and that was to win some kind of prize thereby getting discovered. My MA wasn’t strictly fine art, and none of my group did much about shows after leaving, although I know many people entered art competitions during that time. Our college was one of the collection points for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, and some of the MA Drawing alumni had actually been in the award and won prizes. When tuition fees and living costs in London are crippling, it all seemed like the promise of that bank holiday Euromillions rollover. We’d had a guest talk by one of the winners who had said it had changed her life.

Naturally none of us ever got selected for a show or won anything. A friend and colleague who graduated a year later was in a more fine-art centred group on the same course, and many of them had quite impressive London shows afterwards. The year after my MA was mostly spent doing more training, gazing after tumbleweed and watching my bank balance plummet, so I wondered how they had so much success. (Aside from the obvious conclusion that their work was much better than mine). It took another year or so, and digging around by said friend, to discover that the shows were all self-funded and quite expensive. It hadn’t happened as a result of being ‘discovered’ after the degree show.

So there everyone was still left with art competitions, and that’s about all any of our tutors ever had to say about how you gain a semi-affordable exhibiting opportunity and get to claw back some cash at the same time. What you do as a job after training in art was always left as a rhetorical question, and not that many people ever seemed to be keen to discuss their own career paths. I always wondered if they didn’t want to give away secrets, or if they were hiding the fact that much of their income still came from desperately selling crap on ebay. Those who did, openly spoke about how they could start teaching immediately after their degree to support themselves (no QTS and PhD needed for entry level university teaching then), or how they were able to work part time in average jobs and still afford to pay rent, bring up a family etc. These were obviously people who got established before the mid 1990s.

I don’t actually think that’s satisfactory advice for people doing degrees in the 21stCentury. Even though a BA is not a vocational qualification like the NCFE nail technician’s diploma I collected, surely some career advice wouldn’t go amiss. I don’t teach university students, and I don’t actually teach pure and high fine arts either but when called upon to give advice to my students I try to make it more practical because I think they deserve it. They’ve spent time and money for me to teach them how to print or draw and the least I can do is give them some practical advice on their next steps. Where I don’t know what the hell they should be doing to recoup the costs of their tuition fees in our tanking economy, it has to be acceptable to say that.

One thing I seldom advise as a solid career route is entering competitions, although every year the print presses at college are all aflutter close to the deadline for the RA summer show application. This year an ex student has been selected for the preliminary part. We’re all really excited because if her prints get in, they’re likely to sell… and selling the work you make…well that’s another strangely alchemic process that nobody seems to understand. Unless you do dogs and landscapes of course.

So after all that, why did I get involved with the Refresh Art Award? For me it was probably more to do with my interest in the economics of the art world than anything else. How better to understand these things than running an award? My co-founder has more experience than me of actual exhibiting and entering competitions and awards. I suppose I have the experience of putting in funding proposals though, and the thing we were both disillusioned with is the sheer cost of entering anything in comparison for the value you are likely to get. Surely something can be done to address this?

Winning a competition might seem a bit like a lottery, and it’s no surprise why. As reported by the BBC, the Royal Academy Summer Show in 2016 accepted 12,000 entries online*. That many entries puts the odds of getting noticed down a bit, surely. With prices for entry at £35 per work, someone might be left wondering who the real winner is. While those who get in to art shows, usually get beautifully curated and sometimes prestigious exhibition opportunities, what happens to all of those who don’t get to exhibit or win a prize?

Added to this, not all competitions are as transparent or worthwhile as the RA Summer Show.  Even with the very few I ever entered (blame it on MA fever) I know that you pay up anything from about £5-30, get a rejection some weeks later and are never any the wiser. Working with process-based drawing, and modern (think Farage trying to kiss Dianne James) or illustrative fairytale images, I really should have just spent the money on getting drunk, or buying lottery tickets or chocolate or something.

So there we were, writing a wish list of what a decent, worthwhile competition for artists might actually look like. A few weeks later we’d somehow launched. Basic criteria went something like this: We’d try to have a lowish entry fee, so that more people could afford to enter without it becoming sacrificial. We’d have gift vouchers for people to club together to support struggling art purists living like Van Gough. We would try to offer everyone some value, because we knew that the maths of art competitions mean that most people don’t win the prize. We’d stay independent. So rather than begging for funding or eliciting money in exchange for brand advertising, we’d be self funded and later from entries. We’d set up a proper banking system so that if we were proved incompetent, at least entrants would get a refund. We’d accept work from anyone as long as it was contemporary art. We wanted this to be global and to use the digital to do what it does best, which is to be borderless and collaborative. We wouldn’t hire ‘interns’ or students without pay.

Is any of this even possible? And, if so, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, with only a couple of weeks to go until the deadline, it’s definitely possible. Whether it is a success or not is still hanging in the balance. As mentioned, self funding was the way forward, and we need to have a good couple of weeks with entries not to be living like Van Gough ourselves. We’ve already put in hundreds of unpaid hours (intermingled with activities as diverse as breast feeding and working full time) due to above principle of not conning anyone in to thinking they’re gaining valuable career experience by working for us for free. Yes it’s much better to drop your principles and I’d advise anyone to do that.

What has been really amazing about this though, is the support we’ve received from the art community. Talking to lots of the artists I’ve met at their private views of shows, or during random interviews for our blog, there really is some appetite for a way to exhibit, enter shows and approach competitions without just burning money constantly and never seeing a return. Maybe there really is a gap for something like this.

For those who don’t win the prize, or get in to the show, the value we conceived was in promotion and also in being able to sell their work through us. So everyone who enters gets promoted across 4 social media accounts and beyond, plus we have an online gallery that turns in to a shop for the duration of the physical show. True it’s not the RA dream of Grayson Perry personally selecting your work, and then going on to sell every print in an edition, but it is definitely more value that the average art competition. We recognised that on some level, the selection of work for these shows is always going to be a little bit personal. It could also be political, practical or for sound curatorial reasons. So we wanted to give everyone something for their £10.

Due to the idea that we’re going to represent every single person who entered, I had been asked if that meant we’d just get rubbish. The amazing thing is it turns out that the art world of people at large making work is hugely self-editing!  Even with an entry as low as £10, we’ve not received a single piece of anything even approaching rubbish. Look at our gallery of submitted work and it is thoroughly amazing. This begs another question… if we’re so good at self-editing as a community/industry, why on earth do we need people to represent us anyway? More about that in another article.

Getting involved with the Refresh Art Award has been a professional learning curve beyond others: The self-funded nature of what we have been doing has been akin to independent crowd funding, without the framework of a well known website who could give us visibility. So it has been really tough. Many artists who sign up are often not at all social media savvy, which is an interesting observation for us when we’re promoting them. When we were trying to spread the word, we realised rapidly that we’re definitely not appealing to the establishment, and that has made promotion much harder too. People who you might want to get involved definitely do not want to get involved. (Special thank you to London Print Studio, Richmond Art School and UAL Postgraduate Community for bucking the trend and being wonderfully supportive). Instagram algorithms are murderous fiends…

Ten days before I may or may not lose the freedom of movement across Europe I was born with, I’m currently the most happy that our use of a digital base has made our competition borderless. I squealed with excitement the other day when I saw we had an entry from Peru. This is why dictators ban creativity before they ban opposition parties. Art spreads like a virus.

If you like the sound of any of this, or have any comments at all about the nature of what we’re doing, please write or ask questions below. As we’re tiny, self-funded, physically and financially limping to the end and digital, the best way to help us, and all the artists who have shown faith in this business model, is to spread the word. We’re on social media @refreshartaward or at www.refreshartaward.com.

*The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition sees double for the first time: June 2016. Accessed 19thMarch 2019 from [https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/JtW1WN7SrctP3RF9sK7qQ8/the-royal-academy-summer-exhibition-sees-double-for-the-first-time]


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I have been trying to focus on other things recently, so had said to artist friends that I was done with the begging bowl. Of course though then I saw something interesting and put in a proposal for a residency. A few hours (yes hours) later I got a reply that they were looking for more conceptual artists, and then I was left wondering firstly why I spent days doing a proposal after I had definitely said I was done with this, and secondly why my idea that involved creating a vast oceanic drawing with the left eye I only have 20% vision in due to MS, would not be considered conceptual when looking at public perceptions of disability. I also wondered if having the disability myself means I don’t really count as the public?

I went to a highly conceptual art school, so I have done my time of performance and video things. I even spent the most part of one term pouring glitter down plug holes but I’ve always needed to work for a living, so my website and portfolio probably reflect this more, with a range of public art and illustration jobs I’ve had over the years.

I know that right now you might be reading this and saying ‘get off this site, you’re obviously an illustrator – or beastly commercial artist,’ but I really don’t think that in 2019 it matters all that much. Maybe a bit like publishing being set up to avoid unsavoury commerce situations, leftover feudal snobbery still means that those of use who also have to occasionally touch money are not fit to really be fine artists. Yet that is one of the attitudes I have been trying to address in this blog series about financial sustainability.

I really believe that the model of the artist sojourning in Tuscany while painting plein air, or living in a squat and doing interpretive dance for Special Brew, still needs a big overhaul. If you are really homeless, making art must be a complete nightmare and you probably wouldn’t have access to the digital equipment you need to put in art proposals and run your own website etc. On the other end of the scale are the people who are independently wealthy, and it doesn’t really matter whether they make money from their art or not.  In the middle must be the vast majority of people who work in the arts, who are the ones in desperate need of the top-down transparency, honesty and good practice that seems to be in short supply. So that’s my January wish list. I don’t feel that I need to make any resolutions for myself at the moment but believe that people a bit further up the chain actually should, if they really care about their industry and want to still have something left in years to come.

A friend suggested I ask for feedback about the conceptual element of the above rejection because that is what ended up bothering and confusing me. A big part of me thinks that conceptualism wasn’t really the problem and that they just thought my portfolio was rubbish. I’m really fine with that but I want someone to say it. Being honest is so much better than being nice because being honest is helpful.

What I am very happy about, and would like to commend the curator for, is that I got a response to my application, even if it was a confusing one. This puts the whole project higher in my estimation, as it is very common to never hear back. I once submitted a research proposal of over 5000 requested words, references and even had the hour-long interview to never hear back from anyone again. Then there was the three-hour four person interview and portfolio review several years ago where the interviewers perplexingly ended up hiring two people for technical roles who had no experience, and instead of even a brief rejection email made their announcement on Twitter a month later.  A colleague over the summer told me that he had not only been interviewed but ‘employed’ for an unpaid test day, and after that never heard from the very well-known institution again. He wasn’t going for a job as a waitress, which might have explained the test shift, but another technical role where his MA would be considered an entry-level qualification.

In terms of my confusion over this current job rejection, my website looks like it belongs to an illustrator, quite on purpose because as mentioned I’m one of those filthy artists who have to earn money on a daily basis. I’ve also recently developed a love of drawing watercolour mushrooms, so I’m waiting for a book cover illustration opening all about chanterelles, and I know I’m hopelessly decorative.  I sent some photographs of installations and performance with my application but it’s not too hard to spot a love of storytelling, illustration and paper running through it all. So I am assuming that this is where the unsuitability came from.

My work not being to someone’s taste is something I can’t argue with, and their feelings are never going to stop me drawing Baba Yaga, so all would actually be well on hearing that. Otherwise you’re just left guessing, and that doesn’t nourish anyone in the industry. Artists left guessing can’t improve their offerings and projects won’t improve their input.

What is eternally hard about fine-art briefs is that whether vague or super-specific, you still never actually know what people are looking for. Unlike drawing mushrooms for a book cover about mushrooms, when submitting for a fine-art brief you never know if they actually mean ‘race horse and conceptual theatre’ when they say ‘watercolour champignon.’

The fudge gets worse if you track projects through from the call-out to the finished show, which often seems to have absolutely no relevance to what was on the brief to start with. As a type of sick hobby, I’ve had fun doing this over the last couple of years with things I would never apply for but just downloading the brief then placing myself as an audience member to see what they end up doing. Sometimes the project outcome is so mediocre that it makes you wonder where the fee went, and you know that at least 50 other brilliant proposals must have been rejected off-hand. At other times it’s so suspicious you have a feeling that the curator / project manager just hired their friend from prep school. Either way most things seem to end up being photographs or murals.

I know that the art world is hardly the only place where standards for jobseekers are low. Any search online about issues with job title, descriptions, interviewing, transparent decision-making shows that every industry and many countries seem to have this problem. In the UK, the economy has been unhealthy since 2008, and then further decimated by austerity. Whatever the employment figures, it is a fact that we have a huge amount of low quality jobs, underemployment as well as in-work poverty. This, combined with the lack of any established good practice in the fine art world, other than having private wealth before you have the temerity to become an artist has led to a really hard, and sometimes baffling, industry to work in.

While we may not be able to do anything about the current economic climate, as an industry we can adapt to it and protect ourselves. Not just as individuals, but everyone. It helps to have some commitment to this from top down though, and that is where right now everyone needs to do a little soul searching. We cannot carry on with established institutions running on volunteers and underpaid staff, funded projects being run like lotteries and expensive education that gives no clear steps in to work.

Many people already in the established position to hire, did it before things got so hard: before tuition fees, before rocketing housing prices, before blanket zero hours contracts for everything else, before academic tenure was axed, before everything creative in the whole world was freelance, before getting studio space became like hiring a suite at The Ritz, before the gig economy became the prime location for earning sub-minimum wage.  We’re now facing the possibility of losing EU funding this year, for a range of often really helpful community-based public art projects, so it is going to be essential to have a healthy industry that nourishes everyone who works in it.

I have been thinking about all of this for a long time, and last summer had a spate of being the hirer. I have to admit to being horrified to getting a deluge of nearly 600 applications for a tiny job. So there I was cursing my silly principles and I knew that if I didn’t do what I considered to be the proper thing, when I actually had the chance to get away with it, then I would be forever ashamed of myself. I spent a gruelling afternoon replying to all the people I rejected, explaining the truth that I’d been inundated and therefore they hadn’t got a position. Luckily bulk emailing is a thing now, although I know that even with this a few people must have fallen through the net. I apologise for that but did as much as I could. In response I got a surprise further deluge of emails saying thank you and that nobody ever gets back to them usually, and that this was so unprecedented they felt moved to write to me to express their gratitude. What a shameful place for our industry to be in, when art often pertains to be so much about social cohesion, ethics, moral frameworks and humanity.

In truth my own hiring decisions were probably iffy as well, as there was no way I was going to be able to thoroughly consider 600 applicants. I ended up choosing the one woman who sent me the most easily readable synopsis, as well as reliable looking experience before I got text blindness. As it turned out she was a great choice, and we’ve worked together again but I know that hiring managers probably have a hard job when it comes to picking what works for them.  I know that none of this is easy, but against the backdrop of the economy I don’t see a choice to reforming ourselves unless we want to once and for all haemorrhage all artists to Uber driving and administration. If that day ever comes then all those institutions currently sitting on their laurels over this will find themselves without a place.

So in all of this, what do we do about it? I’d actually like to see a voluntary code of practice that people could sign up for. What do other people think and what would be in it?  I will start it off with my one wish.

For jobs that require lengthy written proposals and a large amount of time spent on application, I would like clearer briefs, not just describing the project but also what they are looking for in practitioners and in an outcome. Forget the unicorn fishing and actually give us some idea of what you want. If you just want to see some random artwork and the type of person you are after, then let people apply with only portfolio links and CVs before getting to the part where a written proposal is needed. This will weed out anyone unsuitable for you, and stop everybody else having to waste days of precious freelance time applying. It also might mean fewer applicants to the proposal stages, which in turn means that brief but proper feedback should become an achievable thing for rejections at that stage.

On a positive end note, I’ve worked with some brilliant people and organisations over the last few years, and even had some rejections that I thought were handled extremely well and helped me to learn rather than just feel confused. Good feedback was always a part of that. I feel that I want to list all these good eggs just because they really matter but I will leave it for the moment just because it could be another whole post, as they are all fabulous organisations and people for different reasons.

I’d really love to know what other things people want from fine-art employers? What would make this whole system better? I’ve just put one wish down here but it would be great to get some more, so please post below if you can. Do you think a voluntary code of practice would catch on, or be helpful?


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I admit now that I maybe got off on the wrong foot with the Patreon website but I still think this is a very necessary discussion. For anyone who hasn’t come across Patreon as a tempting way to live like a 21stCentury flâneur, it is a website that brings long-term crowd funding to the individual. Rather than asking for donations for a specific project in exchange for a fixed outcome, you can get tiny amounts to help you live, complete other projects, just for being you and for providing on-going titbits to your saviours etc.  The Patreon website sites important benefits of its system, such as ways to get a sustainable living, have a more direct relationship with an audience and get recurring revenue.

It is easy to see how this could be a good financing model for content producers such as bloggers and vlogers, who work on labour-intensive ongoing happenings they can’t sell as items. Before you ask, nope sadly nobody is paying me to just be myself on this blog.  For anyone who wants to sell one-off paintings or sculptures it might be less appealing a model, for both artists and audiences, but the idea of patronage is not new to any of us artists.

Facilitated by the overwhelmingly collaborative nature of the digital, the concept of micro funding in this way doesn’t sound too bad, right? Which doesn’t explain why I practically came out in hives when I discovered it a few years ago. I had been reading the Twitter feed of an established journalist who had decided to quit the day job on a newspaper to go off on a jolly around Europe and write (another) book. Said journalist apparently needed people to give a few pounds a month to enable this.

Now I am willing to admit that much of my reaction might have been fuelled by envy. I would love to write another book, spending a whole summer gazing thoughtfully in to the middle distance, sipping strong coffee in the cafes of Vienna, Berlin and Riga. I just don’t have the gall to ask anyone to give me a few quid to do it, when I already have a job here that I am grateful for both in terms of bills paid and fulfilment.

And let’s be honest, I also suspect that I do not have the public profile necessary to generate enough patronage to fuel the café lifestyle. I also fear anything that looks like a popularity contest. As an artist, writer, educator, I don’t really care if people like me enough to give me money. I’ll happily engage with an audience but it’s the work that I hope might prove interesting or useful for someone one day. I am used to seeking to improve my skills before my personal marketability.

As a professional I’m fine with taking money for my contribution, especially because art, writing and education have been redeeming enough in my life for me to believe they are essential to all of us. Yet if creative success relied only on an outgoing persona, ability with kitten heels, or stylish mug shot it would go much worse for me than just looking a bit weird eating a bacon sandwich, and look where that led.

In the book-holiday scenario there was also something confusing about having the money upfront for the lifestyle needs, although I know that’s what music and book publishing companies used to do when business was better. An advance seemed a sensible thing if it would give someone time to develop their piece of work, rather than what we all do now, which is hold down 20 jobs and develop our work at the pace of a snail or not at all.

I still think it’s an okay system. If I had the money, I would be happy to give an advance to someone whose work I wanted to publish, but to also polish up in the interim.  Big publishing companies still do seem to give out meaty advances, but the only one I know of personally in recent years was a six-figure sum given to an already well established journalist to write a novel off-topic. Most of us aren’t already that far up the chain, so I think this really has ceased to be a reliable model.

Yet I do recognise that the world seems to have changed. A mixture of economics and new technology has contributed a lot to this change and I just don’t think that things will go back to what they were.

With this in mind, one of the reasons I started this blog was to try and look at practical possibilities of sustaining a professional creative practice right now where, as creatives, we’re left needing to negotiate the new situation while paying ever increasing living costs. I also hoped to investigate what the advantages are in our newer system, that we as artists are not yet managing to leverage to create a sustainable industry for us all. I believe that part of this formula will come from independence but am not sure that these types of schemes really offer the independence they seem to.

So practically and morally can small-scale patronage replace large advances handed down in anticipation of future sales? This is where I feel it’s okay to plug my already published book of short stories and say that I don’t mind people who like my writing to give me some money after the fact, but only because they’ll be going home with a book and that feels fine.  So if you like any of this ever, please consider buying a book…

Maybe it’s because of my high-end lipstick sales background that I really believe in handing over already packaged value at the point of receiving the money. Selling expensive cosmetics was one situation that you didn’t need to feel bad about asking for money in: Nice lipstick makes people feel good so can be worth the money, plus a ‘no thank you’ wasn’t a personal slight. Someone telling you they hate your painting style and wouldn’t give you 50p for it is maybe more hurtful than a boutique customer drawing the line at a new blusher brush.

One good thing about Patreon type schemes seems to be that at least they are encouraging artists to ask for money, and that’s not something we are necessarily good at, even if we do have that finished piece rather than a flâneuresque lifestyle aspiration borne of dollar contributions.

What other ways might there be when getting comfortable with asking for money to live the creative life? I used to go to a lovely meditation retreat run by a Buddhist group who taught via donations rather than charging a fee for the retreat.  They also allowed you to lie down to meditate, which is something worth killing, let alone paying, for.  Held in a beautiful silent house in Sussex, you would pay for your bed and board up front when booking but the teaching was given for free to start with, and you could choose to pay an anonymous donation at the end of the week. I suppose there must have been some people who didn’t pay, and others who felt gratitude enough to pay over the odds.

One of the teachers explained the idea of asking for money so well, and it has been a constant comfort to me in the years since, when people look perplexed at the thought someone (maybe even me) should charge for a painting because it was possibly enjoying to make. Much like spiritual teaching, we might indeed do these things for love but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit the world and are worthless, and love doesn’t get a roof over your head or food in your stomach.

I realised then that something as intangible as spiritual teaching or time to meditate could be worth exchanging something else for, without any soul searching. It would just depend on what it was worth to you. At the moment whether some people like it or not, money has become a unit of exchange for us, and it saves bartering. I suppose I could have learned to make shoes, and then given a pair to the teacher for her children back in Spain, but it was a much better exchange to pay some money; gratefully because I always felt I got some real benefits from those weeks.

Whether it is a cd or a painting, or something less solid such as Buddhist teaching or perceived psychic healing, all parties accept that you are giving money in exchange for the receipt of something else. It is not charity, and it is not theft.

That is what was probably causing me discomfort about my first experience of Patreon, which was to support a lifestyle choice. I didn’t see where the exchange was really because if you wanted the book at the end of it, you would still have to buy it. Not to mention the fact that I know it is possible to write a book at home and in between other jobs. I might be wrong but at the time, all I saw was some already privileged and opinionated person, in a good job that pays a lot more bills than mine does, going off on holiday and expecting people to donate their morning coffee once a week for it, while they stayed tied to their desks and dreaming of being artists. Art for the few.

Since then I’ve learned that Patreon benefactors often receive extra things in exchange for their help, such as access to an early podcast, a competition or the chance to buy a piece of limited edition merchandise. Maybe Patreon is just a digital version of the old-fashioned fan club you could send a yearly subscription to in exchange for a magazine and maybe a key fob or set of stickers. In that way it doesn’t seem too bad. It still seems too precarious a system to really do anything useful like pay a mortgage or rent, but I might be completely wrong about that too?

Two things that made me question my attitude towards people using Patreon came along in 2017 and 2018, and since then I have started to believe that these things have value even if they are not some ultimate answer to our current predicament. One is a vlogger who does the usual sort of fashion-music-makeup-philosophy with a really nice personality mix, and the other is a political podcast I have been listening to, to soothe the woes of knowing that 90% of my better paid freelance work this year came from partially EU funded UK arts projects. (Some people might consider that patronage too, and it might be, but these grants are usually for community projects centring around things like social cohesion and physical and mental health. So the idea is that they are spending some money to get a benefit for all of us society).

I really like the vlogger and I know she doesn’t earn money from much else at the moment, so I feel that the micro funding is a real help in this situation. For anyone following the Youtube earnings debate, there was something a while back people were calling Admageddon, which saw many Youtubers have their advertising income slashed due to changes in the platform. More about those types of earnings in another blog.

It seems to be that starting a Youtube blog only leads to riches / a moderate salary for very, very few people. So someone who went to film school, putting a bit of effort in to crafting entertaining videos, while working in a range of other jobs, has to be respected for at least doing something to keep making art in a challenging economic system. After Admageddon I noticed she was plugging her Patreon account more, and this was someone I actually felt I could give a dollar a month to. Yes the beauty of crowd funding is that patronage can be as low as a dollar.

So there I was confronted with the confusion of still nearly going in to anaphylaxis every time I heard about Patreon, while actually finding someone I wouldn’t mind giving a dollar to if it helped her to keep entertaining me and have the career she wanted. I would like to note here that I don’t consider platforms like YouTube ‘free’ content because you pay with the slices of your brain handed on a platter to advertising. Even if you always click to skip the ad after the first 4 seconds, you still got to watch the bit that advertisers put all of their efforts in to.

The podcast I liked was a completely different idea. All of the people hosting it, as well as guests, have really good jobs and the kind of public standing that meant they could launch a political podcast and get it to be popular quickly. I think at the moment that the Patreon contributions must go to running the podcast rather than paying them a salary. I felt that it was a valuable podcast and that in principle I also wouldn’t mind contributing a few pounds to its running, whether the money went to salaries or production, or something else. I think they offer the podcast a couple of days early to subscribers, and it is for a defined project, so seems like the kind of exchange I would be comfortable with. It’s probably worth noting that I haven’t actually subscribed to either of these examples despite thinking I could.

So over the years, I have softened a bit to the idea of Patreon but I still have problems accepting patronage in general as a viable business model for artists in the 21stCentury, especially when it comes in the form of a regular drip of income as opposed to the way to complete a specified project, or pay for a particular job.

It might help support a YouTuber or two, provide pocket money for a modern troubadour to pitch their performance tent at various points along the Interrail map but I’m not sure that it matures in to somewhere stable to live, regular healthy food, bringing up a family etc. What do people reading this blog post think? Is this something that you have delved in to, or do you know any people who have had success with this form of funding?

One thing I do think that’s good about these initiatives is that they give people on moderate incomes the chance to be involved with art projects and artists’ careers. I am sure that most people who contribute their dollars to Patreon are really happy to do it, which is something that should be taken seriously. I am still happier about this type of crowdfunding of tangible projects though, like books, films, exhibitions etc in the style of platforms like Kickstarter. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the type of project I would feel happier running, and I think this model has led to some great events, projects and products.

My bottom line at the moment is that in principle, regular subscription patronage may be a useful thing to have around but it isn’t stable enough to be a real option for most. However, it is certainly making use of the digital to throw a lifeline to independents, and aren’t most of us indies these days?

Any time you work for a big entity, whether government or privately run you realise the greater part of all budgets seem to lead to to administration and marketing. Digital platforms have facilitated these types of micro crowd funding opportunities that speak of independence. However the plethora of content and data generated means that it is easy for artists to get lost, and the dream of success still seems as limited to a few, as it was when we had better-funded patrons. Maybe we’ll have to bring back the middle men again at some point?

My main problem with this model is that it too often still relies on benevolent support than on the idea of an equal exchange.  Art is not a frivolity, or a bit of fun. It is worth something. In our economic system that means it is worth money. The precariarity of relying on kindness is not suitable to allow most people to actually sustain a whole career this way.

For someone who is truly independent, building up enough micro benefactors might take years so this is not a solution for anyone wanting to become a professional artist, who also needs to pay bills the normal way for the decade or so it takes to become a bit more financially successful.

Neither does this model value art for the intrinsic part of civilisation that it is. If my car needs fixing I pay a mechanic once they’ve done the job. When I want to watch a film, why should I download it for free then pay $1 a month to one of the people who contributed to the making of it?

I wondered if anyone reading this has had an experience with this type of funding model, and what your opinions might be? Is there a way that we could use these very good principles of micro-funding, public engagement and independence in a way that is more empowering and sustainable for artists?

Would you feel comfortable ditching a paid job to ask people to support you create your dream art project, or do you feel more comfortable making something then selling it? Do you feel that patronage is important for the arts or do you, as an artist after the 20thCentury dream of agency, resent begging for scraps?


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