Value, meaning and the crowd

I am thinking about how our artwork acquires value, how does it move from having an entirely personal value to having value to society in general and measurable value in the market?

My work has value to me because it has significant meaning. I make things that are full of meaning (to me) on many levels, they are rich with layers of ideas some of which are clear and direct, others of which are less clear and more ambiguous, or just not yet consciously identified. I judge my own work by the degree to which it seems to hold a set of meanings that are intended, if the work accrues other meanings by chance or whim during the making process then this may be to my advantage or of course it could spoil the work by distracting from my original intention.

As I work I make a whole series of incremental decisions that are individually difficult to identify but which add up to specific meanings embodied in the work. These meanings give the work its purpose and its character.

Inner meaning and investment

The processes described above are all about meanings that come from or through the artist, these only carry across into the outside world if the meanings are successfully embodied and discernible by others in the work. If this is the case you might expect the work to immediately start accruing real value as something desirable and profitable to trade: “if you want this meaningful work, please invest £xxxx which is the monetary equivalent to this meaning.”

From meaning to commodity

Grayson Perry described in his recent Reith lectures the process whereby a consensus of opinions confers value onto an artists works. To paraphrase his words, broadly this means that an artists works become assimilated into the art canon by an informal art crowd showing an interest and approval gathering around an artists work. For this to even begin happening the artists works have to appear on the art crowds’ radar through the kind of attention that shows, awards, articles and reviews can give. Firstly you have to make a body of work, then you have to bring it to the attention of a number of key people such that it starts to build you a reputation as a serious artist. If you can keep this marketing process going it should gradually imbue your work with increasing real financial value to the extent that your artwork becomes a commodity that can be relied on to grow in value so it can safely be invested in. This process represents the successful transfer of (some of) the meaning in an artists work from the individual to the collective and from an idea embodied in an object to a tradable commodity.

Art as a mountain

It has taken me a lifetime to understand that this is how the process is supposed to work and now I find myself still right at the beginning of it, perhaps the foothills are in sight for me but if the actual mountain range (a career as an artist where I earn the majority of my income through making art) remains a distant vision at least I now know where the path is which I did not when I left art school. A few years ago I was advised* that 80% of artists never progress their careers in art beyond the stage they reach at graduation from art school so I guess there must be a lot of artists, ex-art-students and latent artists in the same boat.

Are meaning and value equivalents?

So what conclusion could I draw from these thoughts, and what if I am wrong, that meaning is not related to value? What if value in art is entirely randomly attributed as it so often appears to the world outside the art business? I suspect there is a lot of guesswork and speculation involved in valuing art just as there is in valuing shares. Although in theory I would prefer it if value was fundamentally linked to meaning, I know this is too simplistic. Value in art is created and maintained by a consensus of ideas which evolve over time and can only be tested by history

my own work is driven by my need to make things and that is directed by my ideas and the meanings I want to convey. I also think some meanings emerge from the unconscious whether we artists like it or not, both these processes, getting ideas from our conscious and unconscious minds out into the world is what artist do for society -it’s why our work has value at all.

*Matt Roberts Arts


Art, profit, truth

Can we profit from our art? How do artists on the periphery of the art world make sense of their struggle to maintain a practice based on a drive to create artworks? As artists we need to survive in a culture where it is really hard to get a share of the profits from art. There are also different ways to profit from art.


Through this blog I have established (to my own satisfaction) that a tiny fraction of artists are working full time. I think the figures (if they existed) would show that 99%* of artists have to have other jobs to make their art careers possible.

Whatever statistics tell us artists have to invest heavily in their art careers in the hope of making sufficient profit to continue as artists. Do we also have to recognise that our profit may not take a strictly financial form? Well perhaps I hope to have it both ways, the key for me to be able to spend more time making artwork is to earn more from it more regularly.

Motivations, driving forces, vision

In the context of making art, profit may be a hope or an aspiration but it is unlikely to be the core motivation. If financial profit was the driving force for artists then I assume there would be about 99%* less of us. What are other possible motivations? I think I have several things driving me to make my work.

– Aptitude. I am a visual and tactile person, I like working with my hands and making things, I have not identified any other job where this is both the means and the end except that of artist.

Tacit understanding. I think in a visual and physical way. We do not all think in the same way or use the same route to discover solutions to problems. I like this quality I think it’s one of the things that makes me the artist I am, it also makes me difficult to fit into the world of work and employment which is increasingly based on rationality, linear thinking and teamwork, which do not suit everybody all the time.

– Vision. As an artist I am trying to use my skills to create things that have a veracity about them. My ‘vision’ is a subjective one, I think that if I can stick with it, it will lead somewhere that is interesting and beneficial. This benefit could simply be an aspiration or by believing in it I could be on the path of a truth that is also meaningful to others. I am using my own sense of what is valuable and important as my guide.

– Resonance. When I do something or make something that works, it has a resonance. This is the only word I can find to explain the feeling I experience when something hits the spot. I get it when I am exposed to work that has integrity, or when I am involved with a group of people that are really concentrating in a constructive way, drawing, making music, collaborating, listening intently, being present.

It would be interesting to know what other artists think motivates them. Is our drive to make things a primitive one, beyond our understanding or control? I am determinedly looking for my version of truth through my work. I conciously bought into that idea from the first week I spent at art school but I suspect it started much earlier..

Our Way

The odds often appear to be against us seriously profiting from art but somehow we keep throwing ourselves into it, thousands of artists every year emerge from art school and the arts and creative business as a whole are an increasingly significant part of our economy. This would not be happening if there was not a profit in it somewhere. The question is how best to make sure some of that profit comes our way to the extent that we not only survive but thrive.

[footnote: I am illustrating this article with a collection of work from other artists who have kindly agreed to let me show their works in this context]

*All statistics in this post are strictly subjective, I believe they are true – I just cannot prove it. See the big artists survey for verifiable stats.


Blog it to flog it.

After my last two blogs there was a flutter of activity on Twitter and then I got an offer.

My blog about part time artists on a-n struck a chord with a lot of artists. It got a lot of attention, mainly on Twitter. I have started to feel connected to other artists through the blog and through all the surrounding retweets and responses.

Common ground

I have not met very many of the people I am communicating with through this peculiar modern medium but with the ones I have met I found the common ground established by the blog and it’s digital wash very useful as a basis for starting or rather continuing conversations. I think I am talking about networking, something I have never considered my strong point.

Strategy matters

I may have mentioned that I started this blog as part of a strategy. I currently feel that I have had quite a random relationship with career planning, my careers to date have tumbled rather than flowed. However, when I left Redlees studios in west London just over 2 years ago I did have an underlying aim which was to push myself out of that comfort zone and out into the (art) world. I was advised that writing a blog would be one way to start putting my name onto a sort of shared public agenda.

Small signs

What is interesting is that something has started to happen. I am getting more and more small signs that my writing is being read, that my name is getting around in a modest way that would be hard to do through personal encounters. The fact is that writing blogs and firing off tweets is a lot easier than getting your work shown. The amount of organisation, time, money and administration involved in getting works into exhibitions is phenomenal compared to the ease of getting published as a blogger and then telling the world all about it through social media.

The tools are here

The tools are at your fingertips if you are connected through the web. The main obstacle is believing you have something to say. I have been surprised at the richness of the material I have discovered by making this minor commitment to keep writing posts. To date I have managed about one every month on average. It is time consuming, I would have expected to prefer to be making but writing has it’s attractions – exercising a different part of my mind, building compositions and arguments with words is a challenge and it is creative in a very different way to making or drawing.

Meanwhile in real life

The offer I mentioned above is that I have been invited to contribute some work to a themed show. The connection is predominantly through this blog. I am sure this would not have happened if I had not put my head above the parapet in this way. I will be publishing details and tweeting all about the show when it comes to fruition but for now this feels like a Great Leap Forward, a plan that is showing tiny signs that it is starting to work. I am telling you this not just to show off (that may come later) but to encourage anyone that is considering blogging. Blogs can make things happen, if not in an entirely predictable way, certainly more has happened for me than was happening before I started to blog.

Blogging points:

I do not underestimate the barriers to starting writing, after all I have waited decades before I started but here’s some points to consider.

– Blogging can build your confidence by connecting you with other artists.

– Writing is a great exercise in organising your thoughts.

– The organisation involved in writing helps you when you are talking about your work.

– Blogging raises your profile in a way that is complimentary to showing your work.

– Writing is creative in itself and like any creative act, it makes other things happen.


P/art 2

Of all the posts I have done for this blog, the last one about working part time as an artist has had the most reaction. Because it got such a strong response I want to look at what I have gleaned from those responses.

Part time art working is the norm

I now have a clear impression that the vast majority of artists are part timers. Zeitgeist Art Projects (@ZeitgeistAP) tweeted that

“We only know very few artists who work full time and we know thousands of them!”

I am heartened by this even if I wish it were not true, I now realise I am part of an overwhelming majority. But we already knew this from the a-n 2011 Big Artists survey and yet in my experience this is the last fact most of us want to divulge… Since I did start writing and talking about it however I am finding most artists reciprocate and that most are in a similar situation.

Rosalind Davis at Zeitgeist got in touch to add that “Part time artists include internationally represented artists, who sell work to major collectors, but due to the insecure element of the arts sector remain in part time work or even full time work in order to retain any type of security.” This is another perspective on this issue which indicates that part timing occurs at all levels of our profession.

Our (employment) status

Before I wrote the blog I was concerned about revealing my part-time status as if it was somehow ‘unprofessional’. I am no longer anxious about this, raising the subject has only raised the profile of the blog through shared concerns that are common across the sector. On reflection I think it’s a good idea to discuss this amongst artists and beneficial in the long run. By not being open about our employment status we might help maintain the myth that more than a handful of ‘star’ artists are making enough from their work to do it full time. This re-inforces unrealistic ideas about career prospects for new artists and art students.

This is not something I really want to encourage, although I think I have subscribed to it in the past by dreaming of being ‘discovered’ by the mainstream art world as so many of us do. Perhaps we do this because the myth of the shooting star artist is so powerful in our culture and so central to the stories our media pursues and purveys with monotonous regularity. These are stories with happy endings just like in the movies, but not like the ones the mass of artists are living.


I also got a lot of feedback about the level of commitment artists feel however much of their time they can spend practising in their chosen medium. Like this from @TerriHHarper:

“Part-time artist? ‘Creativity’ is full-time, even when the ‘process’ is only part-time: it’s challenging!”

Redressing the imbalance

The burgeoning movement of artists initiatives seeks to redress this imbalance by taking matters into their (our) own hands. These bold assertions of self belief from the grass roots, seem to contain a more grounded ideal, a more realistic model of an artist than the art world could ever produce as it is so dependent on building and maintaining very few present and future star artists – aka investment opportunities. As @gillian_nicol tweeted:

“its a construct of the artworld systems that thrives on hierarchy and needs artists to be exclusive and elite thus their products are high value”

So what might the new model artist look like? I suspect dear reader that it looks pretty much like you, as diverse and rich as you are. That’s vague so I’ll try and clarify it a little ( – could this be turning into a manifesto?)

The grass roots model artist is:

Determined to keep making art. Making things whenever they can.

Defining themselves as an artist above all, whatever else they chose to or have to do to earn a living.

Rich in ideas and skills to realise them.

Someone whose work enhances our culture (whether invited to or not).

Could you add to this? Please feel free to respond.


P/art time

I am thinking about what it means to be a part time artist. I wonder how many of us this includes? According to the Big Artists Survey 2011

• 57% of artists generate only 0-25% of their income through their art practice.

• Almost a third of artists surveyed earned less than £5,000 a year from practice.

• Average turnover artists made from their practice in their last financial year was approximately £9000.

This was 2 years ago, it seems probable that these figures will have only worsened in the tough times since then, but clearly most of us are working part time.

For some time and the foreseeable future I have had a four days a week job designing websites. The work is intense, varied, challenging and rewarding. It’s also mainly design and design management rather than art. The main conundrum in my life at this point is how I could start to redress the balance between how I earn a living and what I feel is my real vocation.

With my time split in these proportions it takes a long time to devise, plan and execute the work, my art turnover is very low especially in a process intense medium like ceramics. Making the work is only part of the artists job of course, you also have find the time to cover marketing and administration of your art career.

Determination and struggle

I have determination and conviction on my side most of the time, occasionally they take a break when the prospect of either earning income through my own work or getting work related to it becomes obscured. In short I sometimes struggle to maintain my sense of myself as an artist.

One of my student contemporaries at Leeds Polytechnic fine art course in the seventies, Colin Fraser Gray now living in California, got in touch with a number of us who were on that course not long ago and opened with congratulations to all of us that have managed to continue making in any capacity after all this time. He pointed out that once you have defined yourself as an artist, a process that usually involves attending art school it’s hard to lose that self definition or to really settle for anything else.

Grayson Perry said in one of his recent Reith Lecture talks that he had a back-up plan to go into advertising if his art career did not pan out. Luckily he has not had to test that idea out. Most of us do have to find a day job, full-time freelance art making may well be a goal for many of us but it is often not a realistic option as you make commitments to housing and feeding a family of any description.

When I listened to Perry’s lectures I found them fascinating, poignant and painful in equal measure. What struck me most was how difficult it is to define what the job of an artist actually is. How many jobs involve not only a set of undefined tasks but no job description and no-one except yourself to assess your progress. With a few exceptions artists are more like entrepreneurs than employed workers, they take on risk, they define their own direction, they manage their own careers. Many of us use one (or more) career to fund our art career.

Career structures

The idea of a career structure for artists seems like a distant ideal from where I stand although I have been advised (in a consultation with Matt Roberts of MRA) that there are discernible stages to an artists career, I have only attained the first and most common stage: post-art-school.


A summary of my current thoughts on a part time art career.

• Most artists are part-timers.

• Unless you call yourself an amateur, as long as you can show artwork people will assume you are a professional artist.

• It’s essential to find a sustainable balance between earning a living and doing your own work, the balance of paid work to artwork could be in any proportion.

• I define myself as an artist. I may well never be a significant or a celebrated one but I am still determined to find ways of spending as much time as I can afford to make my work and seek an audience for it.

• Being an artist is a (part-time) job, you have to work on it step by step, build it up day by day like any other business. You have to sustain it before it is likely to sustain you.