The problem of not paying artists is much bigger than simply artists being out-of-pocket. It affects the artist’s whole career trajectory, and creates a massive pool of stagnation that ends up in a shocking waste of energy, talent and education. This is a national problem and it is completely unaddressed.

Recent research by the artists organization Axis looked at the category called the ‘midcareer artist.’ While the Axis research admittedly only quantified artists who responded to the survey, we can see that 46% said that they rarely sell their work, while 32% said they rarely exhibit their work. In responding to questions about which factors inhibit their professional development, 46% said they are unfamiliar with the art world networks and 35% are geographically isolated.

But if we put the two bits of research together, the A-N’s research on paying artists, and the Axis research on the position of the midcareer artist, we start to see a particularly disturbing picture. I believe that there is a correlation between the career “logjam”, and the lack of support that the publicly funded institutions are able or willing to offer artists to help them to develop their careers. Unpaid exhibitions, or no exhibitions, would obviously lead to the feeling that so many so-called midcareer artists have, which is that their career is stagnating.

Outside of very few metropolitan areas, up and down the country, the principal places to exhibit with a reasonable profile, take public funding. These are precisely the places that must pay artists, and pay them according to their status. If they think a midcareer artist is good enough to exhibit, they need to pay them a reasonable amount of money to reflect that artist’s actual achievement. They also need to offer substantial opportunities to midcareer artists, because it is actually from the established and midcareer artists that younger artists actually learn.

So this false economy of not paying artists leads to a dreadful stagnation in the career of artists, who hit their stride and then find that the opportunities have dried up. It is true that some opportunities are unforgiveably ageist, particularly those coming from other European countries, which mandate particular age groups. This obviously reflects the culture of those countries, which sees human development very rigidly, and should be questioned. One thing we do know is that many artists who come from less-privileged backgrounds often are unable to start practicing seriously as artists until somewhat later in life; or take time out to raise families, but then find that the opportunities (such as grants and residencies) are no longer available because they are now “over age.”

When you start to pick the whole picture apart like this and look at all the constituent parts you see that not only is it unfair, but the this unfairness is actually depriving the country of its authentic artistic voices. If we as a nation are willing to ask the taxpayer (ourselves!) to pay towards the arts, and we ourselves as Museum and Gallery goers are willing to pay our money for tickets to experience the arts, should we not demand that they be authentic and representative of us? Not just reflect a narrow privileged slice of society that manages to tick the boxes in ways which most people cannot.

Artists that meet the standard that we should expect, need to be paid. The artist career progression needs to be reflected in the opportunities that they are offered and the remuneration that they receive. While of course emerging artists should be supported, this would far better be done through mentorships and help to establish meaningful studio groups rather than in pushing young artists into over-exhibiting. It is actually the midcareer artists who are in crisis. And as I said, this crisis is resulting in an appalling waste of energy, talent and education.



Part II of II

Why is the “art world” of prizewinners, press darlings and highly visible British artists so unrepresentative of the ethnic make-up of the country, given that we have a lot of diversity in the art school intake?

In my previous post I wondered why the “East London” prize is so unrepresentative of East London’s demographic.

Obviously this is a culture, and those who perpetuate it are completely unaware that what they’re doing is actually perpetuating inequality of opportunity. That what they are also doing a stifling the creativity of London. It’s like they’re closing the window in a room which is already stuffy and unbearable. The fact is, let us say it, that the art world does not admit art that does not fit neatly into a very culturally circumscribed matrix.

This is the “international” style, which is a tight compendium of Anglo-American, French and German aesthetics. Ergo, not actually international at all. If an artist who wants to express aesthetics outside of this sphere, he or she is relegated to making work “about” their ethnicity.

Now, toeing the “internationalist” line does not mean that you yourself have to be from this “Anglo-American/ French/ German” background. You just have to accept this aesthetic. Which probably means having studied at one of the Big 5 art schools and imbibing their aesthetic and cultural rules. There no prizes for creating art which somehow, consciously or unconsciously, expresses an alternative aesthetic. My friend is from an ethnic minority and this is reflected in his work but his work is not “about” being ethnic, it’s more about his aesthetic vision.

I recall one gallery rejecting an artist with a background from the Mahgreb because “we already have an African” – this being a Nigerian-background artist they represented. (Both artists live in London). No doubt this was a ‘business decision’, but think about what it implies.

Let us not forget, that the history of art is not universal. What we accept as art history is a colonial programme. If we just look at modern (20thC) art we have to accept that there are alternative modernisms. Modernist Persian, Egyptian, Latin American, African.These artists are judged however, by how they adhere to the Western modernist programme. Just as an example, the recent show at tate of Ibrahim El Saheli. Of all the African or Arab artists they could have given a solo show to, they have to choose someone who was “approved” by a spell at the Slade, or the Beaux-Arts or somewhere, that teaches the Internationalist curriculum in one of the core Western centres of dominance.

Back to the unrepresentative demographic of the art prize.

There are people who would really celebrate this and say “Why should we open up our art world, our art fundings and our art prizes to immigrants?” The answer is really obvious, which is that art is always been an itinerant practice, and the artists have always moved around from place to place looking for opportunities. This is what made the Renaissance, made the Baroque. English painting wouldn’t have existed without Dutchmen like Holbein and VanDyke turning up here to set the standard. And how could we have has Gothic without Fuesli?

But anyway, I don’t think actually people in the art world, are particularly racist. After all, we are quite happy to embrace those art stars from abroad who made it big and then turn up in London. And the art world has occasionally allowed minority artists to slip in under the railing. Yet I now see how how difficult it must be for them, how much harder you would have to work to get there.

I don’t think they’re racist but I do think that they tend to choose people like themselves, who look like them, who talk like them, who been to the same schools. Who subscribe to the same ideology, and who don’t shake their coveted ideology. It’s a problem at the national level because that’s how the government is run, and it’s also how the art world is run. It’s bad, it’s wrong, and it can not go on.

Gillian McIver May 2014



Part I of II

It all gets worse.
A very good friend of mine applied for an East London painting prize and didn’t get shortlisted. Actually, he didn’t give a toss, but I got pretty upset. I got upset, not because they should’ve taken his painting; that’s not important. I got upset because when I looked at the short list, it became quite clear to me that it did not in any way reflect the demographic of East London.

London is only 59% ethnically white British, according to the office for national statistics 2011 census. That means that a full 40% of people in London are from some other ethnic group. Tower hamlets, in the East End of London, has a white population of only 45.2%, according to the same census, and this includes white non-British. The statistic for Hackney is pretty much the same. These two boroughs are very popular with artists and have large vigorous artist communities. Let us not pretend that all of the artists in these two boroughs are white British.

Yet when you look at the short list of artists chosen for the East London painting prize, which is only for people who live in East London, there isn’t a single name which we could associate with, for example, the large Turkish and Kurdish population of Hackney. There isn’t a single name which we could associate with the Nigerian or African population of East London. Nor was there a single name that we could associate with Asian, particularly Islamic Asian people, who make up a large sector of the Tower Hamlets population. Not even a Pole. I know I am only going by names and I don’t know the artists who are on the list (but I did look at their websites).

Because I live in East London. I know that there are artists with different backgrounds, yet there is no visibility of them whatsoever in these art prizes; and there is little visibility of them in the mainstream galleries, which leads me to believe there are very few opportunities for artists – or young people who would like to be artists – who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Even when, and this is my point, they are not even ethnic ‘minorities’ within the community. In London there isn’t an ethnic majority really; everybody’s an ethnic ‘minority’, we’re so mixed.

There are actually Turkish and Kurdish artists in Hackney. There are British-born artists from Asian, African and Chinese backgrounds. There are kids from Afro-Caribbean and Vietnamese backgrounds doing art at A level. There are plenty of Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian artists active in East London today. Yet is not a single Polish name on any of these shortlists. It’s just weird. It’s just wrong. The recognised East London ‘art world’, at the very least, should be reflective of who is living and practising in East London.



Imagine turning up to work, putting in the hours, doing such a good job that you are roundly admired, patted on the back, congratulated for your work. Imagine the people talking about you, how good you are in your job, and that they admire you. Perhaps even writing about you in the press about how good you are in your job. Imagine that you very often take the job home with you and work well into the night, that your weekends and holidays involve you continuing to work. I’m sure you can imagine it, because it’s not completely uncommon. But could you imagine doing all of this without getting paid?

Imagine doing all of this, without getting paid, yet your employer is a publicly funded organization, the gets its income from the taxpayer and is staffed by people on full salaries, while you yourself have to go back to that same taxpayer and claim benefits.

Who on earth would think that this is an equitable system?

However, research by the A-N has shown that over the past three years, 71% of artists didn’t get paid any kind of a fee for contributions to publicly funded exhibitions. The same research showed that 63% of artists felt forced to reject gallery offers because they couldn’t afford to work for nothing. Which makes you wonder about those who did take up the offer of exhibition: independently wealthy or family funded artists? These are hardly going to be representative.

We have reached the bizarre situation where a very few London art schools completely dominate the major art prizes (which lead to prestigious gallery signings, biennials and so on). This means that the only people who get chosen for art prizes are people were already fortunate enough to live in London, or are wealthy enough to move to London to study, and pay the insanely exorbitant costs of housing and transport.

But there’s another route to getting exposure, and that is through exhibiting. The national network of publicly funded organizations and institutions, including independent organizations who receive project funding, is supposed to create these opportunities up and down the country. But these are not going to be opportunities if the artist cannot afford to take them.

We accept the idea of ‘pay to play’ in small private galleries, although this itself has a deleterous affect on the art world, because it means that the small galleries which we assume are filled with ‘cutting-edge art’, are actually filled with art made by people wealthy enough and vain enough to cough up upwards of 1000 pounds a week to rent the gallery to showcase themselves.

But nobody expected ‘pay to play’ to be the norm in publicly funded galleries. But it is ‘pay to play’, let’s not make any bones about it. It’s ‘pay to play’, because if you offer me an exhibition opportunity, and you don’t pay me, then you get the benefit of my work, and your increased visitors numbers (which guarantees your continued funding), and people coming to use your cafeteria and whatever other services that you provide, and enhances your public profile. But I’m actually going to have to pay to produce the work and then depending what it is, I may have to pay to frame it, or otherwise arrange delivery and installation. You not asking me to just grab something out of my storage unit and haul it over on the bus.

The A-‘s paying artist campaign is a good one, and I fully support it. The very very very least we can ask from our organizations who have public funding is to reorganize their structures and their budgets and ensure that artists are paid.

However, there’s much more to the problem than simply cash. It is a whole complex disaster that combines elitism, nepotism, notions of cultural superiority and inferiority, sometimes sexism (which runs both ways), inequality, and frankly, I think, just pure blind pigheadedness.

I’m not really sure how we’re going to unravel all of this. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother trying to unravel it. Perhaps we should just take a hammer and smash it.


Tis the season of the art prizes. I saw the announcement of the Catlin art prize today. I’m not really bothered about these kinds of prizes because as a filmmaker it’s completely irrelevant to me, but as a cultural critic it’s completely relevant and important.

There are about 80 institutions, probably more actually, across the United Kingdom that run validated degree courses in fine art practice. They all charge a standard tuition fee, and employ qualified instructors, who themselves have some kind of art qualification usually the master’s degree, plus some kind of meaningful experience in art practice. Of course, this isn’t always true; a number of institutions employ people who are not actually artists would’ve managed to bow and scrape their way through a PhD in art without actually making anything that anybody in their right mind would have any interest in seeing. But in my experience, for the most part, our colleges employ artists and people genuinely interested in an enthusiastic about art.

Now you might think, that with the national network of art colleges that includes the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall, Wales to East Anglia and Northern Ireland, the British artists who make up the British art world might hail from all kinds of different art colleges up and down the country. But in fact the case at all.

If you want to be part of the British art world, except in a few rare situations, you have got to be a graduate of the following institutions:
Goldsmiths College
The Slade
Central St. Martin’s.
Chelsea school of art
The Royal College of Art
all of which are in London.
Occasionally, an artist from Glasgow school of Art or, even more occasionally, a graduate of Edinburgh school of art is admitted into the art world.

I sure have no problem with these institutions. I haven’t been to any of them, but from what I’ve seen they are perfectly adequate places which do the job of turning out our graduates very nicely. But what I cannot understand at all is how graduates from other art schools never seem to get picked for any of the major art prizes. Is it really true that graduates from our colleges in the rest of the country, Nottingham, Leeds, Cornwall, Bristol, East Anglia, Newcastle, you name it – none of them can step up to the plate and do art as well as somebody who spent their degree in London? Does study in London magically give you a massive advantage over anybody else, it makes you just a much better artist. Just because you can breathe the fantastically polluted air of my great city?

I live in and studied in London, and I love London and I loved studying at the University of Westminster, has a fantastic film school and I can’t say enough about how brilliant it was. But I don’t think that I’m the better filmmaker then somebody who got their film degree outside London.

So I don’t really know what’s going on. I do suspect, however, that those art students who are paying 9000 pounds a year, plus to study anywhere than the above seven art colleges, might wonder if it’s worth it. If they have such a small chance of making it into the art world; if all the prizes are snapped up by the big seven. Actually, let’s be honest, the big five. London takes the big biscuit. Isn’t it depressing, to be an artist in the fantastic city like Newcastle and be working your ass off, inspired by the incredible landscape and the wonderful small, high-quality art scene that the city can offer, to never see any of your colleagues winning any of these big chunky prizes? They don’t even seem to make the short list.

I had a look at the list of judges who judge many of these prizes, and I discovered that actually most of the judges have some kind of connection with the big five art schools. Very many of them are graduates of the schools, or teach or have taught in them. So what were seeing really is people selecting from a self-appointed pool of artists from places that they can relate to. This is actually incredibly creepy.