PAYING ARTISTS II: THE CAREER TRAJECTORY
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.