Getting across the value of the arts to society in this unforgiving political climate needs more passion and fewer generic advocacy tools

This month, I’ve been reminded how in the pre-internet days of the CND and the Greenham Common peace camp, activists used telephone trees so that groups of protestors could be swiftly mobilised for sit-ins, mass trespass and marches anti-all things nuclear, while keeping their plans under the radar of the authorities. This was people power in action across a distributed network, with each person needing to make just one phone call.

In 1968, inspired by fellow art student Brian Eno’s call to action and invigorated by a wave of student unrest in the UK and Europe, I marched in solidarity with Hornsey College and Guildford School art students, who were protesting against unfair course changes. Later, it was the “milk snatcher” policies of then education minister, Margaret Thatcher, that galvanised me into action. By the time I finished my post-graduate course, I had found my voice and seen that passionate people working in consort can make a difference.

It’s clear that getting the message across about the value of the arts to society in this unforgiving political climate needs a bit more passion and fewer generic advocacy tools. While 2010’s Save the Arts campaign fell short of the 100,000 signatures needed to win the government’s attention, the agility of the Precarious Workers Brigade hits the mark through its campaigns with others against poor working conditions and inequality in the arts and elsewhere.

It also needs to be about people. Vital to campaigns for the arts are dedicated individuals such as the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, who stood against former education secretary Michael Gove in the general election, in protest against the downgrading of arts in schools. There’s also playwright Fin Kennedy, whose independent report in 2013, In Battalions, confounded culture minister Ed Vaizey’s misassumptions when the theatre world faced cuts.

Refreshingly, it was north-east England’s artists and arts freelancers, the people whose voices are often absent when arts policies are planned, who set the agenda for May’s open space gathering (where participants create and manage the agenda) helping design the Case for Culture. The insights of 100 artists, makers, writers, poets, storytellers, community artists and photographers, plus a posse of independent arts project managers and educators, were brought to bear on topics ranging from internationalism to leadership, and science-art collaboration to achieving world peace through art. Everyone fed directly into shaping a vibrant and distinctive cultural fabric for the region by 2030.

In terms of fostering inclusivity, we could also learn a lot from how Scotland does things: that is, fast and with flair. Culture: What Next? – which is not to be confused with the What Next? movement – provoked immediate responses from artists and cultural workers on the future of Scottish culture post the general election. A 16-point Cultural affirmation published soon afterwards by event collaborator Tracs articulates the right to, and value of, arts and culture in political, constitutional and social terms: “We artists, cultural workers, educators and citizens of Scotland, commit ourselves through our creative practice to the free development of human potential, to social and environmental justice, equality and sustainability.”

The urgency of reframing the cultural landscape post-election was also under debate at one of Arts Development UK’s mass gatherings. I warmed to a particular provocation by Laurie Peake of Lancashire’s embryonic Super Slow Way, an organisation whose mission it is to bring local people and artists together. Peake said she visualises the current ecology in geological terms. There are the art world stars on lofty peaks, an invisible and dormant culture in deep underground seams, and everything else in the valleys between.

In England, while new Arts Council chief, Darren Henley, has agreed to some “rebalancing” of arts funding, which will increase spend in the regions a bit over the next three years, there’s no doubt that it will be the bricks and mortar organisations that will get the lion’s share. The potential of those valley dwellers and the dormant talent will be left to the vagaries of occasional arts grants.

My own analysis, which is admittedly from a practice-based perspective and done a while ago, identified that flatter structures that organically cross-fertilise are more productive. If we consider our ambitions for the future of the arts solely in terms of their relevance to us and the now, how will we get to that place of uncertainty and risk from which genuine innovation and widespread community engagement will emerge?

Poet Sean O’Brien puts it better. Speaking on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme in May, he observed, in a discussion on the contemporary relevance of Dante, that “we may be looking through the wrong end of the telescope”.

If you want to forecast what a future healthy and vibrant ecology for the arts will look like, I propose that those at the top table just need to move their seats (perhaps stand outside in the corridor) so they can vision what the arts could be from a fresh perspective.

First published by the Guardian 23 June 2015


Since 2000 there has been an unprecedented surge in self-employment. According to the RSA, there has been a 40% increase in micro-businesses and one in seven of the workforce are now self-employed. I recently joined the UK’s freelancer community and I’m trying to make a living in the arts, navigating the financial ebbs and flows.

Since 2008/9, self-employed earnings have dropped by 22%. The typical self-employed person now earns 40% less than their employed counterpart. While you might expect the commercial sector to drive a hard bargain, in my field, the publicly-funded visual arts – in which self-employment stands at around 50% – it’s more worrying to find that the salaries of arts employees increased during the recession, while freelance fee rates went down.

It’s usually claimed that’s how it is, because self-employment is a “lifestyle” in which the enjoyment you get from it outweighs the need to make money. As visual artist Elena Thomas says: “I love feeling so liberated. However, after decades of employment and salary, the lack of regular payment is hard going and cash flow is an issue.”

It’s unpopular in the arts to discuss such grimy issues openly, although performer Bryony Kimmings famously has taken arts venues to task for trying to squeeze her fees to make their budgets meet.
With some forecasting that levels of self-employment will supersede those of the public sector as early as 2017, it’s worth pointing out another study, which shows that only 30% of self-employed people contribute to a pension, compared with 52% of employees.

I’m wondering here just how many artists and performers can afford to ensure wellbeing in their later years?
A Demos report calls for simplification of self-employed status rules and strengthening of prompt payment codes. If the self-employed improve their skills and retain an innovative edge, they also need tax breaks for investing in professional development. Acknowledging the self-employed pension gap, Demos advocates for a tailored pension scheme, while the RSA (among others) argues for reform of Universal Credit, which severely undermines the self-employed.

So would I recommend a freelance life? In some ways, absolutely. For example, forget the weekly dash for the 7.29am train from Newcastle to Kings Cross. Instead, I take a daily walk among the deer and Red Kite of Chopwell Woods to refresh both mind and body. I’ve also got the headspace to read and write about a raft of interesting books.

On the downside, have I earned enough this month to pay my share of the household costs? The answer is probably not, despite working pretty much every day of it. Then there’s the problem of cash-flow, something 79% of self-employed people say cripples their business. Also, the cost of professional networking at conferences and gatherings, if you’re not on expenses, is prohibitive.

Looking to the future, Creative and Cultural Skills chief Pauline Tambling is pushing for reform to the education system so that it’s genuinely equipped to produce the next generation of creative people who will be capable of “growing” their own jobs and confident in managing the self-determination and personal resilience of self-employment. Tambling points to a Nesta report on future trends, which shows that because creative jobs are at no or low risk of automation, their future is safer.

In the run up to the general election, perhaps freelancers can find comfort in the offers of the political parties? The Tories have pledged to crack down on late payment from big businesses and, like the Lib Dems, make 30-day payment terms standard. The Green Party will also strengthen payment laws and give the self-employed maternity and parental leave rights. Labour is committed to a freelance charter and leader Ed Miliband promises to deliver equal rights for the self-employed and (hurrah!) to ban unpaid internships. The SNP maintains a strong line on supporting small business and Plaid Cymru will introduce tax relief for the self-employed while training.

So, nothing society-changing or radical there.

A more refreshing alternative, my plan – and maybe you will join me in Glasgow in June – is to check out Small is Beautiful: the “annual inspirational conference” and a celebration of the world of creative micro-businesses and enterprises. For freelancers such as myself who work alone, now is the time to be with like-minded folk, learning, collaborating and celebrating.

First published 23 April 2015

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Here in the UK, as the Paying Artists campaign revealed in 2014, the majority of contemporary artists are barely surviving financially, with no or low pay the norm.

In real terms, nearly three-quarters of artists are getting just 37% of the average UK salary from their practice. At £10,000 a year, these artists receive only 66% of the living wage: the UK benchmark for a civilised society. But while some argue that it’s the absence of collective bargaining mechanisms that result in such exploitation – once that’s in place here everything will be fine in terms of pay and conditions, they say – even in countries where there are well-developed fees systems, low pay for artists remains the burning issue.

In Canada, where the status of artists has been legislatively protected for many years, a Waging Culture survey in 2007 (a new survey is currently underway) found that when including income from all sources, a typical Canadian artist earns $20,000 (£11,219) a year, which is 74% of a typical national income of $26,850 (£15,061). Even then, only 43.6% of visual artists made any money from their studio practice, with artists typically making a loss from it, at $556. The vast majority of an artist’s studio revenue in Canada comes from sales (54%), with grants (34%) and artists’ fees (12%) making up the rest.

A report (pdf) for the Arts Promotion Centre Finland also shows that public grants were the most important source of income for nearly one in 10 Finnish artists, while concluding that levels of state support have not been increased in step with the growing size of the artist community.

In Sweden – where since 2009 an agreement has been in place between government and artists’ organisations KRO/KIF, which sets out artists’ fee scales for public exhibitions – a recent review showed that 60% of artists who had showed their work in the smaller state museums either failed to get paid or received less than the agreement dictates.

In Australia, the National Association for the Visual Arts (Nava) publishes comprehensive visual arts sector guidance on payments to artists, addressing everything from exhibition fees to teaching rates and intellectual property payments. However, although incomes in general have risen in line with the country’s growing economic prosperity, the average annual income of an Australian artist – $10,000 (£5,396) – is a fraction of the median average earnings of the country’s workforce.

South Korea
In South Korea the 2012 Artists Welfare Act informed setting up the Korean Artists Welfare Foundation, which offers aid to 24,000 artists annually through insurance cover and hardship payouts. The most recent report from the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute on artists’ income from artistic activities indicates that nearly half of all Korean artists are earning the equivalent of £291 a month. Just 17% of artists earn the equivalent of £13,782 a year solely from their practice. When artists’ income from all sources is taken into account, fewer than a quarter make the equivalent of £20,500 a year, or 77% of the country’s average wage.

What next
It was 10 years ago in the UK that a-n The Artists Information Company first developed a fees framework for the visual arts, wholeheartedly supported by an Arts Council that, at that time, really did understand the need for good practice and mutuality between those who create the art – the artists – and those who are paid to mediate the arts for public consumption.

Benchmarked to the comparator profession of teaching in state-funded schools, a-n’s fees framework is one of the most sophisticated. It provides not only a set of example rates for employers to use when budgeting projects, but also an interactive toolkit for self-employed artists to quantify their worth financially to others by accounting for their business and professional costs, local cost-of-living variations and their career stage. In terms of this latter condition on pay rates, it was the employers, when asked, who had strong views that artists’ experience and reputation should command higher rates.

Is fair and proper payment for artists an ambition for governments to action? Or should it be left in the hands of arts agencies? Perhaps it’s best championed by advocacy bodies such as a-n. Of course, it is the responsibility of all of these, but if good practices in the arts are to be sustained over the long-term, the responsibility for placing a value on artists’ contribution to society should be shared more widely still.
Debate and action needs to be taking place as a matter of urgency among current and future audiences for artists’ work – in and among rural and urban communities and with children in schools.

It’s these children who need access to viable role models on which to base their own careers, and to be able to see for themselves that professional artists can come from any walk of life, not just the middle classes.

Find out more about the Paying Artists campaign here and follow the conversation online via the hashtag #payingartists

First published 12 Jan 2015


As artists find themselves at the end of the cultural food chain, Susan Jones suggests a new activism to reaffirm their status

The so-called golden age of arts funding has given way to debilitating austerity, particularly for artists who find themselves at the end of a long food chain, divorced from arts funding and policy decision making. But when did these divisions start and how can artists use activism to create meaningful change for the future?

The millennium saw arts funding increased through imaginative strategies and policies. Artists and the artist-led flourished. With the lottery-financed arts buildings came a new wave of curatorial positions – and in 2006, the advent of cultural leadership roles designed to “nurture and develop dynamic and diverse leaders to equip them for the challenges of the 21st century” (although scant few of these went to practitioners).

Divisions between artists and the public were apparent too.
In 2013, the widening divide between rich and poor is manifesting itself clearly in the arts. Contributing to debates on more imaginative ways to measure cultural value, Louis Barabbas says: “The creative sector is full of scuttling scavenging bottom-feeders.” What he’s describing are the middle people whose infrastructural preferences over recent years have by default resulted in a steady nibbling away at budgets, resources and recognition factors – things that used to be the territory of artists.

In the arts infrastructure developed since the early noughties, artists weren’t invited around the table with the curators, directors and consultants. Peer review was abandoned by Arts Council England as it was deemed too expensive, long-winded and subjective. In the arts ecology of today, it’s almost as if artists have to be held in suspended animation, waiting for someone to need them.

Where has all the money gone?
In 1989 the salary of an artform officer in what was then a regional arts association pretty much matched the sum offered for an artist’s fellowship, which in those days tended to be for a year. By 2004, the salaries of arts officers in the funding system (when index-linked) were 41% higher than those in 1989/90. Advertised in May 2013, an Arts Council England salary for a relationship manager in its London office is £31,623 – 8% higher than the equivalent pay in 2004 when index-linked. Consider this against an example of an artist’s fellowship, such as the Stanley Picker Fellowship in Design & Fine Art 2013, which is paying £12,000.

Published in May 2013, Arts Council England’s economic impact report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that full-time earnings in the arts have risen by 6.8% in the past five years, while part-time earnings – one might surmise these to include freelancers and artists – have decreased by 5.3%. As Mark Robinson, a former ACE director and now arts consultant, asks: “Are we squeezing our key nutrients – the artists and creative freelancers – and widening inequality in our own sector?”

a-n research indicated that in 2004, the exhibition fee for artists holding a solo exhibition in a major gallery was £1,000. In 2013, a survey from AIR (see Paying artists research evidence as in the infographic above) indicates that less than a third of artists exhibiting in publicly-funded flagship galleries in Arts Council portfolios are getting any fee at all – with £200 being the most likely figure. While the majority want to share their work with the public, nearly half the artists surveyed reported that it’s simply too expensive to exhibit.

Another a-n survey, this time on openly offered jobs and opportunities for artists in 2012, revealed a steady decline in the volume of paid work for artists. In 2012, the overall value of work on offer to artists was £5m (20%) less than in the pre-recession year of 2007. Only 39% of jobs and opportunities in 2012 offered to pay anything to artists, in comparison with 57% in the recession year of 2008. And the value of residencies has dropped to an all-time low, amounting to just over 1% of the value of all work offered in 2012. These paid an average fee of £2,600, in contrast to a £7,354 average in 2011 and £6,342 in 2007.

Art feeds the soul but who feeds the artist?
Artists are at the very end of the arts food chain. For artists and their practice, the future is littered with uncertainty for a variety of reasons:

• The variable length and terms of contracts and commissions
• The unpredictability of work offers and variable income
• The short notice of engagements and commissions
• The delays in the start of a production
• The sequential stop/start patterns of employment
• Managing concurrent projects and contracts
• The need to be available at all and/or unsociable hours for work
• Unpredictable locations of work
• Changes in fashion, cultural trends and market preferences

Artists seemingly love their practice so much that it’s assumed they will be delighted with any opportunity they get to gift it to others. Increasingly, artists find themselves shoe-horned (through financial necessity or the arts PR machine) into making art or delivering projects, the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instrumental powers – how well they serve the needs of others (achieve social improvement such as regeneration; uplift the lives of disadvantaged people; fill the ‘arts gap’ in school curricula; contribute to the economy).

As Hans Abbing commented in Why are artists poor?: “Although the arts can operate successfully in the marketplace, their natural affinity is with gift-giving rather than with commercial exchange. People believe that artists are selflessly dedicated to art, that price does not reflect quality and that the arts are free.”

Negotiating your status and practice
So how might artists prepare for a different kind of role in determining the status of their art and their profession? Researching the conditions for collaboration, Chris Fremantle comments: “Artists very often see themselves without much power – is collaboration the context for a new dynamic between artists and those they seek to have relationships with, or at least a signal of hope for that?”

A symposium held in Stoke-on-Trent in 2011 explored working contexts for artists in an age of austerity. A manifesto was drawn up by artists and arts workers present, designed to create strength of purpose and solidarity amongst practitioners. The manifesto stated:

1) Be active: support each other
2) Be active: be an activist
3) Be active: be an artist.
4) Value yourself, your time and your skills
5) Share your knowledge and resources
6) Focus, strategise and plan.
7) Be critical, be fair
8) Know your rights

Reporting on the event, artist Nikki Pugh said: “It was notable that all the rules seemed to be independent of the current economic climate. The issues of prime concern to us were to keep making work of high quality; to be rewarded (financially or otherwise) fairly for our work; and to be part of wider, mutually and innovatively generous networks.”

When only extended by the artist, however, this generosity can result in exploitation. Artists continually report lower or no fee offers from commissioners and employers. But institutional budgets exist to enable arts programmes to deliver ‘great art’ to audiences. Surely how they are constructed can be open to review, negotiation and reallocation?

For the sake of future arts, we really do need to demonstrate how much we value artists. The following statement (though made more than three decades ago and many miles from the UK) sums up why mutuality is vital: “Artists stand at the centre of all arts practice. Without the artist’s ability to practice his/her own art, there is no literature, no music, no dance, no painting, no theatre, no film-making – no art of any kind.”

First published 24 June 2013

This is an edited version of an article developed from a presentation to the National Photography Symposium at the Bluecoat, Liverpool

Original published by a-n

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Are traditional arts organisations the best vehicles for meaningful participation or should we be looking elsewhere?

These are dangerous times for people and for our world of arts values.

Uncertainty can cause us to be safe, edit complexity, be secretive, conservative. No waves please, the arts are in crisis. Let’s just put our heads down, noses to the grindstone, and aim for preservation.

“We’re all in this together” – though some of us seem to be more ‘in it’ than others – gives way to “I want to make sure my institution survives to live another day”. Battered and bruised, we go ten rounds. But what of our missions, our ‘greater good’, our altruism to support the things we really believe in?

In my case, it’s a passion for, and commitment to, doing whatever it takes to make things better for artists in society. Not to any particular product or infrastructure, that is ‘of its time’, in a fast-changing world.

What did the riots tell us about people and their power to make a voice/place to interact with their environment? And what did the #riotscleanup tell us about participatory practices that don’t rely on institutional structures? Everyone now knows how to pitch their tent – they don’t ‘know their place’, or wait to be assigned one.

However, we in the arts seem unfamiliar with the need to make a fast, timely response – art responding to situations in the world at large – let alone be able to make an effective campaign to save the arts from cuts. We are ‘victims’ of state patronage that on the one hand subsidises our lack of market take-up or interest, while (because of the state’s rarefied/unworldly situation) controlling us by the tyranny of the wrong kinds of measurement.

How can traditional compliance-led, risk-averse institutional models be the best vehicles for the level and depth of participation we are seeking for the arts to do their job effectively within society?

Conrad Atkinson’s 1980s work Critical mats questioned the dubious advertising slogans of Sellafield Nuclear Power Station’s Visitor Centre, in an arts project sponsored rather briefly by a local bus company. Despite the niceties and instrumentality of sponsorship, art must be able to bite the hand that feeds it – that’s its place. So perhaps his work was ‘out of place’?

But as Julie Crawshaw commented in Value of making (value): “Rather than fitting art practice to ever-changing measurement criteria – or setting norms (“will look like…” ) or attempting to predict behaviours, perhaps we in the arts – the arts activists – should be comfortable with what is not normal, what is unpredictable, what is, and make better sense of that.”

Joshua Sofaer said: “Over the first 10 months as Artist Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, I have been thinking about how artists can really make a difference in the societies they find themselves in. This is not about ‘making the case’ for the arts under the harsh interrogation of media cynicism during a time of cuts, but rather a proactive investigation of what art can do affirmatively, especially in situations of need.”

Do and can buildings run by permanent institutions respond fast to situations of new need? 48% of Arts Council England’s visual arts NPO funding (£21m) goes to a ‘Top 20′ of galleries/production agencies. ACE saved just £1.36m by cutting 16 artists’ production/practice-driven organisations.

The Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Aviles, Spain is run by a permanent staff of only four with a glittering array of specialist artistic advisers. This is a novel approach to resourcing and drawing on artistic specialism that the UK might care to investigate further.

Are arts buildings the ‘place for art’ or could they in future be viewed as memorials to the heady, finance-at-the-ready pre-2007 era? Are buildings, as run by institutions, self-serving? How will their viability/sustainability be affected by rising energy and transport costs and the engagement preferences of an ageing population with less disposable income?

Are “arts organisations well-placed to lead the creativity and innovation that will be a driver of economic recovery” as Arts Council England sets out in Achieving Great Art for Everyone? Or as Julie Crawshaw comments: “[is] Art practice something that sits, walks, jumps up and down, amongst, on top of and in between [the institutions].” Just like people do when they create a riot, pitch a tent, or otherwise change the world.

In my opinion we must beware of over-reliance on this events-based, instant gratification based culture which, unless there is widespread buy-in and participation in the arts by all sectors of our society, is clearly unsustainable without the largesse of public funding.

The RSA Citizens Power project, Experiments in Place Making, enables locally based creative practitioners to investigate how their creative practice can engage people with each other and where they live. Creative practitioners are partnered with Neighbourhood Managers to identify a local challenge. The partnership presents an opportunity to explore and develop innovative and collaborative practices.

At the same time, a network of artists has set up Creative Peterborough to “champion the arts and local creative practitioners in the city.” Citizen Power recognises that Creative Peterborough are well placed to build on the legacy of a stronger, confident and inclusive arts community, which is raising funds, developing audiences in and beyond the city, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

So is ‘the place for art’ in temporary institutions that can quickly foster meaningful, timely participation and create a bigger bounce?

Julie Crawshaw says: “The world is looking for new ways of seeing. Art practice – the collective performance of art making (between materials, artists, artworks and others) is an inherently inter-disciplinary reflexive process that supports us to rethink and reconsider our realities. Arts organisations are an organisation of artists and others, materials and bits and bobs. They are art practices: perhaps a ‘bigger’ collective artwork.”

Arts organisations, says Crawshaw, “have a capacity for bigger reflection in our collective place. However, to see the big, we must observe the small carefully.” As Irene Lucas, former director general of the Department for Communities and Local Government, says: “Places change for the better when you give people the power to do things differently. That takes courage and genuine commitment to new thinking and ways of working on the ground.”

It is these concepts, for me, that present the real challenge for art and its ‘place’.

First published 6 Jan 2012

This is an edited version of the speech given at the Engage/Enquire International Conference in November 2011, video version at https://vimeo.com/35635192