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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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