Lloyds Bank recently bought a double page spread in the Guardian weekend magazine (18.11.17) “Spread your wings with a portfolio career”. This advert, written like a magazine article, contains all the usual elements and advice about starting a portfolio career; continue working full time while developing what you really want to do; the importance of networking; communicating with HMRC; having some savings in the bank. All quite useful, if a bit predictable and written with a particular demographic in mind. It’s marketed to show how modern a portfolio career is by calling it the ‘new face of millennial work’ (1).

What drew my attention most was the image that accompanied the article. The illustration shows a ‘worker’ levitating, surrounded by the accoutrements of work; desk, laptop, lamp, notebook and phone also all levitating. Its style is reminiscent of an early video game, with the potential for the different elements to slot tidily into place. Reflections direct my thoughts to how portfolio working is neither a game nor is it tidy.

In her Research Paper Artists work in 2016, Susan Jones analyses data from the jobs and opp site over 2016. In the paper she details:

“Research by a-n has found that at least half of all visual artists are self employed, and when those with self employment and employed status in parallel are included the figure rises to 81%.” (2).

The paper goes onto to say:

“…visual artists are more likely to be those for whom ‘looking for work’ is a constant and continuous activity…” (3).

It is this continual nature of searching for opportunities and/or developing speculative approaches that is so time consuming, and of course unpaid, that requires artists to regularly dig deep in order to keep going.  Huge quantities of self belief and motivation are required which, when fellow artists are in the same boat, can be difficult to access.

Even when work is secured the ebb and flow of money can be problematic. Having a fluctuating income may dovetail well in a household where there is more than one income or there is support that comes from elsewhere, but if the portfolio working artist is the only or primary wage earner the challenges can mount up quickly. Erratic income streams, which are the hallmark of portfolio working, have far reaching implications for artists who will be moved onto or need to claim Universal Credit. Combine this with having to maintain and develop multiple skill sets, deal with lone working, managing multiple projects at different stages simultaneously and having to travel for work, the self employed across a whole range of professions face a myriad of challenges:

“Isolation, financial pressures, irregular hours and an inability to switch off can have a real impact when not managed properly, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University. “For self-employed people, it’s a real problem. It can lead to the common mental health disorders – stress, depression and anxiety.” (4)

For artists to reflect the diversity of the population we need people from all types of backgrounds: single people, collectives, families, single parents, people with health difficulties and people with caring responsibilities to think about creative practice as a financially viable and fulfilling career aspiration. For this to be the case the portfolio career model would benefit from specific examination, alternatives designed and recommendations implemented across the industry. If the current model continues then who will want to and who will be able to be an artist?  The danger is that due to the instability of portfolio working, only an increasingly narrow demographic will be able to ride the wave of erratic income and workflow. This has the potential to narrow the diversity of practising artists to such an extent that the artwork being produced, shown and promoted at its best tells a limited range of stories and at worst becomes predominantly non applicable to the wider population.

This question of diversity spreads across the whole art system. Many leadership jobs in the arts are employed roles (so no portfolio working required) but equality of opportunity is an issue here also, as Mark Robinson reports in Inside, Outside, Beyond: Artistic Leadership for Contradictory times. His provocation paper, commissioned by Bluecoat, discusses the problems of demanding leadership roles such as artistic director or chief executive, and how the way in which these roles are structured, the sheer quantity of work, travel and flexibility required means that qualified and able people are not applying because they have diverse lives and needs (5).

Artists can’t levitate. For many their feet are firmly anchored to the floor by financial and creative realties, as they survey and operate within the complexities of portfolio working. Whether employed or self employed working a portfolio of jobs, roles in the arts would benefit from a radical shake up to ensure the full spectrum of the population can, if they want to, access the industry and thrive within it.  If we want artists to continue to contribute to the Creative industries which is worth almost £10 million an hour to the economy, then support systems need to be designed that are suited to the diversity of our lives and ambitions.

  1. Lloyds Bank Spread your wings with a portfolio career advertisement in the Guardian Weekend 18.11.17.
  2. Susan Jones Artists Work in 2016 Research Paper p.16
  3. ibid
  4. Sandra Haurant I felt vulnerable’: freelancers on the stress of self-employment  published Thursday 8 December 2016
  5. Mark Robinson – Thinking Practice Inside Outside Beyond: Artistic Leadership for Contradictory Times. A provocation paper for Bluecoat, Liverpool 2017

Further reading / resources 

Rhiannon White Who gets ‘developed’? The diversity question: who is and isn’t able to become a professional artist, and how can we change that?

Scottish Artists’ Union and Artists’ Union England announce joint campaign on Universal Credit

There is information about Universal Credit on the Turn2us website. Turn2us is a national charity that helps people in financial hardship gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and support services.