We are at a point in time when more of the general public than ever before are enjoying the visual arts: 53% of adults are ‘taking part’, flocking to splendid, Lottery-funded places where contemporary visual art is the main menu item.

Publicly-funded museums and galleries in England, Scotland and Wales have been free to the public since 2011. Despite the huge expansion this has led to in access, a survey by a-n/AIR shows that the artists who are making the work that the public get to feast on for free are rarely remunerated for their essential contribution. Free entry, though, should not have to mean free labour. After all, the galleries are being funded, their staff are being paid.

As Reyahn King commented during her Clore Fellowship research: “The relationship between publicly-funded galleries and visual artists needs to become wider, deeper, and more strongly valued.” Most artists work as freelancers. The paying artists research by a-n/AIR reveals that showing their work to the public is very important to artists. Many artists pursue a continuous practice, committing significant time and resources – usually pretty much everything they’ve got – to creating art. Materials, time and travel are just ‘part of the job’; unlike the performing arts, there are no fees for ‘rehearsals’.

The artists’ life is one of continual uncertainty – will they ever make anything good again, can they get enough work to pay basic bills, is a commissioner going to take three months to actually send them a cheque? Can they afford to have a family, or study for a higher qualification? Artists face a life on low pay, unable to save for the future or for old age. Artists don’t ‘retire’ on salary-related pension schemes.

Belief in artists

But I’ve got an idea to test with you. Since there’s about 19,000 visual arts professionals who are getting paid, there’s probably some inventive ways the sector might go about collectively creating more funds for artists. Just imagine, if every salaried visual arts professional ‘donated’ two hours of their weekly salary to – say – a grant fund for artists in their communities, to help artists sustain their practice.

Let’s say an average visual arts salary is £25K a year, that makes the hourly rate £12.82. So, two hours would be £25.64 a week. Times that by 52 weeks and then times that by 19,000 visual arts professionals and you’ve got £25,332,320. That’s a lot of money.

Is this level of ‘belief in artists’ too much to expect from an employed sector whose own status and wellbeing depends in part on the generosity of artists? According to the recently-launched Great art and culture for everyone, artists are ‘central to the sector’, and maybe this is a way salaried folk – like me – can play our part in shouting that a bit louder.

If this £25m was awarded – maybe by peer panels – in very small amounts, literally thousands of artists could be benefitting annually. If only 400 or so individual artists are funded annually to the tune of about £2.5m through Grants For The Arts, we can at least do better than that. And the mind boggles at what other kinds of magnificent cash £25m could be the key to downloading?

Getting ‘high end’ art now – art market sale prices exceeding all expectations – comes from consistent investment in the critical mass in decades past. Art market sales at £3.08b are 30 times higher in real terms than they were in the mid 1980s. Is there a case to be made to take back a little slice for the next generation of art stars – perhaps to match that £25m raised by the sector?

The plain truth is that the current arts fabric is unsustainable – we need a new, 21st century rubric.

All in this together?

How, then, can the visual arts organisations better demonstrate that we’re ‘all in this together’? Here’s my suggestions and I make no apology for paraphrasing from the ThreeJohnsandShelagh’s commentary on the ACE/RSA Plan A report.

• Our funded visual arts organisations need to create relationships rather than transactions with the communities they serve – so in my mind that includes with more artists.

• They need to use their spaces as much as possible, every hour of the day and night – I’d suggest this includes welcoming in artists’ initiatives, letting them pop-up, interact and engage with the ‘fabric of the organisation’; the staff, trustees, sponsors, stakeholders.

• Collaborate as much as possible – and that also means with artists and being totally clear and unambiguous about exhibition policies and terms, budgeting to pay ‘fair and proper’ fees and not avoiding the subject of money.

Visual arts organisations can show – and demonstrate – they care about artists. And in turn, a-n, AIR and all our partners and collaborators within the area of artists’ rights will make sure that artists know about professional standards and expectations too.

Paying and valuing artists is part of how the public sector ensures a ‘pipeline of talent’, and achieves the arts goal of economic equality and diversity. Collectively, we can ensure that the value of the artist, the reality of their working lives, and the importance of maintaining this country’s tradition as a place of creativity and invention, remains real.

This call for good practice and change in relationships needn’t be small voice in a visual arts wilderness. The same issue is being raised across the literary and performing artists. I’m with pianist Xenia Pestova who says: “It is time to accept responsibility and to open a discussion with each other, our organisers, and our public. This conversation might be a difficult one to have, and it is doubtful that it will radically change engrained professional standards and expectations in the near future.

“We may even singe a few bridges in the process. However, I invite you to join me and take that risk. If nothing else, it can provide us with an opportunity to pave the path for the next generation of professionals who follow in our footsteps.”

The Art Party Conference, Saturday 23 November, The Spa, Scarborough. www.artpartyconference.co.uk