What is the best way to sustain artist-run and collectively organised activity in Scotland? It’s a question Creative Scotland is hoping to answer with a £400,000 pilot programme involving five of Scotland’s artist-led spaces over the next 12 to 18 months. Embassy and Rhubaba in Edinburgh, Generator Projects in Dundee, and Transmission and Market Gallery in Glasgow were invited to participate in the project by the arts funding body. Creative Scotland hopes the pilot will ‘help to identify and describe the different models of working to establish a much clearer understanding and articulation of the professional benefits and opportunities that are being generated’.

This exploration was initially proposed by Creative Scotland in 2016 following a comprehensive survey review of Scotland’s visual arts sector conducted in partnership with the Scottish Contemporary Art Network (SCAN). The Visual Arts Sector Review states that ‘artist-run initiatives are of central importance to the sector, being ranked as number one in importance to all survey respondents’. This feedback indicates that DIY production, shorthand for the diverse and often sophisticated methods artists develop to make their work, ties in with a set of values that people working in the arts care deeply about.

Throughout history artists have found themselves caught in a range of predicaments relating to how to sustain themselves, as well as their practice. The economic pressures faced by many working in the arts today show no sign of abating, with the Office For National Statistics reporting that household income inequality between rich and poor grew in 2018.

Struggling to find resources for activity that falls outside mainstream ideas of what constitutes a valuable contribution to society is nothing new, but the current dismantling of the welfare state is changing the UK’s cultural landscape. The erosion of basic social security that did much to support radical subcultures and DIY movements is unprecedented, and so is the coming-of-age of a new generation of artists and arts practitioners who have lived with fiscal austerity, deregulation and privatisation their whole lives.

In the arts sector – to use a term that allows artistic activity to be understood as a productive section of the UK’s economy – inequality is everywhere. Creative practices often take more time and labour to establish than people expect. Some can afford the risk. Some can’t. One of the arguments that presents a particularly difficult impasse is that voluntary labour exacerbates inequality in the arts sector. This deserves careful attention.

In 2017 the voluntary organising committee at Transmission, Glasgow’s most prominent artist-led space, postponed the gallery’s annual members’ show citing burnout and difficulty in keeping on top of crucial administrative work. In a statement, they called for an organisational rethink. In early 2018 Transmission was dropped from Creative Scotland’s portfolio of Regularly Funded Organisations. This sparked controversy and debate across the community; a community that is well aware human and financial capacities are extremely stretched, and that this ‘has the potential to impact negatively on levels of motivation and confidence’ across the sector, as Creative Scotland’s 2016 sector review points out.

The five artist-led spaces included in the pilot are not alone in being concerned about the long-term sustainability of creative work. As relatively autonomous artist-led organisations they are potentially in a good position to voice the challenges being faced. The pilot programme provides a supporting framework in which these spaces and the many individuals that make up their current committees can explore how the work they do might be sustained in the future.

Amanda Catto, head of visual arts at Creative Scotland, acknowledges that there is “serious organisational and personal stress” around some of this artist-led activity. She adds: “If we can help to alleviate some of that and ensure that we can help these spaces to sustain themselves as they wish to and as is appropriate for the sector, let’s do that.”

Catto is careful to emphasise that the artist-led spaces included in the pilot are participating at Creative Scotland’s invitation. Crucially, she makes clear that the research they’re undertaking for the pilot is over and above the normal programming and administrative activity needed for the day-to-day running of their spaces, which is done in a voluntary capacity. She reiterates that Creative Scotland’s position is one of deep respect for the independence of these institutions: “Within these spaces there’s an autonomy, an autonomy that really matters in terms of self-defining the agenda where different kinds of perspectives outside of the institution can be heard and can be active.”

The energy of these spaces and their ability to foster critical enquiry that feels current is extremely valuable but it’s also precarious. Catto believes that if it were to disappear the health, energy and dynamic of the sector would change quite significantly”. She stresses too that Creative Scotland is100% crystal clear that it’s got to be led firstly by those five spaces, but then it’s got to be led through the sector”. At the moment the artist-led spaces are defining what they want to achieve within the pilot, with meetings to finalise their proposals planned for August and September.

There will be many challenges ahead. Much of the discussion is likely to be around remuneration for committee members while ensuring charitable obligations are fulfilled. As it stands, artist-led spaces are generally run by voluntary committees but they have a reputation for really supporting the artists included in their programmes and for thinking carefully about different forms of remuneration; balancing in-kind support with artists’ fees in ways that foster goodwill and peer-to-peer learning.

This pilot comes at a time when unpaid labour is a much-discussed topic. Delivering work without remuneration or recognition can be difficult to avoid. Scottish Artists Union has published resources to help artists calculate guideline rates of pay using a model in which the cost of labour is estimated through direct comparison with other professions. Similarly, a-n produces Sample day rates, updated each year, to guide arts budgeting and to help visual artists negotiate a fair rate of pay for short-term contracts such as commissions, residencies and community projects.

Artists are also highlighting the issues surrounding free labour through projects such as In Kind at the 2017 Glasgow International. A central question arising from broader discussion across the community – which will also be of central concern to committees – is around the ethics and impact of working for free. Does unpaid labour, for example, simply exclude someone else who is more disadvantaged from participating or achieving visibility?

To help answer this question a distinction needs to be made between working for free and working voluntarily, two terms that are often used indiscriminately. Free labour is disempowering; it implies that a higher authority is demanding labour and disproportionately benefiting financially. In contrast, voluntary labour allows people to give their time and experience freely by choice; their motivations for doing so can be diverse and control over the nature of the work performed is ultimately retained by the individual. Not all work undertaken in a voluntary capacity is easy or pleasant, but there is a general consensus that voluntary labour is given as a gift and as a positive contribution to the community. 

At a time when committees are feeling the weight of their responsibilities towards the communities they operate within, the difference between labour that is given and service that can be demanded is crucial. The current model affords flexibility and adaptability to artist-led spaces that isn’t possible for other publicly-funded galleries. In a climate of pervasive monetisation and increasing professionalisation, there is a risk that people from a wide range of backgrounds feel marginalised because what they have to offer society is not wanted, needed or considered useful. According to the Scottish Volunteering Forum, ‘some individuals and groups find it harder to access volunteering opportunities or just haven’t even considered it as an option’.

Discussions that centre solely on remuneration in the arts often imply that artists have a social responsibility to withhold labour that’s not paid for, on behalf of others who face greater financial barriers. Though the levels of labour withdrawal that would be required are not workable or achievable in reality, an unintended consequence of framing the discussion this way may be an increase in professionalisation across the sector. This could present greater, not fewer barriers for those from low-income backgrounds. The argument for a withdrawal of labour on an ethical basis comes at a bad time for artists who are already struggling to find the resources and self-determination they need to continue working. 

The current discussion is ultimately about how the arts sector will operate in future and is deeply entwined with a range of factors that affect artists’ motivations for doing what they do. There are no easy answers to ensuring that committee roles fit with people’s real lives and respond to their needs. As it stands, artist-run institutions are highly visible examples of voluntary labour and the programmes they produce are testament to what is possible when artists set their own agenda.

Catto hopes the pilot will provide a bit of quiet thinking-through time around some of these issues. She expects the next 12 months of enquiry to raise as many questions as it will resolve: “We will want to open up discussions about this work and to share the learning from this project within the sector – but plans are in the early formative stages and we’re still building relationships, so this will happen when it feels appropriate, further down the line.”

Jessica Ramm was one of eight a-n members selected for the a-n Writer Development Programme 2017-18. Applications are now open for the 2019-20 programme, more information here

1. Rabiya Choudhry, ‘COCO!NUTS!’, exterior view, 2018, Transmission, Glasgow. Photo: Matthew Arthur Williams for Transmission
2. Aniara Omann and Gary Zhexi Zhang, Cross-feed, Installation view at Market Gallery as part of Glasgow International 2018. Photo: Market Gallery, Courtesy: the gallery
3. Generator Projects at Assembly Dundee, October 2018. Photo: David P Scott
4. In Kind opening, CCA, Glasgow, April 2018. Photo: Bob Moyler; Courtesy: Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford

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