The ‘golden age’ of arts funding has given way to debilitating austerity, felt particularly by artists who find themselves at the end of a long food chain, divorced from arts policy and funding decision making. But when did these divisions start and how can artists’ activism create a sea 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 the 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.

As early as 1999, artist Pavel Buchler commented in Curious – artists’ research within expert culture (Visual Art Projects), that the artist’s ‘job’ had been “taken over by the intermediaries who ‘deliver’ the art to the public, who facilitate public access to art – curators, critics, arts administrators – and whose role it is to negotiate the practical and ideological terms and conditions of the ‘services’ provided by artists in society.”

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 in future, Louis Barrabas said: “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 infrastructures developed since the early noughties, artists simply 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, too long-winded and too subjective. In the arts ecology of today, it’s almost as if ‘real’ 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 artists fellowship – which in those days tended to be for a year, to do your own work and be an artist.

By 2004, arts officers’ salaries in the arts 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 artists’ fellowship, such as the economic impact report by CEBR shows that full-time earnings in the arts have risen by 6.8% in the last 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 an arts consultant, asks: “Are we squeezing our key nutrients – the artists and creative freelancers – and widening inequality in our own sector?”

a-n’s research indicated that in 2004, the exhibition fee for artists holding a solo exhibition in a major gallery was £1,000. Notably, Exhibition Payment Right had existed in galleries since the late 1980s, budgeted for and supported by the arts funding bodies and their clients. The level of fees for solo and group shows was publicly stated in policies.

In 2013, a new survey from AIR indicates that less than a third of artists exhibiting in publicly-funded flagship galleries in arts council portfolios (England, Scotland, Wales, Norther Ireland) 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.

a-n’s survey of openly offered jobs and opportunities for artists in 2012 reveals 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. 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.

We know that in 2012, 32% of opportunities including opens, competitions, prizes and exhibitions, asked for an entry fee. Some were modest at £3-£5 per work and £25-£30 was the average per works submitted, but there were also examples of higher charges, such as £200 for 4-8 works.

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 of contracts and commissions and the variable terms and conditions of these contracts
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 hours for work offers, seasonal employment and unsocial hours of work
Unpredictable locations of work
Vulnerability to changes in fashion, cultural trends and the market’s preferences.

Artists seemingly love their practice so much that the mediators make the assumption that artists 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/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 and 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 a practice

How might artists prepare for a different kind of role – for taking an interactive, negotiating role in determining the status of their art and of artists. My suggestion is that by taking the negotiating initiative, artists will place themselves in a stronger position and create a context for collaboration – where the intention is to come out with a meeting of minds, bound by conditions in which respect is mutual, and expectations are shared and designed to raise everyone’s game.

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?”

In 2011, the Modes of practice symposium held in Stoke on Trent explored contexts and professional sensibilities 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 later 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 on the artists’ part, however, such 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. So surely how they are constructed – the headings and allocations – can be open to review, negotiation and reallocation?

This statement below – although not from a UK source – sums up why mutuality is vital. For the sake of future arts, we really do need to demonstrate how much we value artists:

“Artists stand at the centre of all arts practice. From the artist’s capacity to communicate with sound and colour, rhythm and light, movement and language, all art is born. 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.”

Text developed from a presentation to the National Photography Symposium, held at The Bluecoat, Liverpool May 2013