The question of government support for individual artists, including visual artists, writers and composers, was the subject of an hour-long debate in the House of Lords last night.

Led by the crossbench peer the Earl of Clancarty – Nick Trench, himself an artist and writer – ten peers took part in the debate, including Lord Patten (Conservative), Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (Liberal Democrat), Baroness Kidron (crossbench), Baroness Thornton (Labour), and government spokesperson Baroness Jolly (Liberal Democrat).

The Earl of Clancarty spoke for ten minutes, opening with the statement: “We have never had an arts policy in this country that has properly prioritised the makers and the production of art…”

Going on to state the importance of the individual artist to the UK arts infrastructure, he cited research from a-n, DACS and the Paying Artists campaign.

“The bedrock of the arts in Britain since the war has been, in large measure, the work of the individual artist,” he said. “Notwithstanding the importance of teamwork in the arts, it is the individual creative vision which, to a large extent, has determined the artistic and cultural landscape of this country.”

Focusing on the visual arts, he referenced figures from a 2010 survey from DACS that the median rate of pay for a fine artist in the UK was just £10,000.

He added: “A theme that emerges is the extent to which, in our current climate of cuts and greater commercialisation, many artists occupy a position at the bottom of a food chain, and are, as a result, being increasingly exploited. Fine artists, musicians and others are, more and more often, being asked to offer their services for free.”

Don’t work for free

Referencing a-n/AIR’s Paying Artists campaign he said: “[a-n] estimates that 63% of artists have to turn down requests from galleries to exhibit their work because they cannot afford to do so without pay.

“I can see that a standard retort to this might be: “What are artists thinking about in turning down exhibitions at all?”; but artists, writers and musicians are frankly weary of being treated in this way.”

He also made a distinction between the right to fair pay and commercial pressures: “An important point to make here is that the artist being concerned about pay is not the same thing as becoming more commercialised in the work being done.

“That is the current pressure coming from the Government, which may lead to doing a different kind of work – the pressure, for example, that has already been exerted on arts centres and theatres in the regions. Artists need to be remunerated properly for the work that they do.”

Other areas of concern raised were the impact of Universal Credit on artists – “because of the lower cut-off point for consideration of tax credits as well as the way that income is calculated on a monthly basis, as artists’ incomes may vary greatly from month to month” – and the fact that the slow burning nature of developing an art practice is not taken into account.

“One of the problems is the change in our culture towards one that refuses to recognise that those on low pay might be engaged in a vocational pursuit that might need a long time to develop financially, rather than a business that is seeking to make a profit as quickly as possible.”

Other areas raised included the issue of the cost and provision of studio spaces in London and elsewhere, the impact of local authority cuts on the arts, and the need for arts policy to put the artist before the audience “because logically the art comes first and an audience for a new work may take a long time to develop.”

Touching on the forthcoming General Election and the recent Labour Press Team tweet stating that if elected Labour would not reverse Coalition cuts to the arts, he said: “It is clear that there is an increasing belief among many in the arts world, especially artists, that an incoming government should be seriously considering reversing the cuts.”

Addressing the issue of the arts in education, he said: “Everything that is making going into the arts more difficult – primarily the cuts but also tuition fees and a school education that undervalues the arts – will make being an artist, a musician, a writer or an actor increasingly the preserve of the rich.”

Contributions to debate

Contributions to the debate from other peers varied in their length and veracity. Lord Patten cited the different approaches to arts funding in other countries, adding that “too much noise about the cuts from arts bureaucrats, who generally get a pretty good salary, is both unattractive and generally counterproductive.”

He continued by asking what consideration the Government was giving to a system of tax breaks that would allow for giving directly to “artistic individuals directly.”

A key theme picked up on by a number of peers was the importance of education to the wider debate around the diversity of artists and the value of art in society. Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (Liberal Democrat) said: “It is essential that the status of the arts in the classroom is properly recognised.”

She went on to argue that it was no coincidence that, for example, many of the UK’s young top actors were privately educated, due to the decline in arts provision in state schools.

She added: “Have you noticed that whenever an important person visits a school – a prime minister or a president – the first things that they are shown are the paintings of the children? The next thing they are invited to do is to listen to the singing of the children. I rest our case.”

Crossbench peer and film director Baroness Kidron strongly criticised “the top-down principle of trickle-down theory” of most arts funding structures. She said the effect was “that the total amount of money reaching individual artists is incommensurate to their contribution to the arts ecosystem, and the gatekeepers of art funding garner too much power.”

She continued: “… as in many similar trickle-down structures, by the time the funds have trickled down, there is very little left for those at the bottom of the pile, in this case the individual artist.”

Baroness Kidron also attacked the idea that art and artists need to be ‘useful’. She said: “Since I came to the House, I have argued that art contributes to our GDP, benefits social mobility and education, that we ought to use art in health settings, and so on and so forth.

“While I do support all of these uses of creativity, it must not be at the expense of supporting artists to make art. Whatever our tastes, we value art because it is provocative, reflective, beautiful, satirical, and it helps us make sense of the world… If the demand is that art should deliver a predetermined outcome, then it is not art.”

Government spokesperson Baroness Jolly spoke for just over 10 minutes in response to the questions raised. She concluded: “During this parliament, the government have worked to support individual artists and to help everyone in the UK achieve access to great art and culture and they will continue to do so.”

For the full transcript of the House of Lords debate on Hansard, click here

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