I’ve been working in the arts for over 25 years. In that time I’ve been swept along by the many waves and breakers that have happened in the visual art sector.
Some have been lovely rides – the 1990s when artist-led groups began to ‘do-it-for-themselves’ and the Arts Council supported and enabled that swell.
New flagship galleries were being planned and artist-led groups thrived – using empty buildings in cities as part of regeneration, with councils supporting that by waiving business rates for the owners and rents for artists.
Despite the fact that massive numbers of students were being squeezed into underfunded, under-resourced art colleges, grants cut and fees bumped up, artists were beginning to flourish. They weren’t all Brit-pack-rich by any means, but they were making things happen and had the power and infrastructure to do so for other artists too.
In the South West where I’m based, Alias – at that point an ACE-funded professional development scheme – offered invaluable advice to artist-led groups. (I was lucky enough to benefit when they were able to provide a small grant, rather than charging. I was also an advisor.)
As artist-led groups became increasingly professional in their management and ability to run micro-businesses, ACE also recognised their potential and began to help them to buy buildings and studios. Local authorities were supportive, as were universities and of course ACE too.
Art was respected in society and it felt good.
Flotsam and jetsam
What happened? A lot of changes have occurred to take us from that to this. We sit amongst the flotsam and jetsam of those waves, with unsuccessful funding and commission applications tangled around our ankles. There’s an oil slick of despondency while everyone struggles to stay afloat.
Charities lost huge amounts of money in the financial crashes, resulting in some changing their application processes in favour of organisations. Public spending was slashed, so local authorities had no choice than to drop art off their to-do list.
Universities struggle under constant cuts. ACE has been decimated, and given a much bigger workload too. The property market boom means there is no reasonably-priced housing, and few artists can get on the ownership ladder.
In galleries, paid stewards have lost their work and been replaced by volunteers. Interns abound – those whose parents can support them are able to get their foot on the ladder, and those who can’t work in call centres, cafes and bars.
The big fish are still OK, though even they will be feeling the pain more than ever before. But it’s the smaller ones who’ve been hit hardest – they fight on and make things happen, mostly by being tenacious and determined, or working for nothing. Or peanuts. Galleries are running on shoe-string staff.
Artist-led groups are beginning to increase in number again, but without business rate subsidy, rent-free premises and with far fewer options of achieving an income, it’s much harder now. They are trying hard and making excellent small marks in the art ecology.
Other artists are applying frantically for commissions. Often highly competitive and offering very low fees, those doing this are resilience in action.
I am frustrated as to how we get out of this dark place. Campaigns like Paying Artists are great. But the recommended rates are not being carried through to the artists – and it is not legislation.
Just like the minimum wage, which is largely ignored. Zero-hour contracts, internships (bad ones – there are some good ones too), open calls that ask for money without the capacity to pay a production fee for making work, or a hanging fee. They are all, quite simply, not paying the minimum wage.
This is an edited version of a longer post originally published on
More on a-n.co.uk:
Open exhibitions and entry fees: price worth paying or licence to exploit artists? – Jack Hutchinson investigates in this in-depth news feature
Cost of volunteering: will UK arts ecology pay the price? – David Trigg reports on the growing use of unpaid volunteers in the arts