The International Association of Art (IAA) Europe is a network of about 40 national member organisations representing professional visual artists. It cooperates with UNESCO and coordinates its activities with those of other organisations concerned with arts and culture.

For the last few years a-n has sent artist representatives from the AIR Council to IAA conferences – including myself in 2013 – but the organisation has never formally applied for membership. Alongside national committees from each of the five regions of the world as defined by UNESCO, the European region meets every year (although the last one was in Oslo in 2013). The wider general assembly meets every four years.

So why does this matter to artists in the UK? There is a lot that British artists could gain from membership of the IAA – not least being the identity card, which gives free access to many major museums and cultural institutions across Europe and the world.

A more important reason is the undoubted advantage of international links with artists’ associations and unions who, like a-n, are campaigning on behalf of artists’ rights. There is clearly much that we can learn and share, and links with northern European and Scandinavian countries are particularly crucial, as these currently represent the most dynamic artist campaigning and advocacy organisations present at the conference.

My first day started with a grand civic opening with welcomes and introductions from the Mayor of Pilsen, various cultural leaders and the head of the International Biennial of Drawing. Pilsen is the current European Capital of Culture 2015 and so the IAA General Assembly was part of a larger event with all the attendant pleasantries and ceremonies.

Day one of my attendance was actually day two for some of the other delegates who had attended a final executive committee meeting of IAA Europe the day before. The day was mainly procedural and administrative in character and this was a pattern over the next couple of days; lots of ‘official’ matters were discussed while serious debate was often relegated to secondary status. A challenge was made to this regime on day three – more of which later.

Elections for the new executive committee saw Werner Schaub elected as the new president of IAA Europe with a promise that he will obtain funding from the German government to install an office for the organisation in the home of the European Parliament in Brussels, thereby radically increasing its reach and influence. The day concluded with the gala opening of the International Biennial of Drawing.

Getting down to business

Day two was far more interesting and, after another official opening and presentation, we got down to what for me was the real business of the conference – which included the presentation of a piece of research IAA Europe had been working on for the previous four years: The Status of the Artist.

Also the title of the conference and assembly, the aim of the research is to get official recognition at an international level that artists should be treated differently in law in regard to their employment and social security status – separate from employed status or that of small businesses and freelancers.

This proposal is not without its problems and provoked intense debate about whether we actually need a special status for artists or whether we are simply ‘cultural workers’. The widespread adoption of a different status could at least mark the beginning of a cultural change in the way that artists are viewed and valued in society. The working document is the initiative of the outgoing IAA Europe president, Pavel Kral, and the Slovak Union of Visual Arts.

In the afternoon, I shared a platform with Katarina Jönsson Norling, artist and president of the organisation behind the landmark Swedish MU agreement. I talked about the Paying Artists campaign and the wider struggle for artists’ fair payment, along with contributors from Norway and Iceland. These and other countries represent a younger, dynamic body of IAA Europe members who are actively seeking change; they were a pleasure and a privilege to meet.

Our respective presentations were scheduled back-to-back in order to compare and contrast our different approaches in tackling the issue of exhibition fees. We had met informally beforehand and I was particularly keen to present a united front, with the Swedish MU model (established in 2009) being highly influential across Europe. At the other end of the scale, Iceland – with a population of 300,000 – is just starting its journey, with only eight or nine galleries nationwide.

The session managed, I think, to successfully highlight how useful international forums are for sharing and pooling resources. It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel if colleagues in other parts of Europe have already found a solution we can adapt to suit ourselves.

Debate was cut short as the morning session on The Status of the Artist report had overrun by an hour, but informal comments from Croatian and Cypriot colleagues, amongst others, confirmed the importance of the conversation. It also emerged that the Paying Artists campaign is extremely well regarded amongst the international community.

The evening involved another official dinner, where the real business of a conference is often done – in this case informally over a beer. (Pilsen is the home of Pilsner lager, after all.)

Powerful speaker

Day three was my final day (though not the end of the assembly itself), and we were joined in an expansive and historic town hall building for the IAA General Assembly, with representatives from Asia and Africa joining the family of European nations.

The president of the Ghana Association of Visual Artists, Franklyn Glover, was a powerful speaker and his presence outlined the difference between an underdeveloped African art scene and the established European cultural landscape.

It also illustrated the importance of IAA membership for developing economies, where the IAA trademark offers respectability and status. Glover was self-funding his trip by selling cultural souvenirs to the other delegates, who eagerly supported him in his endeavour.

The issue of respectability and status was further underlined when a report was given about the former Italian National Committee and president, who had been removed from their office for allegedly using the IAA Europe brand to promote and sanction art works and exhibitions by the president and his acolytes.

The afternoon saw an impromptu challenge from the chair of NBK Norway to focus the meeting away from the procedural matters of reading out reports (easily circulated in advance) towards a more urgent debate of policy that had characterised the previous day. The motion outlined the divisions between those who see the organisation as fine as it is and those who, like myself, would like to see it develop into a modern and forward-looking international organisation, where action is prioritised over words.

The new executive committee of IAA Europe will now look at this issue at their first meeting in Berlin later in the year and consider the options for compromise, which, I guess, is the best we could hope for. Older organisations often have to come to terms with the need to reinvent themselves or face the danger of becoming irrelevant in the face of new and difficult challenges.

My final evening was spent at a celebratory dinner in a banqueting hall, eating traditional food and drinking more of the excellent local beer with delegates from over 30 countries, accompanied by a young band of medieval-style minstrels. Underlining the fact that artists, wherever they are from and despite being divided by language, can still share and communicate our common humanity through laughter and dancing.

Status of the Artist: the International Association of Art Europe conference and general assembly, took place in Pilsen, Czech Republic, 15-18 October 2015. 

For more information on the Paying Artists campaign and how to get involved visit

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Artists’ pay and solidarity: without public support, it’s just comrades talking to comrades – Joseph Young  reports from Manifiesta in Belgium, where he was talking about the Paying Artists campaign as part of a Europe-wide festival of cultural solidarity