During these economically uncertain times the topic of sustainability is increasingly pertinent to art practitioners. A recent survey of its members by AIR: Artists’ Interaction and Representation found that levels of self-employment were higher amongst artists than the creative industries as a whole, and this proportion has increased substantially over the last 10 years. The findings show that 72% of artists are self-employed whilst 25% are a mixture of self-employed and employed. An earlier survey by AIR also illustrated the high levels of qualifications artists hold. Amongst emerging artists 68% held a BA and 27% an MA, with 3% already PhD graduates. Does this correlation between highly qualified art graduates and high levels of self-employment imply that artists are still being undervalued?
The visual arts remains a popular profession and obviously being self-employed and employed does not necessarily mean earning a low-level income. Yet it is pretty obvious economic gain is not the main attraction. AIR’s survey found 75% of artists cannot make a living from their work whilst 40% struggle to even cover the costs of making their work. Some sustain their practice by working full-time in unrelated professions such as teaching, administration or museum work.
The aim is to maintain a healthy and productive population of artists that does not constantly have to worry about money. Pretty idealistic but not wholly unrealistic. New policies need to be developed that allow for growth and flexibility within the arts. The structure of artists lives is constantly in flux and differs from that of professionals in other industries. It is impossible to gauge the measure of success in the same way one might in financial industries. Yet we cannot claim to be wholly different and must not isolate ourselves in the process.
The trend for artists to mimic the methodologies of other professions is nothing new. For example, Katie Paterson has worked frequently with NASA scientists on recent projects and Walead Beshty utilises modern day transportation devices to create his journey-forms work. Yet these influences are merely surface orientated – we need to look at the underpinning nature of one’s practice to develop further.
There needs to be a broad analysis of the structural networks that help maintain other professions, with a sampling and splicing together of the most relevant attitudes and approaches formatted into some kind of workable dialogue between individuals and groups. Now is the time to put into practice what artists are best at – communicating and networking ideas. Hopefully then we can develop a wide-reaching, flexible and sustainable art practice.