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A debate insti­gated in the House of Lords that put a spotlight on the artists’ role acted as catalyst to discuss the impli­ca­tions for future support for artists through arts policy.

In the economic melt-down that has seen public funding to the arts cut by a third since 2010 and in their haste to preserve the galleries, museums and theatres, few arts leaders or politi­cians have stopped to consider the devas­tating impact such reduc­tions are having on the liveli­hoods of the individual creators of art – the artists, the writers and the composers.

The 2015 debate in the House of Lords generated by the Earl of Clancarty aka artist Nick Trench has thus created a signif­icant review point as arts policies are under formu­lation in the run up to what may be the messiest General Election results ever.

Launching the debate, Nick Trench asserted that: It is the individual creative vision which has deter­mined the artistic and cultural landscape of this country. Without the fine artist, there would be no Tate Modern; without the playwright, there would be no contem­porary theatre; without composers and musicians, there would be no concert halls.” In the case of Tate Modern alone that now welcomes some 5m visitors annually, this raises the question of whether it should be doing far more than it currently does to acknowledge this, through explicit support to the critical mass of artists. 

Nick Trench argued for policies that 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: the audience should not be socially engineered.”

The supposed champion of artists, the Arts Council and its policies since 2011 give scant mention to artists. As Peer Beeban Kidron pointed out in the debate such top-down policies give arts gatekeepers far too much power: In this funding model, money, whether public or private, flows from a central distributor to arts organ­i­sa­tions that in turn offer the oppor­tunity for individual artists to make or show work. However, 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”.

Whilst the cultural sector grew by nearly 10% in 2013 — three times the rate of the wider UK economy – the average commission fee for a composer is a mere £1,392 and artists’ average incomes from art have reduced by £6,000 in real terms since 1997.

It was left to the government’s DCMS spokesperson Lib-Dem Judith Jolly to wheel out the generic Arts Council statistics to demon­strate how supporting individual artists is central to the 10-year strategy. Such policies have essen­tially margin­alised the at-large’ partic­i­patory and engagement-based-practices in order to preserve dimin­ishing funds for buildings and civic pride. The 2015 – 18 NPO agree­ments will increase spend on the Top 20′ galleries and production agencies to 68%. The small, flexible and responsive, the artist-run, have been edited out, left to the vagaries of officer-assessed, occasional grants. Other than the tiny fractions of money direct to individual artists through schemes such as Grants for the Arts, ACE claims that support to artists comes through various funding partner organ­i­sa­tions: “…such as the 111 national portfolio organ­i­sa­tions that work in visual arts nationwide”.

But as the a‑n/​AIR Paying artists campaign has revealed, many of these funded organ­i­sa­tions currently don’t believe they need to pay artists at all. That 63% of artists had turned down an exhibition on afford­ability grounds is a stark reminder if ever one was needed that the liveli­hoods of artists are never safe if left in the hands of such mediators. And whilst it is indeed laudable that ACE has now insisted in funding agree­ments there should be fair pay for artists’, it is likely to be far later in the life of the next NPO period (201518) before artists’ liveli­hoods feel any benefit.

In the burgeoning age of the digital is it is vital that agencies operate ethically by acknowl­edging the value of creators. As Lib Dem Lord Maclennan asserted: Copyright is the mechanism through which writers, composers and music creators are paid for their work. Royalties provide essential income for creators so that they can grow and invest in themselves and their businesses.” The aggressive move of the Copyright Licencing Agency, which is bullying artists, photog­ra­phers and illus­trators and writers into accepting unrea­sonable condi­tions for publi­cation by signing away copyright within distri­b­ution of secondary rights” is being hotly contested on behalf of these creators by DACS: Design and Artists Copyright Society.

Comments arising from this year’s award of Oscars and BAFTAs have highlighted the issue of growing elitism in the arts – increas­ingly only those with money can afford to practice or fully partic­ipate in the arts. Despite James Blunt’s spirited rebuttal, that his public school education was actually more of a hindrance than a help, the financial hurdle of paid-for art education is of huge concern in terms of the future social make-up of artists.

Grayson Perry has been moved to speak up about his working class upbringing – something I was surprised to have to do myself recently to someone working profes­sionally in the arts who clearly didn’t share my lower social status. He says: For so many children, doing art … isn’t something they come across until they are taught it at school. Not everyone’s mother sits down with scissors and paper and makes collages with them … The idea that art will somehow look after itself — that society will breed untaught geniuses — is rubbish”.

Diversity amongst great profes­sional artists, of which Perry surely must be counted, will only come in future if there is equality of access to inspiring art teachers and good arts education in schools. As @ISM_music tweeted: “’#artists/#composers are not from any walk of life if they have to subsidise their role in society”.

This text was commis­sioned and first published by Arts Profes­sional https://www.artsprofessional.c…