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Deliv­ering human thriving’ in and through the arts, including fair pay for artists, in a pandemic world calls for substantial shifts in how arts policies are made and where they are realised.

It’s hard to imagine now, in the midst of the arts emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but one of the Arts Council of Great Britain’s founding aspira­tions was to enable artists’ pursuit of art for art’s sake’. Back in 1945, giving artists courage, confi­dence and oppor­tunity’ to walk where the breath of the spirit’ took them was a guiding principle. 

But three decades of arts policies dedicated to forging a hierarchy of building-based arts organ­i­sa­tions, in the expec­tation that social and economic benefits would trickle down to artists, has side-lined concepts of keeping their interests at heart or putting arts policy at the service of improving artists’ social status. 

Past support to artists policies

Even in the 1980s the Arts Council in England believed passion­ately that all artists should benefit from public consumption of their work’, so much so that they insti­tuted payments to artists presenting exhibi­tions in public galleries. Nationwide appli­cation of this as an Exhibition Payment Right for artists came with the threat in one English region at least of pulling grants to galleries who didn’t comply. 

The millennium saw expansive arts policy claims for the one-off Year of the Artist 2000. Dreamed up by a consortia of arts councils and regional arts boards, 1,000 artists’ residencies promised to provide lasting oppor­tu­nities for artists creatively, struc­turally and finan­cially’. Both these grand levelling up strategies failed. In economic terms, only 5% of galleries actually paid the exhibition fees due to artists and despite estab­lishing minimum residency pay rates, Year of the Artist grant recip­ients commonly got half the desig­nated fee.

The golden age’ of arts under Tony Blair’s New Labour government saw an unprece­dented government increase to Arts Council England (ACE), with massive arts infra­struc­tural growth. Lumping the arts into the creative indus­tries charac­terised by low pay and uncertain prospects exacer­bated existing patterns of exploitation of artists. Any policy notions of fair pay for artists were forgotten about. 

Flawed arts business models

The raft of new shiny arts buildings resulting from National Lottery capital awards and their expanded tiers of staffing were finan­cially fragile. Premised on a commercial revenue model, arts policy’s misplaced expec­tation has been that the ingre­dients for long-term resilience are strong and well-paid leadership, an up-skilled salaried workforce, with consistent fundraising and multiple earned income strands augmenting what ACE now prefers to call investment’ rather than what it really is – subsidy.

2008’s crash and austerity period revealed the under­lying problem: earned income strands are by nature unreliable. The South Bank’s current financial mess is just one contem­porary example of the fragility running right through the funded arts sector. However polished an organisation’s fundraising effort, compe­tition for grants, funding and earned income is fierce and relentless. There’s some irony that even in ACE’s good’ 2003 – 2006 period – in which policy trumpeted artists as central’ – its own research revealed that half of visual arts organ­i­sa­tions couldn’t afford’ to pay the artists on which their public programmes and earned income strands depended. Austerity cutbacks a decade ago exacer­bated the problem, when ACE decided to preserve the public-facing at all costs, with the caveat that funded galleries would also take respon­si­bility for artists’ welfare without dedicated resourcing.

It turns out the affir­mative policy action to ensure artists were paid at fair rates that ACE energet­i­cally promoted from the millennium era was a passing fashion. In arts policy’s eyes nowadays, artists’ sole value is as a ubiquitous pool of talent, spottable’ career fodder for the ever-growing band of gatekeepers – the curators, commis­sioners, agents and consul­tants – whose own career ascen­dancy depends on playing the arts insti­tu­tions’ game. It’s no surprise that artists are kept at an awkward social distance’ from policy and the default position is that looking after artists’ interests is never mission-critical. As former Arts Council England CEO Peter Hewitt confirmed in The Chance to Dream — a research report for a‑n The Artists Infor­mation Company — it’s the artists who always get lost’ in the funding reality. Inevitably, almost anything or anyone else – partic­u­larly senior arts jobs – are judged more important than artists’ livelihoods.

Too many artists?

I’m not the first person to point to ACE’s complicity in retaining the exploitative and precarious condi­tions the majority of visual artists have to live with. The net result of successive policies to secure world-class’ arts for the public to enjoy by ampli­fying arts leadership and priori­tising business resilience and workforce devel­opment is that visual artists are finan­cially no better off now than 35 years ago. Some may argue that there are too many artists’, yet the percentage of artists is smaller in a visual arts workforce which is now 40 percent larger than two decades ago.

Name-only self-employment

Artists’ economic precarity is exacer­bated by an ambiguous employment status. Although three-quarters of artists are self-employed, most art oppor­tu­nities offered to them have little or no leeway to negotiate terms and contracts on a freelance basis. Artists are treated like any other commodity, brought in on fixed rates and budgets just in time’, their outputs’ pre-deter­mined. Artists inevitably supplement low art incomes with other jobs which tend to treat them as employees, further under­mining their self-employed status. As illus­tration of the livelihood impli­ca­tions of artists’ ambiguous employment status, artists’ charity Acme’s submission to the DCMS Committee consid­ering COVID-19’s impacts shows the majority of their artists ineli­gible for government and ACE emergency funding.

In the new normal’ of a COVID-19 world, deliv­ering human thriving’ in and through the arts – including fair pay for artists without whom there’s no art – calls for a substantial systems shift rather than ACE’s manageable reset. By devolving arts funding to local author­ities, the Fabian Society’s recom­men­da­tions counter some inbuilt inequities in arts delivery. But by under­playing artists’ distinctive contri­bu­tions and its assumption that ACE always knows best, these don’t go far enough and won’t lead to cultural democracy.

New ecology

ACE’s inclu­sivity and creativity agenda may sound good on paper but can’t be delivered in the trickle down’ arts devel­opment economy it’s wedded to. It’s time to get rid of the deadweight by leaving no insti­tu­tional stone’ unturned. Only stringent editing of slow-moving hierar­chical insti­tu­tions in the regularly-funded portfolio – including through mothballing some and the merger of others – will clear the decks.

Artsrewild and Culture­PlanB are amongst those reimag­ining the cultural sector’s future ecology, with artists’ welfare at the heart of a discourse around inclusive alter­native radical strategies. Achieving nuanced artistic and economic condi­tions for artists and their broad commu­nities of interest rests on three transfers of power. It’s the co-validation arising from sustained, person­alised, working relation­ships between individual artists and their collab­o­rators – rather than insidious gatekeeping – that enables artists to get ahead artis­ti­cally and economically. 

Micro-scale cooper­ative devel­op­ments building localised capacity and resilience for artists and their collab­o­rators – such as artist-led Artgene’s Extreme Views initiative and Idle Women’s immersive artists’ residencies – are preferable to eking out funding to few artists through ultracompet­itive, top down grants. Such initia­tives that are democ­ra­tising and rebal­ancing arts policy and funding are far better placed than our current clique of regularly funded organ­i­sa­tions to tackle the rocky, uncharted territory of the new arts normal’ ahead.

Refer­ences

This text draws on analysis and commentary in my doctoral thesis Artists’ liveli­hoods: the artists in arts policy conundrum, 2019 available at http://e‑space.mmu.ac.uk/62635

Cooper, B. (2020) Cultured Commu­nities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture. London: Fabian Society.

Commis­sioned and first published by Art Review in September 2020.