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This essay for the 2014 Seoul Art Space, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture Inter­na­tional Symposium briefly covers UK arts policies for support to artists’ devel­opment, comments on their impact on artists’ social and economic status and suggests a rethinking of the artists’ intrinsic role in society as a vital part of securing and sustaining contem­porary visual arts in the future.

Artists and arts policy

In the UK, the arts enjoy an arm’s length’ infra­structure [1] – one in which the arts councils (of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) are independent of government, devel­oping policies and funding for the arts as a public benefit. One argument for setting up the Arts Council of Great Britain in the first place was the fear of what would happen to the visual arts if left to the vagaries of the market place. Amongst historical assump­tions [2] for estab­lishing state support of the arts through the arts councils were that fine art is important but very fragile, and because artists are as a matter of course poor, they need to be guided and patro­nised’ by the state. 

Within this spirit, in 1979 the Arts Council of Great Britain initiated a policy to pay artists when they exhibited work in publicly-funded galleries. Public galleries and museums choose to exhibit the works of living artists for the enjoyment and education of visitors. Both these functions are of wide benefit to the community. Artists provide a service, and, just as other workers in the gallery are entitled to be paid for their labour, so artists too are entitled to be paid for the use that is made of their work. Artists are profes­sional workers as well. Every other profes­sional sector in the arts expects that this public benefit should be recog­nised, and recom­pensed, by the payment of a fee…. The argument for EPR (Exhibition Payment Right) is based on equity – on fairness and justice. All artists should benefit from the consumption of their work by the public.” [3]

It is worth noting however that although the later Arts Council initiative Year of the Artist 2000 was also intended to secure artists’ profes­sional status through enhanced pay and condi­tions[4], subse­quent research in 2003 into artists’ fees and payments had indicated that commis­sioners’ attitudes had not in the longer term been changed by such advocacy. [5]

By 2006, England’s arts and culture were said to be the healthiest they had ever been, enjoying a 73% funding increase under an arts-friendly Labour government over a decade that was described as a golden age’ for the arts. [6] The National Lottery contri­bution to the arts led to creation of new-build flagship’ contem­porary visual arts galleries across the UK. Millions of pounds of arts money were allocated to these arts buildings and their enhanced overhead costs. With the new wave of curatorial positions, the contem­porary visual arts became truly profes­sion­alised’.

During the UK’s economic downturn and subse­quent recession, arts funding suffered substantial government cuts [7]. Although the ambitions set out by Arts Council England for the core (National Portfolio Organ­i­sation) funding included: Encourage[ment] of artists’ practice and career devel­opment through investment in artists’ workspace and production facil­ities, artist-led spaces, and profes­sional support organ­i­sa­tions and maintain[ence] of a resilient and diverse ecology that reflects, on a nationwide basis, the richness of work currently being made, and encom­passes organ­i­sa­tions of varying types and scales”, Arts Council England concen­trated its support to contem­porary visual arts by maintaining these specialist galleries putting 48% of the 2012 – 15 budget specif­i­cally to the Top 20′ galleries and production agencies [8]. Funding decisions made for 2015 – 18 will increase spend on this top’ group to 68%. 

The 2012 – 15 funding cuts of £1.36m to sixteen small-scale and artist-led organ­i­sa­tions have severely damaged an important layer in the infra­structure for artists’ practices, impacting on the livelihood of artists and future vitality and sustain­ability of the visual arts ecology, putting at risk 19 full-time and 46 part-time jobs, contracted work for 287 freelancers, 133 internship oppor­tu­nities and 43 artists’ mentoring oppor­tu­nities annually. Overall, the cut organ­i­sa­tions directly or indirectly supported almost 6,700 visual artists pursuing profes­sional careers at a time when artists’ liveli­hoods are under threat”. [9]

Artists and the art market 

In the mid-80s, £40 million was estimated as the annual value of UK art sales – the equiv­alent to £101m nowadays. However, the actual value, as calcu­lated in 2009 [10], was more like £3.08 billion — that is thirty times larger than the 80s. London is now said to be the world’s most successful contem­porary art market. But does this benefit the UK’s contem­porary artists? Artist Graham Crowley comments: Nobody I know about talks about the market as repre­sented in the media. It’s seen purely as a construct of the market and the media… The artist’s work is expensive in the market place, and that’s what is important.” [11]

In terms of increasing the artists’ commercial art sales, whilst the Taste buds report [12] indicated the vital impor­tance of the critical mass of artists to the overall art market’s success and enormous potential to enhance sales of contem­porary art to new purchasers and collectors’ – this would only occur if the art world’ was willing to forego the tradi­tional frame­works that — because they filter supply” and control the demand” — maintain the high prices achieved by art stars’. 

Artists as social instrument

Over the recent arts funding period, art has been generally perceived as a social instrument, as exemplified in state­ments such as: Art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned; contributes to social cohesion, benefits environ­mental renewal and health and injects creativity into organ­i­sa­tional planning.” [13]

Arts Council England’s current policy states: We are a custodian of public investment, and we are charged with getting the maximum value out of this: the enlight­enment and enter­tainment arts and culture bring us; the enriching of our lives and the inspiring of our education; the vital contri­bution to our health and well-being and the powering of regional regen­er­ation, tourism and our standing abroad.” [14]

Either through financial necessity or the desire of the public funders who are their patrons’, many UK artists are making art or deliv­ering art projects the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instru­mental powers: how well they serve the needs of others by achieving social improvement such as regen­er­ation, whether they uplift the lives of disad­van­taged people or fill the arts gap’ in the school curricula. Artists are encouraged in this respect by policy makers to widen their practices and expec­ta­tions because: There is nothing repre­hen­sible in artists seeking to extend cultural democracy by opening their practice to others”. [15]

However, as John Holden commented: Insti­tu­tional and Measurement Properties of the admin­is­trative system exert far too much influence over the nature of cultural activity itself…The danger is that uninten­tionally, these pressures will insti­tu­tion­alise cultural mediocrity by encour­aging funders and funded to take safe bets… We should be not be satisfied with criteria that act as proxies for cultural value; rather, we should be seeking to design the insti­tu­tions around the creation of cultural value.” [16]

The economic status of artists

Notwith­standing the public role for artists as providers of arts services that benefit society, artists’ liveli­hoods continue to suffer. 

The artists’ liveli­hoods survey by a‑n along with related research [17] shows that arts policies and investment decisions dramat­i­cally affect artists’ income levels and their liveli­hoods and career sustainability. 

  • The value of openly offered work for artists is in decline. In 2013 the overall value of work on offer to artists was £7.5m less (29%) than the pre-recession year of 2007, and £2m less than was offered in 2012
  • Commission budgets have declined consid­erably. In 2013, commis­sions provided 11% of the value of all work, with an average budget of £19,444. In comparison in 2007 (pre-recession), the figure was 62% and commission budgets averaged £100K.

In tandem, arts funding policies have reduced levels of financial support direct to artists through open-access funds. A key finding from the A fair share report is that only 2.5% of artists in England are successful annually in gaining a grant from such schemes [18]. When combined, these factors represent a dramatic loss in artists’ annual income levels. For 71% of artists in 2013, turnover from their practice was less than £10,000 a year. 17% were earning up to £20,000 and just 7% up to £30,000 [19]. In real terms, artists nowadays are some £6,000 a year worse off than they had been in 1997

a‑n’s Paying artists research revealed that it was within the publicly-funded galleries that levels of financial reward were partic­u­larly poor. In the last three years, 71% of artists had received no fee at all for exhibiting in arts council-funded galleries, and 63% had been forced to turn down exhibi­tions because they could not afford to carry the costs themselves, from their low income base [20].

However not all working profes­sionally in the contem­porary visual arts in the UK have fared as badly as artists. An economic impact report [21] in 2013 showed that full-time earnings in the arts had risen by 6.8% in the last five years. 

Inter­views with curators and art directors revealed the view that, rather than payment, artists should be content to gain exposure and career devel­opment from public exhibi­tions. There was a distinct lack of concern for the economic situation of artists: The pay and condi­tions which artists receive and improving fees for exhibi­tions were not partic­u­larly considered a priority by partic­i­pating venues; nor were the pay and condi­tions of artists more generally considered a particular talking point in the sector at the moment. [22] It seems amongst artistic staff at the very insti­tu­tions who now enjoy the lion’s share of arts funding that there is little concern for, or awareness of, artists’ intrinsic value into the their curatorial and audience devel­opment processes. 

The status of artists

Frey and Pommerehne [23] defined someone as an artist by: 

  • The amount of time spent on artistic work
  • The amount of income derived from artistic activity
  • Reputation amongst general public 
  • Recog­nition amongst other artists
  • Quality of artistic work – as defined somehow
  • Membership of a profes­sional body
  • Profes­sional qualification
  • Subjective self-evalu­ation of being an artist

The business of being an artist [24] provided an alter­native set of definitions: 

  • Maker of unique works of value for sale
  • Animateur — encour­aging other people’s creative expression
  • Public servant – making work to commission for public places, regen­er­ation, etc
  • Economic unit – a small business’ / a creative industry employing others
  • Social worker – empow­ering others to be fulfilled and improve their lives
  • Educator – deliv­ering into schools and the educa­tional curriculum
  • Initiator of new arts ventures – creators of arts festivals, open studios, etc
  • Visionary – a social conscience’

Rethinking artists

Tomorrow’s people” are: Innov­ative and conser­v­ative; have multiple truths held lightly; they live, think and act locally and globally; they embrace spiri­tu­ality; they think holis­ti­cally and system­i­cally; they tolerate ambiguity and difference; they are reflexive learners; they contex­tu­alise — putting themselves into the process; they value ethics – eschewing right action over fixed principles; they assume personal respon­si­bility and account­ability; they are both partic­u­larist and gener­alist; they reason abstractly and narra­tively and they trust physical intel­li­gence”. [25] Artists demon­strate many of these charac­ter­istics that are required in 21st Century cultural people. 

My own in-depth research that specif­i­cally examined the scope and value of artist-led initia­tives concluded that: Although as pool of creators, artists might be visualised by the arts funding system as the material in which the arts system tree’ is planted, the seemingly naturally-occurring resource which nourishes the roots so that the tree produces healthy leaves and fruits. An alter­native visual­i­sation might be to place the artist-constituency around the rim of a wheel which also contains the other enablers and promoters of the visual arts and which is driven by the inter­action between, and the combined strengths of, each of its parts. Such a diagram recog­nises that all elements hold an equal role within the arts infra­structure, and suggests a greater possi­bility of inter­action and exchange between artists and the range of people whose beliefs and energies shape the cultural identity of the country and define the part the arts plays within it.” [26]

At Arts Funding — Artistic Freedom’, the President of Croatia, composer Professor Ivo Josipovic, said: When regulating the position of artists in the society, one shouldn’t have Mozart, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Balzac or some other genius in mind, but a human that chooses art as his profession because he has his internal motives to be a genius. The system should give oppor­tunity to an artist to be independent, to express his talent in the way he finds the best, and in the same time secure a decent life for him and his family.” [27]

Artist David Cotterrell has commented: I don’t believe that all artists can help us to find some form of truth, but more that their cacophony of diverse, contra­dictory, tangential and subjective views may serve to challenge the fiction of estab­lished narra­tives and remind us of the inherent complexity of human perception and experience. I was recently told an ideal­istic metaphor to describe and justify the role of artists. — If you imagine a crowd, perhaps a tour or commuter group hurrying forward to its desti­nation, artists could be seen as members of a crowd who run ahead to look around a corner and report back to the group on what they have found. The slightly heroic role of the artist as advance recon for society was quite flattering to any of us who describe ourselves as artists. I found myself slightly disagreeing with the simplicity of the image. I proposed an alternate view that artists are also the members of the crowd who drop back to tie their shoe-laces and find themselves distracted by the view down an alley or the detail of an anomaly, which might not have been initially regarded as signif­icant by the crowd. Enthralled by the beauty and signif­i­cance of their obser­vation they might attempt to rejoin the group to describe what they saw.” [28]

In a more recent report, the authors argue that: Artists and creative practi­tioners are key workers’ and entre­pre­neurs in the devel­opment of healthy and sustainable commu­nities, modelling ways of living that exemplify adapt­ability, resilience and innovation and contributing to local economies in ways that enhance rather than diminish wellbeing. We do not express or advocate for the art of surviving in a broken system but rather… a way to make the lives of emerging artists more visible and viable as well as the policy making logic of the towns and cities of which they are a part.” [29]

The Paying Artists Campaign manifesto’ also makes the case for a new under­standing of the value of artists, saying that: Artists are the innovators from which great art emerges and on which our society’s well-being depends. It is through artists’ ideas, exper­i­ments and ingenuity that creative ideas and products are made manifest. Art by its nature presents a wide range of levels of engagement and partic­i­pation for people and audiences. Artists thrive on such engagement as an essential ingre­dient to feed what is their continuous, life-time’s dedication to a creative practice. The world is always looking for new ways of seeing. Art practice – the collective perfor­mance of art making between materials, artists, artworks, galleries and people — is an inter-disci­plinary reflexive process that enables people to rethink and re-imagine their realities, and which creates cultural value.” [30]

©Susan Jones 2014 

First published Working Artists: Aspects of Arts and Labour, 6th Seoul Art Space Inter­na­tional Symposium, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, 2014 


[1] It is a principle which was first artic­u­lated by Keynes in 1946 and which has served us all, politi­cians and artists, very well since. It keeps the arts free of political inter­ference in the content and nature of creative expression. It protects politi­cians from being held accountable for the occasionally outra­geous, offensive or otherwise troublesome work of artists.” CMS Select Committee report on Funding of the Arts and Heritage, 2011 www​.publi​ca​tions​.parliament​.uk/​p​a​/​c​m​201011​/​c​m​s​e​l​e​c​t​/​c​m​c​u​m​e​d​s​/​464​/​46405.htm

[2] As discussed in The State and the Visual Arts, Nicholas Pearson, OUP1981 

[3] A brief history of Exhibition Payment Right, a‑n, 2014 www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/brief-history-of-exhibition-payment-right

[4] Amongst seven objec­tives for Year of the Artist was: to deliver lasting oppor­tu­nities for artists creatively, struc­turally and finan­cially” Year of the Artist evalu­ation, Lucy Hutton and Clare Fenn, Arts Council Research report. www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​m​e​d​i​a​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​454.doc

[5] Because Arts Council guidance had not been continued nor figures updated to take into account economic factors since, the 2000 day rate for artists was still being widely used to by commis­sioners and purchasers and was often treated as a standard (rather than a minimum)”, although noting that: Artists who are assertive enough may negotiate extra payment.”Fees and payments to artists, Susan Baines and Jane Wheelock, a‑n, 2003 www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/fees-and-payments-for-artists

[6] Arts Council England Annual Report 200607 www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​m​e​d​i​a​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​d​o​w​n​l​o​a​d​s​/​p​a​r​t​1.doc

[7] The Arts Council was cut by almost 30% in the 2010 Government spending review alone, with further cuts in subse­quent years. Funds to the arts for the period 2015 – 18 are only guaranteed for 201516.

[8]ACE Wednesday, a‑n, 2011www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/ace-wednesday

[9] Ladders for devel­opment, Dany Louise, a‑n Research paper 2011 https://www.a‑n.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/1 (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[10] The British Art Market, Arts Economics, 2009 www​.lapada​.org/​p​u​b​l​i​c​/​T​h​e​_​B​r​i​t​i​s​h​_​a​r​t​_​M​a​r​k​e​t.pdf

[11] Interview, a‑n, 2010www.a‑n.co.uk/p/606719 (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[12] Taste Buds: how to cultivate the art market, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Arts Council England, 2004 www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​_​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​t​a​s​t​e​-​b​u​d​s​-​h​o​w​-​t​o​-​c​u​l​t​i​v​a​t​e​-​t​h​e​-​a​r​t​-​m​a​rket/

[13] Use or ornament: The social impact of partic­i­pation in the arts, Francois Matarasso, Comedia, 1997 http://​benefitshub​.ca/​e​n​t​r​y​/​u​s​e​-​o​r​-​o​r​n​a​m​e​n​t​-​t​h​e​-​s​o​c​i​a​l​-​i​m​p​a​c​t​-​o​f​-​p​a​r​t​i​c​i​p​a​t​i​o​n​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-​arts/

[14] From intro­duction to Achieving Great Art for Everyone, Arts Council England, 2013 www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​m​e​d​i​a​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​G​r​e​a​t​_​a​r​t​_​a​n​d​_​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​_​f​o​r​_​e​v​e​r​y​o​n​e.pdf

[15] Use or ornament, Francois Matarasso, Comedia, 1997 

[16] John Holden, Demos www​.demos​.co​.uk

[17]a‑n Research paper: Artists work in 2013, 2014 www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/artists-work-in-2013 (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[18] A fair share – direct funding for individual artists from UK arts councils, 2011 www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/a‑fair-share-direct-funding-for-individual-artists-from-uk-arts-councils‑2 (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[19] Paying artists research: Phase 1 findings https://www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/paying-artists-research-phase-1-findings (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[20] ibid 

[21] CEBR Economic Report, 2013 www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​m​e​d​i​a​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​p​d​f​/​C​E​B​R​_​e​c​o​n​o​m​i​c​_​r​e​p​o​r​t​_​w​e​b​_​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​_​0513.pdf

[22] Paying artists research: Phase 2 findings, 2013 www.a‑n.co.uk/resource/paying-artists-research-phase-2-findings (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[23] Muses and markets explo­rations in the economics of the arts, Frey and Pommerehne, Blackwell, 1989 

[24] The business of being an artist, Janet Summerton, Eric Moody, City University, 1996 

[25] Inside the edge, Roanne Dods, research report for Missions Models Money, 2010 ww​.mission​mod​elsmoney​.org​.uk/​s​i​t​e​s​/​d​e​f​a​u​l​t​/​f​i​l​e​s​/​23974648​-​I​n​s​i​d​e​-​t​h​e​-​E​d​g​e​-​b​y​-​R​o​a​n​n​e​-​D​o​d​s​-​2008​_​0.pdf

[26] Measuring the experience: the scope and value of artist-led organ­i­sa­tions, Susan Jones, 1997www.a‑n.co.uk/blogs/susanjonesarts

[27] European Council of Artists Conference, Zagreb, 2010 www​.eca​.dk/​a​c​t​i​v​i​t​i​e​s​/​z​a​g​r​e​b​p​r​e​s​s.htm

[28] Bridging the map, Making the case symposium, Tate Modern, 2009 www.a‑n.co.uk/air/bridging-the-gap1997 (pay to view/​free to a‑n members) 

[29] The Art of Living Danger­ously, Exchange, Mission Models Money (MMM) and New Economics Foundation, 2014 http://​www​.theemp​ty​space​.org​.uk/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​s​/​_​v​i​e​w​/​545​f​6​a​667​b​b​b​88​a​a​348​b4577

[30] Securing the future for the visual arts in the UK, a‑n, 2014 www​.payin​gartists​.org​.uk/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2014​/​05​/​P​a​y​i​n​g​-​A​r​t​i​s​t​s​_​S​e​c​u​r​i​n​g​-​a​-​f​u​t​u​r​e​-​f​o​r​-​v​i​s​u​a​l​-​a​r​t​s​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-​U​K​_​f.pdf