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Although 77% of visu­al artists are reg­is­tered as self-employed (CCS, 2012), this bald sta­tis­tic belies the nuance of how liveli­hoods are made up. This short text in the Covid19 port­fo­lio con­tex­tu­alis­es artists’ income sources and con­cludes with a call for arts fun­ders, arts organ­i­sa­tions and the High­er Edu­ca­tion sec­tor to advo­cate strong­ly to ensure visu­al artists receive the sup­port they deserve dur­ing the Covid19 emer­gency and in future. 

Artists’ income from self-employ­ment is low

When work­ing for pub­licly-fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions visu­al artists are typ­i­cal­ly pre­sent­ed with fixed bud­gets and terms based on what such organ­i­sa­tions have already bud­get­ed for or are pre­pared to pay. For exam­ple, a com­mis­sioned exhi­bi­tion in one of the most impor­tant pub­licly-fund­ed gal­leries which may take an artist up to a year to pre­pare for may com­mand a fee of only £6,000 (a‑n, 2016). The high lev­els of com­pe­ti­tion for work means in effect that self-employ­ment is the­o­ret­i­cal sta­tus as artists are rarely able to nego­ti­ate for what they actu­al­ly need financially. 

Sup­ple­men­tary income is unreliable

Many visu­al artists nec­es­sar­i­ly sup­ple­ment income from self-employ­ment with art-relat­ed work on zero hours’ work­er’ style con­tracts. This includes occa­sion­al vis­it­ing lec­tur­ing days in High­er Edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions (con­tract­ed under the IR35 rule) and in cul­tur­al and cre­ative indus­tries organ­i­sa­tions includ­ing front-of-house, retail and cus­tomer ser­vice roles. The for­mer are noto­ri­ous for tak­ing sev­er­al months to pay and in the lat­ter, indi­vid­u­als are more often than not paid at min­i­mum wage and on non-per­ma­nent or occa­sion­al contracts. 

Port­fo­lio work­ing is the norm

Typ­i­cal­ly then, visu­al artists have a port­fo­lio of work, in that 68% of them have addi­tion­al jobs and one in five have three or more dif­fer­ent jobs. Few­er than 2% gain fund­ing through direct grants. How­ev­er, and as acknowl­edged with­in research com­mis­sioned by the Arts Coun­cil Eng­land itself, these con­di­tions make visu­al artists’ liveli­hoods par­tic­u­lar­ly pre­car­i­ous as they cre­ate a cir­cle of high-risk, low-paid work” (TBR2018). 

Steep decline in dual careers

It is notable that while 35 years ago 74% of artists pur­sued dual careers through teach­ing in art edu­ca­tion at some lev­el (Brighton et al, 1985), sec­ondary analy­sis reveals that just 28% of visu­al artists nowa­days have reg­u­lar jobs as lec­tur­ers, aca­d­e­mics or arts teach­ers (TBR2018).

Excep­tion­al circumstances

A con­clu­sion to be drawn then is that nei­ther the pub­licly-fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions who rely on the sur­plus val­ue derived from artists [as] the pri­ma­ry means [for their] sub­sis­tence or growth” (Banks, 2017) nor the arts HE sec­tor are demon­strat­ing the duty of care’ syn­ony­mous with equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty which is vital to artists’ eco­nom­ic sur­vival over a life-cycle (Burns, 2017). As a result, many artists will fall foul of the government’s spe­cial mea­sures to aid the self-employed in that these dis­count any appli­cant earn­ing less than 50% of annu­al income from self-employment. 

In the #artistse­mer­gency unfold­ing dai­ly due to Covid19, Arts Coun­cil Eng­land, reg­u­lar­ly-fund­ed cul­tur­al and arts organ­i­sa­tions and the HE sec­tor could rem­e­dy this deficit and exer­cise this cru­cial duty through per­sis­tent advo­ca­cy to gov­ern­ment on the excep­tion­al case of visu­al artists as right­ful ben­e­fi­cia­ries of pub­lic sup­port both now and in future. 

Thanks to artist and lec­tur­er Kevin Hunt @sculptureartman whose call for evi­dence to sup­port artists’ case for emer­gency sup­port to gov­ern­ment and arts fun­ders that prompt­ed me to pro­duce this text which draws from analy­sis and com­men­tary from my doc­tor­al the­sis Artists’ liveli­hoods: the artists and arts pol­i­cy conun­drum, 2019 (unpub­lished).


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

a‑n (2016). Exhi­bi­tion Pay­ment: The a‑n/​AIR Pay­ing Artists Guide For artists and exhibit­ing organ­i­sa­tions (First Edi­tion). a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Company 

Banks, M. (2017) Cre­ative Jus­tice: Cul­tur­al indus­tries, work and inequal­i­ty. Roman & Littlefield. 

Brighton, A., Par­ry J. and Pear­son N. M. (1985) Enquiry into the Eco­nom­ic Sit­u­a­tion of the Visu­al Artist. Calouste Gul­benkian Foundation. 

Burns, S. (2017) Sup­port­ing the self-employed artist as Cit­i­zen: Look­ing up, look­ing down, look­ing around and look­ing for­ward. Win­ston Churchill Memo­r­i­al Trust. 

CCS (2012) Visu­al Arts Blue­print. Lon­don: Cre­ative and Cul­tur­al Skills. 

TBR, (2018). Liveli­hoods of visu­al artists. Lon­don: Arts Coun­cil England