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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