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This paper used com­par­a­tive data as a back­drop to a com­men­tary designed to illu­mi­nate a dis­cus­sion on whether there are Too many artists?’, rais­ing a range of issues, ques­tions and (mis)perceptions — in part about the role of artists in life in gen­er­al and impact of state inter­ven­tion and arts pol­i­cy-mak­ing in particular.

As one may come to var­i­ous con­clu­sions about such an issue as too many artists’ with­in the visu­al arts per se, as part of my inves­ti­ga­tions for this pre­sen­ta­tion I inter­viewed some of those work­ing with con­tem­po­rary musi­cians and writ­ers — do they agree/​disagree with such a propo­si­tion and what are the issues for their practitioners?

How­ev­er, this is not an exhaus­tive study but a bit of a whis­tle-stop review designed essen­tial­ly to raise ques­tions, pro­mote debate and encour­age lat­er­al think­ing about val­ue and mea­sure­ment of artists: con­sid­er it to be a work in progress’. 

Issues of over sup­ply’ (or under­em­ploy­ment) in the arts over­all are not new in being raised. 

In 1992 econ­o­mist Ruth Towse com­ment­ed in her report : In many devel­oped coun­tries it is wide­ly believed that there is an over sup­ply of artists although the con­cept of over sup­ply is very dif­fi­cult to define.….Concern has often led to moves to restrict HE places. How­ev­er if demand is strong (and increas­es the pool of tal­ent) it is not in society’s inter­est to do this.” 

Her asser­tion that hav­ing choice — to study art — super­sedes any premise of mar­ket dri­ving the num­ber of places/​coursesraises the legal­ly-enshrined require­ment of equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty. A civilised soci­ety is one that seeks for high­er edu­ca­tion to be more wide­ly avail­able to all those who wish to par­tic­i­pate, regard­less of whether there is an eco­nom­ic case for their doing so. And in the neo-lib­er­al­ist cul­ture of nowa­days, notions of self-deter­mi­na­tion and self-employ­ment is an under­pin­ning philosophy. 

Num­bers of artists

The 1977 unpub­lished Gul­benkian Enquiry into the con­clud­ed there were at least 20,000 pro­fes­sion­al artists” in Britain. 

If there were around 20,000 artists in 1977 — and these would have been fine artists painters, sculp­tors rather than the more broad­ly-based def­i­n­i­tions we now have of visu­al arts prac­ti­tion­ers — what were their labour mar­kets’? Sec­ond careers such as teach­ing pro­vid­ed the main sub­sidy. Many artists are very poor and live on state ben­e­fits, but many are not poor and some are very well off”. 

Artists who gained their recog­ni­tion from pub­licly-sub­sidised gallery exhi­bi­tions gen­er­al­ly earned less than those who oper­at­ed with­in com­mer­cial gal­leries, who enjoyed high­er lev­el of sales income. Income from grants made a very small con­tri­bu­tion to over­all earn­ings. Many artists signed on’ – with all that this entailed. In 1977, none of this mar­ket evi­dence’ seemed to pre­vent growth in those join­ing the arts profession. 

The impact of the inter­fer­ence of the state on arts and arts mar­kets is some­thing I will come back to lat­er. It was esti­mat­ed that in the mid 80s the annu­al val­ue of UK art sales was £40 mil­lion – this would be the equiv­a­lent to £101m nowa­days. How­ev­er, it is said to be more like £3.08 bil­lion (thir­ty times larg­er). So could there be any cor­re­la­tion between this vast­ly increased fig­ure and growth in the num­ber of artists whose endeav­ours under­pin the art world? 

The 1990 Cen­sus showed a 34% increase in the num­ber of indi­vid­u­als with cul­tur­al occu­pa­tions between 1981 – 1991 and a 71% increase in the cat­e­go­ry that includ­ed artists, which con­tained the largest con­stituen­cy — far more for exam­ple than the cat­e­gories for writ­ers, actors, musicians. 

When in 198788 I was con­duct­ing my fea­si­bil­i­ty study for the Nation­al Visu­al Arts Infor­ma­tion Project, I not­ed the expect­ed growth in stu­dent num­bers through devel­op­ment of part-time and spe­cif­ic cours­es. Poly­tech­nics expect­ed 7 – 10% growth in stu­dent num­bers over the next three years….many full-time cours­es are now shad­owed by 5‑year part-time BA cours­es. There is an also an increase in MA courses…” 

It should be not­ed that my study was designed pre­dom­i­nant­ly to make the case for an alter­na­tive to the tortuousness/​expen­sive­ness of arts medi­a­tion and enable artists to be at the cen­tre of the engage­ment and inter­face whilst earn­ing direct income from sales and com­mis­sions and from their image-based IP

Whether the new art school cours­es were invent­ed by HEIs to pre­serve teach­ing posts (many of which pro­vide invalu­able sec­ond income’ and also val­i­date an artist’s prac­tice with­in peers) or a result of demand’ from ear­ly retirees (for a ful­fill­ing sec­ond career), or those wish­ing to extend an exist­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion or oth­er I can­not tell. But suf­fice to say, such scope and vol­ume of art school cours­es does not seem to be pecu­liar to 2011

In 2006 and in the midst of the bet­ter’ years of Labour, an Inquiry was set up to exam­ine the mar­kets for art (and thus cal­cu­la­tions were made of the num­bers of prac­ti­tion­ers). Evi­dence from a‑n and VAGA to this Cul­ture Media and Sport assessed the num­ber of artists to be between 4060,000”. Although the Cen­sus def­i­n­i­tion artists, graph­ic design­ers and com­mer­cial artists” was deemed too broad and wool­ly to be use­ful, there didn’t seem to be huge enthu­si­asm for arriv­ing at an accu­rate defin­i­tive num­ber. Did this mat­ter? And if so, to whom? How for exam­ple did HEIs address and quan­ti­fy for their stu­dents the poten­tial for what they now call employ­a­bil­i­ty and entrepreneurship”? 

Accord­ing to a‑n’s con­tin­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing of data, in 1998 some £2m worth of work was open­ly offered to artists. As a 2009 adjust­ed val­ue, that would equate to £3.7m. How­ev­er by 2007, the fig­ure on offer was actu­al­ly £27m (more than sev­en times larg­er), sug­gest­ing that the growth in the vol­ume of artists was at that point well catered for by sub­stan­tial­ly increased bud­gets and fees on offer. The Mor­ris Har­g­reaves report (2004) indi­cat­ed an enor­mous poten­tial to enhance sales of con­tem­po­rary art to new pur­chasers and col­lec­tors’ – if only the art world’ would forego the tra­di­tion­al frame­works that fil­ter sup­ply” and con­trol the demand” and thus have the effect of main­tain­ing the poor/​rich bal­ance for artists. 

In 2011, as part of an analy­sis of access to and take-up of grants from the UK arts coun­cils by artists, Dany Louise pro­duced cal­cu­la­tions of the num­ber of artists in the UK — pro­vid­ing a range of 26,50030,500 — some 13 more than the cal­cu­la­tion in 1977, but few­er than the cal­cu­la­tion in 2006

  • Eng­land: 20,00022,000
  • North­ern Ire­land: 1300 – 1700
  • Scot­land: 3250 – 4250
  • Wales 1950 – 2550

Total esti­mat­ed vol­ume 26,50030,500

So are num­bers lev­el­ling back’? 

Until now, we could have esti­mat­ed that some 4,000 new­com­ers (from under­grad­u­ate cours­es) were enter­ing the job mar­ket from art and design cours­es annu­al­ly. But what will the antic­i­pat­ed 27% drop in stu­dent appli­ca­tions next year do the size of artists’ labour mar­kets? Are we wor­ry­ing undu­ly in the bad times’ about num­bers of artists when every­thing is about to change any­way? Will the UK expe­ri­ence a drop in artist num­bers as Aus­tralia already has, this not inci­den­tal­ly hav­ing been attrib­uted to an eco­nom­ic recession? 

What is an artist?

UNESCO defines an artist as: 

Any per­son who cre­ates or gives cre­ative expres­sion to, or recre­ates, works of art, who con­sid­ers his/​her artis­tic cre­ation to be an essen­tial part of life, who con­tributes in this way to the devel­op­ment of art and cul­ture and who is or asks to be recog­nised as an artist, whether or not bound by any rela­tions of employ­ment or association.” 

The term artist is large­ly self-defined — and why shouldn’t it be if we as a nation believe in free­dom of choice and equal access in terms of study and employ­ment? None of us — I sus­pect — believe in restric­tive prac­tices or car­tels’ that are unfair and mar­gin­alise sec­tors or peo­ple. That The Office of Fair Trad­ing under the Com­pe­ti­tion Act inves­ti­gat­ed use of rec­om­mend­ed rates of pay in the arts in 2006 is per­ti­nent. Although this was designed to open up what might have oth­er­wise been per­ceived as a closed shop’ in actu­al fact — by caus­ing ACE and oth­ers to remove any sem­blance of good prac­tice’ about pay­ment from their terms of ref­er­ence and infor­ma­tion sheets — it had the effect of increas­ing the poten­tial for exploita­tion of artists and free­lancers and thus of increas­ing their poverty. 

Frey and Pommerehne’s (1989) defined some­one as an artist by: 

  1. the amount of time spent on artis­tic work
  2. the amount of income derived from artis­tic activity
  3. rep­u­ta­tion amongst gen­er­al public
  4. recog­ni­tion amongst oth­er artists
  5. qual­i­ty of artis­tic work – as defined somehow
  6. mem­ber­ship of a pro­fes­sion­al body
  7. pro­fes­sion­al qualification
  8. sub­jec­tive self-eval­u­a­tion of being an artist

The eight areas by which an artist may be recog­nised as such includes amounts of income but as we have already found, this is a poor yard stick in the UK, whilst qual­i­fi­ca­tion (espe­cial­ly if PhD) and peer recog­ni­tion are more read­i­ly accept­able. Lack of inter­est amongst artists for labelling them­selves pro­fes­sion­al’ also applies. A pro­fes­sion­al (in oth­er pro­fes­sions) is usu­al­ly defined by a com­bi­na­tion of qual­i­fi­ca­tion and income earning. 

Wikipedia says: An artist is a per­son engaged in one or more of any of a broad spec­trum of activ­i­ties relat­ed to cre­at­ing art, prac­tic­ing the arts and/​or demon­strat­ing an art. The com­mon usage in both every­day speech and aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course is a prac­ti­tion­er in the visu­al arts only. In oth­er art forms the term is more close­ly defined – writer, actor, play­wright, musi­cian, and poet”. 

The word pro­fes­sion­al’ tra­di­tion­al­ly means a per­son who has obtained a degree in a pro­fes­sion­al field ….or a per­son who in a field typ­i­cal­ly reserved for hob­by­ists or amateurs. 

In west­ern nations, the term pro­fes­sion­al artist” com­mon­ly describes high­ly-edu­cat­ed, most­ly salaried work­ers, who enjoy con­sid­er­able work auton­o­my, a com­fort­able salary, and are com­mon­ly engaged in cre­ative and intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing work. In (1996) it was sug­gest­ed that an artist may be recog­nised as: 

  • A mak­er of unique works of val­ue sold via the art market
  • An ani­ma­teur encour­ag­ing the cre­ative expres­sion of others
  • A pub­lic ser­vant work­ing to commission
  • An eco­nom­ic unit in tourism/​small business/​entre­pre­neur­ship
  • An edu­ca­tor deliv­er­ing nation­al curriculum/​art school teachin
  • An ini­tia­tor in arts/​social pol­i­cy – pro­duc­ing arts projects, regen­er­a­tion, com­mu­ni­ty well-being, (we would place the Cul­tur­al Olympiad here)
  • A vision­ary and social con­science, polit­i­cal activist

Thus, def­i­n­i­tions by 1996 of an artist had veered rad­i­cal­ly away from the Gul­benkian Enquiry’s. I would posit that this is due to the greater inter­ven­tion of the state in the mar­kets for art, with its endeav­ours aid­ed and abet­ted by the addi­tion of income to the arts from fund­ing sources’ such as the Nation­al Lot­tery, there to sup­port good caus­es’ and the pub­lic good’. Such resources have increased the instru­men­tal­i­ty of art and artists, placed them in the role of ser­vice indus­try and large­ly side­lined any notion of art for art’s sake’, con­sid­er­ing this as nam­by pam­by and imprac­ti­cal; get a grip, artists need to join the real world. 

How­ev­er in the House of Lords in 1998, Lord Clan­car­ty (him­self an artist) ques­tioned the very prin­ci­ples under­pin­ning the state’s sup­port of the arts: But what about those artists who of or choose not to oper­ate in a com­mer­cial sense, who are engaged in long-term, life-long inde­pen­dent’ research – what in sci­ence is termed blue skies research’ which is extreme­ly impor­tant for the arts. The long-term broad­ly non-com­mer­cial sit­u­a­tion is a real­i­ty for the great major­i­ty of UK artists. Extreme­ly suc­cess­ful artists are the excep­tion rather than the rule.” 

There is per­haps a per­ver­si­ty borne from our mixed econ­o­my for the visu­al arts — the pub­lic-pri­vate finance ini­tia­tive that pre­dates the Labour pol­i­cy in this respect — that the blue skies’, is what sets us apart. Artists do not need clients or patron­age to make art – in fact artists often view such instru­ments as con­straints and hin­drance to the puri­ty (artis­tic auton­o­my) of their practice. 

Look­ing at the music indus­try where the growth of musi­cians — indi­vid­ual and ensem­ble — has been great, mon­ey forms a core aspect of the career pro­gres­sion. Musi­cians talk about mon­ey — nego­ti­ate fees and terms them­selves, get­ting (for exam­ple) a share of the tick­et income and pro­mot­ing their CDs in the inter­vals (with the venue tak­ing a sales com­mis­sion). Def­i­n­i­tions of qual­i­ty are mul­ti­ple – as viewed in the eye of the (var­i­ous) beholders’ 

Are there too many musi­cians and bands? It can be shown by analy­sis that peo­ple who make music are a vital part of pay­ing audi­ences whether of down­load­able music or seats at events. There are good, excel­lent, mediocre and OK” musi­cians across the con­tem­po­rary music scene — all putting out their stuff, self-man­ag­ing, self-pro­mot­ing, and self-pro­duc­ing. It’s how it is. New forms of dis­tri­b­u­tion of music are wel­comed as they increase audi­ences and buy­ers and ensure the music indus­try is less reliant on pub­lic sub­sidy (and thus more autonomous). 

In 1992 econ­o­mist Ruth Towse point­ed out that: “….risk tak­ing behav­iour is the cause of over sup­ply. It comes about because artists over­es­ti­mate their (aver­age) chances of suc­cess pri­or to enter­ing the labour mar­ket. Artists being for the most part self-employed decide whether or not to con­tin­ue to work in their cho­sen field accord­ing to their realised net prof­its or incomes. Over­sup­ply of the works they pro­duce would result in low prices, but if they are will­ing to accept low incomes they can con­tin­ue in full time [stu­dio-based] work”. 

Look­ing at the world of con­tem­po­rary writ­ing, reveals that there has been an expo­nen­tial increase in the last ten years of the num­ber of cre­ative writ­ing cours­es on offer — indeed in the notion that writ­ers need qual­i­fi­ca­tions in order to write. Accord­ing to agency New Writ­ing North, more and more titles are being pub­lished but few­er of each title are sold. 

New self-pub­lish­ing’ mech­a­nisms means that no one has to make you a writer” and the his­tor­i­cal qual­i­ty con­trol’ attached to a writer’s agent and pub­lish­er has dimin­ished. And whilst the self pub­lished was large­ly dis­missed in its infan­cy by the lit­er­ary indus­try, the tra­di­tion­al­ists have now come to realise its poten­cy – with­in lit­er­a­ture at least. In my mind, this is an inher­ent and nec­es­sary con­di­tion of the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion’ of the 21st century. 

Mar­kets for art practice

Writ­ing in in 2002, Con­rad Atkin­son com­ment­ed: Not all of us make cor­po­rate art, not all of us think art should shock the mid­dle class­es, not all of us are more inter­est­ed in our own blood than in the blood of oth­ers dying in oth­er parts of the world. Per­haps art can’t real­ly make a dif­fer­ence but it can high­light alter­na­tive ways of see­ing and living.” 

It is said that since the mid 80s it has not been pos­si­ble for writ­ers to make a liv­ing from their work — some 85% have oth­er jobs” — that may include arts and non arts relat­ed work as is the case with visu­al artists. 

In The Visu­al Arts Sur­vey, Lon­don Insti­tute (1990)

  • 25% of artists said sales of work were their main income
  • 21% gained their main income from com­mis­sions and pub­lic art
  • 19% from teach­ing (FE/HE)
  • 8% from residencies

In 1996, a sur­vey con­duct­ed for the NAA (Nation­al Artists Asso­ci­a­tion) gave these statistics: 

  • 20% of artists said teach­ing was the most impor­tant income
  • 19% said res­i­den­cies were the most impor­tant income
  • 18% said com­mis­sions and pub­lic art were the most impor­tant income
  • 14% said sell­ing was the most impor­tant income

These 1996 fig­ures pro­vid­ed a clear indi­ca­tor that growth of inter­est in being in the visu­al arts was not com­men­su­rate with income acqui­si­tion. Artists were seem­ing­ly quite pre­pared to man­age on less mon­ey whilst the cost of liv­ing rose. 

If the more recent a‑n and AIR Big Artists Sur­vey find­ings are cor­rect and the aver­age turnover artists made from art prac­tice in the last year is £9,000, then artists are either mak­ing quite a lot more from non-art sources, being financed by a partner/​family (sim­i­lar­ly to the 1977 Gul­benkian Enquiry find­ings), man­ag­ing to sign on’ (unlike­ly) or using some oth­er means to put the bread on the table. 

Although the 1996 NAA sur­vey found 37% of artists to be gain­ing their work from art poli­cies that fos­tered instru­men­tal­i­ty or art ser­vices’, The Big Artists Sur­vey in 2011 – per­haps because of the larg­er sam­ple size or because of the greater diver­si­ty of types of work now under­tak­en – found this ser­vices’ area of work to be the reg­u­lar or occa­sion­al role for around 24%. 

Is the cur­rent con­cern’ about the size of the artist con­stituen­cy due to declin­ing pub­lic sec­tor mar­kets? Is this sit­u­a­tion the fault’ of artists? Does it make them wor­thy can­di­dates for exter­mi­na­tion’ or any oth­er method one might wit­ti­ly choose to reduce num­bers to the size the art mar­ket can stand? 

I’d like though here to raise an issue I fair­ly cur­so­ri­ly exam­ined a few years ago. Should there be a redun­dan­cy process avail­able to artists? Because the major­i­ty of artists are self-employed, how oth­er­wise can an artist leave’ the pro­fes­sion if they are no longer prac­tis­ing or mak­ing work to their own required pro­fes­sion­al stan­dard or have tak­en on a dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tion (that they may not recog­nise as hav­ing sup­plant­ed their artist role)? I have wit­nessed some mem­bers of artists’ stu­dio groups com­plain about cer­tain spaces being wast­ed: full up with stored old’ work – let to artists who have in fact become some­thing oth­er than an artist – a full-time art lec­tur­er or man­ag­er, direc­tor of an arts (or artists’) organ­i­sa­tion, some­one now run­ning an arts busi­ness such as a gallery that is show­ing and fram­ing oth­er artists’ work. 

A route for such artists who are no longer prac­tis­ing as artists (non prac­tis­ing artists) could be to take redun­dan­cy – to leave the pro­fes­sion grace­ful­ly. A redun­dan­cy pack­age may, for exam­ple, acknowl­edge an artist’s length of ser­vice, their altru­ism to the arts and to the pro­fes­sion; allow them to draw a line and move onto some­thing else. It might pre­vent the dilu­tion of qual­i­ty and pro­fes­sion­al recog­ni­tion that oth­ers in this debate allude to, and min­imise the impact of too many artists’ on the pro­fes­sion as a whole. 

A self-deter­min­ing practice

Artists tend to select self-employ­ment because (as Whit­my­er, Ras­ber­ry and Phillips said) it is a state­ment about what you are and all that is impor­tant in your life”.

  • 7% artists on Enter­prise Allowance (1990)
  • 76% of mak­ers self-employed/­sole traders (1990)
  • 41% self-employ­ment in cre­ative indus­tries as whole (2009)
  • 72% self-employ­ment amongst artists (2010) drops to 50% (2011)

When I start­ed out an artist, there was no sug­ges­tion of self-employ­ment — it just wasn’t some­thing any­one like me did. We did a bit of part-time teach­ing or we signed on – in 1980, the lat­ter was what near­ly all the artists in my stu­dio group did to get by. 

It was the 90s and the Tory Enter­prise Allowance that moved artists towards self-employ­ment — before then, sur­veys did not include the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between employ­ment and self-employ­ment. (Nor inci­den­tal­ly did it sug­gest any­where that the longer the prac­tice, the high­er price that artist may be able to com­mand — this was felt to be anti equal­i­ty’ or down­right unfair.) 

I went to art school — I dis­cov­ered recent­ly by read­ing a sec­ond-year note book — because I want­ed to explore the role of the artist, not because of any expec­ta­tion that I was employ­able or that any­one would offer me a job after­wards. I had no idea I’d acquire social research, writ­ing and edit­ing skills nor bring my cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing skills and entre­pre­neur­ship to bear on the non-prof­it com­pa­ny I now lead. As I com­ment­ed in a recent lec­ture , In many sit­u­a­tions, the artist kind of falls in love’ with their occu­pa­tion and whole­heart­ed­ly embraces all that this involves. And as Bob Dylan said: You can’t be in love and wise at the same time’.”

In 2011, new grad­u­ates say that what they want to know about is things like con­tracts, how to set up as self-employed and oth­er busi­ness-like’ skills – as well as about how to locate and gen­er­ate peer net­works. Note they aren’t yet say­ing this whilst stu­dents, but once they have grad­u­at­ed and prob­a­bly have huge amounts debt to deal with. 

Sup­ply and demand?

Quot­ed in a Q‑Arts pub­li­ca­tion, Der­reck Har­ris has put anoth­er slant on over sup­ply’, com­ment­ing that there are More fine art cours­es per capi­ta in UK than any­where else in the world – more than Europe and North Amer­i­ca where there are well-estab­lished art mar­kets par­tic­u­lar­ly Ger­many and US.” So it should come as no sur­prise that the Cre­ative Grad­u­ates: Cre­ative Futures report in 2008 said that: One third of artist grad­u­ates earn £15,000 or under a year, less than the aver­age start­ing salary for a new grad­u­ate across dis­ci­plines. Artists often already sub­sidise or co-fund their own projects.” 

So is the debate about too many artists’ because there is not enough work for them actu­al­ly a swipe at the mer­ce­nary or cyn­i­cal atti­tudes of uni­ver­si­ties with their uncar­ing atti­tudes to employ­a­bil­i­ty? Giv­en that artists con­tin­ue to be heav­i­ly reliant on HE income (accord­ing to a 2011 sur­vey by AIR Artists Inter­ac­tion and Rep­re­sen­ta­tion 69% teach or lec­ture to some extent to pro­vide pro­fes­sion­al income), would the aim of this debate about too many artists’ be to the num­ber of cours­es on offer and by doing so to deny these artists a wor­thy income? 

State inter­ven­tion in the arts

State inter­ven­tion …is not neu­tral … it has rad­i­cal­ly affect­ed what art is, how it is under­stood and how it is prac­ticed.” Thus con­clud­ed Dr Nicholas Pear­son in 1981. He assert­ed that state patron­age was devel­oped because Art’ was deemed to be moral­ly good:“ He quot­ed from the (1868), that had said: No one expects the whole of the work­ing class to at once take up draw­ing and entire­ly denounce strong liquor”. 

One of the argu­ments for set­ting up what lat­er became the Arts Coun­cil of Great Britain was the fear of what would hap­pen to the visu­al arts if left to the vagaries of the mar­ket place… in the hands of those (who had not got taste’).

His­tor­i­cal assump­tions for set­ting up state sup­port of the arts as deliv­ered by the Arts Council(s) include: 

  • The dif­fer­ence between high art and cul­ture and any­thing else
  • Fine art is impor­tant but very fragile
  • Qual­i­ty fine art is gen­er­al­ly found in Lon­don — this is still felt to be the case and regard­less of any attempts to change it is ever thus a per­cep­tion due to the size of the crit­i­cal mass and the cen­tral­ist nature of art in England
  • Artists are uncon­trol­lable and need to be guid­ed and patro­n­ised’ by the state — rather than the state nur­tur­ing the cre­ative instincts and com­plex­i­ty of artists and their practice.
  • Artists are poor — the state needs to uplift and patro­n­ise them
  • Qual­i­ty is some­thing obvi­ous to cer­tain types of peo­ple from cer­tain kinds of edu­cat­ed classes.
  • Qual­i­ty is hard to define in val­ue terms (but we all know it when we see it or some­one from the above ech­e­lon tells us it’s there)

Less than a dozen years ago, arts pol­i­cy proud­ly pro­claimed: The over­all aim of Year of the Artist 2000 is to place the artist at the cen­tre of soci­ety, to cre­ate bet­ter under­stand­ing of the role of the artist, to estab­lish new part­ner­ships between every sec­tor of soci­ety and the arts, to empow­er artists and com­mu­ni­ties, and to have a last­ing impact for their benefit….” 

State inter­ven­tion, patron­age or inter­fer­ence in the mar­ket has cer­tain­ly had the effect of cre­at­ing more work with­in arts medi­a­tion and admin­is­tra­tion. Back in the 70s, those arts man­age­ment’ jobs tend­ed to be done by artists who moved from prac­ti­tion­er to lead­ing the arts in oth­er ways – they set up and ran the gal­leries, agen­cies and arts cen­tres, Nowa­days, arts man­agers are a sep­a­rate breed with spe­cial qual­i­fi­ca­tions and their own peer net­works. They can become lead­ers’ through schemes such as the Cul­tur­al Lead­er­ship pro­gramme (which inci­den­tal­ly so far has enabled just one artist — Joshua Sofaer — to ben­e­fit from a Fel­low­ship). Whilst arts lead­ers rely on an ongo­ing sup­ply of good artists, they rarely include them in their pro­fes­sion­al net­works, unless they are well-known’. Prac­ti­tion­ers are rarely trust­ed to be a leader’ – to behave nice­ly in public. 

In the 80s gallery direc­tor Edna Read wrote in : I have a feel­ing that if all the liv­ing artists dis­ap­peared today, the con­tem­po­rary art world would [not notice] — just car­ry on dong what they’re doing”. And a decade lat­er John Pick (founder of Europe’s first arts man­age­ment depart­ment) com­ment­ed wry­ly: If arts admin­is­tra­tors con­tin­ue to grow at the cur­rent rate, there will soon be more of them than peo­ple”. Is too much arts mon­ey tied up in medi­a­tion? Is it sig­nif­i­cant that in 2004 (when com­pared with 1989) the salary lev­els of arts offi­cers work­ing in the pub­licly-fund­ed arts in Eng­land rose by some 41%? 

Despite those grand state­ments about the val­ue of artists made in 2000, by 2010 Arts Coun­cil Eng­land is bare­ly men­tion­ing artists in their pol­i­cy (its ten year strate­gic frame­work for the arts, except when in the cou­plet artists and arts organ­i­sa­tions’ will/​should…. [do some­thing or oth­er]. Inno­va­tion, excel­lence and all oth­er impor­tant arts things – they seem to be say­ing – are best achieved by plac­ing sub­sidy into whose mis­sions are to increase audi­ences for the visu­al arts (rather than to sup­port the artis­tic devel­op­ment or auton­o­my of artists). There seems to be some irony there­fore that the State of the Arts con­fer­ence for 2012 (organ­ised by ACE and the BBC) is on the theme of Artists chang­ing the world’. 

In the cur­rent squeezed eco­nom­ic cli­mate, it seems to have been the recog­ni­tion of artists in finan­cial terms which has been erod­ed whilst arts man­agers – admit­ted­ly often just as hard­work­ing as artists — con­tin­ue to assid­u­ous­ly find fund­ing and income to main­tain their roles, argu­ing they are the essen­tial grease between mar­ket and art. (Note I have pur­pose­ly placed mar­ket first, as it seems that gal­leries for exam­ple tend to give audi­ence devel­op­ment a high­er sta­tus with­in their ambi­tions than they do to sup­port­ing the artis­tic devel­op­ment of prac­ti­tion­ers on their patch). 

How are artists practising?

The 2011 Big Artists Sur­vey reveals that: 

  • 93% of artists use exhibitions/​gallery com­mis­sions reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally.
  • 83% of artists use pri­vate com­mis­sions reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 78% of artists use sell/​retail reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 69% of artists use teach/​lecturing reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 60% of artists use fairs reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 60% of artists use com­mu­ni­ty art reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 52% of artists use do residency/​engaged prac­tice reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 52% of artists use offer research/​consultancy reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 49% of artists use fes­ti­vals reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 48% of artists car­ry out pub­lic art reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally
  • 35% of artists use emp­ty shops to present their work in reg­u­lar­ly or occasionally

The artist’s port­fo­lio of activ­i­ty nowa­days is stag­ger­ing­ly large and diverse. The gap between this grass-roots prag­mat­ic approach to cre­at­ing a liveli­hood and the high-end com­mer­cial deal­ing is ever widen­ing – just as is the gap between the UK’s poor and rich. 

It is a pity that when the UK’s art stars’ do find time to get up and have a voice about the state of the arts they tend to sup­port the insti­tu­tions and art mar­kets that have giv­en them their place (and stan­dard of liv­ing) rather than express­ing any sup­port for those things that pro­vide lad­ders and struc­tures for the crit­i­cal mass’ of artists – from which qual­i­ty in the arts emerges. It’s almost as if these well-known artists acquired their sta­tus by good luck and (of course) by mak­ing great work. They didn’t actu­al­ly need to do any of this port­fo­lio work­ing’ them­selves or both­er them­selves with the grimy’ busi­ness of mak­ing a liv­ing how­ev­er they could. 

Who wants artists?

a‑n’s (2011) that analy­ses open­ly offered work to artists in the cal­en­dar year of 2010 com­pares the main employ­er cat­e­gories in 2009 and 2010

HE/FE sec­tor 23% 33%
Arts organ­i­sa­tions 11% 13%
Local author­i­ties 6% 10%
Trusts 2% 3%
Health­care 2% 0%

Note how impor­tant the HE sec­tor has con­tin­ued to be in employ­ment terms. In the Gul­benkian study in 1977 sec­ond careers includ­ing teach­ing pro­vid­ed the main source of sub­sidy for the prac­tice of art”. And arts organ­i­sa­tions nowa­days — just as they did in that past peri­od — play a much more minor role in finan­cial­ly pro­vid­ing for artists’ liveli­hoods and career development. 

In 2011 Mo Throp is quot­ed as telling stu­dents and par­ents that: 1% mak­ing a liv­ing from being a fine artist.” So with the increase in stu­dent fees and greater role of par­ents in the deci­sions about their offspring’s edu­ca­tion choic­es result in few­er stu­dents going on art (and fine art) cours­es? Could the cur­rent propo­si­tion that there are too many artists’ be super­seded in the future by not enough artists’ (to make a vibrant crit­i­cal mass)? Note too that this year, UK art col­leges saw a 27% drop in applications. 

I have dis­cov­ered in the course of research­ing this paper that only 10 – 20 play­wrights are mak­ing a liv­ing from their work nowa­days and com­mis­sions for con­tem­po­rary com­posers are far and few between. Some of those in the high ech­e­lons of the visu­al arts world have voiced approval for the cre­ation of a Top 20’ artists list­ing as this would clar­i­fy the art mar­ket and make it all much eas­i­er to deal with. 

So are artists ever des­tined to be at the cen­tre of cul­ture (or is there only room for a cho­sen few)? 

Being an artist

The more of a port­fo­lio work­er you are, the less you earn con­cludes Cre­ative Grad­u­ates: Cre­ative Futures in 2008: 48% of grad­u­ates in work were engaged in mul­ti­ple activ­i­ties or port­fo­lio work­ing…. com­bin­ing paid employ­ment with self-employ­ment… 30% com­bined two activ­i­ties, 13% had three, and 5% com­bined four dif­fer­ent types of work. This pat­tern does not change sig­nif­i­cant­ly over time, even when grad­u­ates are four, five or six years into their careers.” 

Hay­ley Har­ri­son said in her blog I’ve always felt shame know­ing I will always make art regard­less of how much £s I do/don’t make. It’s refresh­ing to hear oth­ers admit that too. It’s espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult to explain to some­one [out­side the arts]. I feel, they feel I am an idiot. What? You will work for nothing?” 

The ques­tion I would raise here is whether this sit­u­a­tion – this evi­dence – is very much dif­fer­ent from any oth­er pro­fes­sion’ nowa­days? Those sim­i­lar changes in income lev­els (and sta­tus) seem to be occur­ring in accoun­tan­cy, jour­nal­ism, IT, else­where in the human­i­ties in gen­er­al. Is this a con­di­tion of 21st Cen­tu­ry life. 

Note that back in 1997, researchers for found that Mon­ey is not the dri­ving force behind mak­ing work. What is most impor­tant to artists is mak­ing work that they are per­son­al­ly hap­py with. This sug­gests that artists expe­ri­ence non-pecu­niary or psy­chic income from con­tin­u­ing their practice. 

I was lis­ten­ing in recent­ly to a twit­ter debate on #arti­na­cold­cli­mate in which one speak­er assert­ed that busi­ness­es were now learn­ing from art”. But sure­ly it isn’t just artists who have the abil­i­ty to be cre­ative, inno­v­a­tive, risky and exper­i­men­tal? Peo­ple who are trained as artists can segue into oth­er pro­fes­sions and envi­ron­ments – some of the too many’ use­ful­ly take their art think­ing and apply it to busi­ness, man­age­ment, social change in oth­er ways. It may be then that such options for artists are not well enough chart­ed (although sure­ly the greater require­ment to show employ­a­bil­i­ty and enter­prise with­in art and design cours­es will rem­e­dy this omission?) 

In my mind, the issue for the future is not whether there are too many artists but whether suf­fi­cient lev­els of invest­ment – from a wide range of sources and per­spec­tives — can be found to sup­port the blue skies’, the things they do that raise the game and expec­ta­tions of prac­ti­tion­ers, that put fash­ion and instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion into per­spec­tive. I believe that it is the pub­licly-fund­ed arts insti­tu­tions that will fail to nav­i­gate the 21st Cen­tu­ry whilst the too many artists’ will secure our abil­i­ty to do so. 

This paper which was com­mis­sioned by Mar­ket­Pro­ject for the sem­i­nar Too many artists?’ held on 9 Novem­ber 2011, has been extend­ed and adapt­ed for online publication.


The eco­nom­ics of artists’ labour mar­kets, Ruth Towse, Arts Coun­cil of Eng­land, 1996

Gul­benkian Enquiry into the Eco­nom­ic Sta­tus of Visu­al Artists, Andrew Brighton and Nicholas Pear­son (unpub­lished) 1977

Employ­ment in the arts and cul­tur­al indus­tries: an analy­sis of the 1991 Cen­sus, Jane O’Brien and Andy Feist, Arts Coun­cil of Great Britain 1995

Fea­si­bil­i­ty Study for the Nation­al Visu­al Arts Infor­ma­tion Project, Susan Jones, 1988 

The British Art Mar­ket, Arts Eco­nom­ics, 2009 

Inquiry into the mar­ket for art, Cul­ture Media and Sport Select Com­mit­tee 2006

Taste buds: how to cul­ti­vate the art mar­ket, Mor­ris, Har­g­reaves, McIn­tyre, 2004 

The chang­ing face of artists’ employ­ment, Susan Jones, a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny, 2011 (pay to view / free to a‑n members)

Achiev­ing Great Art for Every­one, Arts Coun­cil Eng­land, 2010

The Visu­al Arts Sur­vey, Susan Jones, Lon­don Insti­tute, 1990

Artists’ fees and pay­ments in the UK, draft report, Phyl­l­i­da Shaw & Kei­th Allen, Nation­al Artists Asso­ci­a­tion, 1996

The Big Artists Sur­vey, AIR and a‑n, 2011 

Run­ning a one-per­son busi­ness, Whit­my­er, Ras­ber­ry and Phillips, Ten Speed Press, 1989

11 Course lead­ers, 20 ques­tions, Q Arts Lon­don, 2011 (pay to view)

Do you real­ly expect to get paid? An eco­nom­ic study of pro­fes­sion­al artists in Aus­tralia, David Thros­by, Aus­tralia Arts Coun­cil, 2009

A fair share – direct fund­ing to indi­vid­ual artists from UK arts coun­cils, Dany Louise, a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny 2011 (pay to view / free to a‑n members)

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

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

Pro­file of Con­rad Atkin­son, a‑n Mag­a­zine, Decem­ber 2002 (pay to view / free to a‑n members)

The State and the Visu­al Arts, Nicholas Pear­son, 1981

Cre­ative Grad­u­ates – Cre­ative Futures, 2008

Artists’ rates of pay 1989 – 2004, Susan Jones, Paul Glinkows­ki (pay to view / free to a‑n members)

Something’s hap­pen­ing, Hay­ley Harrison’s blog start­ed Octo­ber 2011

Artists Career Paths, Arts Coun­cil of Eng­land, 1997

Thanks also to Ros Rig­by, Pro­gramme Direc­tor, The Sage Gateshead and Direc­tor of New Writ­ing North Claire Mal­colm, for their insights and evi­dence for this paper.