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We must see the cultural ecosystem in which every person, every organ­i­sation, every cultural expression, has a legit­imate place.” Francois Matarasso, Let’s use this breathing space wisely, 25 March 2020

Strategic arts policy funding inter­ven­tions premised on equality and co-operation are key to sustaining visual artists’ liveli­hoods over a life-cycle. This text in the Covid19 portfolio combines secondary data analysis with cross-refer­ences to prior and new research to offer six reference points for the economic value of artists’ practices within the arts and creative indus­tries including indication of their income sources in broad terms. It concludes with an argument for vital new struc­tural arts policy and advocacy measures to ensure that many visual artists – not just a few — survive through the immediate period of the Covid19 emergency and during what is likely to be a sustained period of economic recession beyond. 

Six points of reference to inform timely, strategic interventions

1. Visual artists are valuable contrib­utors to the arts economy

Multiple surveys under­taken over the last three decades consis­tently confirm visual artists’ low income levels and related frailty of their business models. However, the economic impact of all working artists hasn’t been fully evidenced within arts policy or sectoral advocacy arguments. New sub-set data to identify the size of the visual arts constituency (CCS, 2018) along with cross-refer­encing to artists’ annual average incomes from art, art related and non-art sources (TBR, 2018) addresses this knowledge deficit, and puts the value of visual artists’ tangible economic endeavours at £689m. This excludes quantifi­cation of artists’ intrinsic worth to social well-being, including to the resilience of arts organ­i­sa­tions where jobs are created and retained. 

2. High levels of self-employment make visual artists’ liveli­hoods partic­u­larly precarious

Self-employment amongst visual artists at 77% is higher than the creative indus­tries as a whole where it is 43% (CCS, 2012). However, many employment situa­tions in effect treat artists as workers’, an employment category in which condi­tions are both socially and econom­i­cally disad­van­ta­geous (Taylor, 2017). Rather than being negotiable in relation to artists’ individ­u­alised circum­stances, take it or leave it’ terms and fixed budgets favour the commis­sioner and disem­power artists. 

3. Around two-fifths of visual artists income arises from art practices

It is safe to assume that £253.7m (39%) of the artists’ constituency’s earnings arise from art practices including cash prizes and awards, commis­sions, sales and fees for residencies and community-based work (TBR, 2018; CCS, 2018). This aspect of artists’ income is precarious as it is at high-risk from external political policy changes and unforeseen shocks that lead to economic slow-down (Jones, 2017). Highly pertinent to the Covid19 emergency, some 70% of artists’ income from art practices is from galleries and exhibi­tions (TBR, 2018). Whether commercial or publicly-funded, this section within the visual arts was partic­u­larly affected by the 2008 economic downturn and austerity period following.

4. Contri­bu­tions to visual artists’ liveli­hoods from publicly-offered work are small

Only £22.18m (9%) of all art-related work (including teaching and other employment from both public and private sectors) for artists is recruited through open adver­tisement and over a quarter of adver­tised oppor­tu­nities pay artists nothing at all. (Jones, 2017). 

5. The value of non-adver­tised’ art-based work for artists could be £51m+

Although no data has been located on artists’ incomes levels from non-adver­tised or invita­tional visual arts work from public and private sectors,including that offered though curatorial recom­men­dation routes, cross reference to related liter­a­tures suggests that the closed club culture’ (McRobbie, 2002) of contem­porary employment accounts for at least 70% of all work (Yukova, 2019). 

6. Levels of direct funding to artists have consis­tently declined

Just 135 visual arts practi­tioners including artists, producers and curators had a share of the £1.21m awarded in direct grants over a twelve-month ACE Devel­oping your creative practice (DYCP) period. In comparison, £4.24m was awarded to 399 visual artists in ACE’s prior Grants for the Arts scheme in 201314 and over 1,700 were funded from this source in 200304 (Jones, 2019). 

Strategic inter­ven­tions to secure artists’ future livelihoods 

My analysis of thirty years of arts policy imple­men­tation in England demon­strates that the trickle-down’ strategies pursued by government and within the funded arts never have — and never will — foster the cooper­ation and mutuality between insti­tu­tions and artists that a truly healthy, vibrant arts ecology requires. Francois Matarasso’s rationale for this is persuasive: 

We must use what resources we still have ….to protect the most vulnerable. Those with the broadest shoulders should take more of this burden, and that might mean some redis­tri­b­ution to help those on freelance contracts and minimum wages, those on the margins, whose voices have not been heard, those who have always had less easy paths to the work, the stages and the funding.” 

Arts Council England’s Covid19 emergency package predom­i­nantly provides estab­lished, revenue-funded arts organ­i­sa­tions with financial breathing-space for a few months while more nuanced, long-term solutions are devised. The function of the small amount of Arts Council emergency funding to individuals — 12.5% of the total £160m — is less clear. Neither an emergency fund to compensate individuals for immediate loss of earnings, nor an investment in their future sustain­ability, it offers small grants on a highly-compet­itive basis in exchange for Covid19-related outputs. This generic scheme takes no account of size of the constituency of chore­o­g­ra­phers, writers, trans­lators, producers, editors, freelance educators, composers, directors, designers, artists, craft makers and curators”, nor of their differing, distinctive working contexts, employment patterns and overhead costs. 

A more strategic, supportive inter­vention would be a signif­icant uplift in direct funding for visual artists’ R&D. Such an uplift at this crucial juncture acknowl­edges the social signif­i­cance of those located outside the insti­tu­tional radar. Arguably, at a time of social and economic uncer­tainty, such an inter­vention is equally important as preserving the bricks and mortar’ insti­tu­tions. The resilience of these and the liveli­hoods of associated salaried staff are in any case reliant over the long-term on a diverse talent pipeline” of individuals whose sustained activ­ities over time are essential to the long-term health of the arts economy (CAMeO, 2019). 

In tandem, well-publi­cised, consistent strategies for, and adherence to, equality of oppor­tunity should be a core principle for any funding and support — emergency or otherwise — to publicly-funded insti­tu­tions and other commis­sioning programmes. In this vein, arts funders hold a key role in sustaining artists by upholding industry standards for artists’ fees and associated budgets and terms and ensuring rigorous compliance by NPOs (National Portfolio Organ­i­sa­tions) and CPP (Creative People and Places) programmes and across all project funding involving contracting or employing artists. 

Within this premise, rather than being infor­mally recruited behind closed doors’, open recruitment processes should be the norm for every publicly-funded oppor­tunity, supporting strategies for meritocracy across the arts. Although such oppor­tunity for visual artists is currently not quantified, the above data on artists’ income suggests it should be, as this currently forms an important aspect artists’ livelihoods. 

As a parallel strategic measure, the Arts Council in consort with formal and the myriad of informal visual artists’ repre­sen­tative organ­i­sa­tions, groups and advocacy bodies should purpose­fully seek to limit existing discrim­i­natory practices by“rearrang[ing] … the status of certain group[s]” – in this instance visual artists (Johnson, 1990). This involves a strategic shift in top-level advocacy to government using highly-persuasive, evidence-based arguments for legislative changes to ensure adequate struc­tural and financial support for self-employed and freelance workers including visual artists, not only during the Covid19 emergency period but into the difficult decades ahead. 

Thanks to Francois Matarasso for consis­tently apposite research and advocacy for individuals and commu­nities in the arts and Sara Whybrew at Creative and Cultural Skills for the visual artists sub-set of workforce analysis data for 2018 employed in the secondary analysis. 


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

CAMEo (2019) It Takes a Region to Raise an Artist: Under­standing the East Midlands’ Visual Arts Economy. Leicester: CAMEo Research Institute.

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

CCS (2018) Workforce analysis 2018. London: Creative and Cultural Skills – this provides accurate workforce data. 

Johnson, R. A. (1990) Affir­mative Action Policy in the United States: The impact on Women.’ Policy and Politics. 18:2. pp. 77 – 99

Jones, S. (2017) Artists work in 2016. Research paper. Newcastle: a‑n The Artists Infor­mation Company. 

Jones, S. (2019) The chance to dream: why fund individual artists? Published on this website. 

McRobbie, A. (2002) Clubs to Companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up worlds’. Cultural Studies, 16(4). pp. 516 – 147

Taylor, M. (2017). Good work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices

TBR, (2018). Liveli­hoods of visual artists. London: Arts Council England – this provides artists’ income data in 201415.

Vukova, C (2019) Networking statistics, Review42.


The secondary analysis is not entirely accurate as data in TBR (2018), CCS (2012, 2018) and Jones (2019) relate only to England while that in Jones (2017) is UK-based. However, this is not judged to be material to the broad conclu­sions drawn.