Skip to main content

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 2013/14 and over 1,700 were funded from this source in 2003/04 (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

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 2014/15.

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.