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The basis for artists’ liveli­hoods is hold­ing agency and capac­i­ty to cre­ate and cap­i­talise on their eco­nom­ic and social assets. But as this text shows, it’s the eter­nal strug­gle between the intrin­sic moti­va­tions dri­ving art prac­tices and the small busi­ness” expec­ta­tions attached to self-employ­ment sta­tus that is root cause of their con­tin­u­al­ly pre­car­i­ous situation. 

This base­line fric­tion cre­ates a social and eco­nom­ic dis­ad­van­tage that’s ampli­fied when artists’ prac­tices come face-to-face with the trick­le-down” eco­nom­ic regimes that gov­ern arts organ­i­sa­tions, as these may strug­gle to make ends meet” with fun­ders’ high­er expec­ta­tions despite squeezed budgets. 

This brief, per­son­alised selec­tion of free-to-access resources relat­ing to artists’ prac­tices and their (lack of) eco­nom­ic and social sta­tus is intend­ed to iden­ti­fy the gulf in per­spec­tive, knowl­edge and expec­ta­tions between those who hold the pow­er – the pub­lic fun­ders and hard’ infra­struc­ture of fund­ed organ­i­sa­tions – and the indi­vid­u­als con­ceiv­ing and mak­ing cre­ative work. 

Along­side some sig­nif­i­cant aca­d­e­m­ic and indus­try enabled research illus­trat­ing the base­line rela­tion­al faults, I have includ­ed strate­gic exam­ples of artists’ own voic­es which pro­vide a res­o­nant route to under­stand­ing why sup­port­ing artists to be artists mat­ters to society.

1. Struc­tural­ly F*ucked

Indus­tria, with con­tri­bu­tions from Lola Olufe­mi, Juli­et Jacques and Jack Ky Tan, pub­lished by a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny (2023).

I have picked this report because it pro­vides a use­ful overview of artists’ eco­nom­ic sta­tus and has first-hand accounts of the pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions for artists. Based on Artists’ Leaks data pro­vid­ed anony­mous­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, this study recon­firms that artists’ liv­ing stan­dards and career prospects are severe­ly affect­ed by world shocks”, just as they were by the eco­nom­ic reces­sion and aus­ter­i­ty after 2008

The report con­cludes with calls for artists to speak out about poor terms and con­di­tions and for pub­licly fund­ed insti­tu­tions to do bet­ter by artists through even-hand­ed con­tracts and fair pay. 

2. Cre­at­ing val­ue in place. The role, con­tri­bu­tion and chal­lenges of cre­ative free­lance work

Hen­ry, N., Bark­er, V., Sis­sons, P., Broughton, K., Dick­in­son, P., Lazell, J., and Angus, T. (2021) Coven­try Uni­ver­si­ty, fund­ed by the Cre­ative Indus­tries Pol­i­cy and Evi­dence Cen­tre (PEC).

This report helps to deep­en under­stand­ing of the diver­si­ty of artists’ inten­tions and approach­es. It high­lights how the sheer vari­ety can make it dif­fi­cult to cap­ture the val­ue cre­at­ed by cul­tur­al work­ers and looks at ways to forge an open, equi­table and inclu­sive arts environment. 

It chal­lenges the assump­tion often evi­dent in pol­i­cy that artists just need bet­ter train­ing to suc­ceed. Instead, it evi­dences that indi­vid­u­als who are more entre­pre­neur­ial – the best at being self-employed”, well-versed in appli­ca­tion writ­ing and so on – are most like­ly to depart the arts for more sta­ble liveli­hoods elsewhere. 

The text ends by lay­ing out areas where pol­i­cy­mak­ers can do more to sup­port cre­ative free­lancers in an ever-chang­ing labour mar­ket. These sug­ges­tions include design­ing bet­ter sys­tems for free­lancers to nego­ti­ate and man­age contracts. 

3. Pay­ing artists: Phase 2 find­ings

DHA, com­mis­sioned by a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny (2013).

Although a decade old, this study with­in a‑n’s Pay­ing Artists Cam­paign high­lights that the dis­junc­tion in ambi­tions and lack of com­mon pur­pose between arts organ­i­sa­tions and artists is struc­tur­al rather than finan­cial. Draw­ing on in-depth inter­views, it indi­cates that increas­ing fund­ing to insti­tu­tions is not the solu­tion to cre­at­ing the nec­es­sary change in artists’ eco­nom­ic conditions. 

The study found it rare for gal­leries to have a writ­ten exhi­bi­tions pol­i­cy or for­malised frame­works for con­tract­ing and pay­ing exhibit­ing artists. Improv­ing artists’ fees wasn’t a pri­or­i­ty for cura­tors. Instead, their pref­er­ence for addi­tion­al fund­ing was to gen­er­ate addi­tion­al activ­i­ties such as audi­ence engage­ment, inter­pre­ta­tion and learn­ing activ­i­ty that would con­tribute to fun­ders’ per­for­mance indicators. 

4. From Great Expec­ta­tions’ to Hard Times’: A Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Cre­ative Grad­u­ate New Ven­tures

Han­age, R., Scott, J. and Davies, M. (2016) pub­lished in Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Entre­pre­neur­ial Behav­ior and Research, 22 (1). pp. 17 – 38. ISSN 1355 – 2554

This study is one of the few lon­gi­tu­di­nal qual­i­ta­tive stud­ies look­ing at artists’ liveli­hoods. It unique­ly evi­dences the real­i­ty gap between pol­i­cy assump­tions about sup­port­ive infra­struc­tures for cre­ative indi­vid­u­als and new cre­ative grad­u­ates’ lives and career progression. 

Pol­i­cy and its deliv­ery agents com­mon­ly talk up” the suc­cess­es, but here we get to under­stand how lit­tle indi­vid­u­als are in con­trol of their artis­tic futures and the under­ly­ing caus­es and con­se­quences of failure. 

5. Piv­otal moments in artis­tic practice

Sonya Dyer, pub­lished as an essay by a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny (2019) as an extract from the book com­mis­sioned and pub­lished by Space Studios. 

This essay makes an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to debates on artists’ liveli­hoods because it iden­ti­fies the ten­den­cy of fun­ders and arts organ­i­sa­tions to pay dis­pro­por­tion­ate atten­tion to artists at the emerg­ing stage of their career. In con­trast, those at the less sexy” and far more com­pli­cat­ed mid-stage are often over­looked, yet these groups are often in need of support. 

Acknowl­edg­ing that females dom­i­nate among visu­al arts prac­ti­tion­ers, Dyer con­sid­ers the impact of par­ent­hood and car­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties on sus­tain­ing careers over a life­cy­cle. Under such cir­cum­stances, she asks how indi­vid­u­als from eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds can con­tem­plate work­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al visu­al artist in the shad­ow of a life­time of precarity”. 

6. Care fuelled leadership

Lucy Wright, pub­lished by Axis (2023).

This artist’s per­spec­tive high­lights that how­ev­er hard artists may work to devel­op and make a liv­ing, they often feel like out­siders, unwel­come and unheard in their own sec­tor. Wright’s descrip­tor of a Hunger Games” sce­nario of scarce resourc­ing for indi­vid­ual artists encap­su­lates how con­tin­u­al­ly pitch­ing for – and fail­ing to get – com­pet­i­tive­ly offered oppor­tu­ni­ties and fund­ing dimin­ish­es artists’ well-being and liveli­hood prospects. 

7. Get­ting paid

Emi­ly Speed, pub­lished on www.a‑ 2009 – 2014.

When run­ning an arts organ­i­sa­tion, my under­stand­ing of what it was like to be an artist on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis was con­sid­er­ably enhanced by read­ing the artists’ blogs on a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Company’s site. It was Emi­ly Speed’s Get­ting Paid blog that had the great­est impact on me, as read­ing each of her posts was a revelation. 

I could­n’t fail to realise how hard artists had to work even to stand still”, and that the impact of the 2008 eco­nom­ic reces­sion was con­sid­er­ably worse for indi­vid­ual artists than for pub­licly fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions and their employ­ees. The press­ing need to explain why — just like all oth­er pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in the arts — artists need­ed prop­er pay­ment from gal­leries and exhi­bi­tion organ­is­ers, was a key dri­ver for the Pay­ing Artists campaign. 

To bet­ter under­stand artists’ impacts, future research should rely less on annu­al sur­veys and mea­sure­ment of pre­de­ter­mined per­for­mance indi­ca­tors, and instead use more open-mind­ed, qual­i­ta­tive and lon­gi­tu­di­nal approaches. 

If an equi­table and inclu­sive arts ecol­o­gy is the goal, the ten­den­cy to con­cep­tu­alise visu­al artists as a homoge­nous glut who are ever adapt­able and read­i­ly avail­able to pro­vide visu­al stim­u­la­tion and inno­va­tion should be aban­doned. Instead, artists should be inte­gral to pol­i­cy­mak­ing so that fund­ing struc­tures and pri­or­i­ties are rad­i­cal­ly reimag­ined in the cre­ation of a vibrant and just society. 


This resource com­mis­sioned and first pub­lished by The Cen­tre for Cul­tur­al Val­ue and pub­lished by Cul­ture Hive, 2024