Even in countries where there are well-developed fee and pay systems, there is evidence to demonstrate that artists’ wages remain unacceptably low. This is a baseline problem that few in the infrastructures for the arts seem willing to tackle and resolve.
In real terms, nearly three-quarters of artists are getting just 37% of the average UK salary from their practice. At £10,000 a year, these artists receive only 66% of the living wage: the UK benchmark for a civilised society. But while some argue that it’s the absence of collective bargaining mechanisms that result in such exploitation – once that’s in place here everything will be fine in terms of pay and conditions, they say – even in countries where there are well-developed fees systems, low pay for artists remains the burning issue.
In Canada, where the status of artists has been legislatively protected for many years, a Waging Culture survey in 2007 (a new survey is currently underway) found that when including income from all sources, a typical Canadian artist earns $20,000 (£11,219) a year, which is 74% of a typical national income of $26,850 (£15,061). Even then, only 43.6% of visual artists made any money from their studio practice, with artists typically making a loss from it, at $556. The vast majority of an artist’s studio revenue in Canada comes from sales (54%), with grants (34%) and artists’ fees (12%) making up the rest.
A report (pdf) for the Arts Promotion Centre Finland also shows that public grants were the most important source of income for nearly one in 10 Finnish artists, while concluding that levels of state support have not been increased in step with the growing size of the artist community.
In Sweden – where since 2009 an agreement has been in place between government and artists’ organisations KRO/KIF, which sets out artists’ fee scales for public exhibitions – a recent review showed that 60% of artists who had showed their work in the smaller state museums either failed to get paid or received less than the agreement dictates.
In Australia, the National Association for the Visual Arts (Nava) publishes comprehensive visual arts sector guidance on payments to artists, addressing everything from exhibition fees to teaching rates and intellectual property payments. However, although incomes in general have risen in line with the country’s growing economic prosperity, the average annual income of an Australian artist – $10,000 (£5,396) – is a fraction of the median average earnings of the country’s workforce.
In South Korea the 2012 Artists Welfare Act informed setting up the Korean Artists Welfare Foundation, which offers aid to 24,000 artists annually through insurance cover and hardship payouts. The most recent report from the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute on artists’ income from artistic activities indicates that nearly half of all Korean artists are earning the equivalent of £291 a month. Just 17% of artists earn the equivalent of £13,782 a year solely from their practice. When artists’ income from all sources is taken into account, fewer than a quarter make the equivalent of £20,500 a year, or 77% of the country’s average wage.
It was 10 years ago in the UK that a‑n The Artists Information Company first developed a fees framework for the visual arts, wholeheartedly supported by an Arts Council that, at that time, really did understand the need for good practice and mutuality between those who create the art – the artists – and those who are paid to mediate the arts for public consumption.
Benchmarked to the comparator profession of teaching in state-funded schools, a‑n’s fees framework is one of the most sophisticated. It provides not only a set of example rates for employers to use when budgeting projects, but also an interactive toolkit for self-employed artists to quantify their worth financially to others by accounting for their business and professional costs, local cost-of-living variations and their career stage. In terms of this latter condition on pay rates, it was the employers, when asked, who had strong views that artists’ experience and reputation should command higher rates.
Is fair and proper payment for artists an ambition for governments to action? Or should it be left in the hands of arts agencies? Perhaps it’s best championed by advocacy bodies such as a‑n. Of course, it is the responsibility of all of these, but if good practices in the arts are to be sustained over the long-term, the responsibility for placing a value on artists’ contribution to society should be shared more widely still.
Debate and action needs to be taking place as a matter of urgency among current and future audiences for artists’ work – in and among rural and urban communities and with children in schools. It’s these children who need access to viable role models on which to base their own careers, and to be able to see for themselves that professional artists can come from any walk of life, not just the middle classes.
Susan Jones is a writer, commentator and researcher on visual arts and artists’ practice who was director of a‑n from 1999 – 2014
First published 12 Jan 2015