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After an intro­duc­tion to the spe­cif­ic eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances of visu­al artists and, mind­ful of the wide and exten­sive impacts of the pan­dem­ic on their work prospects and liveli­hoods, this text in the Covid-19 port­fo­lio includes a four-point hope­ful pro­pos­al’ that sets out how to ensure artists sur­vive the fall out, and can bring their mul­ti­ple val­ues to ben­e­fit the arts and soci­ety in the decade ahead. 

“Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all …. we’re all in this together”. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation, 13 March 2020

A fearful future for artists

We’re on the verge of a worldwide economic recession of a depth not experienced in our lifetimes. While arts and cultural institutions are moving into Corona virus risk amelioration mode, adopting virtual working and cancelling public programmes, individual artists are fearful of their economic futures.

My research reveals how badly visual artists’ livelihoods were affected by the 2008 economic crash. This wasn’t a short-term blip, the lengthy recession and austerity period that followed affected artists’ work prospects irrevocably. Here’s one illustration:

  • In 2007 (the pre-recession year) the total value of openly-offered work to artists was £26.8m. By 2016, this figure was just £22.18m (ie 17% less). The latter represents a considerable reduction in real terms though, as if the 2007 figure was translated into relative value or purchasing power for 2016, it would be £34.16m (ie 54% higher than 2016’s actual financial value (Jones, 2017).

Artists’ economic status

Having once run an arts organisation, I know that adept management of finite resources within unforeseen external circumstances is a core skill. But when it comes to having a precarious existence, visual artists are in league of their own.

  1. Low income: artists’ average income from art practice is a meagre £6,020. Even for those artists self-defining as established it’s just £13,000 (TBR, 2018).
  2. High self-employment: 77% of visual artists are self-employed (this higher than the creative industries average of 43%), although by offering fixed rather than negotiated budgets and terms that discount individualised conditions the closely-defined and hierarchical structures of the visual arts in effect treat self-employed artists as ‘workers’ an employment category in which conditions are known to be socially and economically disadvantageous (Taylor, M. 2017).
  3. No padding: the portfolio careers common amongst visual artists create a ‘circle of high-risk, low-paid work’ (TBR, 2018) which is not only the root cause of overall poor income levels, but of lack of savings. This is exacerbated when 28% of all awards, commissions, competitions and residency opportunities openly-offered to artists (in 2016) didn’t offer any money, and preparation, delivery and post-programme contributions are discounted in artists’ fees and terms. (Jones, 2017) Nor do advertised fees keep pace with current industry rates.
  4. No state benefits: as self-employed individuals, visual artists lack access to state benefits including statutory sick pay.

Visual artists are low-paid and under-valued by the very arts institutions who rely on them to contribute to the public programmes that make organisations economically viable. Ameliorating for economic uncertainty is entirely different when you’re operating at the bottom of the food chain of a highly-competitive arts hierarchy. Artists’ ability to be productive and healthy over a lifetime is hindered by scant access to the R&D funding that ensures their creativity over the long-term and to the state benefits available to the employed that cushion the bad times.

A hopeful proposal

Taking inspiration from the World Health Council, the four point proposal following is offered in the hope – for we must always remain hopeful - to any wise person, any public or private institution who genuinely ‘cares’ about visual artists, and who has power and resources to protect and sustain many artists in a time of great peril and into the rocky decade ahead.

  1. Payback – if you’re cancelling freelance work within a programme or project of any size or nature, and even if there’s no provision in the contract just pay artists the fees that would be due anyway. Make this standard provision in all future contracts.
  2. Give forwards – even when in micro amounts, direct grants for R&D are what ensure artists’ can ‘get ahead’ artistically over the longer-term. It’s a proven way both to recharge batteries through situated professional development and to rebalance power in working relationships with others (Taylor, B. 2013). ‘Give more’ is an extra message for Arts Council England where success rates for direct funding to artists have plummeted from 52% in 2003 (Grants for the Arts) to just 12.7% in 2019 (Developing your creative practice).
  3. Be more MAIA – see their 16 March 2020 tweet adjacent - create a small artists’ hardship grants: raid and vire between budget lines. Going ‘virtual’ for the foreseeable future enables organisations to formally downsize and redeploy former travel and hospitality expenses. Make savings by delaying new purchases, refurbishments and allocations for professional development provision and deferring senior staff pay rises.
  4. Care hard – mindful of the Five Ways to Wellbeing, check in with and commune locally with artists. Be active by doing this virtually and frequently to show moral support and as building blocks for strong relationships for the long-haul ahead. Take notice of what many artists are doing and how they’re feeling by setting up skype studio visits. Learn from how artists do it by enlisting some of them on your board – artists learn iteratively and have a resilience capability well worth emulating: they have scaling down off to a fine art. Give them some dedicated time: it’s not just about money but securing the future well-being of artists.

Thanks to Francois Matarasso for his thoughts on forging human resilience in troubling times in Wellbeing matters.


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

Arts Council England (2019) Annual Report & Accounts. London: Arts Council England

CCS (2012) The Creative & Cultural Skills Footprint 2012/13. London: Creative and Cultural Skills.

Burns, S. (2017) Supporting the self-employed artist as Citizen: Looking up, looking down, looking around and looking forward. London: Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

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.

Taylor, B. (2013) ArtWorks: Artists -Testing Professional Development Methodologies (Working Paper 3). Artworks Alliance.

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

TBR (2018) Livelihoods of Visual Artists. Four reports. London: Arts Council England.