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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 (TBR2018). 
  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 http://e‑

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

CCS (2012) The Creative & Cultural Skills Footprint 201213. 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.