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This is a moment fraught with pos­si­bil­i­ty.” Isabelle Tra­cy, Par­al­lel State: State of the Nation pod­cast 27 March 2020

This text in the Covid19 port­fo­lio is on the future of artists’ liveli­hoods. It starts by evi­denc­ing the impact of exter­nal trends on visu­al artists’ liveli­hoods. It then iden­ti­fies some of the pol­i­cy mis­as­sump­tions and struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers that lim­it artists’ liveli­hood prospects before demon­strat­ing that visu­al artists as a spe­cial case’ with­in the arts work­force are deserv­ing of indi­vid­u­alised atten­tion with­in arts poli­cies. It con­cludes by out­lin­ing the core qual­i­ties for pur­suit of liveli­hoods through art prac­tices that enable many artists to con­tribute to soci­ety over a life-cycle as a point of ref­er­ence for pol­i­cy-mak­ing dur­ing the Covid19 emer­gency and into the uncer­tain decade ahead. 

Artists’ liveli­hoods and chang­ing trends

If you track the vol­ume and val­ue of open­ly-offered to artists as I’ve done for over 30 years, it’s clear that visu­al artists’ liveli­hoods are con­sis­tent­ly affect­ed by exter­nal eco­nom­ic and arts pol­i­cy trends. Here’s an illustration: 

Artists’ oppor­tu­ni­ties com­par­ing 1989 and 1999 from a‑n (2004)

This chart shows that in 1989, the com­bined tra­di­tion­al areas of awards and fel­low­ships, com­pe­ti­tions and exhi­bi­tions rep­re­sent­ed 56% of vol­ume of all work and 70% of val­ue. Artists char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly pur­sued stu­dio-based prac­tices, apply­ing for awards and fel­low­ships to make new work and dis­trib­ut­ing fin­ished pieces through exhi­bi­tions and sub­mis­sions to opens, prizes and com­pe­ti­tions. Although only 5% of all oppor­tu­ni­ties, the expand­ing field of com­mis­sions was attrac­tive to artists, this in part because of the con­sid­er­ably larg­er budgets. 

A decade lat­er, although remain­ing 43% of total vol­ume of all work, the tra­di­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties areas of awards and fel­low­ships, com­pe­ti­tions and exhi­bi­tions reduced to just 30% of over­all val­ue. Art com­mis­sions had increased to 20% of over­all val­ue of all work offered to artists. These oppor­tu­ni­ties with­in per­cent for art schemes and major pub­lic art pro­grammes attached to regen­er­a­tion of water­ways, cycle paths, tramways and trans­port sys­tems were often sup­port­ed by the (then fair­ly new) Nation­al Lot­tery fund­ing (a‑n, 2004). 

Look­ing back at past gov­ern­ment and arts pol­i­cy prac­tices illus­trates that these aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly bad’ for artists. Here’s two examples. 

  • Artists whose prac­tices incor­po­rate pub­lic art com­mis­sions have con­sis­tent­ly earned bet­ter incomes than prac­ti­tion­ers in oth­er visu­al arts gen­res such as fine art exhi­bi­tions and sales. Where­as gal­leries rarely dif­fer­en­ti­ate, pub­lic art com­mis­sion­ers expect to pay to get artists with suf­fi­cient expe­ri­ence in the field (DHA, 2013; Baines and Whee­lock, 2003; Ixia, 2012). 
  • Work­ing with Cre­ative Part­ner­ships (200311) improved the liveli­hoods of 3,500 dual career artist-edu­ca­tors. The reg­u­lar, part-time work pro­vid­ed finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty for dual career artists who were paid at fair mar­ket rates (BOP2012). 

As this artist’s account shows, artists weren’t mere­ly providers of a ser­vice to Cre­ative Part­ner­ships’ dis­trib­uted agen­cies though because the work was com­ple­men­tary to per­son­al prac­tices. Shar­ing our cre­ative process­es with young peo­ple was invalu­able for us and them. I still come across some of the kids I worked with all those years ago, who tell me they remem­ber what we did and how much they enjoyed it.” 

Impact of 2008 eco­nom­ic crash on artists’ livelihoods 

Do it all, for artists’ sake, now demon­strat­ed the dev­as­tat­ing, last­ing impact of the 2008 eco­nom­ic crash on artists’ liveli­hoods and how the reces­sion and aus­ter­i­ty peri­od that fol­lowed irrev­o­ca­bly affect­ed artists’ work prospects. In sum­ma­ry, the loss in rel­a­tive val­ue of open­ly-offered oppor­tu­ni­ties in 2016 was near­ly £12m. Here’s two illus­tra­tions of what 2008 felt like for artists. 

Things start­ed so well for me when I left uni­ver­si­ty. I walked straight into sell­ing work through com­mer­cial gal­leries and right from the begin­ning, I could be an artist full-time …. Then came the finan­cial cri­sis when com­mer­cial gal­leries were strug­gling to sell. In no time at all, I went from a posi­tion of sup­port­ing my life quite eas­i­ly through my art­work to being not able to at all.” 

In 2008… with no notice at all, a reg­u­lar free­lance con­tract dropped from £200300 a week to next to noth­ing and there were no big projects com­ing my way at all.” 

But rather than give in’ to the daunt­ing envi­ron­ment, such artists instead devised high­ly-per­son­alised approach­es to nav­i­gat­ing through the dif­fi­cul­ties they faced. Lat­er on in the text there’s an expla­na­tion of the qual­i­ties these artists devel­oped that enabled them to sus­tain them­selves artis­ti­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly into the decade beyond. 

Debunk­ing arts pol­i­cy assumptions 

Although to a less­er or greater extent Arts Coun­cil Eng­land in its var­i­ous incar­na­tions has inter­vened in sup­port to artists over the last 30 years, it’s con­sis­tent­ly been a minor aspect of over­all pro­vi­sion. In the aus­ter­i­ty peri­od, Arts Coun­cil England’s pol­i­cy for arts preser­va­tion moved as far away from sup­port­ing indi­vid­ual artists as it could. 

The major­i­ty of Nation­al Port­fo­lio Organ­i­sa­tions (NPO) fund­ing for 2012 – 15 went to pub­lic-fac­ing, build­ing-based organ­i­sa­tions which ACE judged direct­ly made art” and the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to our goals”. What ACE termed as some agen­cies with more of a sup­port func­tion”, such as art form mem­ber­ship bod­ies and artist-led pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties and com­mis­sion­ing bod­ies, were cut entire­ly (a‑n, 2011). Any sup­port there is now for artists from Arts Coun­cil Eng­land is premised on three under­ly­ing pol­i­cy misassumptions. 

  • Fund­ing a few artist-led organ­i­sa­tions doesn’t deliv­er sup­port to many artists

Increased finan­cial sup­port for artist-led ini­tia­tives was emi­nent­ly pos­si­ble thanks to Nation­al lot­tery fund­ing from 1994. The Arts Coun­cil and the for­mer region­al arts boards in Eng­land active­ly solicit­ed appli­ca­tions from artist-led ven­tures for per­ma­nent new stu­dio build­ings and gal­leries such as Spike Island, as well as for tem­po­rary art fes­ti­vals such as the 1999 MART con­tem­po­rary. But when faced with aus­ter­i­ty fund­ing lev­els from gov­ern­ment, ACE cut reg­u­lar fund­ing entire­ly to a lay­er of small-scale, artist-led organ­i­sa­tions whose activ­i­ties impact­ed on almost 6,700 visu­al artists (Louise, 2011). This illus­trat­ed how ACE clear­ly mis­un­der­stood and under­es­ti­mat­ed” the val­ue of such ini­tia­tives “… by assert­ing that cuts would only leave gaps in … visu­al arts sec­tor advo­ca­cy and lead­er­ship” (a‑n, 2011). 

Although 11% (£4.8m over a 4‑year peri­od) of ACE’s NPO (Nation­al Port­fo­lio Organ­i­sa­tions) visu­al arts bud­get is now allo­cat­ed to artist-led organ­i­sa­tions, report­ing para­me­ters are bet­ter suit­ed to mea­sur­ing audi­ence type and lev­els in main­stream pub­lic-fac­ing venues. There is thus no sys­tem­at­ic data col­lec­tion by artist-led organ­i­sa­tions or fun­der of the nuanced or less tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits, such as con­tri­bu­tions to sus­tain­ing artists’ prac­tices and liveli­hoods over a life-cycle, or of direct or indi­rect impacts on their com­mu­ni­ties of inter­est. Nei­ther are fund­ed artist-led organ­i­sa­tions charged with pro­vid­ing a strate­gic voice’ for artists to pol­i­cy-mak­ers, nor do these nec­es­sar­i­ly take an advo­ca­cy role for all artists that is to say, over and above the rel­a­tive­ly few with whom their pro­grammes direct­ly engage. 

  • Pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment schemes have lim­it­ed impact

A key bar­ri­er to sus­tain­ing artists’ prac­tices is lack of time­ly and afford­able’ pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty (TBR, 2018). But rather than sup­port­ing their indi­vid­u­alised aspi­ra­tions and pro­gres­sion, artists may per­ceive pub­licly-fund­ed pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment schemes as var­i­ous­ly, too daunt­ing, too schmoozy’, too expen­sive mon­e­tar­i­ly and their time, or the advice too gener­ic. Here’s some artists’ per­cep­tions in illustration. 

I’m not an extro­vert and I don’t thrive in big bustling sit­u­a­tions and if you put me in an envi­ron­ment with too big a group of peo­ple I become a wall­flower, so I don’t do a lot of networking.” 

[It] feels to me like if you’re not part of this club or this stu­dio or not pay­ing this fee to get a cir­cle of oppor­tu­ni­ties, then you may as well just fuck off.” 

[T]he advice I got was for­mu­la­ic … They prob­a­bly said the same things to most artists.” 

Most artists’ pref­er­ence is to devel­op their com­mu­ni­ty of prac­tice and build engage­ments for it where they are (Markusen, 2013; Speight, 2015). How­ev­er, many pub­licly-fund­ed pro­fes­sion­al and artis­tic devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties may be inac­ces­si­ble for artists, par­tic­u­lar­ly those with reg­u­lar child or elder­care responsibilities. 

I’m respon­si­ble for my fam­i­ly .… I don’t like to think about being away from home for more than a cou­ple of days at a time. I want to be a good father, tak­ing my daugh­ter to school every day.” 

I’m not from a priv­i­leged back­ground, so even if I … was able to trav­el to oth­er places, I’d [need to be financed].” 

  • High lev­els of com­pe­ti­tion are inevitable and healthy

Anec­do­tal evi­dence indi­cates an increas­ing reliance on rec­om­men­da­tion to iden­ti­fy artists for pub­licly-fund­ed exhi­bi­tion and com­mis­sion oppor­tu­ni­ty. Being on the radar of nom­i­na­tors is depen­dent on artists first hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to become vis­i­ble. But the Catch 22’ here is that to get noticed’ and achieve artis­tic suc­cess on mer­it, artists need first to have work shown in exhi­bi­tions and dis­cussed by peers, oth­er artists, crit­ics, cura­tors and aca­d­e­mics (Jones, 2017; Bow­ness 1989). 

Decline in open­ly-offered exhi­bi­tion and com­pe­ti­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties in favour of the rec­om­men­da­tion route con­tributes to dis­crim­i­na­tion — such as on gen­der, eth­nic­i­ty and social class grounds — that pub­licly-fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions are com­mit­ted to erad­i­cat­ing. Hand­ing on employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties through rec­om­men­da­tion or with­in a club cul­ture’ exac­er­bates inequal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty across the cre­ative indus­tries as a whole because indi­vid­u­als’ abil­i­ty get on’ is depen­dent less on mer­it and more on net­work social­i­ty’ (McRob­bie, 2002). Here’s an illustration: 

I know there are cura­tors who get to rec­om­mend artists for the closed’ bur­saries and com­mis­sions, you know, that only artists who are invit­ed can apply for. Obvi­ous­ly, they don’t want hun­dreds and hun­dreds of appli­ca­tions to look at, but I do wor­ry that it makes every­thing about their taste in artists.” 

Struc­tur­al barriers 

Do it all, for artists’ sake, now out­lined the speci­fici­ties of visu­al artists’ liveli­hoods, char­ac­terised by low income, high self-employ­ment lev­els and inher­ent lim­i­ta­tions attached to acquir­ing work and oppor­tu­ni­ty to suc­ceed. An excep­tion­al case: artists and self-employ­ment demon­strat­ed how the ambi­gu­i­ties attached to this sta­tus – as held by 77% of visu­al artists — impacts on liveli­hoods (CCS, 2012). Two con­di­tions cre­at­ed by arts pol­i­cy fur­ther exac­er­bate artists’ abil­i­ty to sus­tain liveli­hoods through art practices. 

  • Busi­ness mod­els adopt­ed by fund­ed organ­i­sa­tions as a resilience require­ment of fund­ing are detri­men­tal to artists’ pur­suit of livelihoods

Organ­i­sa­tions can­not (or chose not to) afford to pay indus­try rates for artists’ var­i­ous pro­grammes inputs — such as exhi­bi­tions, gallery edu­ca­tion and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and out­reach. They are nei­ther will­ing to pay rates reflec­tive of artists’ pro­duc­tion and liv­ing costs nor to acknowl­edge finan­cial­ly the inter­re­la­tion­ship between artists’ con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic engage­ment and their busi­ness resilience (DHA, 2013). That 28% of all open­ly-offered awards, com­mis­sions, com­pe­ti­tions and res­i­den­cy oppor­tu­ni­ties don’t offer any mon­ey also restricts artists’ pur­suit of liveli­hoods through art prac­tices over time (Jones, 2017). 

  • Steep decline in direct fund­ing from ACE for artists’ research and development

Just 135 artists (11.5% of appli­cants) gained Devel­op­ing your cre­ative prac­tice awards in 2018 – 19 where­as fif­teen years ago, 1,721 artists (52% of appli­cants) were award­ed Grants for the Arts (Jones, 2019). In today’s high­ly-com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment, artists with hid­den’ dis­abil­i­ties in par­tic­u­lar strug­gle to for­mu­late accept­able grant applications. 

When you’re writ­ing appli­ca­tions, it seems to me that you have to be able to read between the lines. I’m dyslex­ic so strug­gle with words and I’m not good with num­bers either. Even the ques­tions in appli­ca­tion forms are in a lan­guage I just wouldn’t write in and there’s no one to ask for help from.” 

In com­bi­na­tion, these are pol­i­cy cir­cum­stances which deny all but a very few artists access to lev­els of finan­cial sup­port that sus­tain liveli­hoods through art prac­tices over time. As such, they present a for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­er to achiev­ing equal­i­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty and diver­si­ty in the arts work­force to which pol­i­cy aspires (ACE2020). 

Improv­ing artists’ livelihoods 

How­ev­er there is a log­i­cal argu­ment for greater pub­lic sup­port to indi­vid­ual artists. As pur­suit of art prac­tices is mis­sion-dri­ven’, artists’ modus operan­di aligns with the sus­tain­able sub­sis­tence mod­el’ of social enter­prise (Ker­lin, 2013). Artists are thus deserv­ing can­di­dates of pub­lic sub­sidy of some kind to main­tain liveli­hoods through arts prac­tices over a life-cycle. This is because although they employ aspects of entre­pre­neur­ial behav­iours when deliv­er­ing val­ue to soci­ety with the inten­tion of being finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent, self-suf­fi­cient and sus­tain­able, artists’ abil­i­ty to ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cal­ly from the var­i­ous mar­kets for visu­al arts the very nature of the infra­struc­ture in which they oper­ate con­strains their income-gen­er­a­tion (Abu Saifan, 2012). 

When arts poli­cies are premised on trick­le down’ from fund­ed insti­tu­tions to artists the detri­men­tal impacts on artists’ liveli­hoods are inevitable. In such a hier­ar­chy, artists are an ubiq­ui­tous human resource posi­tioned at the bot­tom, to be tapped for oth­ers’ ben­e­fit. Rather than grounds for co-devel­op­ment, empow­er­ment and trans­for­ma­tion, exchanges between artists and arts organ­i­sa­tions are pre­dom­i­nant­ly short-term and trans­ac­tion­al. The result is that much of what many artists could offer to soci­ety is unrecognised. 

An alter­na­tive to cur­rent tal­ent wastage is offered by new analy­sis drawn from rich, qual­i­ta­tive evi­dence which iden­ti­fies three key char­ac­ter­is­tics that are core to real­is­ing livelihoods. 

  • Con­fi­dence to act

Artists acquire con­fi­dence to act through access to the tri­par­tite con­di­tion of cre­ative space’. This com­pris­es the iter­a­tive, slow­er-paced space and time’ premised on free­dom to devel­op artis­ti­cal­ly and tech­ni­cal­ly with­in envi­ron­ments that acknowl­edge their moti­va­tions and beliefs, access to self-deter­mined pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment such as men­tor­ing and the cru­cial imme­di­ate sup­port­ive per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al cir­cles of trust’ pro­vid­ing con­sis­tent emo­tion­al, intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic sustenance.

  • Sense of belonging

Artists’ sense of belong­ing aris­es when they have secured sit­u­at­ed prac­tices’, those which are con­ceived, devel­oped and mod­i­fied by artists over time in rela­tion to artis­tic ambi­tions which encom­pass their per­son­alised cir­cum­stances includ­ing where they live and their fam­i­ly contexts. 

  • Abil­i­ty to get ahead’

Rather than being the sub­ject of gate­keep­ing, what real­ly sus­tains the prac­tices of many artists over time are con­texts in which they can get ahead’ rather than just get by’ (Put­man, 2000). The co-val­i­da­tion aris­ing from self-direct­ed, artist-spe­cif­ic, iter­a­tive, nego­ti­at­ed rela­tion­ships with empa­thet­ic and like-mind­ed peo­ple and insti­tu­tions enable artists to con­sol­i­date their posi­tion on their own terms.

Con­di­tions that fos­ter these char­ac­ter­is­tics sup­port and ampli­fy motil­i­ty’, this defined as the voli­tion or abil­i­ty of artists to move spon­ta­neous­ly and inde­pen­dent­ly in a way strong­ly reflec­tive of and fine­ly tuned to their spe­cif­ic artis­tic aspi­ra­tions and per­son­al needs. Motile artists oper­ate as flesh-and-blood’ peo­ple, ground­ed in their social back­ground and loca­tion, whose under­stand­ing and fram­ing of their hopes, fears, desires and future devel­op­ment as artists and peo­ple is embed­ded into the expe­ri­ences, com­mit­ments and deci­sion-mak­ing of dai­ly lives. 

Artists who are motile are less like­ly to fall vic­tim to sys­tems they have no hand in shap­ing, includ­ing to work envi­ron­ments implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly exploita­tive of emo­tion­al and eco­nom­ic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. As con­trib­u­tors to a coop­er­a­tive, diverse visu­al arts ecosys­tem in which mul­ti­ple val­ues are co-cre­at­ed, artists with motil­i­ty have the capac­i­ty to sus­tain art prac­tices and liveli­hoods over a life cycle. 

Thanks to Simon Poul­ter and Sophie Mel­lor for an (as yet unre­alised) oppor­tu­ni­ty to present Explod­ing myths: the future of artists’ liveli­hoods at CAMP in 2020; ERS (Liv­er­pool John Moores Uni­ver­si­ty) for an invi­ta­tion to present Reset­ting sup­port to artists at What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About The Artist-Led sym­po­sium, 31 Jan­u­ary 2020; to Rose But­ler, Jon Dovey, Tim Etchells, Adri­an Friedli, Simon Poul­ter, Isabelle Tra­cy and Hwa Young Jung, my col­lab­o­ra­tors in two Par­al­lel State: State of the Nation pod­casts (on 27 March 2020 and artist Eve Esse for con­ver­sa­tions as part of her being writer in res­i­dence with CAMP.


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