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The com­bi­na­tion of pan­dem­ic impacts on the pub­lic sec­tor and high cost of liv­ing means that while every effort has been made to pro­tect and sta­bilise arts insti­tu­tions and staffers as any of a ver­i­ta­ble glo­ry of sur­veys of artists — includ­ing Industria’s expose — con­clude, artists’ social and eco­nom­ic sta­tus is in sys­tem­at­ic decline. And as new pub­lished plans from the Labour Par­ty and Con­tem­po­rary Visu­al Arts Net­work (CVAN) reveal, respon­si­bil­i­ty for flour­ish­ing sus­tain­able futures for prac­ti­tion­ers is des­tined to remain firm­ly out of artists’ own hands

The UK government’s neo-lib­er­al busi­ness mod­el under­pin­ning the arts since the Mil­len­ni­um — the most extreme by far’ with­in Europe accord­ing to research by Alexan­der & Peter­son — runs in direct oppo­si­tion to social objec­tives to achieve human well-being, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and equi­ty has con­sis­tent­ly under­mined artists’ liveli­hoods. Even in the New Labour and lot­tery fund­ed arts boom of the Mil­len­ni­um which pri­ori­tised the bricks and mor­tar’, 50% of arts organ­i­sa­tions couldn’t afford to – or didn’t — pay artists. When the 2008 eco­nom­ic crash and Tory aus­ter­i­ty peri­od put gov­ern­ment grant-in-aid lev­els back to base­line lev­els with­in five years, fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions were pri­ori­tised for pub­lic sup­port while the real-terms val­ue of open­ly offered work for artists reduced by 27%. 

Pol­i­cy shifts

Dur­ing the New Labour gov­ern­ment from 1997, pub­lic fund­ing to the arts increased by 70% in what the then Arts Coun­cil Eng­land Chair Christo­pher Frayling dubbed as a gold­en age’. As Chief Exec­u­tive Peter Hewitt con­firmed, Lot­tery resources were huge [so] … we need­ed to take action to ensure that [the needs of] indi­vid­ual artists and mak­ers were not sub­merged by the avalanche of organ­i­sa­tion-based activ­i­ties”. The sub­se­quent Grants for the Arts (GftA) scheme was well-resourced in finan­cial and staffing terms and includ­ed a dis­tinc­tive, ring-fenced indi­vid­u­als’ strand. Although pro­vid­ing mea­sur­able ben­e­fits to artists, GftA was over-depen­dent on retain­ing high lev­els of arts fund­ing and on ded­i­cat­ed Arts Coun­cil offi­cer engage­ment to draw in artists new to mak­ing grant appli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, these ambi­tions proved over time to be in direct con­flict with the fund­ing body’s desire to reduce over­heads and admin­is­tra­tive costs. 

Suc­ces­sive stream­lin­ing of grant appli­ca­tion and man­age­ment sys­tems – includ­ing ACE’s adop­tion of the dread­ed Grantium — and rebadg­ing after 2018 as Nation­al Lot­tery Project Grants with its more strin­gent inter­pre­ta­tion of lot­tery pub­lic ben­e­fit’ rules fur­ther reduced artists’ prospects of the inde­pen­dent art for art’s sake’ devel­op­ment essen­tial to sus­tain­ing careers over time. 

For many it no longer feels as if hav­ing a great idea and being able to artic­u­late [it] will con­fer a good chance because the shift in ACE’s [fund­ing] strate­gies since 2010 means that suc­cess­ful NLPG appli­ca­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly the most excit­ing ideas for art but those that most close­ly fit with the Let’s Cre­ate strat­e­gy, out­comes and invest­ment prin­ci­ples.” Lynn Gard­ner, The Stage, 4 March 2024

Fir­ing up the engines 

Although name checked as ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Labour’s Cre­at­ing growth’ 2024 elec­tion man­i­festo with its promise to hon­our the diver­si­ty of inten­tions and val­ues attached to the arts and their vari­ety and dis­tinc­tive­ness, as far as indi­vid­ual prac­ti­tion­ers are con­cerned any real­i­sa­tion will remain an aspi­ra­tion. This is due to the com­bi­na­tion of Labour’s growth’ imper­a­tive with no increase in pub­lic fund­ing to the arts and by main­tain­ing the posi­tion of the arts with­in the now dis­cred­it­ed cre­ative indus­tries. Such assump­tions and expec­ta­tions will do lit­tle to redress the embed­ded, extrac­tive norms char­ac­ter­is­tic of 21st Cen­tu­ry envi­ron­ment for the cul­tur­al workforce. 

As colour illus­trat­ed in suc­ces­sive stud­ies rang­ing from Flori­da in 2002 to O’Connor in 2024 (AM477), the cre­ative indus­tries’ eco­nom­ic mod­el worth £125b in GVA annu­al­ly” and deliv­er­ing mil­lions of good jobs” (these sta­tis­tics attached pre­dom­i­nant­ly high-tech indus­tries) is whol­ly depen­dent on a labour struc­ture exploita­tive of free­lance cre­atives, made more des­per­ate in the pandemic’s after­math of esca­lat­ing liv­ing costs. There is copi­ous evi­dence that cre­ative indus­tries’ require­ments of the work­force do harm to artists’ prac­tices which are depen­dent on being honed and built through a con­tin­u­ous, craft-and skills-based prac­tice if they are to last’ over time. Research by Mor­gan & Nel­li­gan (2015) con­cludes that​“to sur­vive in tur­bu­lent labour mar­kets most cre­ative aspi­rants must become​‘labile labour’ mobile, spon­ta­neous, mal­leable and capa­ble of being aroused by new voca­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ties”. In stark con­trast to long-held pol­i­cy ambi­tions to fos­ter and demon­strate social inclu­sion across all aspects of the work­ings of arts and cul­ture and as PEC’s 2024 analy­sis reveals, the inequity ingrained in these inhos­pitable cre­ative indus­tries con­di­tions cre­ates and sus­tains a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, edu­cat­ed mid­dle-class cre­ative workforce. 

In order for the cre­ative indus­tries to con­tin­ue to have access to a broad range of tal­ent­ed and excep­tion­al free­lancers to sup­port their growth, Labour would ensure that a free­lance cre­ative career remains a viable prospect by mak­ing it less pre­car­i­ous.” Cre­at­ing growth: Labour’s Plan for the Arts, Cul­ture and Cre­ative Industries

With­in the inher­ent con­straints of a growth-based eco­nom­ic agen­da, Labour’s pol­i­cy promis­es a New deal for work­ing peo­ple’ to tack­le the pre­car­i­ous nature of free­lanc­ing. This includes imple­ment­ing a new reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work includ­ing indi­vid­u­als’ right to request writ­ten con­tracts, clamp down on anx­i­ety-mak­ing late pay­ments and a strong copy­right régime to stem AI’s steady march over the already mea­gre liveli­hood prospects for indi­vid­ual artists and cre­ators. But with no prospects of extra cash to the arts from gov­ern­ment, it can only make the best of a bad job. 

This plan con­tains only a hint of a shift towards the essen­tial localised democ­ra­cies and com­mu­ni­ty wealth build­ing that will give peo­ple the pow­er to define their high streets and enrich neigh­bour­hoods and empow­er com­mu­ni­ties to play a big­ger role in defin­ing and enrich­ing their neigh­bour­hoods”. Men­tion in a delayed review of Arts Coun­cil Eng­land of a more coher­ent rela­tion­ship with local author­i­ties – and endorse­ment of for­mer Shad­ow Arts Min­is­ter Tra­cy Brabin’s arts-led may­oral lead­er­ship in West York­shire — may her­ald devo­lu­tion in future of arts pol­i­cy and fund­ing deci­sions to localised democ­ra­cies and economies. Notably Cooper’s 2020 study for the Fabi­an Soci­ety, amongst oth­ers, con­cludes that fos­ter­ing pro­duc­tive, healthy, inclu­sive social frame­works depends on redis­trib­ut­ing pow­er, fund­ing and eco­nom­ic account­abil­i­ty away from nation­al’ cen­tre to the localised and grass­roots, includ­ing to artists themselves. 

Cre­ative wastage

Mir­ror­ing Labour’s talk­ing up of the eco­nom­ic val­ue and job cre­ation of the world beat­ing’ cre­ative indus­tries and pub­lished in tan­dem, the new CVAN (Con­tem­po­rary Visu­al Arts Net­work) pol­i­cy agen­da for the visu­al arts calls on DCMS to estab­lish a new com­mon lan­guage of visu­al arts val­ue” beyond GVA to ensure free­lancers’ con­tri­bu­tions are recog­nised”. Improv­ing the inner work­ings of the fund­ed visu­al arts is the under­ly­ing ambi­tion of this plan’s six pri­or­i­ty areas which are col­lec­tive­ly intend­ed to achieve growth and fuel the growth of the cre­ative sec­tor, the well­be­ing of our cre­ative com­mu­ni­ties and cement our world-class stand­ing on the glob­al stage”. 

Giv­en the very real chal­lenges fac­ing the visu­al arts, the goal must be to achieve sta­bil­i­ty and resilience, as essen­tial enablers of growth.” Reframed: A new pol­i­cy agen­da for the visu­al arts

In arts as else­where, the strongest ecolo­gies are inclu­sive and het­ero­ge­neous, engag­ing all play­ers’ from indi­vid­ual artists to insti­tu­tions and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to par­tic­i­pants. The weak­ness of the ver­ti­cal­ly framed ecol­o­gy char­ac­ter­is­tic of con­tem­po­rary visu­al arts man­age­ment is that it isn’t pro­grammed to see’, cater for, or cap­i­talise on the assets of messy, dynam­ic inter­re­la­tion­ships and unortho­dox career and con­tent orig­i­na­tion pat­terns. Tru­ly inno­v­a­tive devel­op­men­tal net­works are as much respon­sive as proac­tive, fos­ter­ing the free­dom to con­tin­u­al­ly cre­ate or recre­ate them­selves by trans­form­ing or replac­ing the core struc­tur­al com­po­nents and their enabling con­di­tions. Arts ecosys­tems in which pur­pose­ful, pos­i­tive inter­con­nec­tions between the var­i­ous ele­ments, func­tions and behav­iours fos­ter self-sup­port­ing and self-regen­er­at­ing sys­tems and mutu­al ben­e­fit and avoid the cur­rent cre­ative wastage’ inher­ent in the oft-used mantra – and bad prac­tices’ excuse — that there are just too many artists’. 

Recog­nis­ing that new mon­ey’ for the arts won’t be forth­com­ing from the Trea­sury, CVAN advo­cates for tourist levies and extend­ing Muse­ums and Gal­leries Exhi­bi­tion Tax Relief to aid arts insti­tu­tions whose earned and grant incomes have tak­en a dive since the pan­dem­ic. For artists’ indi­vid­ual devel­op­ment, there’s clear endorse­ment for DACS’s con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion of a Smart Fund cre­at­ed by a levy on sales of copy­ing devices, envis­aged as bring­ing in £250 – 300m annu­al­ly. Notably, France’s move in 2019 to levy a 3% tax on dig­i­tal com­pa­nies such as Google and Face­book was esti­mat­ed to bring in 400 – 750m euros annually.

While CVAN’s plan aspires to an arts envi­ron­ment premised on inter­con­nect­ed­ness and inter­de­pen­den­cy, the ten­sion comes – as it sure­ly will if a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, inclu­sive visu­al arts ecosys­tem with shared ambi­tions is the goal – in effect­ing a strate­gic shift away from decades of pol­i­cy-endorsed NPO-led, trick­le-down struc­tures. Cre­ation of flex­i­ble, self-deter­min­ing and respon­sive frame­works with mutu­al­ly shared ambi­tions for resilient com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice is depen­dent on these cur­rent­ly favoured insti­tu­tions and ced­ing pow­er (and asso­ci­at­ed fund­ing) to new egal­i­tar­i­an (and risky) organ­i­sa­tion­al frame­works. Those well-accom­mo­dat­ed (and mak­ing a rea­son­able liv­ing) from the more ratio­nal­ly organ­ised struc­tures visu­al arts devel­op­ment can be resis­tant to adop­tion of these more flu­id, flat­ter ways of doing and decid­ing things, and seek to con­trol the extent of complexity.

Ambi­tions to improve visu­al arts work­force con­di­tions con­sti­tute a size­able chunk of this infor­mal­ly con­sti­tut­ed network’s pol­i­cy paper, with stat­ed ambi­tions to uphold individual’s rights, and desire for reg­u­la­tion of prac­ti­cal arrange­ments between the pre­dom­i­nant­ly free­lance artists’ work­force and arts insti­tu­tions who act as their con­duit to the pub­lic. As argued in the CMS committee’s Cre­ator Remu­ner­a­tion Report, gov­ern­ment approval for a Free­lance com­mis­sion­er should struc­tural­ly aid free­lancers’ rights in and out­side gal­leries, while a manda­to­ry prompt pay­ment scheme would be a god­send to artists in a cli­mate in which late pay­ment (and sub­jec­tion to inap­pro­pri­ate deduc­tions) is com­mon­place. More press­ing for artists, how­ev­er, is the need to get fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions to accept – and bud­get for — the true eco­nom­ic (and social) val­ue of artists’ con­tri­bu­tions to pub­lic programmes. 

I’ve shown and per­formed around 140 times in my career, often with large-scale works, but I have sel­dom com­mand­ed an exhi­bi­tion fee of more than £2,000, a sum that in no way cov­ers the weeks and years spent on devel­op­ing projects. Often much of the mon­ey goes to pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies and on cap­i­tal invest­ment into dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, com­put­ers, screens, dri­ves, stu­dio costs, cam­eras or to some more high­ly paid pro­fes­sion­al work such as fab­ri­ca­tion, sound mas­ter­ing or film­ing”. Lind­say Seers, Is artists’ exploita­tion inevitable?, Axis 2024 

The lack of equi­ty and inclu­sion expe­ri­enced by too many artists is amongst the wicked prob­lems’ char­ac­ter­is­ing arts sec­tor work­ings for too many years. Repris­ing pri­or poli­cies dat­ing back to the Mil­len­ni­um, these new offer­ings from CVAN and the Labour Par­ty advo­cate strong­ly for bet­ter, more con­sis­tent, fair’ treat­ment of artists. How­ev­er, the insti­tu­tions charged with and fund­ed to ani­mate such pol­i­cy are in the main lin­ear, pater­nal­is­tic, and reduc­tion­ist by nature. As Lind­say Seers’ expe­ri­ences demon­strate, fair treat­ment for artists is almost inevitably an add on’ to the main agen­da, depen­dent first-and-fore­most on arts organ­i­sa­tions being finan­cial­ly resilient. To this end, and tak­ing their lead from com­mer­cial busi­ness­es, fund­ed arts organ­i­sa­tions enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly adopt­ed zero-hour con­tracts as a cost-sav­ing exer­cise. In some instances and when faced with fur­ther bud­getary chal­lenges, some moved from employ­ing their gallery invig­i­la­tors (often an income source for artists) to use of unpaid vol­un­teers. The press­ing need to secure even-hand­ed treat­ment and rights pro­tec­tion of free­lance artists in the work­place that fea­tures high­ly in both these pol­i­cy papers is illus­trat­ed by one NPO’s recent expec­ta­tion to with­hold pay due to artists for work com­plet­ed until they signed new con­tracts relin­quish­ing both copy­right and moral rights. 

Focus­ing on resilience is prob­lem­at­ic: it’s an over-used and ulti­mate­ly unhelp­ful term that [has] replaced so many oth­er more active, pos­i­tive aspects of work­ing in the visu­al arts. It’s as if that’s all we’re allowed to be now.” Artist’s com­ment on Instagram 

Pro­vid­ing cir­cum­stances con­ducive to the long-term resilience of con­tem­po­rary visu­al arts is a major fea­ture of CVAN’s pol­i­cy. In arts organ­i­sa­tions this is a neolib­er­al­ist eco­nom­ic con­struct, achieved by scal­ing up fundrais­ing effort, widen­ing earned income streams and strict stew­ard­ship of non-core costs, includ­ing art pro­grammes. In short, if there’s no mon­ey to pay the oper­at­ing staff and build­ing over­heads, organ­i­sa­tions will close, their staff made redun­dant. Con­di­tions sup­port­ive of artists’ resilience couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. Longevi­ty as a prac­tis­ing artist pri­mar­i­ly rests on con­sis­tent hon­ing of artis­tic abil­i­ty and tac­it skills and forg­ing and pur­su­ing sit­u­at­ed’ prac­tices that fos­ter a sense of belong­ing, com­bined with co-val­i­da­tion through tru­ly nego­ti­at­ed rela­tion­ships with like-mind­ed peo­ple and institutions. 

Resilience implies that those who can’t, or fail to be, resilient — such as dis­abled peo­ple — are fail­ures, when there are count­less things indi­vid­u­als lit­er­al­ly can­not be resilient to….” Artist’s com­ment on X 

Resilience through human flourishing

Achiev­ing artists’ liveli­hoods is a sphere of action stretch­ing far beyond pub­lish­ing pay rates and sam­ple con­tracts, run­ning how to’ ses­sions on apply­ing for Arts Council’s nar­row­ly defined grant schemes and cre­at­ing afford­able work­space. Rather, it is enabled, built and sus­tained by acquir­ing and draw­ing togeth­er a com­bi­na­tion of cap­i­tals. Artists’ human cap­i­tal incor­po­rates an individual’s skills and edu­ca­tion and time (and resource) to engage in research as well as day-to-day income gen­er­a­tion. Their social cap­i­tal devel­ops and is sus­tained through trust-based, rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ships and achiev­ing recog­ni­tion with­in their spe­cif­ic art form or field of endeav­our. Unlike arts organ­i­sa­tions who exist in a hier­ar­chy, artists’ social cap­i­tal comes from oper­at­ing het­ero­ge­neous­ly and inclu­sive­ly between and across social infra­struc­tures and their polit­i­cal cap­i­tal from being around the table’ when struc­tur­al moves – and new polices — are under devel­op­ment. Hold­ing finan­cial reserves is a pipedream to most artists who lack sav­ings, pen­sions and employ­ee ben­e­fits such as hol­i­day, sick and maternity/​paternity pay.

The visu­al arts sec­tor needs to be rede­fined from the per­spec­tive that artists play in cul­ture, iden­ti­ty and com­men­tary on every­day life. It needs to acknowl­edge that artis­tic prac­tice pro­vides us with an all-impor­tant mir­ror to our world, some­times uncom­fort­able and oth­er times glo­ri­ous. Hold­ing this at arms’ length, plays a vital role in under­stand­ing where we have been and where we are going.” Simon Poul­ter, artist and curator 

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in the arts is fos­tered with­in mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial, inclu­sive ecosys­tems in which self-sup­port­ing and self-regen­er­at­ing aspects grow and are empow­ered by pur­pose­ful inter­con­nec­tions between diver­gent ele­ments, func­tions and behav­iours. By fos­ter­ing nuanced, sus­tained inter­play across micro and tran­sient struc­tures and larg­er-scale and per­ma­nent organ­i­sa­tions, per­son-cen­tric, bot­tom-up’ mod­els equate resilience with con­di­tions sup­port­ive of human flour­ish­ing. These involve by being atten­tive to the nuance of reci­procity, and to well-being and demon­stra­tion of acts of care. In the arts and soci­ety in gen­er­al, there is an inher­ent con­flict between indi­vid­u­alised human’ endeav­ours and insti­tu­tion­al ver­i­fi­ca­tion process­es. The former’s char­ac­ter­is­tics are nuanced and fos­ter par­tic­u­lar­i­ty and the latter’s exter­nal­ly focused and mea­sured, and pre­dom­i­nant­ly premised on pro­duc­ing stan­dard mod­els and gen­er­al­is­able out­comes for pre­dic­tion (and fundrais­ing) purposes. 

CVAN’s refram­ing’ agen­da feels a lit­tle like retro­fitting’ the exist­ing ecosys­tem …. but sure­ly this should be more rad­i­cal and aspi­ra­tional? What if we tru­ly put artists’ needs first [through] a pol­i­cy frame­work that includes Uni­ver­sal Basic Income for Artists allow­ing a focus on cre­ative prac­tice with­out con­stant finan­cial pres­sures; estab­lish­ing pub­licly fund­ed, afford­able hous­ing and stu­dio spaces, man­aged by artists for artists; giv­ing artists pow­er to make fund­ing deci­sions by allo­cat­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of pub­lic arts fund­ing direct­ly to peer-reviewed grants [and] per­ma­nent seats for artists on cul­tur­al pol­i­cy boards and deci­sion-mak­ing bod­ies.” Mark Smith, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Axis

While these are unprece­dent­ed and com­plex cir­cum­stances, Labour and the arts sec­tor need as Kai Sing Tan has urged to get their hands filthy’ build­ing a mod­ern’ for­mat for resilience that is mess­i­ly and coop­er­a­tive­ly built and held, enact­ed through sus­tain­able cross-fer­til­i­sa­tions and co-devel­op­ment rather than unsus­tain­able, com­pet­i­tive­ly ingrained growth.


Text com­mis­sioned by and pub­lished as A new deal? in Art Month­ly July/​August 2024


Axis (2023) Is artists’ exploita­tion inevitable? texts from the Aberdeen Mini-Sum­mit in June 2023.

CMS (2024) Cre­ator Remu­ner­a­tion Report

Cre­at­ing growth: Labour’s Plan for the Arts, Cul­ture and Cre­ative Indus­tries (2024)

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

Flori­da, R, (2002). The Rise of the Cre­ative Class. New York: Basic Books.

Mor­gan, G, Nel­li­gan P, (2015). Labile labour – gen­der, flex­i­bil­i­ty and cre­ative work, The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review, 63:S1 pp. 66 – 83 

O’Con­nor, J (2024) Cul­ture is not an indus­try, Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Con­tem­po­rary Visu­al Arts Net­work (2024) Reframed: A new pol­i­cy agen­da for the visu­al arts