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Deliv­er­ing human thriv­ing’ in and through the arts, includ­ing fair pay for artists, in a pan­dem­ic world calls for sub­stan­tial shifts in how arts poli­cies are made and where they are realised.

It’s hard to imag­ine now, in the midst of the arts emer­gency trig­gered by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, but one of the Arts Coun­cil of Great Britain’s found­ing aspi­ra­tions was to enable artists’ pur­suit of art for art’s sake’. Back in 1945, giv­ing artists courage, con­fi­dence and oppor­tu­ni­ty’ to walk where the breath of the spir­it’ took them was a guid­ing principle. 

But three decades of arts poli­cies ded­i­cat­ed to forg­ing a hier­ar­chy of build­ing-based arts organ­i­sa­tions, in the expec­ta­tion that social and eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits would trick­le down to artists, has side-lined con­cepts of keep­ing their inter­ests at heart or putting arts pol­i­cy at the ser­vice of improv­ing artists’ social status. 

Past sup­port to artists policies

Even in the 1980s the Arts Coun­cil in Eng­land believed pas­sion­ate­ly that all artists should ben­e­fit from pub­lic con­sump­tion of their work’, so much so that they insti­tut­ed pay­ments to artists pre­sent­ing exhi­bi­tions in pub­lic gal­leries. Nation­wide appli­ca­tion of this as an Exhi­bi­tion Pay­ment Right for artists came with the threat in one Eng­lish region at least of pulling grants to gal­leries who didn’t comply. 

The mil­len­ni­um saw expan­sive arts pol­i­cy claims for the one-off Year of the Artist 2000. Dreamed up by a con­sor­tia of arts coun­cils and region­al arts boards, 1,000 artists’ res­i­den­cies promised to pro­vide last­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for artists cre­ative­ly, struc­tural­ly and finan­cial­ly’. Both these grand lev­el­ling up strate­gies failed. In eco­nom­ic terms, only 5% of gal­leries actu­al­ly paid the exhi­bi­tion fees due to artists and despite estab­lish­ing min­i­mum res­i­den­cy pay rates, Year of the Artist grant recip­i­ents com­mon­ly got half the des­ig­nat­ed fee.

The gold­en age’ of arts under Tony Blair’s New Labour gov­ern­ment saw an unprece­dent­ed gov­ern­ment increase to Arts Coun­cil Eng­land (ACE), with mas­sive arts infra­struc­tur­al growth. Lump­ing the arts into the cre­ative indus­tries char­ac­terised by low pay and uncer­tain prospects exac­er­bat­ed exist­ing pat­terns of exploita­tion of artists. Any pol­i­cy notions of fair pay for artists were for­got­ten about. 

Flawed arts busi­ness models

The raft of new shiny arts build­ings result­ing from Nation­al Lot­tery cap­i­tal awards and their expand­ed tiers of staffing were finan­cial­ly frag­ile. Premised on a com­mer­cial rev­enue mod­el, arts policy’s mis­placed expec­ta­tion has been that the ingre­di­ents for long-term resilience are strong and well-paid lead­er­ship, an up-skilled salaried work­force, with con­sis­tent fundrais­ing and mul­ti­ple earned income strands aug­ment­ing what ACE now prefers to call invest­ment’ rather than what it real­ly is – subsidy.

2008’s crash and aus­ter­i­ty peri­od revealed the under­ly­ing prob­lem: earned income strands are by nature unre­li­able. The South Bank’s cur­rent finan­cial mess is just one con­tem­po­rary exam­ple of the fragili­ty run­ning through the fund­ed arts sec­tor. How­ev­er pol­ished an organisation’s fundrais­ing effort, the com­pe­ti­tion for grants, fund­ing and earned income is fierce and relent­less. There’s some irony that even in ACE’s good’ 2003 – 2006 peri­od – in which pol­i­cy trum­pet­ed artists as cen­tral’ – its own research revealed that half of visu­al arts organ­i­sa­tions couldn’t afford’ to pay the artists on which their pub­lic pro­grammes and earned income strands depend­ed. Aus­ter­i­ty cut­backs a decade ago exac­er­bat­ed the prob­lem, when ACE decid­ed to pre­serve the pub­lic-fac­ing at all costs, with the caveat that fund­ed gal­leries would also take respon­si­bil­i­ty for artists’ wel­fare with­out ded­i­cat­ed resourcing.

It turns out the affir­ma­tive pol­i­cy action to ensure artists were paid at fair rates that ACE ener­get­i­cal­ly pro­mot­ed from the mil­len­ni­um era was a pass­ing fash­ion. In arts policy’s eyes nowa­days, artists’ sole val­ue is as a ubiq­ui­tous pool of tal­ent, spot­table’ career fod­der for the ever-grow­ing band of gate­keep­ers – the cura­tors, com­mis­sion­ers, agents and con­sul­tants – whose own career ascen­dan­cy depends on play­ing the arts insti­tu­tions’ game. It’s no sur­prise that artists are kept at an awk­ward social dis­tance’ from pol­i­cy and the default posi­tion is that look­ing after artists’ inter­ests is nev­er mis­sion-crit­i­cal. As for­mer Arts Coun­cil Eng­land CEO Peter Hewitt con­firmed in The Chance to Dream — a research report for a‑n The Artists Infor­ma­tion Com­pa­ny — it’s the artists who always get lost’ in the fund­ing real­i­ty. Inevitably, almost any­thing or any­one else – par­tic­u­lar­ly senior arts jobs – are judged more impor­tant than artists’ livelihoods.

Too many artists?

I’m not the first per­son to point to ACE’s com­plic­i­ty in retain­ing the exploita­tive and pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions the major­i­ty of visu­al artists have to live with. The net result of suc­ces­sive poli­cies to secure world-class’ arts for the pub­lic to enjoy by ampli­fy­ing arts lead­er­ship and pri­ori­tis­ing busi­ness resilience and work­force devel­op­ment is that visu­al artists are finan­cial­ly no bet­ter off now than 35 years ago. Some may argue that there are too many artists’, yet the per­cent­age of artists is small­er in a visu­al arts work­force which is now 40 per­cent larg­er than two decades ago.

Name-only self-employ­ment

Artists’ eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ty is exac­er­bat­ed by an ambigu­ous employ­ment sta­tus. Although three-quar­ters of artists are self-employed, most art oppor­tu­ni­ties offered to them have lit­tle or no lee­way to nego­ti­ate terms and con­tracts on a free­lance basis. Artists are treat­ed like any oth­er com­mod­i­ty, brought in on fixed rates and bud­gets just in time’, their out­puts’ pre-deter­mined. Artists inevitably sup­ple­ment low art incomes with oth­er jobs which tend to treat them as employ­ees, fur­ther under­min­ing their self-employed sta­tus. As illus­tra­tion of the liveli­hood impli­ca­tions of artists’ ambigu­ous employ­ment sta­tus, artists’ char­i­ty Acme’s sub­mis­sion to the DCMS Com­mit­tee con­sid­er­ing COVID-19’s impacts shows the major­i­ty of their artists inel­i­gi­ble for gov­ern­ment and ACE emer­gency funding.

In the new nor­mal’ of a COVID-19 world, deliv­er­ing human thriv­ing’ in and through the arts – includ­ing fair pay for artists with­out whom there’s no art – calls for a sub­stan­tial sys­tems shift rather than ACE’s man­age­able reset. By devolv­ing arts fund­ing to local author­i­ties, the Fabi­an Society’s rec­om­men­da­tions counter some inbuilt inequities in arts deliv­ery. But by under­play­ing artists’ dis­tinc­tive con­tri­bu­tions and its assump­tion that ACE always knows best, these don’t go far enough and won’t lead to cul­tur­al democracy.

New ecol­o­gy

ACE’s inclu­siv­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty agen­da may sound good on paper but can’t be deliv­ered in the trick­le down’ arts devel­op­ment econ­o­my it’s wed­ded to. It’s time to get rid of the dead­weight by leav­ing no insti­tu­tion­al stone’ unturned. Only strin­gent edit­ing of slow-mov­ing hier­ar­chi­cal insti­tu­tions in the reg­u­lar­ly-fund­ed port­fo­lio – includ­ing through moth­balling some and the merg­er of oth­ers – will clear the decks.

Art­srewild and Cul­ture­PlanB are amongst those reimag­in­ing the cul­tur­al sector’s future ecol­o­gy, with artists’ wel­fare at the heart of a dis­course around inclu­sive alter­na­tive rad­i­cal strate­gies. Achiev­ing nuanced artis­tic and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions for artists and their broad com­mu­ni­ties of inter­est rests on three trans­fers of pow­er. It’s the co-val­i­da­tion aris­ing from sus­tained, per­son­alised, work­ing rela­tion­ships between indi­vid­ual artists and their col­lab­o­ra­tors – rather than insid­i­ous gate­keep­ing – that enables artists to get ahead artis­ti­cal­ly and economically. 

Micro-scale coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ments build­ing localised capac­i­ty and resilience for artists and their col­lab­o­ra­tors – such as artist-led Artgene’s Extreme Views ini­tia­tive and Idle Women’s immer­sive artists’ res­i­den­cies – are prefer­able to eek­ing out fund­ing to few artists through ultra-com­pet­i­tive, top down grants. Such ini­tia­tives that are democ­ra­tis­ing and rebal­anc­ing arts pol­i­cy and fund­ing are far bet­ter placed than our cur­rent clique of reg­u­lar­ly fund­ed organ­i­sa­tions to tack­le the rocky, unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry of the new arts nor­mal’ ahead.


This text draws on analy­sis and com­men­tary in my doc­tor­al the­sis Artists’ liveli­hoods: the artists in arts pol­i­cy conun­drum, 2019 avail­able at http://e‑

Coop­er, B. (2020) Cul­tured Com­mu­ni­ties: The cri­sis in local fund­ing for arts and cul­ture. Lon­don: Fabi­an Society.

Com­mis­sioned and first pub­lished by Art Review in Sep­tem­ber 2020.