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Essay analysing flaws and impacts on artists of the UK’s extreme neo-liberal arts economy with sugges­tions for challenging and redressing the inequities caused.

Contem­porary Visual Arts Network’s policy commitment to strategic action to ensure an equitable sector that was precip­i­tated by the shocking context of Black Lives Matters is timely in a pandemic world which has laid bare the systemic social and economic fault lines in the arts. This England-wide network’s report last year into the immediate impacts of Covid-19 confirmed that the divergent social realities and artistic ambitions of BAME practi­tioners – who along with those with invisible disabil­ities including autism, ADHD and bi-polarity are over-repre­sented within the arts constituency – are currently under-supported by contem­porary visual arts infra­struc­tures. But the processes of devising and activating strategies to combat and excise exclusion of all kinds in the arts move at a glacial pace. That’s because ultimate ownership lies with the Arts Council as the national arm’s‑length arts funded agency for England, which passes respon­si­bility down to the chosen portfolio of arts insti­tu­tions where it’s positioned in the territory of arts leaders’ rather than being individ­ually-held. Remedial measures are made manifest and delivered in bite-sized, readily-measured multi-year insti­tu­tional opera­tional plans which are struc­turally over-dependent on sustained public funding and the largesse of freelancers. 

Aspira­tions for equity across the arts, including support for artists’ productive practices and liveli­hoods over a life-cycle and ensuring the multi­plicity of divergent contri­bu­tions receive their due’, will continue to fail all the time arts policy and funding dispen­sa­tions reside in mecha­nistic instru­ments that best suit arts hierar­chists. The case of CFCCA (Centre for Contem­porary Chinese Art) provides a topical example of the slippage between the laudable aspira­tions of Arts Council’s Creative case for diversity’ policy and its practical imple­men­tation. For although this long-standing National Portfolio Organ­i­sation has met ACE’s diversity expec­ta­tions in gover­nance, workforce and programming, the cohort of experi­enced Asian-decent artists commis­sioned to revision’ the organisation’s work instead identified a dysfunc­tional insti­tution and cited endemic exclu­sionary and racist practices. From these artists’ perspective, defunding CFCCA and starting over again from the bottom up is the only way to embrace the complexity of difference and excise these struc­tural flaws.

Multiple precar­ities

The debil­i­tating impacts on artists of living with a consis­tently poor economic status is not new news. Although predom­i­nantly freelance, artists lack the artistic freedom and autonomy which comes from being able to forge individ­ually negotiated, tailored work arrange­ments that acknowledge each individual’s social realities. According to TBR, artists’ economic precarity is an inevitability of the mashed-up work portfolios commis­sioners expect artists to aspire to and live by and that create a circle of high-risk, low-paid work’. Self-employment is in effect a name only’ status when much openly-adver­tised work offers artists exposure rather than fees commen­surate with experience level and contri­bution to the business viability of arts organ­i­sa­tions. As Wallis and Raalte assert, the economic inequity embedded in such systems makes freelancers uniquely vulnerable’, by forcing them to shoulder the invisible burden of taking all the economic risk’. Artists suffer worst during economic shocks to the arts. This is illus­trated by the pandemic when two fifths of visual artists lost antic­i­pated work, including when contracts for upcoming work weren’t honoured, and the 50% rule’ as regards income from self-employment excluded more than three-quarters of visual artists from applying for SEISS and ACE emergency funding. 

But money – or its paucity – isn’t the sole cause of inequity. There’s also the persistent emotional precarity artists suffer due to the mismatch between the intrinsic motiva­tions that drive their lives and practices and the extrinsic measure­ments that define arts organ­i­sa­tions’ business models. Rather than viewing themselves as entre­pre­neurs or small businesses selling products and services to the various markets for art, artists’ principle means of expression and social enquiry is the compulsion to make art for art’s sake’. This business weakness’ is exploited by arrange­ments in the UK’s extreme neo-liberal arts economy, where many arts and cultural commis­sioners demon­strate neither duty of care nor fairness in production, and employment prefer­ences are to appoint humble, needy and acqui­escent artists who’re grateful for even the smallest artistic oppor­tunity or financial reward. 

But there’s another facet to artists’ precarity which is by nature struc­tural, in that their ability to get ahead on merit and on their own terms is constrained by the arts infrastructure’s protec­tionist, secretive ways. Over-depen­dency on gatekeepers including increased use of the recom­men­dation route over open calls – now common across the publicly-funded arts infra­structure – makes for vicarious careers. The contem­porary visual arts prefers to keep artists in their place at the end of the arts food chain. Artists are discouraged from showing too early’ and in the wrong kinds of places, from selling through non-legit­imised channels such as from their studios, and from asserting their rights in commis­sioning arrange­ments. Despite Arts Council England’s fair pay imper­a­tives, allocation of financial resources direct to artists is meagre and mean-spirited. Monitoring of their welfare isn’t a priority when insti­tu­tional survival is at stake. Exhausting levels of compe­tition to get work or grants just to keep going under­mines the camaraderie amongst artists that’s essential to building strong voices and strategic advocacy that forges sustainable change for the better. The dog eat dog climate for pursuit of art practices has bred a solidarity deficit. Artists are in effect stuck on mute’ – inaudible and invisible when policy discus­sions occur, off their radar at the top of the arts hierarchy. Rather than capturing the interests and social experience of practising artists, it’s predom­i­nantly arts leaders’ funders confer with on policy-making, with power over artists’ future practices and liveli­hoods ceded to the insti­tu­tions whose trickle-down practices have amplified the long-standing equity problem. 

Oppor­tunity sucks

Tradi­tional arts policy-making tends to perceive the add-on oppor­tunity’ – adjust­ments to the insti­tu­tional status quo – as the point of access for equality measures. This is exemplified by ACE’s aspiration to widen appli­ca­tions to open grant schemes through an enhanced access support offer for disabled artists and CVAN’s conclusion that economics-based arguments such as greater support through enhanced tax breaks to permanent galleries will generate better working condi­tions for artists. As analysis of past policy measures designed to improve artists’ working condi­tions shows, these top-down’ approaches have never stuck’. Arts Council of Great Britain’s Exhibition Payment Right for artists was filtered through English regions after 1985, employing a carrot and stick approach, but disap­peared as policy fashions changed. The one-off Year of the Artist 2000 expan­sively promised to provide lasting oppor­tu­nities for artists creatively, struc­turally and finan­cially’ but achieved none of these, while the lion’s share of the budget went on management and admin­is­tration. Intended to tackle some of those appar­ently intractable problems … which have beset individual artists for years’, ACE’s Artists Time Space Money initiative 2004-06 asserted artists’ rights to develop their skills and creativity throughout their lives, to profes­sional levels of pay and reward, and to spaces to create and share their art’. However, remedies proposed were exter­nally assessed as lacking in rigor and rationale, and little of the £2.6m budget impacted directly or indirectly on artists’ lives. 

By locating achievement of artists’ equity within adjunct short-term projects rather than as a core policy value, these schemes failed to recognise that the road to artists’ resilience lies in having a flour­ishing life’. Paraphrasing sociol­ogist Olin Wright, this flour­ishing’ – which addresses the precar­ities described earlier that limit and squeeze artists’ ability to make progress – occurs when condi­tions enable a person’s capac­ities and talents to develop over time in ways enabling pursuit of life goals and reali­sation of poten­tials and purposes. Embodying notions of a positive, robust reali­sation of each individual’s capac­ities, living a good life’ reduces the impacts of social and economic disad­vantage and supports mental and physical well-being. Retaining the present funding preference for a building-based arts infra­structure, while making a few minor tweaks to widen the scope of artists benefiting won’t remedy the baked-in struc­tural flaws as regards lasting supportive measures for artists’ practices and liveli­hoods. I agree with Hark and Villa that risk-averse insti­tu­tions can only ever take slow, manageable steps towards recog­nising then eradi­cating the multiple disad­van­tages felt by a divergent critical mass. Embracing difference and accepting equity as mission-critical value entails looking beyond the sensi­bil­ities and self-interest of the current infra­structure and its insti­tu­tional perspective on building the arts back better’. It is instead dependent on an arts ecology which is healthy, inclusive and recip­rocal by nature. It’s through forging flatter, inclusive, responsive and partic­u­larised frame­works that a vibrant, diverse critical mass of independent artists will flourish, for the good of commu­nities and society now and in future. 

This essay which was commis­sioned and first published by Double Negative in June 2021 draws on and extends analysis and commentary in my doctoral thesis Artists’ liveli­hoods: the artists in arts policy conundrum, 2019 available at http://e‑


Arts Council England (2021) Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: a data report. London: Arts Council England. https://​www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​d​e​v​e​l​o​p​i​n​g​-​c​r​e​a​t​i​v​i​t​y​-​a​n​d​-​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​/​d​i​v​e​rsity

Contem­porary Visual Arts Network (CVAN) Advocacy policy June 2020.

CVAN and APPGDI (All Party Parlia­mentary Group for Design and Innovation), 2020 Visual arts: the beating heart of Building Back Better.

CVAN and Earthen Lamp (2020) Impact of COVID-19 on Visual Arts Workers, Summary of Findings.

Hark, S and Villa, P. (2020) The future of difference: beyond the toxic entan­glement of racism, sexism and feminism. London: Verso

Olin Wright, E. (2019) How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st Century. London: Verso

TBR (2018) The liveli­hoods of visual artists. London: Arts Council England https://​www​.artscouncil​.org​.uk/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​/​l​i​v​e​l​i​h​o​o​d​s​-​v​i​s​u​a​l​-​a​r​t​i​s​t​s​-​r​eport

Wallis, R. and Raalte, C. (2020) Growing a sustainable workforce: A response to the DCMS Committee’s Call for Evidence for its inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors’,