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.
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.
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‑space.mmu.ac.uk/626357/.
Arts Council England (2021) Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: a data report. London: Arts Council England. https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/developing-creativity-and-culture/diversity
Contemporary Visual Arts Network (CVAN) Advocacy policy June 2020. http://www.cvan.art/advocacy-policy
CVAN and APPGDI (All Party Parliamentary Group for Design and Innovation), 2020 Visual arts: the beating heart of Building Back Better. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/520e251fe4b098edc0eedeaf/t/5fd78f67580ff538654e51db/1607962520116/Report%3A+visual+arts%2C+the+heart+of+building+back
CVAN and Earthen Lamp (2020) Impact of COVID-19 on Visual Arts Workers, Summary of Findings. https://www.cvan.art/covid-19-survey-results?rq=earthen%20lamp
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/publication/livelihoods-visual-artists-report
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’, http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/34328/1/Growing_a_sustainable_workforce-DCMS_Committee_Evidence_Wallis%26vanRaalte.pdf