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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​.artscoun​cil​.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​.artscoun​cil​.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’,