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A provo­ca­tion around the role and val­ue of and expec­ta­tions for artists with­in cul­tur­al and social change. Rather than expect­ing oth­ers to artic­u­late artists’ val­ue on their behalf, I am propos­ing that artists take respon­si­bil­i­ty them­selves for this and for advo­cat­ing for and trans­lat­ing their val­ue to others.

"Nobody wants you but everyone needs you" is a supposition which is intended to raise the issues and create a discussion around some of the many dichotomies, misunderstandings and misassumptions about artists – whether generated by artists themselves or by those who work with artists or those who think they know about artists – about what artists do, why artists do it and what their practice is for.

I’m attempting to make the case for why artists themselves should seek to influence how they are ‘branded’ and perceived by others. Artists may be better served if they give their unequivocal support into the profession as a whole, and play an active part in raising the status of artists within society, not just for their own benefit but for posterity.

Such a rationale may be hard to digest and achieve because of the ‘romanticism’ that is attached to the term artist – it has a warmth that others are attracted to – a set of ‘attributes and skills’ of which many people are envious.


Rosalind Davis (2011) commented on the: “Misleading and stereotypical notions, romanticised and dismissive assumptions about the role of artists in society”. Artists may however, prefer to be perceived as being ‘unworldly’, brave protagonists of an alternative lifestyle, driven by something ‘higher’ than money and traditional career measurement –ie the job title, as outsiders, people who refuse to be tamed into the norm, who rail against the status quo. Artists may perhaps enjoy being perceived as the shaman perhaps – someone with altered states of consciousness, someone who holds creativity and genius.

And whilst some look to public support or the academic world to verify and endorse what they do, others prefer the straightforwardness of the commercial world to demonstrate the value exchange.

In many situations, the artist seems to ‘fall in love’ with their occupation and to wholeheartedly embrace all that this entails. This is quite definitely an artistic rather than career or business proposition. However, the problem is as Bob Dylan has said that: “You can’t be in love and wise at the same time.”

Are artists at the centre?

It would be great if everyone you ever had to deal with as an artist thought like the Ontario Arts Council did in the 80s:

“Artists stand at the centre of all arts practice. From the artist’s capacity to communicate with sound and colour, rhythm and light, movement and language, all art is born. Without the artist’s ability to practice his/her own art, there is no literature, no music, no dance, no painting, no theatre, no film-making – no art of any kind.”

However, quite a lot of people you rub up against may find what artist Maddi Nicholson did when researching the UK media’s representation of artists(1) Descriptions used included:

  • Psychologically unhinged
  • Reckless
  • Bohemian
  • Radical
  • Obsessive
  • Unreliable
  • Useless with money
  • Irresponsible
  • Strange
  • Generally fucked up
  • Manic
  • Prima donna
  • Not a proper job

Arts policies bodies encapsulate the role and remit of artists within their objectives to achieve ‘public good’. Creative Scotland has said: "Scotland is a centre of excellence for the visual arts, a place where artists can research, develop and produce work of national and international significance. With a growing network of workshops, studios, galleries and artist-led initiatives, there is a healthy diversity of practice from sculpture, painting, printmaking, drawing and photography through to sound, experimental film, live art, installation and new media/ emerging technologies."(2)

Definitions and divergences

In terms of various definitions and interpretations of what an artist is within contemporary life. Butler (1995) asserts that an artist may be considered as a:

  • Maker of unique works of value for sale (through the art market)
  • Animateur - encouraging other people’s creative expression
  • Public servant – making work to commission for public places, regeneration, etc
  • Economic unit – a ‘small business’ / a creative industry employing others
  • Social worker – empowering others to be fulfilled and improve their lives
  • Educator – delivering into schools and the educational curriculum
  • Initiator of new arts ventures – creators of arts festivals, open studios, etc
  • Visionary – a ‘social conscience’

Or perhaps artists are necessarily:

  • Impoverished but fulfilled
  • Incapable/needy, expecting or waiting for others to ‘discover’ them and show them how to do things properly, and where they ‘fit in’.

Research by Galloway et al (2002) found a central ingredient of almost any artist’s practice to be ‘uncertainty’:

  • Uncertainty because of the variable length of contracts and commissions
  • Uncertainty because of the variable terms and conditions of contracts
  • Uncertainty because of the unpredictability of work offers and variable income
  • Uncertainty because of the short notice they get of engagements and commissions
  • Uncertainty because of delays in the start of a production
  • Uncertainty because of the sequential stop/start patterns of employment
  • Uncertainty because of managing concurrent projects and contracts
  • Uncertainty because of the need to be available at all hours for work offers
  • Uncertainty because of the seasonal employment
  • Uncertainty because of the unsocial hours of work
  • Uncertainty because of the unpredictable locations of work
  • Uncertainty because they are vulnerable to changes in fashion, in broader cultural trends and in the market’s preferences.

In her report on artists’ livelihoods Emily Speed commented: “The New Economics Foundation's study of different professions states that ‘job satisfaction is related to a number of factors. Autonomy, control in the workplace, income and status all contribute towards a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment at work.’ On the face of it then, we artists should be fairly happy; we are often largely autonomous, can control what we do in our day-to-day practice and in a cultural sense have a high standing in society. The reality is that although we may be happy, we generally have very low incomes, need to have second jobs where we almost certainly lack autonomy, and we often feel powerless about the lack of control over our own futures”.

Instrumentality or autonomy

As described in Matarasso (1997), artists are encouraged by policy makers to widen their practices and expectations because: “There is nothing reprehensible in artists seeking to extend cultural democracy by opening their practice to others”. As asserted by Matarasso, art is often perceived and valued as a social instrument, as exemplified in statements such as: “art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned; contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.”

Unless they are the art stars of the commercial art market, the neo-liberalism of recent years in the UK has located artists largely as deliverers of public policy. Artists may find themselves shoe-horned through financial necessity or the arts PR machine into making art or delivering art projects the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instrumental powers - how well they serve the needs of others (ie achieve social improvement such as regeneration, uplift the lives of disadvantaged people, fill the ‘arts gap’ in school curricula). In short, their role is to create art or use art processes which are predominantly measured by what they ‘give to others’. Thus highlighting the altruism of artists.

However, as Holden (2004) has commented: “Institutional and Measurement Properties of the administrative system exert far too much influence over the nature of cultural activity itself….The danger is that unintentionally, these pressures will institutionalise cultural mediocrity by encouraging funders and funded to take safe bets…We should be not be satisfied with criteria that act as proxies for cultural value; rather, we should be seeking to design the institutions around the creation of cultural value”.

So how do artists navigate the political and social agendas and the expectations of ‘service’ without feeling they are unreasonably compromising their ideals, ethics, and sensibilities? This puts us in the slippery territory of instrumentality versus artistic autonomy.

Abbing (2002) articulates the dichotomy: “Most artists earn very little. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of aspiring young artists. Do they willing or unwilling give to the arts? They often subsidise the arts to raise [what are] low incomes. But their support is ineffective: because such subsidies only increase and perpetuate the poverty of artists’. Although the arts can operate successfully in the marketplace, their natural affinity is with gift-giving rather than with commercial exchange. People believe that artists are selflessly dedicated to art, that price does not reflect quality and that the arts are free.”

He concludes that: “Being an artist is just a lot of hard work and also badly paid work. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that all my struggles will ultimately be worth the effort. I am convinced that in the years to come I will contribute something significant to the history of art. Because the work is hard and badly paid I really need this kind of belief to keep me going”. In a lecture Emilia Telese(3) commented: “Are artists actually able to free themselves from the constraints that are placed on them – by the grant-givers, the commissioners, the commercial sponsors etc - those whose roles and evaluations are seemingly legitimising the artist’s role?” Some artists, however, may perceive this ‘gift economy’ as quite reasonable. They don’t want to be bound by – or actively buy into – any form of financial arrangement that might become the legitimiser of their work because doing so would interfere with the artist’s own objectives for it and thus compromise their practice.

Researchers addressing small business approaches(4) have described an attitude that is directly translatable into the artists’ world. The term ‘life style businesses’ means those that are “a statement about who you are and all that is important in your life”. Such an approach to business would seem to provide artists with the degree of artistic autonomy to which they aspire. Furthermore, research by Honey et al (1997) concluded that for artists: “Money is not the driving force behind making work. What is most important to artists is making work which they are personally happy with. This suggests that artists’ experience non-pecuniary or psychic income from continuing to practice.” In short then, unlike ‘small businesses’ and like ‘lifestyle businesses’ artists are not concerned with expansion and profit making, but tend to view money as only important because it provides them with the freedom to make more art.

However, Shaw (2006) asserts that: “Being an artist is not an identity but something you do and something you make. Artists make art. The art they make might be fragmented, conceptual, sited, dialogical, oppositional, critical, etc but it still operates within a discourse of making art. Accordingly then, it matters less whether art practices are sustainable or continuous, but whether the product is any good. While talking of quality has become difficult and unfashionable it seems that without this conversation we can only have practice for the sake of it, not practice that seeks to advance.”


It is possible for artists to mediate their own practice, to develop the language and to translate / reinterpret others’ needs and aspirations for art into the mechanics of their practice, enabling artists to grow and sustain their practice. The terminology such as regeneration, community development and digital innovation – can be appropriated and subverted by artists themselves into the research and the level of social engagement that can extend artists’ circles of audience, that achieves whatever kind of financial or value exchange that artists need to pursue their practice, and to be recognised for having a serious practice and thus play a vital role in society.

Speaking about his invitation to bid for a commission, artist John Newling(5) set out his own terms: “Having seen the way that postal systems work in other countries, I am always impressed with the ability of Royal Mail to deliver post in the manner it does. I devised a proposal in which I sought to respond to the building and processes happening within it. I wanted a project that had the artwork as a conduit between the building, its function and public passing by. My original proposal was peppered with short statements that indicated my initial ideas. I have always found it unwise to acquiesce to others on aspects of approach and concepts at this initial stage; an artist's ability to influence future negotiations – and potential compromises – hinges on laying down an early marker. A proposal is not the time to negotiate fine detail, but to open discussions which will lead to the realisation of the project at a later date.”

Such an example indicates the role of the artist not as a maker of fine objects per se (a sculpture), but as a collaborator and contextualiser – someone who is capable of translating need (and budget) into an ‘aspiration’ in which both commissioner and artist can recognise as having quality.

Revising the terminology

The problem with the title of ‘artist’ is that it is meaningless to many people. If you’re the Head of School in a university, the Chief Executive of a corporation, everyone knows what that title means. Wikipedia states that an artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. In other artforms the term is more closely defined – writer, actor, playwright, musician, poet. The word ‘professional’ traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field ….or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs. In western nations, the term “professional artist” commonly describes highly-educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work.

However, Professor David Cotterrell has said: “I don’t believe that all artists can help us to find some form of truth, but more that their cacophony of diverse, contradictory, tangential and subjective views may serve to challenge the fiction of established narratives and remind us of the inherent complexity of human perception and experience. I was recently told an idealistic metaphor to describe and justify the role of artists. - If you imagine a crowd, perhaps a tour or commuter group hurrying forward to its destination, artists could be seen as members of a crowd who run ahead to look around a corner and report back to the group on what they have found. The slightly heroic role of the artist as advance recon for society was quite flattering to any of us who describe ourselves as artists. I found myself slightly disagreeing with the simplicity of the image. I proposed an alternate view that artists are also the members of the crowd who drop back to tie their shoe-laces and find themselves distracted by the view down an alley or the detail of an anomaly, which might not have been initially regarded as significant by the crowd. Enthralled by the beauty and significance of their observation they might attempt to rejoin the group to describe what they saw.”

At the 2010 European Council of Artists conference Arts Funding - Artistic Freedom, the President of Croatia, the composer Professor Ivo Josipovic, said: “When regulating the position of artists in the society, one shouldn't have Mozart, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Balzac or some other genius in mind, but a human that chooses art as his profession because he has his internal motives to be a genius. The system should give opportunity to an artist to be independent, to express his talent in the way he finds the best, and in the same time secure a decent life for him (sic) and his (sic) family.”

In my own prior research (1996), I posited that a way to visualise the constituency of artists was around the rim of a wheel which also contains the other enablers and promoters of the visual arts and which is driven by the interaction between, and the combined strengths of, each of its parts. Such a diagram recognises that all elements hold an equal role within the arts infrastructure, and suggests a greater possibility of interaction and exchange between artists and the range of people whose beliefs and energies shape the cultural identity of the country and define the part the arts plays within it.

New practices

The a-n Future Forecast inquiry into the future practices and resources for artists (2006) concluded that: “Artists’ practices are increasingly characterised by self-determination and personalisation, the creative friction of working between public services and private enterprise and through multiple engagements across peer networks and audiences, whilst continuously pursuing artistic development.” This analysis was synthesised from a range of evidence and an understanding that:

  • The modularisation and assignment-based practices that underpin secondary and art education and the ‘contract’ nature of professional work opportunities - indicate that in future more artists will be likely to work project-by-project, rather than pursuing a continuous studio-based practice.
  • Higher graduate debt linked with citizens taking personal responsibility for their livelihoods including their work time and their longer years of retirement, and the need to take steps to protect the environment will impact on artists’ expectations for their professional status and conditions their levels of remuneration and their livelihood strategies.
  • The growing complexity and diversity of contemporary practice will affect the traditional patronage models that rely on controlling art markets through limiting choice and closely defining the hierarchies by which people can engage, buy or access art.
  • The speed of change in artists’ working practices that will encompass a mix of self-employment, employment, under employment, small business enterprise, punctuated by professional study – thus creating a continuous professional development, that has to work around their family and social circumstances.

So how can artists prepare for this different kind of role as an artist - for being in an interactive, negotiating role rather than studio-based production for the art market or undertaking ‘a contract for services’ in the public realm? The suggestion is that artists will find themselves more in a position for collaboration – in situations where the intention is to create ‘a meeting of minds’, bound by a condition in which respect is mutual, designed to raise everyone’s game, for which the artist has ‘made themselves ready’.

This is how Brian Eno describes it: “One day in 1969 I was getting onto a tube train and saw a guy I’d met 2-3 years ago at a performance. He said: “You’re Eno aren’t you? I’ve just formed a band and we’ve got a synthesiser and no one knows how to use it.’ That was Alan McKay and how I joined Roxy Music. It’s a good example of something that has been a touchstone for me. When I tell people that they say: ‘God, you were so lucky’. I’ve thought to some extent, luck is being ready. I’d deliberately not tied myself down to a full-time job because I wanted to be ready for something – I knew something was going to happen, that there’d be something for me to do, and when that thing came up, I just did it”.(6)

So for artists, it’s perhaps a scary, dangerous combination of careful preparation, self-determination, professionalism, constant reflection and introspection laced with a heady portion of risky actions, putting yourself out there and seeing what happens; manoeuvring yourself into 'the right place, at the right time'. Making your own luck.

New brand image

a-n’s Future forecast inquiry argued for a ‘new brand image for artists’ – something more relevant to the 21st Century. Furthermore, research by Missions Models Money, demonstrates that artists possess many of the characteristics required in of 21st Century cultural people. Tomorrow’s people manage ‘contradiction’ with panache. They are found to be:

  • Innovative and conservative
  • Have multiple truths held lightly
  • They live, think and act locally and globally
  • They embrace spirituality
  • They think holistically & systemically
  • They tolerate ambiguity & difference
  • They are reflexive learners
  • They contextualise - putting themselves into the process
  • They value ethics – eschewing right action over fixed principles
  • They assume personal responsibility and accountability
  • They are both particularist and generalist
  • They reason abstractly and narratively
  • They trust physical intelligence

Being an artist

The Modes of practice artists’ symposium in Stoke on Trent explored contexts and professional sensibilities for artists ‘in an age of austerity’. The resulting manifesto which was drawn up by artists and arts workers and designed to create solidarity amongst practitioners stated:

  1. Be active: support each other.
  2. Be active: be an activist
  3. Be active: be an artist
  4. Value yourself, your time and your skills
  5. Share your knowledge and resources
  6. Focus, strategize and plan
  7. Be critical - be fair
  8. Know your rights.

Reporting later on the event, artist Nikki Pugh said: “it was notable that all the rules seemed to be independent of the current economic climate. The issues of prime concern to us were to keep making work of high quality; to be rewarded (financially or otherwise) fairly for our work; and to be part of wider, mutually and innovatively generous networks. The blocks we are encountering to achieving these goals come from the perceptions and expectations from society as a whole and because we have not always been guilt-free of perpetuating them ourselves. If I have one hope for what might result from activism catalysed by the cuts, it is that we may do something towards addressing these attitudes.”

Economist Paul Ormerod concludes that today’s enthusiasm for planning and monitoring are no guarantee for success. Rather, “the best tools for survival … are flexibility and an aspiration to innovate, along with an understanding that far more things will fail than succeed”.

Without artists – and good art – there would be no contemporary art market and all the currency and benefits that this creates. Without artists making and showing work there would be no critics, art historians, museums, art galleries, curators, and all the attendant jobs pertaining to the contemporary visual arts. So if I were asked to suggest to artists how they can be artists and achieve their ambitions I’d say: Be an artist – make your work, make your collaborations, translate the meaning, make the new languages for mutual exchange and benefit, make your career and be a role model for other artists, make your audiences, make the world change, make things happen. Just make sure you do something. Make your lives artistically fulfilling but not economically threadbare; make your professional arrangements sound and not exploitative of your generosity. Make your audiences inspired and respectful of your role in their lives. Make sure you’re both wanted and needed in society and in your communities.


(1) Networking artists Networks 2002-04 (2005) a-n The Artists Information Company, unpublished report.

(2) Although this quote is from Creative Scotland documents in 2011, a similar sentiment has been expressed in 2016 documents.

(3) ‘The gift controversy: public policy and social impact of visual artists in the UK’, lecture by Emilia Telese for Creative Regions in Europe conference, 2009

(4) Whitmeyer, C, Rasberry, S, & Phillips, M. (1989). Running a One-Person business. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, cited in Summerton, J. (1995) Mechanics and Metaphysics: Empowerment and the Artist, in E. Moody, J. Summerton Eds, The Business of Being an Artist. London: City University.

(5) In ‘Public posting’ (2003), John Newling discusses the collaboration, negotiation and patience involved in realising a major public art work for Birmingham’s Royal Mail building. (paid-for access)

(6) Foreword, Artists’ Stories, a-n Publications, 1997


Davis, R, (2011). ‘The 21st Century Artist’, Artlicks Issue 3, Spring.

Butler, D, (1995). “A load of compromising’ on the road to my horizon?” in The Business of being an artist. Eds J Summerton, E Moody, London: City University.

Galloway, S, Lindley, R, Davies, R, Scheibl, F, (2002). Balancing Act: artists’ labour markets and the tax and benefits system. London: Arts Council of England

Speed, E, (2010). Artists Livelihood Strategies, a-n Research Paper, Newcastle: a-n The Artists Information Company (paid-for access)

New Economics Foundation (2009). A Bit Rich: Calculating the real value to society of different professions.

Matarasso, F, (1997). Use or ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts, Comedia.

Holden, J, (2004). Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool government policy. London: Demos.

Abbing, H, (2002). Why artists are poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Honey, S, Heron, P and Jackson, C. (1997). Career paths of visual artists. London: Arts Council of England.

Shaw, B, (2006). ‘Continuous practice for a 21st Century artist' in Future Forecast:Outcomes and Issues. (paid-for access)

Cotterrell, D, (2009). ‘Bridging the Gap’, presentation for VAGA symposium ‘Making the case’, Tate Modern, 2009

Jones, S, (1996). Measuring the experience: the scope and value of artist-led organisations.

Future Forecast: Outcomes and issues (2006). Newcastle: a-n The Artists Information Company (paid-for access)

Dods, R, (2010). 21st Century characteristics, Mission Models Money

Modes of practice and text by Rich White

Paul Ormerod, Why most things fail, pamphlet for RSA, 2011

This is an edited text drawn from a video lecture which was commissioned by Open College of the Arts and delivered within the MA in Fine Art professional practice programme.