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This submission was made in June 2020 to the DCMS Committee consid­ering the impact of Covid-19 on any sectors under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s remit. It contex­tu­alises artists’ livelihood frame­works and sectoral artistic and economic oppor­tunity, highlighting key challenges and barriers faced by this particular sub-section of the creative indus­tries. It evidences the distinctive limita­tions of short-term emergency measures from Government and the Arts Council to alleviate immediate Covid19 circum­stances. Although arts policy margin­alised support for artists’ liveli­hoods after the 2008 recession, the examples of artists’ individ­u­alised resilience strategies illus­trate the scope and value of supportive inter­ven­tions by policy relevant to forecasting new strategies for amelio­rating the medium and longer-term effects of the pandemic on this vital, distinctive creative indus­tries sub-section. The rationale for struc­tural changes in imple­men­tation of arts policy and funding is to remove known barriers and better in future capture and amplify the assets that artists create for their own resilience and bring to social well-being over a life-cycle. 

1. Intro­duction

1.1 This submission is from independent researcher Dr Susan Jones who has expert knowledge of visual artists’ devel­opment, employment and liveli­hoods. Her nuanced insight into condi­tions for this specific creative indus­tries sub-set has been gained through leading for 14 years an arts organ­i­sation supported by Arts Council England, followed by doctoral study to evidence mecha­nisms for productive engagement between artists’ liveli­hoods and arts policy in future. 

2. Context

2.1 Current arts policy inter­ven­tions fail to be supportive of most visual artists. An under­lying misas­sumption is that the modus operandi of visual artists is similar to the creative indus­tries where entre­pre­neurial individuals and micro businesses commonly pitch creative ideas using outline, illus­trative proposals to secure new work contracts from commis­sioners and investors while lever­aging the associated extrinsic artistic rewards as bi-product. However, unlike artists for whom height­ening creative discovery is the driving force, a prereq­uisite for entre­pre­neurial endeavours is making a profit to sustain the business going forward. But when budgets and fees provided to artists by funded visual arts organ­i­sa­tions are at minimum levels, these provide neither suffi­cient scope for artistic manœuvre nor condi­tions supportive of artists’ economic and social circum­stances over a life-cycle. 

2.2 Visual artists are important contrib­utors to the arts economy. Their collective economic endeavours are worth an estimated £689m a year. However, artists’ intan­gible assets to society are not appro­pri­ately recog­nised within arts policy and the opera­tions of the arts. There are no quantifi­ca­tions of artists’ intrinsic worth to social well-being through provision of artistic grati­fi­cation to people and commu­nities, including of artists’ pivotal contri­bution as providers of unique experi­ences, products and services to the resilience of funded arts organ­i­sa­tions, including to job creation and retention. 

2.3 Salaries for the employed arts workforce rose above inflation during the austerity period but pay for the self-employed remained consis­tently lower. Signif­i­cantly, over two-thirds of those working in Arts Council regularly-funded organ­i­sa­tions (NPOs) are freelance and self-employment levels at 77% amongst visual artists, who are nearly a quarter of all those in visual arts occupa­tions, are markedly higher than elsewhere in the creative industries. 

2.4 Patterns of inequality in the contem­porary visual arts are both economic and social. Artists’ average annual income from all sources is less than two thirds average national salaries. To survive econom­i­cally, most have to supplement low income from self-employment with a portfolio of art-related work. One in five have three or more different jobs, these often on a PAYE zero hours’ basis. This includes occasional lecturing in Higher Education and customer service roles in cultural and creative indus­tries organ­i­sa­tions. The former are notorious for late payment and in the latter, minimum wage and non-permanent contracts are the norm. Just 28% of visual artists nowadays enjoy the security of regular jobs as lecturers, academics or arts teachers, whereas 35 years ago it was nearly three-quarters. 

2.5 This circle of high-risk, low-paid work’ makes visual artists’ liveli­hoods highly precarious. Low income levels and resulting lack of savings mean that few artists have financial resources to fall back on to cover unexpected circum­stances including illness or impacts of external shocks such as the economic recession after 2008 and Covid19

2.6 The continuous, compet­itive churn of job-seeking, disap­pointment of frequent rejection and power held over artists by inter­me­di­aries undermine artists’ confi­dence to act indepen­dently over a life-cycle and are not supportive of the values and beliefs which form the foundation of artists’ art practices and are their raison d’être.

2.7 The high level of specu­lative, compet­itive work expected of visual artists by contem­porary visual arts gatekeepers is intel­lec­tually, emotionally and econom­i­cally challenging. The particular modus operandi of the contem­porary visual arts constrains artists’ liveli­hoods by limiting oppor­tunity to negotiate freelance terms and condi­tions commen­surate with level of experience, reputation and income needs. Visual artists are typically presented with pre-deter­mined budgets and terms based on what publicly-funded arts organ­i­sa­tions have budgeted for or are prepared to pay. For example, a commis­sioned exhibition that contributes to the artistic standing and economic resilience of a major Arts Council England NPO gallery which may take the artist a year to produce commands a fee of just £6,000 (a‑n The Artists Infor­mation Company, 2016). This baseline economic disad­vantage is compounded when over a quarter of adver­tised oppor­tu­nities offer exposure rather than money. 

2.8 Self-employment is in effect a theoretical status, as it is rare for artists to be able to negotiate for what they finan­cially need from visual arts work. Less than a fifth of artists are repre­sented by galleries who would conduct such pay negoti­a­tions on the artist’s behalf. Although Arts Council policy states commitment to talent devel­opment and innovation, less than 2% of the artists’ constituency annually gains access to R&D grants. Success rates for Arts Council direct funding to artists have fallen from 52% in 2003 (Grants for the Arts) to just 12.7% in 2019 (Devel­oping your creative practice). 

2.9 Females represent up to 70% of all visual artists but earn over a quarter less than male counter­parts. This and expec­tation of mobility are barriers for women with or wishing to take on family respon­si­bil­ities. Statis­ti­cally, visual artists are less likely than the population as a whole to have the dependent children who form part of supportive struc­tures necessary in old age. 

2.10. Poor financial reward levels and implicit expec­tation that artists can self-finance/­sub­sidise work such as in publicly-funded galleries further contributes to limited oppor­tunity for meritocracy. In particular, individuals from lower social classes and ethnic backgrounds lack entry-points to the arts and creative indus­tries as a whole. 

3. Immediate impact of Covid-19 on visual artists

3.1 Surveys conducted since the outbreak show that at least half of all visual artists were econom­i­cally affected by the lockdown period through immediate loss of contracted work and cancel­lation of regular and forward expec­ta­tions. This data illus­trates in quanti­tative terms the immediate economic impact on artists of volatility in markets in the face of unexpected shocks which affect both private and public sectors. 

3.2 The government’s Coron­avirus Job Retention Scheme catered for those with the security of regular employment contracts in the arts and elsewhere. The offer for the self-employed was both less compre­hensive in scope and funds were slower to materi­alise. Signif­i­cantly, the government’s Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and Arts Council England Covid19 Emergency Fund for Individuals shared an eligi­bility criterion that made a substantial section of visual artists ineligible. 

3.3 The requirement of both schemes for appli­cants to earn 50% of income from self-employment conflicts with the reality of artists’ liveli­hoods and the portfolio’ work patterns and mixed income’ sources from self-employment and PAYE as described above. Arts Council England’s emergency support scheme with a budget of £16m generated 14,000 appli­ca­tions in two rounds in April was expansive in scope, open to writers, trans­lators, producers, editors, educators, directors and designers … chore­o­g­ra­phers, composers, visual artists, craft makers and curators’. 

3.4 The unrea­sonable eligi­bility criterion for government and Arts Council one-off emergency financial measures excluded a large proportion of practising visual artists by failing to recognise known long-standing work and income patterns within that sector. In addition the Arts Council scheme effec­tively curtailed access to funding to individual artists for the remainder year by including budgets allocated to open-access schemes Devel­oping your creative practice and National lottery project grants. ThIs scheme was 35% oversub­scribed and the maximum £2,500 award available from the emergency fund too low in that it repre­sents just a quarter of the value of a Devel­oping your creative practice grant. 

4 Longer-term impacts of Covid19 on artists’ livelihoods 

4.1 The 2008 worldwide financial crash and the austerity period following provides a pertinent reference point for consid­ering the longer-term economic and social impact of the pandemic and evidencing the direct impact on artists’ liveli­hoods. In statis­tical terms, the economic downturn in artists’ oppor­tunity for work was irrev­o­cable. During it, the relative value of work openly-offered to artists more than halved (20072016). Contem­po­ra­ne­ously, around 70% of artists’ income from art practices derives from arrange­ments with galleries and exhibi­tions (TBR, 2018). Both commercial and publicly-funded galleries were affected by austerity, with many smaller galleries and agencies ceasing to trade and reduction of programme budgets in publicly-funded galleries. By 2013, 71% of galleries paid no fees to artists for exhibiting and three-fifths didn’t even reimburse their expenses. 

4.2. Analysis of individ­u­alised instances demon­strates how artists’ natural agility and resilience in the face of adversity was brought to the fore after the financial crash. My own quali­tative research illus­trates artists’ capacity to rebuild their liveli­hoods and continue their careers by devising highly-person­alised strategies that account for the partic­u­larity of their profes­sional and social circum­stances. The starting point was for artists to take change of their own destinies by fine-tuning the supportive circles of trust’ around their art practices built up over time in their immediate location. In combi­nation with personally-devised profes­sional devel­opment, in which artists identified resources such as mentors of their own choosing and localised training, these proved more effective than accessing generic business training, or chasing one-off work contracts with limited security or prospects away from home and support structures. 

4.3 In contrast, artists’ liveli­hoods were purpose­fully depri­ori­tised at this time by the Arts Council, which cut regular funding to an important layer of artists’ devel­opment struc­tures. Some 6,000 artists using long-standing artist-run spaces, national and regionally-signif­icant membership and advocacy bodies and production and technical support facil­ities were adversely affected. This decision in tandem with decline in success rates for direct funding to artists margin­alised the signif­i­cance to the cultural landscape of supporting artist-devised strategies on the ground’. The Arts Council instead priori­tised resources to what it perceived as frontline’ arts organ­i­sa­tions, including galleries. The explicit expec­tation that the funded insti­tu­tions would do more’ for artists, including paying fairly those they commis­sioned or showed, was not monitored nor were wider impacts quantified. 

4.4 In addition individual artists were specif­i­cally excluded from the Arts Council 2015 – 2018 goal to create a diverse and highly skilled’ workforce. Although talent devel­opment objec­tives as delivered through funded arts organ­i­sa­tions might have improved artists’ career and livelihood prospects, by the Arts Council’s own admission, no evidence was found that clear and effective talent devel­opment routes’ had been available to artists over a decade of this policy (ACE 2018). 

5 Evolving the sector after Covid-19

5.1 The pandemic has put a harsh spotlight on the endemic discrim­i­na­tions, misrecog­ni­tions and inequal­ities across the nation, including in the workings of the arts and creative indus­tries. Divides due to wealth, income, race and social status have been reinforced, in part by the misas­sump­tions framing emergency financial support. When forecasting a more inclusive and productive future for citizens through the arts, the ambition must be to recognise and support all the aspects that bind us and within thus, to redress the margin­al­i­sation of independent creators. A prereq­uisite of this is meaningful investment in inter­ac­tions of differing weights and scales across the arts, including full incor­po­ration in publicly-funded infra­struc­tures of those generated and animated on the ground’ by artists themselves within their communities. 

5.2 Such ambitions fall within strategies for systematic removal of discrim­i­natory practices to achieve the equality of oppor­tunity required for public and government bodies including DCMS and Arts Council England. This applies equally to the working practices of Arts Council’s open-access grant schemes as to arrange­ments with regularly and occasionally funded arts organisations. 

5.3 It is vital post pandemic that past policy mistakes, which by under­valuing visual artists’ varied contri­bu­tions to society embed economic and social barriers to their pursuit of liveli­hoods through art practices over time, are not repeated. Remedies designed to deliver human thriving’ in the arts in the decades ahead are struc­tural in nature, requiring strategic redirection from the top down of financial resources and active cooper­ation of all committed to the resilience of the arts as a societal necessity. They rest on three operating principles: 

  • Diver­si­fi­cation of arts policy mecha­nisms and delivery in order to place the focus on enabling divergent, localised commu­nities of interest including independent visual artists to engage directly and consis­tently with them and to expand their personal and profes­sional horizons through the arts over a life-time; 
  • Democ­ra­ti­sation of arts devel­opment and decision-making processes to the grass­roots through appli­cation of subsidiarity; 
  • Devolving suitable levels of funding as a strategic long-term shift from a London-centric national arts body in order to give direct artistic and economic respon­si­bility to accountable localised arts struc­tures, such as the through strategic re-engagement with local authorities. 

5.4 These principles suggested for future publicly-funded arts devel­opment which are by necessity exper­i­mental, are intended to redress the margin­al­i­sation of a vital section of the creative indus­tries workforce. They are more complex to scope and deliver than the trickle down’ economy-driven model for arts devel­opment pursued for decades by government, the arm’s length agencies and adopted within funded arts organ­i­sa­tions. However, fresh ideas are well worth consid­ering because the current hierar­chical method has demon­strably failed to deliver equality of oppor­tunity and to improve the social and economic status of those at the bottom of the food chain. This includes visual artists, who are no better off in social or economic terms than they were in 1985

View the submission online.