This presentation addresses the problematic conditions for artists’ practices and lives that define and confine their contributions to contemporary visual arts and society. The aim is to inform sectoral and political discussions on future remedial policy interventions, strategies and infrastructures that ameliorate barriers to artists’ multiple contributions and secure their social and economic status.
It’s the internal struggle between artists’ intrinsic motivations for their practices and the ‘small business’ expectations attached to their employment status that puts artists at a social and economic disadvantage and is the root of their precarities. This baseline friction is compounded when artists’ practices come face-to-face with the ‘trickle-down’ economic regimes governing arts organisations and with contemporary curatorial and gatekeeping behaviours and preferences.
My research (Jones, 2022b) into pandemic conditions as far as artists’ livelihoods are concerned reconfirmed how ‘world events’ and economic turbulence – such as Covid – exacerbate artists’ inequities and undermine their social status. Although government and arts policies choose to promote artists’ irregular occupations as desirable, little attention was given within or before the pandemic to understanding the nuanced nature of artists’ precarities nor to identifying, enacting and sustaining the structural shifts needed, including legislative protection, to secure artists’ social and economic rights.
Portrait of artists
Developing and sustaining a deep understanding and appreciation of the nature of artists, the drivers for art practices, and of the distinctiveness and variety in intention and approach in the artists’ constituency is the basis for forging an open, equitable and inclusive arts environment
Holding strong beliefs and values is a core characteristic in artists’ resilience over a life cycle – it’s vital to emotional well-being and the professional drive of art practices. Artists gain nourishment – or psychic benefit – from art practices when intrinsically-held values of self-worth, personal growth and caring for others are uppermost.
This is not whimsy but vital for artists to build ‘reserves’ to rely on in times of stress and struggle (Jones, 2022a). Nurturing and amplifying artists’ core strengths brings long-term social value to them and to the lives of people around them, this felt both professionally through collaboration with public programmes and personally.
It’s not new news that artists warm to opportunity that speaks to their values and builds artistic knowledge and quality of economic exchange is a secondary consideration. But this is no basis for exploitation within the publicly funded arts. And as the data I’ll provide indicates, it’s the very particularities and distinctiveness held amongst the visual artists’ constituency that make them worthy candidates for nuanced, holistic policy interventions.
Demographically, a fifth of the 42,000 visual artists’ constituency is likely to be neurodivergent and up to three quarters are dyslexic. Under a fifth are from global majority backgrounds (this greater than in the general population) and 75% identify as female.
While half the creative workforce is self-employed it’s 75% amongst visual artists. Notably, visual arts graduates tend to start their careers later than other graduates. Visual artists are less likely than the general population to have dependent children to help care for them in infirmity and old age.
In economic terms, albeit that TBR’s data is from 2018, artists' incomes are likely to be 58% (or £16,150) of average salaries. Art practices contribute less than a fifth and only 7% of artists earn over £20,000 a year. Arts Professional’s post-Covid survey shows better prospects for arts employees, with a median permanent full-time arts salary of £34,000.
Aligned with general employment, female visual artists typically earn less than male counterparts, and disabled artists a third less than other artists. Income levels are in general lower for artists from global majority and lower social class backgrounds.
In contrast to designers, photographers, illustrators and cartoonists, lack of recognisable career trajectories cause visual artists’ incomes to peak at 35-44 years (Kretschmer, et al 2011) , even though this is an artistic development point when many consider themselves as ‘emerging’. Those graduating at a later age are likely to be less mobile and less flexible about where and how they undertake art practices and about income levels, this in part due to family and social ‘responsibilities, dependents and ties’ (Matarasso, 2017).
As an abstract concept, ‘going freelance’ and portfolio working sounds so attractive - heroic even – conjuring professional autonomy, personal freedom and life-style choice. But as Wallis and Raalte (2020) confirmed, due to mixed and variable-level incomes and limited income-generating possibilities self-employed artists are “uniquely vulnerable”, as they carry an “invisible burden of taking all the economic risk”.
Incessant search and ‘pitching’ for viable opportunities to practice in what McRobbie (2002) defined as a ‘club culture’ limits artists’ self-determination and assertiveness. Artists can’t be ‘free agents’, nor as Jones and DeFillippi (1996) suggested can they make a living by ‘scramble[ing], bee-like from opportunity to opportunity’. Instead, to even ‘get by’ they have to project an image of being excited by and responsive to arts opportunities as they crop up, at short notice, and to work in contexts they’ve played no part in scoping (Morgan and Nelligan, 2015).
Self-employment is a theoretical status for artists all the time they are discouraged by arts infrastructural conditions which limit their ability to negotiate terms for their working conditions in tune with, and supportive of, each individual's specific social circumstances.
However much the practical (but voluntarily applied) guidance for employers and commissioners, arts budget holders bring their own judgements to bear on arrangements with artists. It’s common for artists to be told they’re charging “way too much”, for fees and budgets to be non-negotiable, reflective of commissioners’ unrealistic expectations. I’d like to be convinced that ‘policing’ by funders would resolve inequitable frameworks.
Augmenting well-evidenced sentiments expressed by Industria (2023) and FRANK (2021), my data demonstrates artists are indeed structurally fucked over. Lack of power over their social and economic status is compounded by policy’s tendency to conceptualise artists as itinerant, infinitely adaptable, readily available visual stimulation and innovation providers.
Structurally, they are positioned in a perimeter area, far from policy and decision-making 'tables', their voices ventriloquised, perceived as minor contributors to a talent ‘pipeline’ designed to sustain institutions’ business models and feed government and Creative Industries economic and employment targets.
By discounting the spectrum of ‘types of artists’ and the validity of artists’ divergent social contributions it’s an environment ripe for artists’ exploitation. My current research into a typography for artists identifies about 20 types including:
- Artists whose practices are predominantly about asserting self-identity and self-expression
- Entrepreneurial artists or ‘artpreneurs’ actively exploiting commercial art and NFT image markets
- Artists whose central motivation is to develop and support creativity in others through engaged practices, community collaborations and development and formal/informal learning
- Artists who are ‘visionaries’ driven by ‘social conscience’.
As regards pinning down the greatest cause of artists’ economic precarity, PEC’s 2021 Creating value in place study shows that financial uncertainty is greatest amongst artists whose livelihood prospects are most dependent on occasional and ‘freelance’ engagement with the programmes of funded arts organisations.
Belfiore’s (2022) questioning of the moral economy of the subsidised arts sector is pertinent, in that implicit lack of consideration of the ‘why and how’ of artists’ practices contributes to perpetuating the silence within arts infrastructures around artists’ impoverished social realities, that hinders change for the better. PEC’s 2021 study reconfirms the significant ‘talent drain’ first identified by Honey et al in 1997, in that artists who are more entrepreneurial – the best at ‘being self-employed’ and money orientated, well versed in policy-speak and Grantium’s ‘weird ways’ - are the most likely to leave the arts for more stable livelihoods elsewhere..
It is significant too that policy has allowed investment levels in autonomous, speculative practices that are pursued by a fifth of artists’ (PEC, 2021) – the all-important R&D of ‘art for art’s sake’ - to dwindle to a minor facet. Cross-referencing Alexander (2007) and Padgett (2020) produces an annual deficit of £7.2m in relative financial value terms in Arts Council England R&D funding for individual artists.
Economics-based perspectives claim ‘too many artists’ as reason for their low social and economic status. Liberal education policies, the unregulated profession of ‘artist’ and economics-led validation systems create a ‘winner-takes-all’ market for contemporary visual arts in which it’s only possible for small numbers of artists to do well, with wastage of many artists’ talents and contributions through manufactured scarcity acceptable. As clarification, the actuality of ‘oversupply’ lies elsewhere, as data cross-comparison confirms there are no more artists numerically now than in 1985, while in the period 1997-2018 the overall volume of ‘visual arts occupations’ increased by 40% (Jones, 2019).
It's not feasible for arts policy and its institutions to have a direct relationship with most visual artists. But surely within aspirations to enable sections of society to interact with and benefit from art in all its various forms there’s a responsibility for people in those ‘powerful positions’ who sit around the decision-making tables to be curious about who artists are, what they’re doing and with whom, and what that ‘means’, and to understand the long-term social implications of the drivers, enablers and hindrances to artists’ practices?
It's as if artists are positioned by them as a pool of material in which the arts ‘tree’ is planted, as a naturally occurring resource that nourishes the ‘roots’ so healthy leaves and tasty fruits are produced. Solutions to equivalence lie in creating a new holistic, ethical model for organising and amplifying the arts. We can’t just keep fixing up the worst bits of an imperfect structure: we need to get to deal with the ‘unknown unknowns’. So I’m going to end by proposing an alternative arts development structure.
What if the artist-constituency is repositioned around the rim of a wheel that also contains all the other enablers and promoters, so that visual arts development is driven by the interaction between and combined strengths of each and every contributor? This ‘systems shift’ – or rewilding - is a way to secure artists’ integrated interaction, representation and social exchange in perpetuity. It seems to me that it’s engendering localised, inclusive democratic arts policy to replace the ‘top down’ that’s the route to achieving artists’ rights within overall pay parity for all who contribute to the making and successes of contemporary visual arts.
This keynote presentation was made at Aberdeen Mini-Summit: artists' exploitation enabled by Dr Jon Blackwood, and hosted by Gray's School of Art on 16 June 2023. Chaired by Dr Jon Blackwood, speakers were artists Donald Butler, Ben Callaghan (Scottish Artists Union) Simon Poulter and Lindsay Seers (FRANK CIC), with plenary contributions from Emma Campbell (Array Collective Belfast), Amanda Catto (Creative Scotland), John O'Brien (Culture and Creative Industries Consultant, Ireland) and Dr John Wright (Centre for Cultural Value) providing a finale summation.
A publication that extends from summit presentations kindly produced by Axis is available here.
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Belfiore, E. (2021). ‘Who cares? At what price? The hidden costs of socially engaged arts labour and the moral failure of cultural policy’. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 25(1), 61–78. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367549420982863
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