The irony was bittersweet when I was late for the train to Liverpool to attend the Precarity in the Arts discussion held at FACT in July; I’d had to go to the bank to sort out a cash flow issue, and as usual I was trying to cram too much into the day.
So why did I want to travel for over two hours to sit in a hot gallery for an evening discussion? Well for a start, a-n were convening the discussion, so I knew it would be very grounded and based on the reality of artists’ lives. My life has always been precarious in the arts, but never more so than now. Attending this event I hoped would help me to reframe, contextualise and understand some of my recent experiences.
As I sat on the rattling train, I thought about the first time I’d heard of a-n and how their publication about artists’ rates of pay had assisted my career. Back in the 1980s fair pay was £150 per day and their guidance had helped me understand the value of my creative knowledge and skills, the importance of covering my costs for studio overheads, materials, preparation work and travelling. With time I came to understand the importance of turning down work offered by people with little or no budget and / or understanding of the arts, and as a result I was able to keep both my self-respect and my bank balance afloat.
I first noticed the start of a spiralling decline for artists when I saw the new innovative micro-commission introduced a few years ago i.e. a small fee usually in the £100 - £300 bracket to enable a young/early career artist to try out new ideas, create new work or start an interesting project. It sounded like a good idea at the time... but only if you didn’t think about it for too long because when you counted in travel costs, time to visit the organisation offering the opportunity and time to attend an interview, you would find that you were either in the fortunate position of having a separate private income to subsidise your practice, or the more likely and unfortunate one of working for almost nothing.
Later I came to learn that not only were early career artists applying, but also artists with significant experience, because actually some fee was better than none at all. After this came honorariums, small amounts of money paid for a service for which no official charge is made. Set fees soon started to become problematic too - these are fine, so long as adequate thought and resource has gone into what is actually required and so long as there isn’t an unwritten expectation of the artist to do more - and don’t get me started on some conversations I’ve had with NPOs (national portfolio organisations) offering artists half the day rate they were offered twenty years ago!
Sitting in the gallery at FACT I listened to Kevin Hunt (artist) endorse these experiences. He spoke about his commitment to keep a log of his working practice over the duration of a year. When you saw it in its entirety it felt like a clear record of the demise of creative working as an employment practice. Kevin’s list of job applications was a clear indication of the state of the arts from an artist’s perspective and the complexities of navigating tax and employment statuses as a freelancer working with multiple employers, PAYE systems and late payments for one day’s work, never mind filing your own accounts.
I don’t understand why we aren’t being more vocal about some of these horrendously exploitative practices or are we just scared that the whole sector will collapse?
The researchers in the room no doubt saw this kind of logging as evidence, the earlier career artists no doubt do genuinely feel gratitude for any paid opportunities but for those of us who’ve been around in the arts for a while shouldn’t we be standing up and collectively speaking out against bad practice? I asked this of Julie Lomax, CEO of a-n who agreed, saying ‘it’s a huge conversation that isn’t going to be solved lightly’.
Listening with mixed emotions, I heard artist Emily Speed ask some very pertinent questions such as ‘Ask yourself, are you the only person in the gallery not being paid?’ and ‘Are you being paid the same as (or less) than you were 10 years ago?’ These were not moments of enlightenment for me, but rather important questions for the whole of the arts sector to consider. We should recognise that if our cultural institutions are struggling then so are our artists. As a sector shouldn’t we be trail-blazing the value and worth of creativity?
I watched with horror as Arts Council England’s own online jobs listing became littered with bar work and cleaning opportunities at arts organisations rather than genuinely creative employment. It seems to me that the sector is now being left to those who can afford to have such precarious working practices, with the wealth and privilege that can prop them up rather than the skills and knowledge we need for a vibrant creative economy. Art reflects the society it inhabits and perhaps this is why this weird social privilege is creeping into culture and slowly diluting its offer.
If we are failing our artists we are failing our future! Artists with their expansive visions and creative ideas can help to provide much needed solutions to some of the environmental, social and economic challenges we face today, and yet bizarrely I feel alone in the telling of this story. The majority of artists I know are great collaborators, team builders and work flexibly to respond to social situations, often building consensus from a diverse range of perspectives. Now more than ever we need to consider the impact of the political framework in which we are working and explore how our sector can help retain the cultural capital of our artists.
I believe each and every one of us has an entitlement to the arts - to access, enjoy and be involved in creative experiences from across a wide variety of art forms. If the arts sector can’t champion this and support its artists we are in a sorry state indeed. Each and every one of us has the power to make things better and make a difference, so I say shame on anyone in the arts that doesn’t work to address this urgent issue immediately!
© Sue Flowers 2019, email@example.com.