A Portrait of the Artist as an Unpaid Man

Text by James Doeser

Being a practicing artist must sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. The money is hard to find, or it’s running out entirely, or there’s no hope of winning this prize or catching the eye of that collector. Recent “lowlights” from research by the Paying Artists campaign include: 71% of artists who had exhibited in a publicly-funded space in the last three years did not receive a fee; the majority of artists turnover less than £10k a year from their practice (this is less than half the median personal income in the UK); and 57% of artists generate less than a quarter of their income through their art.

The level of ignorance outside the arts sector on this issue shouldn’t be under-estimated. When introducing Grayson Perry on the radio show The Bottom Line in September, presenter Evan Davies said he wouldn’t be surprised if Perry were an “impoverished artist who gets nothing and is on £20,000 a year”. “Ha! £20,000 a year? I wish!” many of you will have shouted at the radio.

In the UK, campaigns like Paying Artists are trying to change this dismal situation. Though collectives and individual campaigners are fighting to bring about change, there may be global factors at work in 2015 that mean artists need to be smarter than ever to make a living.

In the first instance, in the era of WEB 2.0 the hierarchies of the arts sector have started to come unstuck, with widespread rejection of the artistic authority of the traditional so-called “tastemakers”.  Technological developments have further meant that the supremacy of the unique artwork has come under threat (and with it the potential income it might yield). Tastes are changing, mass-production techniques are becoming increasingly prevalent and in and amongst all this artists are battling with further conflicts regarding making and protecting the IP of their living. These issues are not particular to the UK, as the recently published UN Report on the Status of the Artist confirmed. This paper takes a step back to see what we know, and what hope (if any) there is for the future.


The problem of the invisible artist

One of the drawbacks for analysts and advocates is the fact that artists are basically atomized and invisible in the main datasets people use to understand the UK workforce. Artists are atomized because they tend to be self-employed or operate out of small collectives, and invisible because the methods used to collect these datasets (usually national surveys) frequently don’t have sufficient sample sizes to catch enough artists to make it robust to speak about them as a group (or as a proportion of the wider workforce). This is one of the reasons why Dr Dave O’Brien from Goldsmiths (along with the Barbican and Create) have instigated the Panic! Survey for the creative industries. It’s also prompted the Arts Council to propose yet more research looking at the livelihoods of artists in England.


Who is an artist?

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a rather geeky approach to answering this question. Labour statistics in the UK are analysed using Standard Occupational Classification Codes (SOC codes). Every job has a code, from hedge fund manager to supermarket shelf-stacker. Artists have a code. It is 3411. The four numbers indicate the location of artists within a complex and comprehensive hierarchy of professional sectors and sub-sectors. Artists (3411-ers) sit within Artistic, Literary and Media occupations (3410-ers), a sub-set of Culture, Media and Sport Professionals (3400-ers), which itself is part of a bigger grouping of Professional and Technical occupations (3000-ers).

According to the Office of National Statistics an artist is someone who “creates artistic works using appropriate techniques, materials and media; designs artwork and illustrations; and restores damaged pieces of art”.

Here are some basic facts: 298,773 adults in England are in Artistic, Literary and Media occupations according to the 2011 census. A quick glance at recent data from the Labour Force Study (the main instrument of data collection about the UK workforce) suggests that less than 1% (close to 0.1% in fact) of the total sample of people asked the questionnaire fit the 3411 code. A study in 2012 by Nesta estimated that there were 42,400 people in the 3411 Artist code. Another way to think about this is that a-n has about 19,000 visual artist members in the UK.


Supply and demand of artistic labour

Getting a handle on the number of artists is important because one of the key determinants of people’s ability to command a high price for their services (or any price whatsoever) is the supply of labour in the marketplace. It sounds simplistic but the more artists there are the greater the supply of labour. The more labour there is, the lower the price people will command for their work. In markets where labour supply is low and demand is high (niches in engineering, translation services, computing etc.) people command high wages and high prices. The Panic! Survey should highlight what those niches are in the cultural sector.

But hold on a minute. Perhaps everyone is an artist? A campaign like 64m Artists might suggest so. A movement like this isn’t without its problems. Although the campaign probably doesn’t depress wages and exacerbate the over-supply of artistic labour, one cannot help but see the contradictory instincts at work here. In the UK we are sometimes rather too generous in our definitions of creative professionals, anyone making work of any quality has the right to call themselves whatever they want of course. And as a sector we’re all too happy to indulge them. No boundaries; no barriers. This is driven by a well-intentioned motive to widen access and expression but it may in-fact make it harder for artists to advocate and organize as a distinct interest group.  On one hand we want to open up the definition of “artist” as wide as possible, yet at the same time artists understandably demand certain rights and recompense for their work.

My intention is not to set different bits of the arts sector upon each other, but to highlight the fact that limiting the supply of artists is both repellent (or at least uncomfortable) and practically impossible. (Do you remember Operation Pussycat, the Grants for the Arts Application for £2,000,000 to enable the slaughter of a large number of artists?) It’s 2015, and we no longer live in an age of self-regulating guilds and associations where someone setting up shop without professional accreditation attracts a pitchfork-wielding witch-hunt.


The problem of working for free

If somehow we were able to limit the supply of artistic product, then such a project would be sabotaged from within the group: namely artists who feel motivated or compelled to work for nothing. Some people are all-too-willing (and let’s be honest sometimes all-too-able) to work for free. This is true across a range of professions and not unique to the arts and cultural sector.  There is a famous quote by John Ruskin from his book A Joy For Ever, and its Price in the Market: “A real painter will work for you exquisitely, if you give him [...] bread and water and salt; and a bad painter will work badly and hastily, though you give him a palace to live in, and a princedom to live upon.” Ruskin goes on, speaking of Shakespeare and Milton, that a patron is no more “likely to get better work from them, by making them millionaires.” Genius is genius at any price. But that shouldn’t mean that people should enjoy a free ride. However, this mindset is so persistent that it sets the expectations of people employing or buying art as well as people choosing to call themselves artists.


What’s being done to fix things?

The Paying Artists campaign has been in operation for about 18 months and it has conducted two major waves of research. The campaign itself is widely known and widely supported. They are naturally placing expectations on publicly funded galleries to be more transparent and honour their commitments to artists and the sector more widely. But there are also messages for artists themselves, their research highlights that experienced artists “stress the importance of artists knowing what to ask for, and of being prepared to ask for it”. This requires a culture change: not an easy thing to achieve. And it’s an issue that is not just confined to the UK.

Here in the UK you’ll be familiar with a-n and CVAN and AIR and ArtQuest and DACS, all working in myriad ways to support the interests of artists. But there are allied organisations working in other post-industrial economies. In the United States there is Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) and the Artists Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) and the BFAMFAPHD movement. The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project based at Indiana University tracks the Lives and Careers of Arts Graduates in America. Similar work has been done to track graduates in Canada. And there is the legendary work in Australia by Prof David Throsby, whose reports have arresting titles like Don’t Give Up Your Day Job.

Elsewhere in Europe the Dutch scholar Hans Abbing has written about this topic in Why Are Art Artists Poor? (Click the link – his entire book is available as a free download.) He charts how artists in the Netherlands benefited for decades from a generous government scheme which provided artists with salaries and compelled local authorities to purchase artists’ work. The result was a lot of poor artists and a great accumulation of mediocre art by Dutch municipalities. Abbing has bad news from the private sector as well, where (in his view) a ‘winner-takes-all’ art market is necessarily predicated on the need for a disproportionate number of financial losers, i.e. poor artists.


The commercial gallery sector

Mangus Resch’s book from earlier this summer, Management of Art Galleries, is based on some rare (and quite basic) empirical data. It showed that (whatever the state of labour conditions of artists) the financial prospects of many art galleries isn’t great either. Resch identified a number of fundamental flaws in the business models of art galleries in UK, US and Germany, the most concerning (for the purposes of this article) is that the traditional 50/50 split of income for a work of art sold through a commercial gallery was in many cases skewed too far in favour of the artist, with something closer to a 70/30 spilt being more reasonable to ensure the survival of the gallery.

The book was met with quite a reaction. Causing its author to note that “while art can be innovative, the business surrounding it is not.” It provoked James Tarmy, writing for Bloomberg, to observe that all the pazzaz of biennials and fairs masked a “deeply flawed industry hampered by an obsession with keeping up appearances and an often misguided aversion to making money”.


Dare anybody solve this?

In conclusion there are tens of thousands of practicing artists in the UK, but that most of them cannot make a living from their practice, despite the fact that many of them would like to (at least that’s the impression given by the loudest voices in the sector). In theory this seems like a simple thing to solve: artist will be able to command a decent wage the minute that artists refuse to work for free, and the supply of their free labour dries up. It might mean less art and it will definitely mean fewer artists. This (in theory at least) seems like the only solution. The trouble is, nobody wants to campaign for that.

Dr Kate Oakley (now at University of Leeds) looked at this issue about six years ago. In reviewing all the literature she found that non-monetary reward was a meaningful and important motivation for artists to undertake their work. The research showed that artists equate “success with the quality of the work produced, rather than earning income from the work”. Perhaps the pursuit of monetary reward is futile and misplaced?

Ultimately, I think it requires a culture change at two ends of the value chain. The public need to treat the exploitation of artistic labour as some kind of taboo while artists themselves must stand firm and refuse to work for nothing. No amount of government policy is going to change this. In the meantime artists need to keep on tooling up for a portfolio life, earning money when and where they can to subsidise an artistic practice that will never (monetarily) pay its way. Are you prepared to get real?