Guest commentary by Susan Jones

This is the first of CVAN’s guest-edited blogs where we invite expert opinion on key issues for our sector. Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the views of CVAN’s national network.

Referencing recently-published research into artists' livelihoods, Susan Jones raises questions about the Arts Council's future policies for support for artists:

Are artists peripheral?

Arts policy has wrestled with the thorny issue of artists’ livelihoods, or lack of, for over three decades. Somewhat depressingly, TBR’s newly-published analysis of incomes and work preferences of over 2,000 artists calls into question the effectiveness of Arts Council strategies since the millennium in bringing tangible improvement. During 2014/15 earnings from art practice contributed just 37% of artists’ annual income from all sources, with their overall income representing 58% of average annual salaries. Echoing a raft of creative industries research, TBR identifies significant income disadvantage for women. Although female artists dominate the visual artists’ constituency, they earn over a quarter less per year than their male counterparts. Considerable economic inequality is also found amongst artists with disabilities and those from lower social classes and ethnic minorities.  

Achieving fair pay and greater access to direct funding for artists fell within five main challenges in Arts Council England’s 2015-18 Corporate Plan and a visual arts policy that expected arts organisations to ‘do more’ for artists than they had been. TBR’s research thus formed part of ambitions to provide a baseline from which subsequent improvement of artists’ working conditions could be measured. It may have been prompted by DHA’s 2013 Paying artists research for a-n which confirmed artists’ low fees from public exhibitions. More significantly perhaps, this and DHA 2015 highlighted the structural lack of common purpose between the institutions for art and artists, in that improving artists’ fees was not a priority for curators nor were artists’ pay and conditions a topic for conversation in the wider visual arts sector. Assumptions that enhanced funding to institutions might remedy this were proved false. Rather than increase artists’ fees and budgets, curators’ stated preference instead for increased funding was to prioritise activities that contributed directly to delivering ACE’s performance indicators for audience engagement, interpretation and learning.

Unhealthy division

Notably despite the recession and austerity cuts to the arts, pay for what Guy Holding would dub the ‘salariat’ has improved considerably since 2005 when 60% of the visual arts workforce earned less than the national wage. Full-time arts earnings 2008-2012 increased to nearly 5% more than the UK median salary. In 2014/15 then, while the average annual salary to full-time arts employees was £29,850, artists were making just £16,150. Interestingly, Arts Professional evidences this unhealthy freelancer-salaried arts divide, with self-employed creative practices and artistic programming people earning around half the fees of those doing strategic and organisational planning. Those with employment contracts benefit from wage benefits including pay for sickness and holidays and contributions to pensions and additionally from arts policy encouragement for on-the-job CPD. My doctoral research under finalisation indicates that the dangerously low incomes of the latter result in delay in starting families, continuing to work despite bouts of chronic or life-threatening illness and no savings for emergencies or old age. In the first instance although not explicitly stated in TBR, the inference is that whether single or in a partnership, fewer artists’ households have dependent children than the national average. This has long-term implications for the care of ageing artists because adult children and grandchildren are a support structure for parents in old age.

Opportunity lacked

TBR found lack of opportunity, particularly in artists’ locale, to be a key barrier to livelihoods in the longer-term. My research into artists’ work opportunities in 2016 highlighted a 17% decline in the value of openly-offered work for artists since the 2007 pre-recession year. Rather than the open-submission supportive of meritocracy, opportunity for artists to submit work for consideration for publicly-funded exhibitions has become rarer. Inequality of opportunity for artists is exacerbated by awarding publicly-funded commissions through recommendations circulated around what are in effect secret curatorial networks. The monetary value of individual commissions and residencies has reduced substantially, with such opportunities less focused now on independent artistic experimentation and more closely aligned to demonstrating public benefit. Notably too, 28% of openly-offered awards, commissions, competitions and residency opportunities in 2016 had no money attached to them. When budgets and fees offered by publicly-funded organisations are at minimum levels they provide neither sufficient scope for artistic research nor conditions supportive of artists’ individualised economic needs and social circumstances. In terms of localised opportunity, TBR found in 2014/15 that 12% of artists’ income rose from local authority public art commissions or grants. However, my own research (as above) demonstrated a steady decline in openly-offered work to artists by local authorities since 2007. In terms of the future localised employment of artists, the 2016 survey of local authorities in England and Wales found 37% to have neither a dedicated arts officer nor to directly deliver arts services.

Hostile climate

TBR concluded that 46% of artists hold additional jobs alongside art practice and for 23% of artists, this includes both art-related and other jobs. The inference is that around half of artists have a portfolio of multiple jobs and mix of types of work by preference. However, an additional interference could be that in doing these, artists may by necessity rather than choice be holding multiple employment status including self-employment as an artist, managing the constraints and practicalities of this alongside worker or employed status for their art-related and other income-generating jobs. Either way, their income is too low. The assumption multiple temporary contracts are ‘good’ for artists and give them enough income and greater control over their work is at best over-optimistic. Aligned with previous research by Linda Ball and Galloway, Lindley, Davies & Scheibl amongst others, my doctoral research finds the converse to be the case. Continuous job-seeking, frequent rejection and the obfuscations inherent in the recommendation route are neither economically nor artistically viable for artists making considered and long-term commitments to pursuing art practices over a life-cycle. The hostile climate artists face is debilitating to positive emotional health and the well-being need to sustain art practices. By compromising the intrinsic beliefs and values which – as TBR reconfirms underpin most artists’ practices – these are conditions which severely diminish the confidence to act artists need to sustain themselves in the all-important period beyond the first ten years of practice. A counter balance could be greater levels of direct arts funding to artists, this already proven to empower artists and by enabling research and experimentation, to be supportive of practices over the longer-term. Alas my own analysis shows that by 2014/15 just 11% of ACE’s Grants for the Arts were for artists’ artistic refreshment and research, with the majority for work focused on demonstrating public benefit. Unless the size of the pot – it’s less than went to individual artists under GftA - and associated success rates – only 15.2% at best -  substantially increase, ACE’s Developing your creative practice launched in 2018 will be no panacea.

Future models

If ACE wanted to be advised about synergic arts employer-artist practices and arts policy tactics, it could do worse than look back at Creative Partnerships. This strategically-funded but arms-length programme had the dual ambition of bringing education to a ‘tipping point’ so that creativity became the norm, and increasing the quality of creative education in schools by expanding numbers of cultural and creative practitioners and organisations involved. A parallel ambition was to build new markets for artists’ work thus harnessing artists’ interest in combining art practices with facilitating the creativity of others. Over a seven year period, Creative Partnerships provided financial stability for some 3,500 dual career artist-educators. Employment practices for artists were exemplary in two ways. Firstly, artists were generally contracted for no more than three days a week, enabling dual careers alongside independent art practices. Secondly, and “in line with the objectives of the Arts Council in ensuring that creative practitioners are acknowledged and valued for their work”, artists were consistently paid “fair market rates” as set by Creative Partnerships in the knowledge of the industry rates.

Abbing, amongst others, attributes artists’ low incomes and poor working conditions to over-supply in an unregulated field. But I agree with Sholette’s alternative view that this so called over-supply is the core enabler of the economics for the arts. In short, it makes the visual arts cheap enough for public consumption without recourse to testing the box office. One problem lies in the fact that the visual arts sector thus far has had little reason to account for intangible assets including artists’ labour and the impact of their day-to-day community engagement and diversity of audiences. Radical shifts in future arts policy could address this. But my worry is that from a carefully-constructed position in 2003 when artists were placed ‘central’ in arts policy, ACE effectively de-prioritised the interests of individual artists. Is it now structurally, philosophically and administratively possible for ACE to establish and maintain a supportive infrastructure responsive to and able to prioritise the nuanced and localised needs of the diversity of artists as they pursue art practices with rigour and reason over a life time? Or will artists’ interests always remain peripheral to ACE’s main priority of ensuring the resilience of arts institutions in the face of ever-more complex and uncertain political and economic times?

A published researcher and commentator on visual arts matters, Susan Jones is conducting doctoral research at Manchester Metropolitan University 2015-2019 into future interrelationships between artists’ practices and livelihoods and arts policy.