on paying artists, open calls and changes for the worse, call to action

You may have noticed this week that I have done something I rarely do publically – I have expressed frustration about the pressure the art sector is under and the impact this has on artists and commissioning.

I must make it clear that I am not criticising the arts organisations for operating the way they do, but I am asking questions about them. Someone has to, sometimes. It’s a bit like a studio crit during an MA Fine Art course – it’s not about judging or attacking, it’s about intelligent comment and questioning and rigour. And it is meant to be constructive.

My rigour slipped a little this week – I made direct reference to two art groups during my questioning, which may have been misinterpreted as being intended to undermine them. I apologise if anyone thought that, it wasn’t the intention at all.

A discussion took place on Facebook around pay for artists as a result. Following that I responded to an article by Jack Hutchinson on a-n about the charges to artists for Open Calls.

I’ve been working in the arts for over 25 years and have been swept along by the many waves and breakers that have happened in the visual art sector. Some have been lovely rides – the 1990’s when artist led groups began to ‘do-it-for-themselves’ and the Arts Council supported and enabled that swell. New flagship galleries were being planned and artist led groups also thrived – using empty buildings in cities as part of regeneration, Councils supporting that by waiving business rates for the owners and rents for artists.

Despite the fact that massive numbers of students were then being squeezed into underfunded, under-resourced art colleges, grants cut and fees bumped up, artists were beginning to thrive. They weren’t all Brit-pack-rich by any means, but they were making things happen and had the power and infrastrcuture to do so for other artists too.

Here in the South West ALIAS offered invaluable advice to artist led groups (I was lucky enough to benefit when they were able to provide a small grant, as opposed to charge. I was also an advisor.) ALIAS at that point was an ACE funded professional development scheme.

As artist-led groups became increasingly professional in their management and ability to run micro-businesses, ACE also recognised their potential and began to help them to buy buildings and studios.

I’ll slip in a question here – does anyone have any idea how many artists subsequently became subsumed by running projects, managing staff, cafes and buildings?

I’d love to see the stats on that. I could make a list as long as my arm, and indeed was one of them. I have no regrets, it was exciting, useful and functional at the time. Local Authorities were supportive, Universities and of course ACE too.

Art was respected in society and it felt good.

What happened? A lot of changes  occurred that took it from that to this. We sit amongst the flotsam and jetsam of those waves, with unsuccessful funding and commission applications tangled around our ankles. There’s an oil slick of despondency while everyone struggles to stay afloat.

Charities lost huge amounts of money in the financial crashes, resulting in some changing their application processes in favour of organisations. Public spending was slashed so local authorities had no choice than to drop art off their to-do list. Universities struggle under constant cuts. ACE has been decimated, and given a much bigger workload too. The property market boom means there is no reasonably priced housing, and few artists could even get on the ownership ladder, even if they wanted to.

Paid stewards have lost their work in galleries and been replaced by volunteers. Interns abound, those whose parents can support them are able to get their foot on the ladder, and those who can’t work in call centres, cafes and bars.

The big fish are still ok, though even they will be feeling the pain more than ever before. It’s the smaller ones that fight on and make things happen, mostly by being tenacious and determined, or working for nothing. Or peanuts. Or grazing the sea-floor……grass-roots setups like Skipchen arise, and I’m so glad they do. They draw attention to food waste and food shortage, to poverty and zero-hour contracts.

Artist–led groups are beginning to increase in number again, but without business rate subsidy, rent-free premises and with far fewer options of achieving an income, it’s much harder now. They are trying hard and making excellent small marks in the art ecology. Others artists are applying frantically for commissions. Often highly competitive for very low fees, they are resilience in action. Galleries are running on shoe-string staff.

I am frustrated as to how we get out of this dark place. Campaigns like Paying Artists are great. But the recommended rates are not being carried through to the artists – and it is not legislation. Just like the minimum wage, which is largely ignored. Zero-hour contracts, internships (bad ones, there are some good ones too), Open Calls that ask for money with not having the capacity to pay a production fee for making work, or a hanging fee. They are all, quite simply, not paying the minimum wage.

This is not respectful of art or artists. And we should not let it happen.

No other professional has to live like this. No cheese maker has to pay to provide cheese to a shop. No solicitor has to pay to apply for a job (and to boot the job doesn’t have a salary attached.) How many builders will pay a property developer to let them go and work on their site for below minimum wage?

If it is not ok elsewhere, why is it in the arts?

Sign up to Paying Artists and the Artists Union, let’s make things change. That way I will stop being a grumpy old woman. I hope.

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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