Why Artists are Struggling to Make a Living From Their Art (and the Activists Fighting Back)

Recent studies highlight deep precarity in the art world, alongside a renewed push for fairer payment and resistance to ‘self-exploitation’

Making a living as an artist is impossible for all but a few high-profile practitioners, and the lack of sufficient financial remuneration for artistic labour is the dark reality at the heart of the contemporary art world. If that sounds like hyperbole, perhaps the recent Twitter thoughts of London-based Tai Shani are worth considering. An artist with an established practice who in 2018 exhibited internationally and at major publicly-funded contemporary art spaces in Glasgow, Leeds, and Nottingham, Shani says she makes ‘almost no money’ from her practice, adding: ‘I so wish I could dedicate myself full-time to my work but it’s more and more impossible. I want to be in the studio more. Trying to stay afloat financially and practice-wise has made me physically sick on many occasions.’

What is most troubling about Shani’s words are how unremarkable they are – so many artists are experiencing the same thing, struggling to survive financially even as their work is featured in well-attended exhibitions and international art biennials. The recent publication of Arts Council England’s (ACE) Livelihoods of Visual Artists report reiterates this fact. More than 2,000 visual artists took part in the 2016 survey; one of its headline findings placed artists’s average income at GBP£16,150 a year – of which only GBP£6,020 comes from their practice. Many artists earn much lower than this, with two-thirds earning GBP£5,000 or less from their art, and just 5 percent earning more than GBP£25,000.

 Artist’s studio. Courtesy: Pxhere

 Artist’s studio. Courtesy: Pxhere

Commenting on the significance of the report, ACE director of visual arts Peter Heslip says there is ‘an historic lack of transparency’ when it comes to negotiations and contracts for artists leading to ‘many misconceptions about how artists sustain their livelihoods’. He continues: ‘We hope this report will help dispel myths and provide the sector with a set of robust data. In particular, the survey results confirm how limited commercial income is for most artists, highlighting the importance of teaching work, grants and commissions.’ Heslip adds that the survey’s findings have contributed towards the development of a new ACE funding stream, ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’, which ‘invests directly in individuals at key moments in their careers’. He also points to the funding body’s work with artists’s organisations such as a-n The Artists Information Company – an ACE sector support organization and project partner for the survey. a-n CEO Julie Lomax – who says seeing Shani’s comments on Twitter ‘breaks my heart’ – believes that the survey ‘clearly demonstrates that the practice of being an artist is becoming increasingly hard’ and that ‘through our campaigning and advocacy work we will be working very hard to ensure artists are paid’. It’s an issue her organization has highlighted for some time, launching the ‘Paying Artists’ campaign in 2014 with the aim of securing fair payment for artists who exhibit in publicly-funded galleries.

In the US, the New York-based activist organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) has been tackling the issue of artists’s fees in the non-profit sector since 2008. W.A.G.E.’s Lise Soskolne believes there has been progress. ‘Where 10 years ago non-payment was the industry standard, today, some form of payment is the norm. It’s no longer a question of whether artists should be paid, but a question of how much.’ That said, the picture of time-strapped artists holding down multiple jobs in order to fund their practice is one she is very familiar with. ‘Anecdotally speaking, I see the artists around me being squeezed by the precarious and punishing conditions of adjunct labour,’ she says. ‘Artists no longer just compete for exhibitions, they now compete for scarce and badly paid work.’

Background: Sheena Leach, Deviant Agent i, and Deviant Agent ii, both 2018; foreground: Louise Gibson, The Naked Truth (detail), 2018, installation view, ‘Transmuted Worlds’, Savoy Tower, Glasgow. Courtesy: Glasgow International

Background: Sheena Leach, Deviant Agent i, and Deviant Agent ii, both 2018; foreground: Louise Gibson, The Naked Truth (detail), 2018, installation view, ‘Transmuted Worlds’, Savoy Tower, Glasgow. Courtesy: Glasgow International

The scenario of artists competing against each other is something Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford have addressed in their In Kind research project which took place during the biennial Glasgow International last year. In Kind explored the level of unpaid labour artists contribute to the festival and in doing so questioned the lack of diversity this facilitates. The project highlights the level of ‘self-exploitation’, as artists commit to unrealistically ambitious projects without the funding to pay for their time – a practice that ultimately discriminates against those who cannot afford to work for free. Nicoll and Rutherford have developed a 10-point set of proposals and demands that includes the pledge: ‘We will operate in solidarity with other artists and across sectors, not in competition.’ Partly in response to the pair’s research, Glasgow International recently announced new funding measures for its 2020 open programme in order to provide better support for artists. Nicoll and Rutherford, however, believe that major, sector-wide changes are required. ‘We need to see a radical overhaul of the current funding system which is exclusive, elitist and relies heavily on the exploitation and unpaid labour of artists across the sector.’

While In Kind specifically addresses the issue of artistic labour, Nicoll and Rutherford’s concerns are much wider, as they seek to challenge the economic and social status quo through their work. After all, they don’t operate in some kind of artistic bubble – economic realities beyond the scope of arts funding also play a part. As Soskolne puts it: ‘Precarity is everywhere, so it takes much more time to earn much less pay. Those artists who can still afford studios probably never get to use them.’

Main image: Tai Shani, Semiramis, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and The Tetley; photograph: Jules Lister

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

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