An exceptional case: visual artists and self-employment

Although 77% of visual artists are registered as self-employed (CCS, 2012), this bald statistic belies the nuance of how livelihoods are made up. This short text in the Covid19 portfolio on contextualises artists’ income sources and concludes with a call for arts funders, arts organisations and the Higher Education sector to advocate strongly to ensure visual artists receive the support they deserve during the Covid19 emergency and in future.

Artists’ income from self-employment is low

When working for publicly-funded arts organisations visual artists are typically presented with fixed budgets and terms based on what such organisations have already budgeted for or are prepared to pay. For example, a commissioned exhibition in one of the most important publicly-funded galleries which may take an artist up to a year to prepare for may command a fee of only £6,000 (a-n, 2016). The high levels of competition for work means in effect that self-employment is theoretical status as artists are rarely able to negotiate for what they actually need financially.

Supplementary income is unreliable

Many visual artists necessarily supplement income from self-employment with art-related work on ‘zero hours’ ‘worker’ style contracts. This includes occasional visiting lecturing days in Higher Education institutions (contracted under the IR35 rule) and in cultural and creative industries organisations including front-of-house, retail and customer service roles. The former are notorious for taking several months to pay and in the latter, individuals are more often than not paid at minimum wage and on non-permanent or occasional contracts.

Portfolio working is the norm

Typically then, visual artists have a portfolio of work, in that 68% of them have additional jobs and one in five have three or more different jobs. Fewer than 2% gain funding through direct grants. However, and as acknowledged within research commissioned by the Arts Council England itself, these conditions make visual artists’ livelihoods particularly precarious as they “create a circle of high-risk, low-paid work” (TBR, 2018).

Steep decline in dual careers

It is notable that while 35 years ago 74% of artists pursued dual careers through teaching in art education at some level (Brighton et al, 1985), secondary analysis reveals that just 28% of visual artists nowadays have regular jobs as lecturers, academics or arts teachers (TBR, 2018).

Exceptional circumstances

A conclusion to be drawn then is that neither the publicly-funded arts organisations who rely on the “surplus value derived from artists [as] the primary means [for their] subsistence or growth” (Banks, 2017) nor the arts HE sector are demonstrating the ‘duty of care’ synonymous with equality of opportunity which is vital to artists’ economic survival over a life-cycle (Burns, 2017). As a result, many artists will fall foul of the government’s special measures to aid the self-employed in that these discount any applicant earning less than 50% of annual income from self-employment.

In the #artistsemergency unfolding daily due to Covid19, Arts Council England, regularly-funded cultural and arts organisations and the HE sector could remedy this deficit and exercise this crucial duty through persistent advocacy to government on the exceptional case of visual artists as rightful beneficiaries of public support both now and in future.

Thanks to artist and lecturer Kevin Hunt @sculptureartman whose call for evidence to support artists' case for emergency support to government and arts funders that prompted me to produce this text which draws from analysis and commentary from my doctoral thesis Artists’ livelihoods: the artists and arts policy conundrum, 2019 (unpublished).


This text draws from analysis and commentary from my doctoral thesis Artists’ livelihoods: the artists and arts policy conundrum, 2019 (unpublished).

a-n (2016). Exhibition Payment: The a-n/AIR Paying Artists Guide For artists and exhibiting organisations (First Edition). a-n The Artists Information Company

Banks, M. (2017) Creative Justice: Cultural industries, work and inequality. Roman & Littlefield.

Brighton, A., Parry J. and Pearson N. M. (1985) Enquiry into the Economic Situation of the Visual Artist. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Burns, S. (2017) Supporting the self-employed artist as Citizen: Looking up, looking down, looking around and looking forward. Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

CCS (2012) Visual Arts Blueprint. London: Creative and Cultural Skills.

TBR, (2018). Livelihoods of visual artists. London: Arts Council England