Rethinking artists: the role of artists in the 21st Century

This essay for the 2014 Seoul Art Space, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture International Symposium briefly covers UK arts policies for support to artists’ development, comments on their impact on artists’ social and economic status and suggests a rethinking of the artists’ intrinsic role in society as a vital part of securing and sustaining contemporary visual arts in the future.

Artists and arts policy

In the UK, the arts enjoy an ‘arm’s length’ infrastructure [1] – one in which the arts councils (of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) are independent of government, developing policies and funding for the arts as a public benefit. One argument for setting up the Arts Council of Great Britain in the first place was the fear of what would happen to the visual arts if left to the vagaries of the market place. Amongst historical assumptions [2] for establishing state support of the arts through the arts councils were that fine art is important but very fragile, and because artists are as a matter of course poor, they need to be guided and ‘patronised’ by the state.

Within this spirit, in 1979 the Arts Council of Great Britain initiated a policy to pay artists when they exhibited work in publicly-funded galleries. “Public galleries and museums choose to exhibit the works of living artists for the enjoyment and education of visitors. Both these functions are of wide benefit to the community. Artists provide a service, and, just as other workers in the gallery are entitled to be paid for their labour, so artists too are entitled to be paid for the use that is made of their work. Artists are professional workers as well. Every other professional sector in the arts expects that this public benefit should be recognised, and recompensed, by the payment of a fee…. The argument for EPR (Exhibition Payment Right) is based on equity – on fairness and justice. All artists should benefit from the consumption of their work by the public.” [3]

It is worth noting however that although the later Arts Council initiative Year of the Artist 2000 was also intended to secure artists’ professional status through enhanced pay and conditions[4], subsequent research in 2003 into artists’ fees and payments had indicated that commissioners’ attitudes had not in the longer term been changed by such advocacy. [5]

By 2006, England’s arts and culture were said to be the healthiest they had ever been, enjoying a 73% funding increase under an arts-friendly Labour government over a decade that was described as a ‘golden age’ for the arts. [6] The National Lottery contribution to the arts led to creation of new-build ‘flagship’ contemporary visual arts galleries across the UK. Millions of pounds of arts money were allocated to these arts buildings and their enhanced overhead costs. With the new wave of curatorial positions, the contemporary visual arts became truly ‘professionalised’.

During the UK’s economic downturn and subsequent recession, arts funding suffered substantial government cuts [7]. Although the ambitions set out by Arts Council England for the core (National Portfolio Organisation) funding included: “Encourage[ment] of artists’ practice and career development through investment in artists’ workspace and production facilities, artist-led spaces, and professional support organisations and maintain[ence] of a resilient and diverse ecology that reflects, on a nationwide basis, the richness of work currently being made, and encompasses organisations of varying types and scales”, Arts Council England concentrated its support to contemporary visual arts by maintaining these specialist galleries putting 48% of the 2012-15 budget specifically to the ‘Top 20′ galleries and production agencies [8]. Funding decisions made for 2015-18 will increase spend on this ‘top’ group to 68%.

The 2012-15 funding cuts of £1.36m to sixteen small-scale and artist-led organisations have severely damaged an important layer in the infrastructure for artists’ practices, impacting on the livelihood of artists and future vitality and sustainability of the visual arts ecology, “putting at risk 19 full-time and 46 part-time jobs, contracted work for 287 freelancers, 133 internship opportunities and 43 artists’ mentoring opportunities annually. Overall, the cut organisations directly or indirectly supported almost 6,700 visual artists pursuing professional careers at a time when artists’ livelihoods are under threat”. [9]

Artists and the art market

In the mid-80s, £40 million was estimated as the annual value of UK art sales – the equivalent to £101m nowadays. However, the actual value, as calculated in 2009 [10], was more like £3.08 billion - that is thirty times larger than the 80s. London is now said to be the world’s most successful contemporary art market. But does this benefit the UK’s contemporary artists? Artist Graham Crowley comments: “Nobody I know about talks about the market as represented in the media. It’s seen purely as a construct of the market and the media… The artist’s work is expensive in the market place, and that’s what is important.” [11]

In terms of increasing the artists’ commercial art sales, whilst the Taste buds report [12] indicated the vital importance of the critical mass of artists to the overall art market’s success and enormous potential to enhance sales of contemporary art to ‘new purchasers and collectors’ – this would only occur if the ‘art world’ was willing to forego the traditional frameworks that - because they filter “supply” and control the “demand” - maintain the high prices achieved by ‘art stars’.

Artists as social instrument

Over the recent arts funding period, art has been generally perceived as a social instrument, as exemplified in statements such as: “Art produces social change that can be seen, evaluated and broadly planned; contributes to social cohesion, benefits environmental renewal and health and injects creativity into organisational planning.” [13]

Arts Council England’s current policy states: “We are a custodian of public investment, and we are charged with getting the maximum value out of this: the enlightenment and entertainment arts and culture bring us; the enriching of our lives and the inspiring of our education; the vital contribution to our health and well-being and the powering of regional regeneration, tourism and our standing abroad.” [14]

Either through financial necessity or the desire of the public funders who are their ‘patrons’, many UK artists are making art or delivering art projects the efficacy of which are measured in terms of their instrumental powers: how well they serve the needs of others by achieving social improvement such as regeneration, whether they uplift the lives of disadvantaged people or fill the ‘arts gap’ in the school curricula. Artists are encouraged in this respect by policy makers to widen their practices and expectations because: “There is nothing reprehensible in artists seeking to extend cultural democracy by opening their practice to others”. [15]

However, as John Holden commented: “Institutional and Measurement Properties of the administrative system exert far too much influence over the nature of cultural activity itself…The danger is that unintentionally, these pressures will institutionalise cultural mediocrity by encouraging funders and funded to take safe bets… We should be not be satisfied with criteria that act as proxies for cultural value; rather, we should be seeking to design the institutions around the creation of cultural value.” [16]

The economic status of artists

Notwithstanding the public role for artists as providers of arts services that benefit society, artists’ livelihoods continue to suffer.

The artists’ livelihoods survey by a-n along with related research [17] shows that arts policies and investment decisions dramatically affect artists’ income levels and their livelihoods and career sustainability.

  • The value of openly offered work for artists is in decline. In 2013 the overall value of work on offer to artists was £7.5m less (29%) than the pre-recession year of 2007, and £2m less than was offered in 2012.
  • Commission budgets have declined considerably. In 2013, commissions provided 11% of the value of all work, with an average budget of £19,444. In comparison in 2007 (pre-recession), the figure was 62% and commission budgets averaged £100K.

In tandem, arts funding policies have reduced levels of financial support direct to artists through open-access funds. A key finding from the A fair share report is that only 2.5% of artists in England are successful annually in gaining a grant from such schemes [18]. When combined, these factors represent a dramatic loss in artists’ annual income levels. For 71% of artists in 2013, turnover from their practice was less than £10,000 a year. 17% were earning up to £20,000 and just 7% up to £30,000 [19]. In real terms, artists nowadays are some £6,000 a year worse off than they had been in 1997.

a-n’s Paying artists research revealed that it was within the publicly-funded galleries that levels of financial reward were particularly poor. In the last three years, 71% of artists had received no fee at all for exhibiting in arts council-funded galleries, and 63% had been forced to turn down exhibitions because they could not afford to carry the costs themselves, from their low income base [20].

However not all working professionally in the contemporary visual arts in the UK have fared as badly as artists. An economic impact report [21] in 2013 showed that full-time earnings in the arts had risen by 6.8% in the last five years.

Interviews with curators and art directors revealed the view that, rather than payment, artists should be content to gain exposure and career development from public exhibitions. There was a distinct lack of concern for the economic situation of artists: “The pay and conditions which artists receive and improving fees for exhibitions were not particularly considered a priority by participating venues; nor were the pay and conditions of artists more generally considered a particular talking point in the sector at the moment. [22] It seems amongst artistic staff at the very institutions who now enjoy the lion’s share of arts funding that there is little concern for, or awareness of, artists’ intrinsic value into the their curatorial and audience development processes.

The status of artists

Frey and Pommerehne [23] defined someone as an artist by:

  • The amount of time spent on artistic work
  • The amount of income derived from artistic activity
  • Reputation amongst general public
  • Recognition amongst other artists
  • Quality of artistic work – as defined somehow
  • Membership of a professional body
  • Professional qualification
  • Subjective self-evaluation of being an artist

The business of being an artist [24] provided an alternative set of definitions:

  • Maker of unique works of value for sale
  • Animateur - encouraging other people’s creative expression
  • Public servant – making work to commission for public places, regeneration, etc
  • Economic unit – a ‘small business’ / a creative industry employing others
  • Social worker – empowering others to be fulfilled and improve their lives
  • Educator – delivering into schools and the educational curriculum
  • Initiator of new arts ventures – creators of arts festivals, open studios, etc
  • Visionary – a ‘social conscience’

Rethinking artists

“Tomorrow’s people” are: “Innovative and conservative; have multiple truths held lightly; they live, think and act locally and globally; they embrace spirituality; they think holistically and systemically; they tolerate ambiguity and difference; they are reflexive learners; they contextualise - putting themselves into the process; they value ethics – eschewing right action over fixed principles; they assume personal responsibility and accountability; they are both particularist and generalist; they reason abstractly and narratively and they trust physical intelligence”. [25] Artists demonstrate many of these characteristics that are required in 21st Century cultural people.

My own in-depth research that specifically examined the scope and value of artist-led initiatives concluded that: “Although as pool of creators, artists might be visualised by the arts funding system as the material in which the arts system ‘tree’ is planted, the seemingly naturally-occurring resource which nourishes the roots so that the tree produces healthy leaves and fruits. An alternative visualisation might be to place the artist-constituency around the rim of a wheel which also contains the other enablers and promoters of the visual arts and which is driven by the interaction between, and the combined strengths of, each of its parts. Such a diagram recognises that all elements hold an equal role within the arts infrastructure, and suggests a greater possibility of interaction and exchange between artists and the range of people whose beliefs and energies shape the cultural identity of the country and define the part the arts plays within it.” [26]

At ‘Arts Funding - Artistic Freedom’, the President of Croatia, composer Professor Ivo Josipovic, said: “When regulating the position of artists in the society, one shouldn't have Mozart, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Balzac or some other genius in mind, but a human that chooses art as his profession because he has his internal motives to be a genius. The system should give opportunity to an artist to be independent, to express his talent in the way he finds the best, and in the same time secure a decent life for him and his family.” [27]

Artist David Cotterrell has commented: “I don’t believe that all artists can help us to find some form of truth, but more that their cacophony of diverse, contradictory, tangential and subjective views may serve to challenge the fiction of established narratives and remind us of the inherent complexity of human perception and experience. I was recently told an idealistic metaphor to describe and justify the role of artists. - If you imagine a crowd, perhaps a tour or commuter group hurrying forward to its destination, artists could be seen as members of a crowd who run ahead to look around a corner and report back to the group on what they have found. The slightly heroic role of the artist as advance recon for society was quite flattering to any of us who describe ourselves as artists. I found myself slightly disagreeing with the simplicity of the image. I proposed an alternate view that artists are also the members of the crowd who drop back to tie their shoe-laces and find themselves distracted by the view down an alley or the detail of an anomaly, which might not have been initially regarded as significant by the crowd. Enthralled by the beauty and significance of their observation they might attempt to rejoin the group to describe what they saw.” [28]

In a more recent report, the authors argue that: “Artists and creative practitioners are ‘key workers’ and entrepreneurs in the development of healthy and sustainable communities, modelling ways of living that exemplify adaptability, resilience and innovation and contributing to local economies in ways that enhance rather than diminish wellbeing. We do not express or advocate for the art of surviving in a broken system but rather… a way to make the lives of emerging artists more visible and viable as well as the policy making logic of the towns and cities of which they are a part.” [29]

The Paying Artists Campaign ‘manifesto’ also makes the case for a new understanding of the value of artists, saying that: “Artists are the innovators from which great art emerges and on which our society’s well-being depends. It is through artists’ ideas, experiments and ingenuity that creative ideas and products are made manifest. Art by its nature presents a wide range of levels of engagement and participation for people and audiences. Artists thrive on such engagement as an essential ingredient to feed what is their continuous, life-time’s dedication to a creative practice. The world is always looking for new ways of seeing. Art practice – the collective performance of art making between materials, artists, artworks, galleries and people - is an inter-disciplinary reflexive process that enables people to rethink and re-imagine their realities, and which creates cultural value.” [30]

©Susan Jones 2014

First published Working Artists: Aspects of Arts and Labour, 6th Seoul Art Space International Symposium, Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, 2014


[1] “It is a principle which was first articulated by Keynes in 1946 and which has served us all, politicians and artists, very well since. It keeps the arts free of political interference in the content and nature of creative expression. It protects politicians from being held accountable for the occasionally outrageous, offensive or otherwise troublesome work of artists.” CMS Select Committee report on Funding of the Arts and Heritage, 2011 www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmcumeds/464/46405.htm

[2] As discussed in The State and the Visual Arts, Nicholas Pearson, OUP, 1981

[3] A brief history of Exhibition Payment Right, a-n, 2014 www.a-n.co.uk/resource/brief-history-of-exhibition-payment-right

[4] Amongst seven objectives for Year of the Artist was: “to deliver lasting opportunities for artists creatively, structurally and financially” Year of the Artist evaluation, Lucy Hutton and Clare Fenn, Arts Council Research report. www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/documents/publications/454.doc

[5] Because Arts Council guidance had not been continued nor figures updated to take into account economic factors since, the 2000 day rate for artists was still being widely used to by commissioners and purchasers and was “often treated as a standard (rather than a minimum)”, although noting that: “Artists who are assertive enough may negotiate extra payment.”Fees and payments to artists, Susan Baines and Jane Wheelock, a-n, 2003 www.a-n.co.uk/resource/fees-and-payments-for-artists

[6] Arts Council England Annual Report 2006/07 www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/downloads/part1.doc

[7] The Arts Council was cut by almost 30% in the 2010 Government spending review alone, with further cuts in subsequent years. Funds to the arts for the period 2015-18 are only guaranteed for 2015/16.

[8]ACE Wednesday, a-n, 2011www.a-n.co.uk/resource/ace-wednesday

[9] Ladders for development, Dany Louise, a-n Research paper 2011 https://www.a-n.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/1... (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[10] The British Art Market, Arts Economics, 2009 www.lapada.org/public/The_British_art_Market.pdf

[11] Interview, a-n, 2010www.a-n.co.uk/p/606719 (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[12] Taste Buds: how to cultivate the art market, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Arts Council England, 2004 www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/taste-buds-how-to-cultivate-the-art-market/

[13] Use or ornament: The social impact of participation in the arts, Francois Matarasso, Comedia, 1997 http://benefitshub.ca/entry/use-or-ornament-the-social-impact-of-participation-in-the-arts/

[14] From introduction to Achieving Great Art for Everyone, Arts Council England, 2013 www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/Great_art_and_culture_for_everyone.pdf

[15] Use or ornament, Francois Matarasso, Comedia, 1997

[16] John Holden, Demos www.demos.co.uk

[17]a-n Research paper: Artists work in 2013, 2014 www.a-n.co.uk/resource/artists-work-in-2013 (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[18] A fair share – direct funding for individual artists from UK arts councils, 2011 www.a-n.co.uk/resource/a-fair-share-direct-funding-for-individual-artists-from-uk-arts-councils-2 (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[19] Paying artists research: Phase 1 findings https://www.a-n.co.uk/resource/paying-artists-research-phase-1-findings (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[20] ibid

[21] CEBR Economic Report, 2013 www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/pdf/CEBR_economic_report_web_version_0513.pdf

[22] Paying artists research: Phase 2 findings, 2013 www.a-n.co.uk/resource/paying-artists-research-phase-2-findings (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[23] Muses and markets explorations in the economics of the arts, Frey and Pommerehne, Blackwell, 1989

[24] The business of being an artist, Janet Summerton, Eric Moody, City University, 1996

[25] Inside the edge, Roanne Dods, research report for Missions Models Money, 2010 ww.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk/sites/default/files/23974648-Inside-the-Edge-by-Roanne-Dods-2008_0.pdf

[26] Measuring the experience: the scope and value of artist-led organisations, Susan Jones, 1997www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/susanjonesarts

[27] European Council of Artists Conference, Zagreb, 2010 www.eca.dk/activities/zagrebpress.htm

[28] Bridging the map, Making the case symposium, Tate Modern, 2009 www.a-n.co.uk/air/bridging-the-gap1997 (pay to view/free to a-n members)

[29] The Art of Living Dangerously, Exchange, Mission Models Money (MMM) and New Economics Foundation, 2014 http://rethink.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk/art-living-dangerously

[30] Securing the future for the visual arts in the UK, a-n, 2014 www.payingartists.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Paying-Artists_Securing-a-future-for-visual-arts-in-the-UK_f.pdf