Information and Advice to the Visual Arts: Getting the Network Working

In May 1990, AN Publications (Artists Newsletter) carried out market research into the needs of artists and arts administrators. The results make it clear that the needs of artists and administrators for information and advice are not being-met by current services. One thousand artists, students and administrators were questioned: 30% had no idea where to start looking for information, and 61% had difficulty in finding the right sources to deal with their enquiries.

These findings will come to many as no surprise. However, the consultation process AN Publications is organising, looking in detail at the practicalities of setting-up a professional information and advice service, is a welcome relief from the apathy which is all too common. AN has also done a survey of current providers - arts councils, regional arts associations, arts libraries, arts consultants and professional organisations - showing that while many are able provide some information, the limitations of staff time and resources reduce face-to-face advisory sessions when general information can be sharpened to meet an individual's particular needs. In the case of the regional arts boards the survey suggests that with fewer staff and greater geographical areas to cover, many are likely to follow Yorkshire Arts's example and place the stress on printed and collated material which can be easily disseminated by post.

AN proposes setting up a service, with AN Publications as a focal point, for visual arts and arts organisers who need information and advice. Enquiries would be answered by providing databased or printed information or by referral to specialists who had agreed to be part of an advisory network.

The network is central to the proposal as it meets one of the central problems brought out in the survey: 38% found that the information they had was 'too general'. Even if this problem was addressed editorially, printed information tends to be very general so the future policies of the arts councils and regional policies, as portrayed in the survey, do little to tackle this problem. AN sees it as vital that there is an input from professionals such as lawyers, accountants, business advisors and marketing consultants. They have extended the consultations to include interested professional organisations and individuals on how an advisory network would work. A N has written to potential advisors to the network inviting views on the terms of reference which would underpin such an arrangement, inviting views on the fees that might be charged, the method of payment which would be most appropriate and the time scales needed to deal with giving advice. Beyond the immediate facts of the general scarcity of information and advice the survey reveals an important problem: resources are scarce, both of personnel and money, and these are being used inefficiently through duplication and lack of coordination. With the reorganisation of the Arts Council and the rise of the Regional Arts Boards it is time to consider how information and advice in the visual arts should be organised. AN's proposal is worth serious consideration and as its consultation and lobbying process is still in train it may be useful to review the experience of the only comparable service, Artlaw Services, which ran from 1973 to 1983.

Since the Artlaw Research Project had shown that the greatest need for such services came from artists, administrators and educationalists who could least afford to pay for them, Artlaw initially offered such services at no cost, being seed-funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (which had funded the initial research project), then mainly by the ACGB, together with the Crafts Council and Welsh Arts Council. ACGB then requested that income be generated with a view to eventual self-sufficiency, which Artlaw tried to implement by inviting users to pay a nominal subscription fee and low mark-up on publications. Then, in 1983, came the unheralded complete withdrawal of ACGB funding forcing Artlaw to try and make itself completely self-supporting. Subscription income had been increasing, but there were already clear signs that demands on its legal advice services were coming most strongly from artists unable to pay more than a token amount.

The experience of this unfunded phase showed that the education programmes and publications were indeed financially viable but that they were unable to subsidise the administration of the vast amount of case work being handled (an average of 1,200 cases a year). This was despite volunteer lawyers giving over 10,000 hours of legal advice a year, a hidden subsidy of £250,000.

After it closed, art colleges continued to need specialist teachers, artists had as many legal needs as ever and there was still a dedicated body of experienced people with personal commitment to building on the work achieved. Accordingly, Artlaw Trust was constituted as a voluntary, unfunded vehicle to keep those people together and to enable them to continue providing, on an ad hoc basis, as many Artlaw services as possible. The experience gained in providing such services over the past l5 years shows clearly documented evidence that artists need access to legal and other professional services in relation to their work.

Artlaw's teaching programme has been highly successful - undoubtedly a major factor in the awakening of interest in professional studies in the art school curriculum. In 1983 Artlaw taught in 70 colleges and art schools throughout the UK, and won the recognition award of the Royal Society of Arts Education for Capability scheme. Art schools continue to ask for education services, and the Artlaw column, which has run for 15 years, continues to receive requests for information. Demand outstrips supply. This and AN's research add up to an overwhelming argument - provision of advice and information to artists and administrators on legal problems, business matters' marketing, advertising and taxation is completely inadequate. But what can be done about it?

It is essential that a network of some form is established but a network can only make more efficient use of existing resources, it cannot replace them. The lack of information and advice resources is such that a centre of expertise and knowledge is required to provide in-house advice on accountancy, business and legal matters - an Arts Business Unit. Only a centralised resource could gain the experience necessary to provide a credible national referral service to specialist accountants, lawyers and business advisors.

It would need a director who was professionally qualified with experience of the art world and an assistant responsible for information services, liaison and promotion. It would also need a deputy director, again professionally qualified, with particular experience in a field complementing that of the director. In addition, the Unit would have publication and education officers responsible for the co-ordination of education and publication programmes who would be expected to pay for their positions through their work. The total cost of such a service, including the salary of a secretary, would be approximately £145,000.

How would it work? What would it do? It would primarily provide advice to the ACGB, the Crafts Council, the British Council and RAB officers on legal and business matters connected with the working lives of artists and administrators, and provide referral to outside practitioners on a national basis. It would aim to improve the provision of information and advice, by improving the ability of existing organisations to do so. For example, an artist has a copyright/marketing tax problem so they go to an RAB officer for advice. According to AN's information the result today is that, more often than not, they look longingly into each other's eyes - neither the artist nor the officer is a specialist in these fields nor do they have a recognised and well-known support system. If, however such a system was in place, the RAB officer and possibly the artist as well, would have been on courses run and organised by the Arts Business Unit, they would have up-to-date printed information on the problem; they could ring the Business Unit for advice on the problem and be referred to a known specialist for further advice if necessary. And the Unit would also provide the same type of information to organisations and individuals on a fee-paying basis.

Other tasks would include monitoring legislative change and supplying information on new developments to all subscriber organisations; providing a panel of skilled professional studies lecturers for arts schools and organisations and running courses for lawyers, accountants and other professional practitioners willing to develop their services to artists. The Artlaw experience has proved that it is possible to generate a certain amount of income from subscriptions, publications and education, but only from the strategic point of a securely funded base. Therefore, the proposed Arts Business Unit should be funded by the ACGB, the Crafts Council, the British Council and the Regional Arts Boards -in the first instance as a resource for their own officers.

The primary claim on the Unit's output would be the funding organisations and referral to the Unit would be made through their officers. This would both strengthen the national influence of the Unit and regulate the demands which were made upon it. We are delighted that AN has put its energies and resources into both identifying and trying to tackle the serious problems which dog information and advice provision for the visual arts. The present situation is not a natural state of affairs - it does not exist in other countries and it has not always been so in the UK. We believe that a development along the lines of the Arts Business Unit would dramatically alter the situation and enable artists and administrators to avoid the often very obvious pitfalls and to seize the opportunities that come their way.

Should any artist, public or private administrator, collector, lawyer, accountant, educationalist or other interested person wish to see this or any similar proposal implemented, write to us C/O Art Monthly or to AN Publications.

© Henry Lydiate & James Odling-Smee 1991

This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material.
The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice.
Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.
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