Last month's column focused on the selling power of those few artists whose works have established a strong market value, and their ability to pick and choose – or blacklist – their purchasers or dealers. To redress the balance, this month's column considers the situation of the vast majority of artists, who have little or no individual bargaining power.
Making artwork has rarely been a solo activity undertaken by stereotypically romantic bohemians starving in garrets. Records of the working practices of artists during the western European Renaissance show that artists' and artisans' guilds determined who was qualified to practice; provided training and apprenticeships; set standards of healthy and safe working, and of quality of satisfactory work; regulated hours and days of work; determined employees' pay structures; and set fee rates for commissioning clients. Guilds exercised considerable influence not only over their members, but on the market for art: because their function was generally supported by the nation-state and commissioners, guilds effectively decided which artist-members should receive commissions. In essence, guilds offered and demonstrated value to the then market place and to their members, bringing tangible mutual benefits.
The influence of guilds diminished in subsequent centuries, as did the power and influence of their traditional patrons. The industrial age saw the emergence of large and powerful manufacturing businesses that eventually recognised and negotiated with large and powerful workers' collectives to achieve basic minimum standards and terms and conditions of employment. At this time visual artists began to see themselves, and were generally seen, as solo practitioners chiefly creating autonomous works for exhibition and sale, operating outside mainstream industrial activity.
The 20th century saw the emergence of the so-called ‘cultural industries', whose key purpose is the industrial production and dissemination of the fruits of creative skill and labour. Artists commissioned to create and supply works to such industries eventually formed collectives, as did many of the cultural industries themselves, to negotiate with each other for mutual benefit. The Musicians' Union was formed in 1893 (UK) and 1896 (US), actors Equity in 1913 (US) and 1930 (UK), the International Federation of Film Producers Associations in 1933, and The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in 1960. But the visual art business is not a cultural industry – its chief functions are making, exhibiting, selling, collecting, or curating unique objects – and does not naturally require artists to offer a single voice to negotiate collective deals with art market professionals, and industrial (re)production and dissemination is a relatively minor economic activity for most visual artists, who rely solely upon themselves to deal with the market. However, some visual artists, whose practices often or mainly involve industrial reproduction and dissemination of their works, formed successful collectives in the UK: the Printmakers Council in 1965, the Association of Photographers in 1968, and the Association of Illustrators in 1973.
In the UK in the late 1960s and 70s an Artists Union was established to offer a common voice for all contemporary artists, despite their disparate practices or needs, and was later succeeded by the National Artists Association, but both bodies eventually failed to attract sufficient membership to enable them to operate today. The Association of Artists and Designers in Wales was established in 1974, embracing commercial designers to boost membership and support, but closed in 1998.
In countries that do not operate a general welfare benefits system like the UK, where it is available to everyone including artists, creative and performing artists need, or are required by law, to be fully paid-up union members in order to receive welfare benefits that have been specifically negotiated for them by their artists' collectives. Experience in the UK shows that there has been little or no success in offering visual artists – as a whole – a single voice for the traditional trade union functions of political lobbying, and negotiating working terms and conditions. A notable exception is The Scottish Artists Union, a legal trade union established in 2001 and wholly funded by its members (currently 700) who pay an annual fee of £35, one of the key benefits of which is the provision of free public liability insurance (with optional studio contents insurance for an additional fee), and other discounted services and material supplies. Visual Artists Ireland was established in 2005, not as a formal trade union, but as a single voice and support service for professional visual artists throughout Ireland: funded by the Arts Council of the Republic (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, it offers its 1200 or so members discounted resources and facilities (and advocacy) for an annual fee of €50.
Elsewhere in the British Isles, a-n The Artists Information Company was established in 1980 as a private not-for-profit-share entity, which earns 80% of its annual income from subscriptions and paid advertising (with 20% from Arts Council England and other public grants). A-n has become an acknowledged voice for visual and applied artists through its membership scheme AIR (Artists' Interaction & Representation). For an annual fee of around £36, individual membership benefits include automatic public and product liability insurance, other additional discounted insurance cover for studios and contents and exhibitions, news and information bulletins, and networking dialogues.
Personal economic benefit is clearly the main criterion for attracting and maintaining enough members to sustain a successful artists' collective. This was more obviously the case for artists who established Acme and Space as collectives in the early 1970s to help themselves rent cheap collective studio space in London, which they could not afford individually.
There is a further and more obvious reason for individual artists to come together and act with a strong single voice, and collective bargaining power: management of intellectual property rights, artists' copyrights and resale rights in particular. Although copyright law gives artists powerful economic rights to prevent unauthorised reproduction and merchandising of their works, it is impossible for them individually to monitor and police any such abuses throughout the world at all times; similarly, for them individually to monitor all resales of their works at all times and claim their resale royalties. The Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) was established in 1974 as a not-for-profit-share UK artists collecting society: it polices copyright abuses of its members' works and negotiates appropriate licensing fees, and monitors all resales involving art market professionals, collects and pays artists' resale royalties. DACS also promotes artists' legal rights: it successfully lobbied the UK government to introduce Artists' Resale Right in 2006 and played a significant role in persuading Australia's government to introduce such rights for its artists from June 2010 – such can be the power and influence of collecting bargaining.
© Henry Lydiate 2010