Anonymous: Pay them the money

When I first started leading a publicly funded visual arts organisation in the late nineties my priority was to do everything I could to pay artists fees for making artworks.

This could be a residency, a commission, fees for touring or some other activity. I like to think I had some success. Ever since, there have been ongoing discussions and conversations locally, regionally and nationally about paying artists appropriately, to enable and support their economic viability. I think we all accept that there is a huge amount of speculative work undertaken by artists and other freelancers in developing projects. In the past, it was accepted that fees were paid for commissions, sometimes at the expense of exhibition fees. Artists were often overlooked, however, when it came to contributing to sector development discussions. It always seemed weirdly contradictory that visual arts professionals (read: arts officers, directors, curators etc.) attended such meetings, but very few artists were in evidence. Most of us wanted artists to be there though a vocal minority claimed (with some justification), that they had the artists’ best interests in mind and could therefore represent them. So, eventually we successfully made the case to pay artists to attend meetings, network events, strategic development activities, and for other roles supporting institutions and sector development.

Despite the push for professionalisation, this approach now seems to be slipping. Artists tell me that they are being asked to attend networking and sector development events gratis, without even travel costs being offered. There’s a worrying assumption on the part of some organisations that simply by inviting artists to a meeting will have a positive impact, creating new opportunities for the artists; and confusingly, I’ve heard arts professionals say the exact opposite, worrying that the presence of artists represents a conflict of interest!

‘You’re being well paid for this commission, can you do an extra workshop?’

Does this sound familiar? Why is an artist’s time considered less valuable than other professionals? Why, having agreed a fee and schedule with an artist, should they become more available than planned? With the recent economic downturn I sometimes wonder if the high end of the visual arts market is protected in a similar manner to higher income earners in the UK, who seem immune from the impact of the recession. As with other parts of our society, are emerging and mid-career artists being asked to carry the burden of funding cuts as commissioning budgets and exhibition opportunities dry up? After all, the press regularly reports on the buoyancy of the higher end of the art market.

The simplest solution is for those who are contracting artists is to ask themselves ‘what would this mean to me?’ If you would expect to get paid, then you should probably be paying the artist. Pre-plan as effectively as you can and negotiate with the artist or their representatives; I’ve heard of a commissioner not attending a planning meeting, having overrun on their allocated budget, but expecting the artist (also over running) to still attend. Assume nothing.

With increasing amounts of public engagement and collaboration being expected from artists and organisations, planning becomes more and more critical: the more people involved in a project, exponentially, the more time it requires. Two people can arrange their time quite easily, with four or more it can quickly become more difficult. And yes, I fully understand that artists can make things difficult, have ambitions beyond resources and push the envelope, but that’s what they are for!

I regularly advise artists who are asked to speculatively develop projects. I don’t think it’s unrealistic if an institution asks an artist to contribute to the development of a project to pay that artist a small fee for that contribution, prior to any successful funding being realised. Of course, speculative activity is one reason professional consultants charge high fees (to cover those speculative tenders and failed bids), but artists rarely get this opportunity and when they do it’s usually the commissioner fixing the fees.

The arts sector is highly competitive, but in the current climate it’s critical that we protect artists from taking too much of the burden. I remember the seventies and eighties when most exhibitions offered a small fee to show work, and most work was sourced from studios; artists having already produced it. There were very few residencies or commissions. Artists saw little financial return, unless they were commercially represented and/or had a regular teaching job. The last twenty years have seen an extraordinary investment in art and artists, encouraging commissioning and the development of new and collaborative means of working. More recently however, we’ve seen a reduction in paid creative opportunities, as more large-scale venues compete for resources to meet the increasing number of requirements and targets of their stakeholders.

I worry about the distance between the individual artist and the larger organisations. It’s really fascinating how blinkered some large-scale gallery Directors have become. I can’t talk about an artist’s experience, but I recall having lunch with a Director (I highly regard) who was complaining that in an email conversation with his peers it transpired that he was the lowest paid; this in a conversation with someone who’d just lost his full time job. On the other hand it also exemplifies the limited benchmarking that takes place by stakeholders (I should, however, mention Sarah Thelwall who’s done more good work in this area than most). How many visual arts organisations look at, for instance, the Museum Associations benchmark salary guidelines: more now I suspect since Museums have fallen under Arts Council England (ACE) responsibility. But this also highlights ACE’s very limited institutional memory, which is only being made worse by further administrative cuts.

Neither is this all about budgets, for those who still have such things. It is about prioritising financial resources alongside artists’ needs, recognising that without artists there are no galleries, no art market, no collectors and no curators. Or public engagement for that matter.

Apart from recoupment (where public money used for production is clawed back from commercial sales), the returns to the commercial sector from public investment have increased. Where is the critical thinking around the relationship between publicly funded commissioning and the market return? I’d also like to see ACE stop the repetition of policy and strategy development. When will artists be offered fees to contribute, rather than asked for fees to take part? Does anybody remember Taste Buds or Market Matters or Cultivate? Each of these reports were attempts by ACE to understand market developments: given that the last of these was published just before the start of the current economic crisis, what were the outcomes? Most of the report’s flaws were a result of the commercial sector refusing to contribute (why would they?). I know of some positive activity, mainly driven by Contemporary Arts Society (CAS) but has that impact been measured? Is market development work more effective in economically advancing artists careers, than the significant and important purchase scheme CAS led with previous lottery funding? Other organisations such as the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) are also looking to develop innovative approaches to support artists’ economic development.

In much the same way as we are not seeing any really radical thinking about our economy, we are repeating earlier mistakes.  We can change the dynamic, take responsibility, and drive and inform the argument to the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Government.

Rather than respond to the political winds… we can just pay artists the bloody money.

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

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