Mark Gubb and Angela Kennedy: the money problem, or, how artists could be paid more than £10,000 a year

Without artists, there is no art world – no Frieze or commercial galleries or arts-led regeneration. Why are we paid so badly, and what can we do about it?

With Mark Gubb and Angela Kennedy. Read an edited transcript of the talk here (PDF).

The economy of the arts is exceptional. Despite the prospects of a low average income, many youngsters continue to choose a career in the arts. It seems obvious that artists are prepared to work for low incomes. Sometimes they even work a second job outside the arts just to be able to continue to make art. They seem to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their art. Not only artists but society as well contributes to this peculiar sector that is dependent on donations and subsidies for approximately half of its total revenues. How should one interpret and explain these kinds of ‘anomalies’?

Hans Abbing, from the summary of Why are Artists Poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2002

Artists, like any other worker, need to earn an income. And like many other freelancers, they are sometimes asked to work for free. The issue of pay for work is complex, political and philosophical on the one hand, but tied very firmly to the practical considerations of housing, raising a family, and making work.

Over the past twenty years or so, the arts have undergone enormous cultural and social changes that provide huge challenges to artists – artists without whom there would be no art world, but who always seems to be the last one paid.  The visual arts have been subsumed into the wider creative industries, about which we hear only good economic and employment news, how they attract tourism, how they provide a workforce for the games and advertising industries. What we hear little about in the mainstream press is how their median income remains stubbornly below the minimum wage, and how they are increasingly asked to work for free.

As traditional public funding comes under pressure from successive governments, artistic aims are subsumed into more instrumentalised aims, and the language of the arts changes into one of the professional, artists are more and more asked to think of themselves more as businesses than creative workers. Increasingly, public funding is being replaced by controversial corporate sponsorship (witness BP’s sponsorship of Tate and the Royal Opera House), with artists being left to consider if they can afford the knock to their reputations to work with such institutions, or afford the knock to their careers if they don’t. Freelance activity – the structure of the overwhelming majority of individual artists – requires cross-subsidy in all sectors, where lawyers take on pro bono casework and directors of organisations volunteer on organisational boards to give something back into society. But the economic status of artists hasn’t caught up with the push to be professional, perhaps because, even without money offered, artists can still be found to work for free.

Conversations within the arts around income for artists also turn around equality and diversity. Where a sector relies so heavily on low and unpaid workers, only those with high external incomes can afford to keep working for low or no pay. Given the structural inequality of society, that also means the arts will likely remain white and middle class until we can effect change to address this issue. We run the risk of maintaining an art world that reflects only a small proportion of the experiences and backgrounds of our citizens unless we find ways to address pay.

Not that it will be easy – given the competition in the arts for exhibitions, artists can always be persuaded to exhibit for free. Some embrace this, with curatorial contact and support, catalogues, networking and contact with particular artists also highly prized by exhibiting artists. Ultimately, pay has to be balanced by individual motivations, circumstances and resources, with support for artists to negotiate for their own benefit and the confidence to walk away if a situation is not viable.

This talk will explore some of the issues above, and seek to deepen the arguments around pay for artists to ask: are the arts as exceptional as we’ve been led to believe?

Speakers

Mark Gubb is an artist and writer based in Cardiff. Born and raised near Margate, Kent, the subjects for his work are drawn from the social and political culture he grew up in. His work has been widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions, residencies and permanent public commissions. Mark was a regional advocate of the Paying Artists Campaign, run bya-n to promote and advocate for exhibition payments to artists working with publicly funded galleries.

Angela Kennedy is a multi-disciplinary artist and activist whose body based practice explores embodiment and the experiential through site responsive performance installation, choreography, text and drawing. She is also a founding member and Executive Committee member for Artists Union England (AUE), the first trade union to represent visual artists in England. Launched in May 2014, one of AUE campaigns is for fair pay for artists.

This talk was originally part of System Failure, a series of in-conversations looking at the systemic failures of the art world in its wider context. Held on Wednesday 18 November 2015 at Block 336. This talk is programmed in partnership with a-n the artists information company.

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