Director of Modern Art Oxford Paul Hobson speaks up in the paying artists debate, pledging total commitment to artists’ remuneration
Should we pay artists to exhibit in publicly funded galleries? The Paying Artists organisation believes the answer is yes, and has been campaigning to promote artists’ rights to remuneration. Although the campaign’s demands present a significant financial challenge to publicly funded institutions, its efforts are supported by many highly esteemed galleries and their staff worldwide.
Modern Art Oxford is an innovative, internationally renowned institution, and a supporter of the Paying Artists campaign. We asked Paul Hobson, the Director, to explain why this cause is important to him and the gallery. He shares his side of the debate here.
Are you aware of the Paying Artists campaign? What are your thoughts on it?
Yes, and I think it is an important initiative. It generates debate, and highlights the complex consequences of exploitative practices in the sector.
Why is paying artists such a high priority for Modern Art Oxford?
Artists are the lifeblood of our organisation, along with audiences. Artists are producing forms of visual knowledge and experience in the world, and our overriding value is that they have to be paid and appreciated for that.
What benefits does paying artists bring to your gallery?
Paying artists helps to cultivate mutual respect between them and institutions like Modern Art Oxford. Contracted transactions are also clear, professional and binding, which strengthens our working relations. In my experience, this minimises the scope for misunderstanding and conflict, and creates a symbiotic professional investment in the realisation of new work for audiences.
What do you think are the consequences of not paying artists – for the artists themselves but also for galleries and audiences?
Clearly this is exploitative of artists, and symbolically degrading of public institutions and the values they represent. It places artists in financial hardship, significantly undermines their wellbeing, and reduces their creative agency and sustainability in the visual ecology and economy. This weakens the environment in which organisations like Modern Art Oxford operate, and ultimately has a negative impact on audiences.
How did you establish artists’ fees as a sustainable part of the gallery’s budget? Do you have to make sacrifices in other areas of the budget?
Modern Art Oxford raises all of the funds for its programme, so fundraising is a priority across the gallery team. Everybody including our curators and artists help in this process, through applications to trusts and foundations, producing editions, and engaging with our individual and corporate supporters. We consider fees for artists an integral element of our programming costs. There will always be more things we would like to offer audiences, but cutting budgets for artists’ fees is the last thing we would do.
How do you determine the amount you pay to each individual artist? Does the amount vary according to the artist’s reputation?
The fee levels we offer vary depending on the nature of the artist’s practice, and the scale and ambition of what they would like to do at Modern Art Oxford.
Besides payment, in which other ways do you support your artists?
Commissioning is a core part of our programme. We believe that one of the best ways of supporting an artist’s practice is to give them the opportunity to make new work. We offer them solo shows in the gallery, and our technical team helps them to realise new ideas. We like to think that exhibiting with an internationally acclaimed gallery like Modern Art Oxford provides significant benefits: access to audiences, professional development experience, and global visibility. All of these are important to artists. We also think about artists’ individual situations and needs: where it is of importance to them, we target journalists, curators, gallerists or collectors to further benefit them.
Others debating this issue on 1215.today have suggested that artists often accept a financial hit for the privilege of working with publicly funded galleries. In your opinion, are there any exceptions to the rule on artists’ fees, especially when younger artists might be prepared to show for exposure alone?
Is enough being done to ensure that galleries do pay artists?
It is only fair to recognise that public institutions are struggling with public funding cuts and a fiercely competitive fundraising environment. These pressures are affecting artists, and many other types of arts professionals. Undoubtedly more could be done to ensure that artists are properly remunerated, as we are operating in far from ideal times. For me, paying artists is an unequivocal and non-negotiable principle, but all galleries face difficult decisions in their own specific circumstances.
Paul Hobson is the Director of Modern Art Oxford. Working for more than twenty years in the art world, Paul joined the gallery as Director following senior roles at the Contemporary Art Society, The Showroom, the Serpentine Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts in London