Julie McCalden speaks up in our ‘paying artists’ debate, exposing underlying issues of class and diversity in arts careers today
Talking about paying artists is like opening a can of worms. There are the legal issues around workers’ rights and fair pay practices where artists seem to operate in a grey area. There are the ethical considerations around exploitation. There are the difficulties of establishing fair pay standards when artists’ practices are so varied. There are the economic realities of organisations trying to deliver their programmes when faced with budget cuts. And there are also, perhaps less apparent, issues around class and diversity.
What is really at stake when we talk about paying artists is culture. It is to ask the question: Who is entitled to make our culture and who is it for?
You see, in our current economic climate, time is an increasingly privileged commodity and it’s one of the things artists need most to develop their work. Artists who come from wealthier backgrounds, or have a financial safety net, are able to spend less time doing other types of work to earn money and more time on their practices (which can take years to develop to a point where they may receive payment through sales or commissions). This gives those who are already privileged an advantage over those in less financially secure circumstances.
For less advantaged artists there is a strong and valuable tradition of supporting practice through part-time work. But as wages feel the squeeze and the cost of living goes up they are having to work longer hours to make ends meet. The pressure to earn enough to survive, as well as to support the spiralling costs of an art practice – and, for some, the costs of having a family – can become too great. Some artists may leave the field in search of financial security elsewhere.
So instead of having a culture where anyone from any background can feel that a career in the arts is a realistic choice for them, we will be left with a culture that is produced by the already privileged. And because the work that we make is a product of our lived experiences, the chances are that the work produced will also only speak to privileged audiences.
When a gallery or a museum exhibits an artist’s work, they benefit from all the unpaid labour that the artist has dedicated to developing their practice. They are using the artist’s work to attract new audiences and improve their offer to existing ones. The audience may provide income for the venue through ticket sales or a visit to the shop or café. All of these things help the venue to justify the public investment it receives from funders like arts councils and local authorities.
The artist also stands to benefit through the reach of the organisation, its validation and profile. Incidentally, so do the venue’s curators who are building a career around the artists and the type of work they choose to exhibit. But nobody suggests that curators should do this for free, or that the exposure they get should replace their fee. So why should artists?
Tax payers’ money also comes with responsibilities, and one of those is around fair pay. When everyone from the café staff to security, cleaners, finance officers and directors are rightly paid in exchange for their work, why shouldn’t artists be? After all, it is their work that is at the centre of the organisation’s very existence.
Organisations are also feeling the pinch and making the step towards their aspirations to pay artists won’t be easy. But if organisations consider artists’ fees as one of their core costs and budget for them in their funding applications, and if funders only fund organisations who demonstrate fair pay practices, this inequality could be a thing of the past.
Paying artists a fee when they exhibit their work in publicly funded galleries won’t eradicate cultural privilege overnight and it won’t become the primary source of income for the majority of artists. But it will be a step in the right direction. It will mean that artists can expect fair recompense when their work is exhibited. This fee will mean that they can spend less time doing other types of work to earn money, freeing up more time for their practices. In doing so it will contribute to creating a more level playing field, so that anyone, from any background, can more seriously consider becoming an artist.
Sign up your support to the Paying Artists campaign: http://www.payingartists.org.uk/signup