Our Digital Director Sarah Gillett discusses artists’ payment in light of our evolving economic and cultural climates
Over the past 20 years the museum world has undergone a revolution. No longer considered as intimidating echo chambers for dusty academics or a lofty elite, nowadays museums are alive with vibrant education programmes, chirruping tour guides, swathes of students drawing and people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds who come to look at the permanent collection displays and temporary exhibitions. There are queues to eat in museum cafés and the museum shops are full of gifts, books and cards alongside limited edition artworks. Visiting a museum is a satisfying day out for families, lovers, friends and the individual visitor feels part of a cultural crowd.
In the UK, the establishment of a new museum or major gallery is often the vanguard of urban regeneration, so that a whole city is swept up in a whirl of new building work, enterprise initiatives, creative hubs and new commercial interests, jobs and homes. Success stories include Tate Liverpool, the BALTIC in Gateshead, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, the V&A Museum of Design in Dundee, assisted in part by government funding but increasingly underpinned by hefty fundraising campaigns that must keep Museum Directors and their Development teams up at night.
And what are we going to see when we go to a museum or publicly funded gallery? The best venues are surprising and show contemporary artists alongside artists of the past. Sometimes the contemporary art will have been bought by the museum for its collection, so it belongs to the museum forever, whether on show or not (as are its exhibiting, insurance, conservation and storage costs). Some venues run artist-in-residence programmes to generate work in response to all that historical weight. Other venues work collaboratively with the artist and communities outside the institution, such as the model adopted by The Showroom in London, but more often than not, the exhibition will be put together from works that belong to individuals, other museums and the artist themselves.
There is no single contractual framework to help artists and venues work together, because every project is different. For many artists the kudos of being shown in a museum or public gallery is like a stamp of approval, a moment of celebration. After all, the artist isn’t just being given a space, they have the might of the institution supporting and profiling them, from the curators to the technical installation teams, to press and marketing departments, through to educational and outreach programmes for adults and children.
But publicity does not directly put food on the table or pay for the associated costs the artist will incur whilst making the work – studio rent, bills, materials, equipment, administration time, production time and, perhaps most difficult to monetise, the original idea, which may take years, a lifetime, to develop and convey in any meaningful way.
There may be an artist fee offered in some cases to produce new work, but at a time when the cultural sector is under pressure to justify its value within society, is it fair to ask museums to shell out for this on top of all the costs for running and maintaining the building, its staff, security and artworks?
Having said all that, remember that museums and galleries need artists. Without artists, there would be no galleries, nothing to put in all those buildings, nothing for us to see, feel, love, hate. Don’t we too need artists to keep striving, to fill museums and galleries with wonderful, challenging works of art that provoke us to think and debate?
So we are left with a conundrum – unless the artist is one of the famous minority that has a very successful and high-profile practice, how can they afford to sustain themselves and their career if they are not paid to exhibit? The reality is that many artists have jobs too – from teaching to shift work to assisting other artists – and pour their wages back into their artistic practice. Perhaps that’s fair enough if you believe that the arts are a non-essential sector in today’s society, and being an artist is an individual choice. After all, we are faced with worrying challenges ahead including the cost of healthcare, housing, climate change, policing and education.
I don’t believe this. I believe that the arts are fundamental to our understanding of the world, can help us make sense of our own place. At its very best, an artwork says something to us about the human existence that can’t be explained in words, something that translates across history and geography to reach into our soul with piercing clarity.
Should artists be paid for exhibiting their work? Absolutely. The real question for me is, whose responsibility is it?
Learn more about the UK Paying Artists initiative
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