Ending Artist Precarity
From National Portfolio Organisations to National Portfolio Artists
Last year I returned to my high school — a state comprehensive in Ipswich — to deliver a talk titled “What is an Artist?”.
Before I went on, my old art teacher pulled me to one side. She pleaded with me to try and convince these 300+ teenagers that there was value in studying art. She told me that the number of students taking GCSE art was falling, as parents became convinced that no career lay at the end of it.
Whilst I will always argue for the “value” in studying art — both in terms of personal development, as well as nurturing creativity and skills essential across the job spectrum — what I was unable to do, however, is tell that sports hall full of young people that there was anything resembling a secure career as an artist.
Covid-19 left a majority of artists without work. In response, Arts Council England announced a £160 million Emergency Relief fund for individual artists and organisations — £140 million (87.5%) for organisations, £20 million (12.5%) for individual artists. 7,484 artists successfully applied for grants of up to £2,500. A welcome, but temporary lifeline for those with no prospect of work, no job security, and often little or no access to Government support.
This state of instant-precarity in the face of crisis demonstrates why there is nothing I can say to young people to convince them that there’s a career to be found here; and why the job of artist is relegated to a lucky or networked few, those with multiple other jobs, or those sufficiently privileged to not require a steady income.
In place of an artist career we have an arts industry; with ACE funding primarily directed toward arts organisations. 828 of these are National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) who have their funding guaranteed for four years. The intention appears to be that this funding will “trickle down” to artists. What this trickle, or drip, means in reality, however, is that artists compete against each other for micro-fees in the form of commissions and residencies, short-term grants, or access to development programmes.
Of the 15 opportunities I’ve applied for in the wake of Covid-19 the majority of artist fees have been <£1000, and of the nine who told me how many applications they received, seven received over 100 (two over 1,000). The Covid-19 crisis has certainly increased demand for these pots of money, but this experience is not unusual in “normal” times.
Susan Jones found that in 2018/19, just 135 artists (11.5% of applications) gained developing your creative practice awards (ACE’s non-project grants for individual artists), compared to 1,721 artists (52% of applicants fifteen years ago (Jones, 2019). They also found that artists with “hidden” disabilities are disproportionately impacted by this highly-competitive application system, arguing that:
“these are policy circumstances which deny all but a very few artists access to levels of financial support that sustain livelihoods through art practices over time. As such, they present a formidable barrier to achieving equality of opportunity and diversity in the arts workforce to which policy aspires.” — Susan Jones, ‘From myths to motility: doing better by artists’, (April, 2020)
These findings speak to a misconception within public arts funding — around “inclusivity”. Everything within public arts funding, rightfully, has inclusivity and diversity at its heart. No art project, or organisation, however, can overcome what is a systemic problem in the funding system itself. As Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, writing as The White Pube, state:
“The art world is notorious for consistently not providing gainful or stable employment, that financial precarity is a huge part of the art world’s homogeneity; it precludes the access of so many people.” — The White Pube, ‘Ideas for a new art world’, (April, 2020)
If ACE wants young people from deprived communities — of whom a disproportionate number are from black and ethnic minority groups — to enter the arts, then they need to make it a viable career option, with some form of economic security attached. There are many forms this can take — examples of extensive artist grant systems exist within Nordic counties, where funding can be guaranteed for a number of years, and in France, where the l’intermittence du spectacle system pays a state salary to artists for any months they are not contracted, which in 2014 equated to a median annual payment of 13,700 euros.
minimum income for any period they are not contracted.
What the ACE Emergency Relief Fund has done is prototype such a system. They’ve decided who it is they’re there to support — freelance artists working publicly — and created a rudimentary system for determining who falls into that category; giving us a snapshot of the scale of such a system.
For example: 10,000 artists each receiving a grant of £10,000 for a guaranteed number of years would cost ACE £100 million/year. To put that in context, 663 NPOs between 2015–18 received almost £1 billion in ACE funding.
I know what £10,000 of secured income per year would mean for an artist. It would mean bills being paid without a second, third or multiple other jobs. It would mean carrying out the level of engagement that projects actually require. It would mean being paid for (some of) the time put into applications and research. The greater autonomy this funding would afford would also enable artists to take more risks and for bolder ideas to emerge — for better art — at a moment where we are collectively imagining our future.
Such a “merit” based system would need to be accompanied by an increase in (properly paid) commission, residency and development opportunities aimed at emerging artists in particular, creating chances to establish a track record of art activities. An ACE grant system that relied on track records, references and basic project descriptions would be a step toward removing another great barrier to inclusivity within artist funding: the requirement to write convincingly and eloquently. Arts organisations currently offer assistance with this writing process, which while good intentioned, should be entirely unnecessary — a job role that exists to overcome art funding’s own bureaucracy — while most artists can’t make a living.
Alongside a secured funding system there must be new roles for artists within the arts industry itself — with artists appointed as (salaried) board members and advisors within organisations. Such a dynamic would not only ensure a more equitable relationship between industry and artist, but also allow them to collaborate on the highly creative task of determining how to reach the public, who these publics are, and what we want art to do.
This is not an argument between artists and art organisations. Art organisations are essential. They enable artists to reach audiences, especially those who have historically been underserved by art. They support art making through facilitating collaboration; with creators, expertise, industry and communities. However, the funding of arts organisations, and the scale of bureaucracy within them can no longer be at the expense of locking in artist precarity, and by extension — the profession’s elitism.
The pervasive rhetoric around the power of artists to make positive change in society must now be substantiated by greater financial security and new roles within the arts industry. Such reforms may mean that one day someone could stand in front of a sports hall full of young people and tell them about how they too could pursue a career as an artist, without the precondition of precarity.