A conversation with Joseph Young – Paying Artists

S c r o l l D o w n

Paying Artists responds to the needs and aspirations of a-n’s 20,000 visual artist members across the UK, supported by evidence-based research reports to show the impact on artists of poor payment practice.

1. Looking at your activities, you have a very clear statement and methodology. The name Paying Artists is in itself a declaration of intent. One of the common problems in the fight for fair treatment of cultural professionals is the difficulty to define competencies. Did you find an effective model to differentiate the artist from other categories of workers? Do you also find that curators face similar barriers?

The focus of the Paying Artists campaign is very specific – to achieve a system of fair payment for artists exhibiting and showing their work in publicly funded galleries. This narrow focus overcomes a lot of the difficulties you describe. It is much easier to make a case for fair pay when you can point to the public subsidy that supports cultural spaces and the fact that it has become common practice for all of the workers in a gallery (right down to the cleaners) being paid, apart from the exhibiting artist. The one person, who, incidentally, is the reason for the gallery existing in the first place…
With regard to curators, I would agree that they face similar difficulties to artists, as self-employed cultural workers, so a campaign could be extended to include curators. But for now, as an artist membership organisation, we are focusing our attention on artists, whose incomes and livelihoods have been severely affected by the austerity culture of recent years.

2. Your campaign is mainly focused on publicly funded art spaces. We share your concern regarding the responsibility towards its community that an institution will have – and that artists are also part of that community. What about private galleries, foundations, biennials or festivals, which also have ambiguous terms and conditions for artist remuneration? Are you stating that different types of funding or financing require alternative approaches?

If a festival or biennial receives public funding then the same conditions applies as to publicly funded galleries – they must pay their artists fairly. As regards private galleries, we have discussed this issue extensively during the campaign, but we recognise that would need, in the first instance, to commission a completely new set of research and data to support any future campaigning in this area. This would be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking and will therefore have to be balanced against the other outstanding issues still under consideration such as recoupment of public investment, artform-specific exhibitions and touring shows.

3. Your Campaign Pack is a very useful tool for anyone interested in sharing the same attitude. In our experience, is not very easy to get attention about this topic, because artists are commonly designated as elite or bohemian, depending on the occasion. Often, people outside the art world don’t realise that we are in need of the same rights as any other category of workers. How do you raise awareness of these issues?

You’re absolutely correct about the perception of artists as being somehow separate or outside of the rest of society and therefore not subject to the rules and regulations that govern everyone else. However, one can also utilise these same rules to strengthen and support artist-led campaigns. For instance, we have invoked the duty of publicly funded organisations to meet diversity targets as a pre-condition of receiving public funding, by pointing out that if only those artists who can afford to work for free are being exhibited, then galleries are failing in this area and are at risk in having their subsidies withdrawn.

4. On a practical level, can you give us a few campaigning tips that have come out of your most successful actions? Under what circumstances would you consider the campaign successful? Having fought to let other people hear your voice, do you have direct experience of involvement in a decision-making process?

Mounting and organising a national campaign could not have been achieved without the support of our large membership, and building good will across the whole of the visual arts sector. We have developed an inclusive method of campaigning that endeavours to bring the whole of the publicly subsidised visual arts infrastructure with us, rather than battling against them in an “us and them” scenario. So I guess my main advice would be to conduct extensive research before you start to lobby. The shocking facts about artists’ livelihoods are what have finally convinced the galleries and funding organisations to support us, in the face of shrinking budgets and increased expectations of “value for money”.

I don’t think we can measure success as the publication of the exhibition fees guidelines and think that the job is over and done with at that point. We are fighting for fair pay for artists for the current generation, but that fight may have to be fought again in the coming years using a different narrative. The UK used to have systems in place up until about 20 years ago that guaranteed artists’ exhibition fees, but these ceased to operate for a number of reasons, which is why we have had to launch a new campaign to make the arguments all over again.

A big part of the Paying Artists campaign has been about representation and of artists finding their public voice. The culture in Britain up until now has been one of curators and arts managers speaking ‘on behalf of’ artists and now artists are having to learn to advocate for themselves, rather than being content to let others speak for them.

5. We all agree we may have wonderful ideas and ethical aims, but good results often requires funds. Volunteering for good causes is noble, but we want to set a good example and make our cause financially sustainable. Which principles shape your structure in terms of work policies and fundraising?

a-n receives around 25% of its overall funding from public sources and this subsidy augments its programmes and overall stability over a 3-4 year period, as well supporting the kinds of activities that might not be possible through membership fees alone. Our membership fees have remained static (and low) over the last 10 years – public funding has helped us do this. It means that our profits go towards supporting our artists directly, through small grants, professional development and membership services.

As we are the Paying Artists campaign we always offer a fee to artists who are directly commissioned to make work for the campaign or advocate on our behalf. We are fortunate in this respect, as many artist-membership organisations and unions cannot afford to do this and rely solely on volunteer contributions to make their campaigns work. We believe we have an ethical duty to make sure that artists are fairly paid for all of their professional activities and so have built these costs into our campaigning model.

6. What would you insist on if you were to put forward proposals to your Government regarding a system for funding artists? In Italy, our Government is currently evaluating the idea of giving artists a studio at a very low rent for 10 years under certain conditions. These conditions include the maintenance of the building and its promotion through the web or community-focused events. Another very important policy for us is a lower tax system for freelancers. What support is provided for artists in the UK?

Universal Basic Income is now being openly discussed in many countries around the world as a response to the increasing automation of the workplace and could provide an excellent model for artists’ support by removing some of the obstacles to sustaining a practice for artists without a private income. Other than that, affordable studio space is always a priority, with major problems particularly in London, where not only studio rents but also private rental prices are increasingly unaffordable. If this trend continues, then London will inevitably lose its place at the centre of the global art market, which relies on a constant influx of new talent to sustain it. (New York, Berlin and other cities face a similar problem.) Some sort of system of subsidy for studio rents and rent controls on privately rented property therefore seem necessary if London is to continue as a world leader in this respect. In the meantime, though, we won’t be holding our breath waiting for this to happen and so the mass exodus of artists to towns and cities on the fringes of London, such as Margate and Folkestone, will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

As a result of the Paying Artists Campaign, a-n and AIR launched the Exhibition Payment Guide on 12 October 2016.
You can read it here – http://www.payingartists.org.uk/project/exhibition-payment-guide




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