Imagine turning up to work, putting in the hours, doing such a good job that you are roundly admired, patted on the back, congratulated for your work. Imagine the people talking about you, how good you are in your job, and that they admire you. Perhaps even writing about you in the press about how good you are in your job. Imagine that you very often take the job home with you and work well into the night, that your weekends and holidays involve you continuing to work. I’m sure you can imagine it, because it’s not completely uncommon. But could you imagine doing all of this without getting paid?
Imagine doing all of this, without getting paid, yet your employer is a publicly funded organization, the gets its income from the taxpayer and is staffed by people on full salaries, while you yourself have to go back to that same taxpayer and claim benefits.
Who on earth would think that this is an equitable system?
However, research by the A-N has shown that over the past three years, 71% of artists didn’t get paid any kind of a fee for contributions to publicly funded exhibitions. The same research showed that 63% of artists felt forced to reject gallery offers because they couldn’t afford to work for nothing. Which makes you wonder about those who did take up the offer of exhibition: independently wealthy or family funded artists? These are hardly going to be representative.
I wrote recently about representation in the art world, and how the art world is completely unrepresentative of Britain’s cultural mix. But I think that this research revealing the parlous economic state that artists are in, is very important.
We have reached the bizarre situation where a very few London art schools completely dominate the major art prizes (which lead to prestigious gallery signings, biennials and so on). This means that the only people who get chosen for art prizes are people were already fortunate enough to live in London, or are wealthy enough to move to London to study, and pay the insanely exorbitant costs of housing and transport.
But there’s another route to getting exposure, and that is through exhibiting. The national network of publicly funded organizations and institutions, including independent organizations who receive project funding, is supposed to create these opportunities up and down the country. But these are not going to be opportunities if the artist cannot afford to take them.
We accept the idea of ‘pay to play’ in small private galleries, although this itself has a deleterous affect on the art world, because it means that the small galleries which we assume are filled with ‘cutting-edge art’, are actually filled with art made by people wealthy enough and vain enough to cough up upwards of 1000 pounds a week to rent the gallery to showcase themselves.
But nobody expected ‘pay to play’ to be the norm in publicly funded galleries. But it is ‘pay to play’, let’s not make any bones about it. It’s ‘pay to play’, because if you offer me an exhibition opportunity, and you don’t pay me, then you get the benefit of my work, and your increased visitors numbers (which guarantees your continued funding), and people coming to use your cafeteria and whatever other services that you provide, and enhances your public profile. But I’m actually going to have to pay to produce the work and then depending what it is, I may have to pay to frame it, or otherwise arrange delivery and installation. You not asking me to just grab something out of my storage unit and haul it over on the bus.
The A-‘s paying artist campaign is a good one, and I fully support it. The very very very least we can ask from our organizations who have public funding is to reorganize their structures and their budgets and ensure that artists are paid.
However, there’s much more to the problem than simply cash. It is a whole complex disaster that combines elitism, nepotism, notions of cultural superiority and inferiority, sometimes sexism (which runs both ways), inequality, and frankly, I think, just pure blind pigheadedness.
I’m not really sure how we’re going to unravel all of this. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother trying to unravel it. Perhaps we should just take a hammer and smash it.
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