Paying Artists II: The Art Career trajectory

My previous article on Paying Artists quoted research by the artist organization A-N which demonstrated that the majority of publicly funded art organizations (that is organizations which get a large part of their running costs covered by the taxpayer), do not as a general rule pay artists. (Anecdotally, I can say that there are plenty of organizations that do pay a sort of token that does not actually cover anything like the real cost of exhibiting.)

But the problem of not paying artists is much bigger than simply artists being out-of-pocket for this or that exhibition, or choosing between contributing to an exhibition or not, or making work for particular project or exhibition, or not. It affects the artist’s whole career trajectory, and creates a massive pool of stagnation that ends up in a shocking waste of energy, talent and education. This is a national problem and it is completely unaddressed.

Recent research by the artists organization Axis looked at the category called the ‘midcareer artist.’ The artistic career trajectory is generally roughly categorized into three stages: the ’emerging’ artist, which is normally the first 8-10 years after art school. Then, assuming the artist continues practicing, they enter the next stage, the ‘midcareer’ artist. At that point, the artist might remain midcareer forever. Or they may eventually move into the third category, that rarefied category called the ‘established’ artist. Naturally there’s going to be a fair amount of drain along the way. People find other careers. People just lose interest in practicing art. Sometimes people actually reach the limitations of their ability and find themselves desiring to do other things. It’s not really a problem if it is a person’s choice. But if we put the two bits of research together, the A-N’s research on paying artists, and the Axis research on the position of the midcareer artist, we start to see a particularly disturbing picture.

In the Axis research, which admittedly only quantified artists who responded to the survey, we can see that 46% said that they rarely sell their work, while 32% said they rarely exhibit their work. In responding to questions about which factors inhibit their professional development, 46% said they are unfamiliar with the art world networks and 35% are geographically isolated.

I believe that there is a correlation between this, and the lack of support that the publicly funded institutions are able or willing to offer artists to help them to develop their careers. Unpaid exhibitions, or no exhibitions, would obviously lead to the feeling that so many so-called midcareer artists have, which is that their career is stagnating. Outside of very few metropolitan areas, up and down the country, the principal places to exhibit with a reasonable profile are would be regional arts organizations such as museums and arts centers. These are precisely the places that must pay artists, and pay them according to their status. If they think a midcareer artist is good enough to exhibit, they need to pay them a reasonable amount of money to reflect that artist’s actual achievement. They also need to offer substantial opportunities to midcareer artists, because it is actually from the established and midcareer artists that younger artists actually learn.

The period of time most people spend in art college is very short, maximum three years in and out. As we are all too aware, after you’ve stumped up that enormous amount of money for your tuition, by the time you graduate, you’re out the door and that’s it. Yet we still need to keep learning, and one of the best ways to learn is to associate with older artists who are further in development. Yet we never even think of exploring mentorship. But how could you expect a midcareer artist to mentor a young artist, in the midcareer artist isn’t even being paid a decent living for exhibiting in the kind of publicly funded places that showcase the artists?

sexism / ageism / racism in the art world? Unwitting, maybe. Willing to change —?

So this false economy of not paying artists leads to a dreadful stagnation in the career of artists, who hit their stride and then find that the opportunities have dried up. It is true that some opportunities are unforgiveably ageist, particularly those coming from other European countries, which mandate particular age groups. This obviously reflects the culture of those countries, which sees human development very rigidly, and should be questioned. One thing we do know is that many artists who come from less-privileged backgrounds often are unable to start practicing seriously as artists until somewhat later in life; and many female artists take time out to raise families, which is right, but then find that the opportunities (such as grants and residencies) are no longer available because they are now “over age.”

When you start to pick the whole picture apart like this and look at all the constituent parts you see that not only is it unfair, but the this unfairness is actually depriving the country of its authentic artistic voices. If we as a nation are willing to ask the taxpayer (ourselves!) to pay towards the arts, and we ourselves as Museum and Gallery goers are willing to pay our money for tickets to experience the arts, should we not demand that they be authentic and representative of us? Not just reflect a narrow privileged slice of society that manages to tick the boxes in ways which most people cannot.

Artists that meet the standard that we should expect, need to be paid. The artist career progression needs to be reflected in the opportunities that they are offered and the remuneration that they receive. While of course emerging artists should be supported, this would far better be done through mentorships and help to establish meaningful studio groups rather than in pushing young artists into over-exhibiting. It is actually the midcareer artists who are in crisis. And as I said, this crisis is resulting in an appalling waste of energy, talent and education.


photo Gillian McIver , all rights reserved.