25 Jan


About five years ago when I and a few colleagues started talking about the (mostly really shitty) economics and realpolitik of being an artist who isn’t one of yer Damien Hirsts, Tracey Emins or Turner Prize winner– and aren’t we all glad not to be?– everybody else’s reaction was what the who now? You want to talk about money? Why? Don’t artists just do it for the sake of art? Then hundreds of artists, arts professionals and art lovers turned up to the public discussions we organised on the subject. Now everybody’s talking about it everywhere, all the time, from Facebook groups like Stop Working For Free to art blogs like Hyperallergic. Books are written about it, although none of them are as good as mine. There are campaigns like W.A.G.E. in New York and the UK’s Paying Artists. The more the better because it’s still not enough. Nobody talks about it much in the mainstream newspapers and art magazines, obviously, or at the director and senior curator or top 100 artist level because they all have comfy upper middle class (often much higher than upper middle class) salaries to protect so they want it kept down low. Either that or they simply haven’t noticed how hard it is now for artists to get paid or even to get a foot in the door to begin with.

Last week I became aware of another two voices adding to what must soon be a critical mass of resistance to the fucked up status quo for people who work in the arts.

Iceland’s SÍM (Association of Icelandic Artists) has launched We Pay Visual Artists. Obviously their site is mostly in Icelandic, but their interesting and well-argued videos are all subtitled. a-n’s Jack Hutchinson did a report on it in English.


The actors’ union Equity also have a campaign called Professionally Made Professionally Paid, which if nothing else is an excellent slogan. They have three useful documents available to download, containing pragmatic advice for the payers and the hopefully getting paid, alongside more general context that is useful for any creative worker in any medium.

I particularly enjoyed their unapologetic and detailed calling out of You Me Bum Bum Train, who get a rocket up the arse arse because despite broadsheet cultural critics who seem to love the theatrical result of performers working their poor thespian bum bums off for no pay… (quote):

“You Me Bum Bum Train engage exclusively volunteers to do what should be paid professional work in the main. They refuse to engage with the Union in any meaningful way and have a business model dependent on the use of volunteer labour (which is largely highly skilled, being sought from the ranks of paid professionals). Only via established theatres with whom we have an industrial relationship have we managed to have any contact with the company.”

This is a very succinct condensation of the persistent and diffuse problems faced by many artists– and I mean artists in the widest sense of the word including actors, performance artists, writers, visual artists, and so on. Paid individuals, profit making companies or publicly funded projects expecting to get professional quality work for nothing, and very often getting away with it. Years of training and/or honing your craft not only taken for granted but also just taken as if they have a right to it. Paid work abolished in favour of unpaid work that only a comfortably off person can commit to. Also this theatre company’s name is really bloody stupid and has always irked me, but that’s mostly unrelated.


  1. anitachowdry 25/01/2016 at 1:50 PM #

    The more the better indeed. Unfortunately we are constantly being screwed by our own communities in a feeding frenzy for what little renumeration exists. I deplore the fact that reputable organizations like A-n and Artquest continue to condone and list, under Jobs and “Opportunities”, a large number of pay-to-enter open calls and competitions, some of which are run by artist-led organizations (the traitors!).

    For example, the prestigious Mark Tanner sculpture award run by the Standpoint gallery , an artist-run registered charity, claims a £16 entry fee which it explains, ” goes towards the cost of the selection procedure”.
    Considering the popularity of awards such as this, there must be hundreds if not thousands of entries (times £16 each) for one residency worth £8000, so you can imagine my dismay last year when I received impersonal Mailchimp newsletter from the gallery (for which I had not subscribed – that alone in breach of Mailchimp’s policy), to inform me that my application was unsuccessful. So my £16 did not even buy me a personal e-mail rejection notice.

    So perhaps we should also consider cleaning up our own attitudes, which might give the wider campaigns a little more clout and credibility.

    • Alistair 25/01/2016 at 3:22 PM #

      Personally I don’t mind so much artist-led or otherwise small scale projects asking for something to cover their genuine costs, or just raising a bit of money that way if they’re honest about it, because they have few resources and don’t have full time salaried staff.
      What really gets me annoyed is what I’ll call the Parker Harris sydrome, the endless barrage of so-called competitions associated with major galleries, foundations and so forth that are clearly (in my opinion, anyway) being run as profit centres and have the cheek to ask for admin fees when they have offices full of salaried office workers. I always wonder what their paid administrators are doing if they’re not doing admin and don’t consider admin part of their remit.
      I can also forgive a bit the lack of time a very small and/or artist-led place has to deal with all the correspondence that they get. Getting what is blatantly an impersonal mass rejection never feels good or leaves one well disposed towards the sender and everyone would do well to remember this when they take on any kind of management or leadership role, but again what I loathe is getting “unfortunately on this occasion” robomails from anywhere with an office infrastructure, paid staff and regular funding. That is lazy and/or avoiding engagement.
      There are sometimes opportunities (or dubious “opportunities”) listed in reputable places that I agree with you probably shouldn’t be there because they aren’t consistent with fair pay principles, respect for the expertise of artists, and even on occasion not consistent with basic legality with regard to employment law. I’ve complained to job and opp listing providers about these when I feel particularly strongly about them or they were especially outrageous; I suggest everyone else does the same in the hope that eventually they’ll drop off. It’s about all we can do. It has become noticeable that more and more bad opportunities are immediately picked up and condemned by somebody, or a community of people, so I stand by the idea that even if things aren’t moving very fast then at least the gears are starting to come unstuck.

  2. anitachowdry 25/01/2016 at 2:08 PM #

    I am sorry if my last comment appears to veer off-topic, but I do think that this insidious culture of competitions replacing real paid job opportunities is symptomatic of the pervading devaluation of artists as professionals. Many of us train for up to eight years all told – as long as doctors or lawyers – all in order to enter art competitions?
    Is it any wonder that many of us are prepared to accept expenses-only exhibition opportunities at major institutions, which at least affords a level of self-respect and proper exposure, and does not put one out of pocket? If we make it more difficult for museum curators to accept proposals on those terms, what have we left except the crappy little pay-to-enter opportunities so well exploited within the art community?

  3. Alistair 01/02/2016 at 10:36 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

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