Tag Archives: paying artists


18 Aug


Discussions of economics and making a living from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854):



“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?”


“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

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31 Jul

monopoly manVia artist Mimei Thompson on the F***book, news of a property developer soon to be bulldozing over a hundred artist studios near Hackney Road in London. They’ll be replaced by a twenty storey tower with “workspace” (whatever that is) and 170 homes including “a number of affordable”. Britain’s cities and towns desperately need more and better housing accessible to everyone regardless of their income, but we all know what the “number” of affordable units will be: as few as possible, probably with a separate door so the poors don’t rub their poor all over the investment/money laundering boxes of all the Chinese, Russian and Arab one percenters who are just about the only people who can buy these places. Affordable is a laughably– and conveniently– ill-defined and slippery developers’ term anyway.

Don’t worry, though, the loss of this artist community (who stupidly, inconveniently brought life to a rundown area and made it attractive to developers in the first place) will not go unmarked. The developers and Eastside Educational Trust are offering a princely £1000 sculpture prize. “The winning artist will receive funds to make their sculpture, as well as a £1,000 cash prize, and the exciting chance to have their piece exhibited as a public work of art.” It’s probably not conscious, but note that they avoid the word “work” in favour of the word “piece”. The page linked here gives the number of new homes as “over 200”. An attempt to contact them about the prize met with– oops or not oops?– an out of office autoreply stating that the person responsible wouldn’t be back until the second week of August. That’s how bothered they are in whether artists actually apply for it or not, anyway. UPDATE: See below.

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27 Jul

LikeSome new research on artists working outside the gallery system has just been published by Axis [1]: Validation Beyond the Gallery. As an artist who has little interest in making objects that can be sold, collected or otherwise institutionalised, as a relative outsider (and Outsider) even among the outlying group of artists who feel the same [2], and as somebody doing ongoing work related to artists’ livelihoods and pay, there’s some interesting stuff in there. The only caveat I’d add is that the study is by their own description qualitative [3], i.e. an interpretation of narrative from only 25 participants, so personally I’d be very cautious about forming policy or drawing universal conclusions from such an incredibly small sample of participants.

Having said that, the TLDR version will perhaps be unsurprising to anyone with any experience in the matters under discussion, although evidently it still needs to be said:

  • Publicly funded organisations– and funders themselves doubly so– still won’t and don’t, for the most part, commit to artists directly because they’re geared towards fixed-term, limited and highly instrumentalised, institutionally-driven projects.
  • The (fairly large) sector is critically ignored, and often treated as the poor cousin of “proper” gallery-based art.
  • Meanwhile many artists are neither suitable for nor interested in the “Art World” that consists of the art market and the symbiotic private/major institution gallery system that is widely– obsessively, even– covered by academia, the mainstream media and the specialised art magazines to the exclusion and detriment of all the other “art worlds” that exist.
  • Experiencing any degree of success or recognition in this sector is pretty much a crapshoot because the infrastructure is so haphazard, which in turn fragments the community of artists working within it. This study very tellingly reveals that even people who work in the sector struggle to name their peers, and find it hard to define success beyond just being able to keep doing it.

Link for an introduction to the research and the wider project of which it is a part. It’s worth reading, for artists and commissioners or policy people alike, with some thought-provoking quotes from the artists and producers who were interviewed.

NB Reading it in the embedded publication viewer is like trying to knit socks onto a flea, and the way to access it at a comfortably readable size or download it is not immediately obvious: to do so, click the “i” at top right or just cut out the middle man and click here.


[1] For people outside the UK, this refers to the artists’ database and networking platform, not the WWII coalition of powers opposed to the Allies. Man, I never tire of this gag.

[2] It’s a bit less blatantly obnoxious and the artists are a bit less cut-throat about it, if only because it’s hardly worth cutting anybody’s throat over the meagre sums usually available for commissions and performances, but performance and community artists have a definite inner circle as well. You tend to see the same people– some of them, at best, one trick ponies– and the same narrow types of work on the same circuits time and time again because it’s still who you know that counts for more than what you know. That’s artbiz.

[3] Some artists might like to make sure they know the difference between qualitative research, quantitive research, and “research” that is only research is the most literal, basic sense of “systematically finding facts”; this applies especially to the most recent generation of people mangled through an art pedagogy regime which is currently obsessed with brainwashing artists into believing their art is research and research is art, without ever training them in anything resembling actual research methodologies, objectivity, or how to interpret data.


17 Jul


The early Christian writer Lactantius– who advised the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I– told the story of how the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus acquired the Sibylline books which were kept in Rome’s Capitoline temple for consultation, guidance and divination in times of trouble. Although Priscus bought them, they were eventually considered priceless and remained in the temple for many centuries until they and the temple were destroyed by fire in 83 BC.

The Sibylline books took their name from their keeper, the Cumaean Sibyl, high priestess of the Apollonian Oracle at Cumae near modern day Naples. At some point between 616 and 579 BC, she made Priscus an offer he initially thought he could refuse:

They say that Amalthea, the Sibyl from Cumae, brought nine books to the king Tarquinius Priscus, and asked 300 gold pieces for them. The king refused, saying it was far too much, and derided the woman, saying she was mad. So in the sight of the king, she burnt three of the books, and demanded the same price for the remaining six. Tarquinius thought her even madder. When she burnt three more, but persisted in demanding the same price, the king was thrown into turmoil and bought the remaining books for the original price.


In recent years some people have occasionally mooted the idea of artists going on strike to drive home how much local, national, international and art world economies rely upon the work that creative people do, much of it– as we all know– woefully underpaid and unappreciated, taken for granted, or not paid at all. I have no idea how an artist strike would work in practice, or what artists comprehensively withdrawing their labour would actually entail; I don’t think anybody does because it’s pretty much a cloud cuckoo land proposition. We already have a huge cohort of scab artists who’ll undercut and undermine colleagues who refuse to work for low or no pay. The artistic and creative industries rely upon this fact to a very large extent, actually, hence the constant issuing forth from corporate offices of so-called opportunities that are “viral”, “get your work in front of industry leaders” or “great exposure” but also PURELY BY COINCIDENCE OBVIOUSLY would cost them thousands if they paid anybody to do them properly.

Even so, I do think it’s worth artists maintaining an inner Sibyl who simply won’t negotiate or be bullied when it comes to the value of what she does and how much value it brings to other people. Be the prophetess who would rather burn her work and be thought mad than give it away.


18 Dec


“Being an Artistic and Quality Assessor for Arts Council England,” I thought. “That might be an interesting job to do.” No, I really did. I know it’s sick. What’s an Artistic and Quality Assessor, though?

“Experienced cultural professionals [who] work with the Arts Council to contribute towards the assessment of arts organisations and museums. We will be asking you to undertake assessments of the work of Arts Council funded organisations across England.

Artistic and Quality Assessments provide a fair, robust and transparent platform for discussions about the quality of work produced by organisations that the Arts Council regularly funds, helping the Arts Council develop a broader evidence base to inform funding decisions…”

I’m an experienced cultural professional. Despite my opinion that ACE is far from perfect, they make an embarassing number of idiotic and non evidence-based policy blunders, they waste a lot of money and prioritise wrongly while harping on about cuts, and they need to just get on with rebalancing funding away from London instead of always blustering and quibbling every time the issue is raised (being able to see a play from the National Theatre that’s on for one midweek afternoon on a cinema screen in Ipswich or Wolverhampton doesn’t count)… broadly speaking I think the Arts Council makes a reasonable attempt at supporting the arts in England. I’m glad they exist, and I’d happily work with them or consult with them directly if they cared about people like me and our opinions. The AQA specification all sounds fair enough, but it also sounds like quite a lot of work. It must pay very well, especially on the “comprehensive terms contract”. I mean, you’re an expert in your field; an experienced artist, a journalist, somebody who works in a museum, an academic, etc. Artists and arts workers definitely should be assessed fairly and transparently by knowledgeable colleagues and peers who know what the job is like. You’ll be doing important work and writing reports that could influence the future programming and even the financial survival of the Arts Council’s regularly funded organisations.


Oh, wait…

“A flat fee of £1,000 a year, plus expenses” if you attend up to fourteen events. That’s £71.42 per gig. I actually had to do this three times on the calculator. Not that I thought the answer would be any different; I was just completely failing to deal with reality being so crap. It might be worth it if you only went to two or three things, but I can’t see them letting you get away with that.

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