Tag Archives: unions


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.


19 May



The “unfortunately we don’t have any money” phrase is most often heard from people in salaried jobs (often at publicly funded galleries, museums or agencies, so it’s not even their money as such) who seem to experience no doubt whatsoever that their own contributions should be remunerated. They find money for all kinds of other things, but not for the art and the artists that are their reason for having a job in the first place. Sometimes it’s plain old tight-fisted hypocrisy, occasionally it’s real cognitive dissonance because they genuinely can’t see any analogy or interdependence between what you do and what they do. Either that, or they have internalised the widespread “I only do my job to get paid and I don’t like it, therefore if you like your job, why should you be paid for it?” fallacy. For artists in the UK, two significant counter campaigns have recently begun. The first is Artists’ Union England, the new national trade union for visual and applied artists. Scotland’s artists’ union has existed for many years. I suggest that all artists who care about fair treatment for themselves and their fellow artists join the appropriate union. In the case of AUE, early members will have a significant opportunity to determine its form and policy for the next few years.

The second is a-n’s Paying Artists, which clearly (although as usual perhaps a bit too timorously and Oliver Twist-like) describes just how self-defeating and perverse it is for the art world to allow or even encourage the decimation of its fundamental materials, i.e. art and artists. Visual art is just one of the fields in which a minority of people who can afford to provide professional quality work for free are destroying the opportunities and livelihoods of a majority who can’t. Those who can’t afford to work for free often have precisely those diverse backgrounds, unusual viewpoints and deep expertise that are most interesting and valuable to the sector. Jack Oxbridge-Trustfund and Kate Gallerina conversely tend to lack these qualities. I’m suspicious of the arts always appealing to the bottom line as if that’s all anyone outside of it could possibly understand, although obviously many people need continual reminders that the economic output of the arts in the UK shouldn’t be underestimated. The extended creative industries are worth about as much to GDP as the financial services sector, and more than the construction industry, but receive a fraction of the subsidy (and tolerance) of either. It’s valid to say so, but we should be wary of this always being the primary or most noticeable narrative.

My main problem with what’s on the site so far is related to the undue prominence of this economic argument. One obvious merit of artists seems totally unmentioned amongst all this talk of revenue and voices for communities, unless I’ve missed it somehow. Prosperity, tourism and community involvement are good, but what about the capacity of artists and art to bring joy, pleasure, agitation, reflection, beauty, memorialisation or provocation? If artists– in the widest possible definition of the word– are not here to bring these things, then who will? It seems like a significant omission not to mention this if you’re hoping to advocate for the value of artists’ work.

Senior figures at Arts Council England have expressed their support verbally for the campaign’s principles, though it remains to be seen if they’ll prove they have any teeth by actively enforcing for the first time their (longstanding, and genuine as far as I can tell) commitment to artists being paid fairly for their work. Paying Artists rightly suggests that fair pay and conditions for all workers or providers– including artists, obviously– should be set down in black and white as part of every publicly-funded organisation’s settlement with the funder and their commitment to the tax-paying populace whose money it really is. I would add that if these organisations repeatedly fail to comply, they should be penalised financially for it. I suspect their attitudes would change very quickly if this were the case, especially since most of them already cower before their funders even though they’re for the most part quite reasonable, generous and hands-off.

From now on, when you tell a gallery or so-called “commissioner” to do one after they say they can’t pay you, I suggest you also append links to the appropriate union and to the Paying Artists page. You know, hint.

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