Artists reveal woeful pay for public art work

The lowest-paid workers in the UK’s public art sector are often those who create the art.

This is the sobering, if not totally surprising, conclusion to be drawn from Structurally F–cked, a recently published report on artists’ pay and conditions commissioned by a-n, Britain’s largest artists’ membership association. Compiled by Industria, an artist-run organisation that “examines and challenges” conditions in the art world, the report is based on 104 anonymised responses to the Artist Leaks project, which surveyed artists about their experiences of working on public commissions in the UK.

“There is a culture of low fees, unpaid labour, and systemic exploitation”

The gathered data exposes “a culture of low fees, unpaid labour, and systemic exploitation,” according to the report. Among the key findings, artists earned a median rate of £2.60 per hour, far below the UK minimum wage of £9.50 per hour (at the time of the research). Lump sum fees were a common form of payment, resulting in 74% of respondents saying they felt the artist fee was “unfair” in relation to the number of hours they worked; 76% reported their fees were below the minimum wage.

“It’s a stark reminder of the precarity of artists’ careers,” says Julie Lomax, the chief executive of a-n, which has around 30,000 members. “You can keep the market confident and make sure the market bubble doesn’t burst. The problem is in the public sector,” she says, aware that in 2022 Britain’s art market re-established its status as the second-largest in the world, according to the latest annual Art Basel and UBS art market report. “The visual arts are structurally underfunded,” Lomax adds.

Mark Titchner’s It’s not 1979 (2023), one of his latest text-based works, which harks back to Margaret Thatcher’ rise to power
© Mark Titchner

Since 2008, public arts funding in Britain has contracted by 35%, with local government spending on the arts falling by 45%, according to the report. Visual arts funding in England is a fragmentary mix of grants from the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), supplemented by support from local authorities.

Thanks to the cataclysmic hubris of Britain’s financial sector, from September 2007 to December 2009, the then Labour government found itself spending £137bn of taxpayers’ money on bank bailouts, according to the House of Commons Library. Although by January 2018, £114bn of this had been clawed back, Conservative administrations remain determined to “balance the books” by shrinking government spending at national and local levels wherever they can. Arts funding is one of their easier targets, with predictable results.

Summarising his recent experience of a publicly commissioned project in the west of England, which chimes with many of the anonymised testimonies in Structurally F–cked, artist Dominic from Luton says: “Badly paid. Project dropped at the last minute after a year’s work. Remaining funds, amounting to 50%, used for the organisation’s programme, not the commissioned project. Unprofessionalism. A request by the artist for a contract declined by the organisation.”

But by highlighting how little artists earn, does the report inadvertently play into the Conservative government’s cost-cutting hands?

Bottom of the table

In 2020 the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Department of Education published a study that showed creative arts at the bottom of the table of the UK’s graduate earnings outcomes, fuelling negative perceptions of it as a “low-value” degree. This only reinforced the findings of the government’s 2019 Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, chaired by the ex-investment banker Philip Augar, which showed the creative arts to be the degree subject that cost the government the most in unrepaid student loans. While acknowledging creative arts “make a strong contribution to the economy”, the report questioned whether “the sheer number of students” taking these subjects constituted “good value for taxpayers’ money”.

In 2021 the UK government went ahead with its plans to cut funding for art and design courses by 50%. That year, when Rishi Sunak, another former investment banker, was chancellor, the Guardian reported a source close to the government as saying “the Treasury is particularly obsessed with negative return in creative arts subjects”.

The creative industries sector contributed £109bn to the UK economy in 2021, according to the government’s own figures. The financial services sector contributed £174bn the same year. But, as Martin Wolf, the chief economic commentator of the Financial Times, points out in his recently published book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, “The financial sector wastes both human and real resources. It is in large part a rent-extraction machine.” Did the £137bn bailout of Britain’s failed banks in 2007-09 represent good value for taxpayers’ money?

A lucrative private sector

It is important to expose how little money most artists make from Britain’s public commissions. But, in a political climate where notions of “value” have become increasingly reductive, it might also be worth pointing out that there are plenty of artists are making plenty of money in the private realm.

At the top of the market, we have the young, in-demand British artist Jadé Fadojutimi. Last October at Frieze London, Gagosian’s solo presentation of six new abstracts by Fadojutimi sold for £500,000 each. If the traditional 50-50 gallery-artist split was observed, Fadojutumi would have earned £1.5m from just one stand at one art fair.

“Good on her,” says Lomax. “But that’s a very small percentage of artists.”

True, but thanks to the ever-increasing primary market price of contemporary works by coveted names, a significant cohort of British artists, many of them under 40, could be earning at least £200,000 a year from gallery sales.

Instagram and online initiatives such as Artist Support Pledge have transformed the earning power of artists without gallery representation

And then, lower down the price scale, there is the way that Instagram and online initiatives such as Artist Support Pledge (ASP) have transformed the earning power of artists without gallery representation. Since being set up in 2020, the ASP portal has enabled its thousands of participating artists to sell more than £100m-worth of works priced up to a maximum of £200, according to Matthew Burrows, its founder.

“I didn’t think my work would sell, but it did. It just snowballed. I had waiting lists for works,” says Zarah Hussain, a London-based artist whose practice is inspired by the geometry of Islamic art. Encouraged by her success on ASP and Instagram (where she has sold paintings online to collectors for as much as £8,000), Hussein gave up her job as a freelance television producer in 2021 to become a full-time artist. Last year she earned between £35,000 and £40,000 and has been taken on by London’s Grosvenor Gallery, who successfully exhibited her work at the Art Dubai fair.

“You can’t just sit around and wait for a gallery to come to you”

“I never thought I would make that amount of money from my work,” says Hussein, who is now on the board of a-n. “You have to have a business head. You can’t just sit around and wait for a gallery to come to you,” she adds. Recently, for Ramadan, the artist made a light piece for the London branch of the American advertising agency ​​Wieden+Kennedy, for which she charged £300 per day over five days.

Public commitment

But some artists remain defiantly committed to working in the public realm. Mark Titchner, who was shortlisted for the 2006 Turner Prize and who likes to make art for “places that we share”, is currently showing, in collaboration with the Changing Room Gallery, enigmatic On Kawara-like paintings at the House of St Barnabas club in Soho to benefit homeless people.

“We know the direction arts funding is heading,” Titchner says. “It’s definitely getting harder. There’s an assumption that ‘if you don’t take the work on those terms, we’ll get someone else to do it’,” adds Titchner, who describes the findings of the Structurally F–cked report as “shocking”.

Join a union, protect yourself with a contract, keep a diary of hours worked, and stop working for free

The report does, however, have practical recommendations for artists to make their working conditions and pay better, even as public funding shrinks: join a union, protect yourself with a contract, keep a diary of hours worked, and stop working for free.

Artists should “take collective responsibility”, Lomax says. “It is possible to build new economies of exchange.”

Artists are increasingly doing this by selling their work outside the gallery system and connecting with new kinds of private patrons. After all, it wasn’t artists who f–cked the old economic structures. Maybe the Treasury should remember that.

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