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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Paying Artists

This post was meant to be about my recently begun new collaboration funded by an a-n bursary, but I've been distracted by a-n's #PayingArtists campaign so I'm going to write about this instead...

That artists are paid properly is something I'm passionate about, not only because I'm an artist who wants to get paid, but also because it's vital that art as a profession begins to be recognised and artists rewarded for their vital contribution to society and the economy.
It was with despair but not a great deal of surprise that I read that 3 in 4 artists earn less than £5,000 a year, a figure well below the national minimum wage. By hook or by crook I've managed to (mostly) earn a fair bit more than this for each of the ten years I've been an artist since my graduation, and for this I count myself to be very fortunate. It's been hard work, but for whatever reason I've managed to make a reasonable living from my art.

Keeping an eye on the Twitter #PayingArtists campaign, I'm not at all surprised the majority of artists have such a tiny income. It just illustrates the horrifyingly entrenched culture of expecting artists to work for nothing (or only expenses) across the breadth of the economy. What I find especially sad is that so many requests for freebies are coming from arts organisations who must be aware of how little artists earn, many of them being run by artists themselves, and one would hope would lead by example by paying artists fairly.

So what does this tell me? Is it that art is not viewed as a real profession, and as a result no one is willing to pay artists a professional wage? Are the incredible, unique and honed skills of the practiced artist worth so little? Or in actual fact is it that society is so used to asking artists to work for free that it now expects little else? Of course we artists do love what we do (mostly) but we all also have mortgages, rent, families and need food! Thus, this whole premise of the work in itself being enough reward must be unpicked and the practice of paying/not paying artists remade from the bottom up. And for this, thank goodness, there's the #PayingArtists campaign.
Now I must admit that, like any artist, I've done my fair share of work for free, enticed by the promise of "good exposure" and "looking great on my CV" etc, etc... And yes, maybe, perhaps this was true when I first graduated. But now, ten years later, no way! During my ten years of practice I've built up a solid reputation, exhibited widely, been shortlisted for awards and worked for big private and corporate clients, and my CV already looks pretty good, thank you! However I've only ever been paid once by a public gallery for putting on a solo show.
Lately the requests for freebies have been coming thick and fast. I was recently approached by an individual on behalf of an organisation who said "We really love your work and find your research fascinating. We'd love you to work with us on this project..." To which I replied "Great! Fantastic! My fee for a day is £150" (pretty reasonable I feel given my experience). I didn't receive a reply. Obviously they didn't love my work or value my experience enough to pay me. What makes me angry and frustrated here is that the same organisation has probably approached some other artist who has agreed to do the work for free on the unfounded hope that it may, sometime, lead to something paid in the future. As a result of this I'm probably now labelled as a mean, money-grabbing individual in that particular organisation's books too.

Is it too much to ask that I'm paid accordingly for my valuable skills and experience? I work regularly with large organisations (not arts) who contract me to use these skills to problem solve and deliver creative training solutions. These corporate clients value my unique insights and creative talents and are more than happy to pay me accordingly. After all, I have a very special set of skills highly prized but often under-represented within the world of business. And being paid for this (on time too!!) feels great.

Earning a decent wage is directly linked to the perception of self-worth and the value we place on our talents. It's so important that we artists are paid properly to feel respected and enable us to invest in and sustain our practice.

This leads me to my final point. Art is my passion, and being an artist is the driving force within my life. But I've become tired; tired of being underpaid and scratching around for an income; tired of feeling undervalued; tired of feeling my hard work and creative mind is taken for granted; tired of feeling I'm expected to give away my services freely to the lowest bidder. A-n's #PayingArtists campaign is just what's needed to give this country a massive kick up the backside and demand a better deal for artists. I'm backing it 100%, and I really hope it makes a difference. But, I'm not stopping here. I'm a professional and am good at my profession, and I want my income to reflect this. I've embarked on a programme of upskilling myself; studying and taking exams to add professional qualifications to my already impressive but art-centric CV. I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that even if artists do start to get paid a "fair" wage, what will this entail? It may still only equate to minimum wage, and I believe I'm worth a great deal more than this. The many skills of an artist are tricky to define, and perhaps this means it will always be a challenge to get paid fairly because many organisations/clients will struggle to understand exactly what it is they are paying for. So I figure I need to learn the language of business in order to get recognised for my skills and paid properly, because maybe, sadly, this is the only language that everyone understands.

Last month I passed my first project management exam, and I have more lined up for the summer. Immediately this has placed a recognised monetary value upon my skills. As opposed to being scared about how I'll survive I'm now excited by the prospects the future may hold. With the removal of financial pressure I've discovered a new-found energy for my creative art. Perhaps I can now have the best of both worlds?


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