Last month, Christie’s New York raked in $745 million for a single sale, the company’s highest-grossing auction ever; meanwhile, a campaign in the United Kingdom called Paying Artists released a report with a series of recommendations for getting artists paid, an urgency they claim based on their finding that “71% of artists exhibiting in publicly-funded galleries received no fee for their work” (emphasis theirs). Welcome to the art world — where there’s more money than anyone knows what to do with, but it remains mostly in the hands of people who don’t make the art.
Although it sometimes seems hard to believe, the payment of artists remains a major issue, not just here in the US but also in the UK, as the Paying Artists reports make clear. Inspired by the work of W.A.G.E., Paying Artists (which is organized by a-n The Artists Information Company and artist membership group AIR Artists’ Interaction and Representation) has been collecting data since January 2013 on the state of public arts funding in the UK and how that money makes it way, or doesn’t, to artists. The group looked specifically at the relationship between exhibiting and payment, polling artists on whether and how much they had been paid to show in public museums and galleries in the UK. What they found will depress, but not necessarily surprise, you.
The group’s Phase I report, which draws on the answers of 1,000 respondents to an online survey, is full of valuable statistics. A few notable ones:
- The largest group of respondents, 43.3%, said they make 0–25% of their income through their art/craft practice.
- The largest group of respondents, 64.1%, said their approximate annual turnover from their artistic practice was £1-£10,000 ($1.67–16,745).
- The largest group of respondents, 48.5%, said the major barrier to exhibiting their work was that it’s too expensive to do so.
- 48.2% of respondents turned down offers to exhibit their work because the space did not offer to pay, or did not offer to pay enough. On top of that, when asked to write in reasons for refusing an offer to exhibit, 63.3% of participants said “economic reasons.”
And yet, when asked to rank what activities they considered important to their careers,
Artists ranked ‘exhibiting their work’ as the most important activity for their art practice by a very significant margin. In terms of importance for generating income ‘exhibitions’ are fourth in order of importance behind teaching, sales and commissions.
Conversely, although hugely important to artists as income generators, teaching, sales and commissions are ranked as the least important activities for their artistic practice (relatively – these three activities are ranked in the bottom four). The rankings for importance to income generation and importance to the artists practice are therefore inversely related.
From there the report gets into the experiences of people who’ve exhibited in a publicly funded museum or gallery in the last three years (and the sample pool drops significantly, to 261 people). Of those, 70.9% of respondents did not receive any payment from the exhibiting institution; after that, the next biggest group, 10.7%, received payment of under £200. Interestingly, Paying Artists also found that those who had been paid to exhibit were also more likely to be reimbursed for their production costs and expenses, suggesting that institutions accustomed to paying are more generous about doing so. They uncovered a gender discrepancy as well: “36.7% of male artists reported receiving a fee compared to just 26% of female artists.”
The Phase I findings are one of several reports released over the past year by Paying Artists. In some of the others, the group speaks with staff at various institutions and venues to see how they approach paying exhibiting artists (n.b. “None of the participating venues has a ‘policy’ on fees for exhibitions and commissions, through [sic] individually they report having a kind of internal ‘standard practice’”); compiles a guide to historical information and best practices on paying artists; and looks at models for artist payment in other countries. The new document released last month offers a kind of action plan suggesting five broad steps that UK officials, arts institutions, and artists can take to help put things in motion: transparency on pay, implementation of a national policy, asking public bodies to “write pay policy requirements into funding agreements,” government-initiated research into artist pay, and the empowerment of artists to advocate and negotiate for themselves.
As if responding directly to some of those points (namely the first and last) from this side of the Atlantic Ocean, artists Kyle McDonald and Lauren McCarthy, along with two others, have coincidentally created a website called Who Pays Artists? (which I first heard about through Art F City). The project, which was inspired by the Who Pays Writers? blog, makes it extremely easy for artists to anonymously submit information by filling out a simple “share your experience” template; that includes fields for payment (or not) along with the amount of work that was done and how long the artist has been practicing in his or her field. The results are then added to a long list that visitors can scroll through.
The site casts a wide net and has received an appropriately wide range of responses — from sculptors to experimental musicians in New York, Glasgow, Melbourne, and more — which makes it sort of a mess of unverified raw data. But the very existence of that raw data can go a long way towards creating a culture of openness and discussion, which is a vital step for bringing about change.
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