England is now home to its first trade union for artists. Artists’ Union England (AUE) received its Certificate of Independence earlier this month, handing the group power to represent professional visual, applied, and socially engaged artists during any negotiation processes to improve working conditions and resolve unfair wages.
“A new landscape for artists now exists: where these core workers now have a trade union to represent them, which will work for better pay and conditions across England; where they can work together to challenge exploitative practice, be represented independently and democratically and raise the bar for artists,” AUE writes in a statement.
Efforts to organize emerged two years ago when a small group of visual artists noticed that unions such as Musicians Union; Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU); and actors’ guild Equity exist — but their own kind had no such independent representation. AUE also describes the effects of financial cuts on arts organizations and galleries that have bred an undesirable competitive environment where “production and quality of our work remains secondary.
“In effect, artists are being paid less money, for more work,” the union writes. “This employment practice is unethical, unprofessional, damaging and restricts the growth of the creative sector.” The average annual income for visual artists, it notes, ranges between just £5,000 and £9,000 (~$7,300–13,200 USD).
AUE currently has over 600 members, as acting co-chair Angela Kennedy told Hyperallergic. To join, you have to be a professional artist who lives and works in England for a minimum of six months. AUE defines “professionals” not as those who live completely off direct income from their art but rather those who “engage regularly in professional activity as visual and applied artists.” A full list of membership criteria may be found here. Aside from completing a membership form, interested artists also have to pay an annual fee of £35 (~$50 USD).
Prior to receiving certification, AUE has actively been advocating for the British arts community. In addition to releasing a statement championing free and equal access to arts education, for instance, the organization has also pledged support for staff at the National Gallery who were protesting the museum’s plans to privatize, announced last year.
“We are in the process of writing to galleries and organizations about our new status, so we are waiting to hear from many,” Kennedy said. “Many arts organizations have been very positive about it: a-n, Artquest, Axis, to name a few, have been very supportive. We are hoping Arts Council England will now recognize us on their website as the place for artists to be referred to — alongside the other cultural trade unions — as the trade union for visual, applied, and socially engaged artists to join, so as to have independent representation through a collective and democratic voice.”
Artists in neighboring Scotland already have an artists’ union called the Scottish Artists Union, which was established in 2001, when it became — in their own words — “the first new trade union of the 21st century.”