Artists' Union England during a march in February (photo via @hayleyhareart/Instagram)

Artists’ Union England during an End Austerity Now protest last July (photo via @hayleyhareart/Instagram)

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).

are you an artist, want to make a change? stand for AUE Exec, #tradeunion #art #Iheartunions

A photo posted by Hayley Hare (@hayleyhareart) on

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.”

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

14 replies on “Artists in England Form a Union”

    1. Really? Do you think that’s the problem? Or do you think it might be that the “customers” are corporations whose M.O is to oppress and undervalue workers?

      1. Most artists I know (painters, sculptors, illustrators) operate more like independent small businesses. These independent/freelance artists have many different customers and clients…from around the world. They do not work (full time) for a corporation….however, they may sell their art or art creating services to corporations.
        Most artists I know set their own prices for their art or creative services. Not sure how a union would help these artists.
        Can you give an example or two of, as you say, “… corporations whose M.O is to oppress and undervalue workers” in regards to artists?

        1. I want to chime in about one example. W.A.G.E. discovered that the wealthier a nonprofit the less likely they are to pay artist fees. I think that’s an example that a union could change.

          1. Go ahead, identify the bloodsuckers!
            I’ll share your findings with my social media contacts.
            I may not have enough of them, but they are hundreds who may share with their eventual hundreds.

          2. Interesting read, but I didn’t get to the part where an institution was demonstrated to be exploiting artists.
            I did read the funny comment about calling the art police.
            Would you tell them that Warhol and others gave art away for free?

    2. Spoken like a true capitalist consumer.
      Not enough customers?, the Tate – around 6 million annual visitors, Metropolin NY – 6.5 million, The National Gallery 6.5, The Louvre – 10….. You get my point.
      How can there be too many artists, art is everywhere around us, in everything, without creatives we wouldn’t be where we in the world today. Art isn’t created to be bought or sold, it is born from our experiences and passion regardless of custom.
      But if you want to talk about what a union could possible do…..
      Musicians get royalties, what do artists get once their work has left them….. Nothing baring the first sale price. Perhaps a union might bring fairness and equality.

      1. TomD – Regarding your comment…
        – What is a “true capitalist consumer”?
        – You cannot compare huge, public funded art museums with the single artist working at home. Those visitors (customers) to art museums are not buying art from the single artist working at home.
        – Working artists have to sell art in order to make more art. (Unless they have a spouse or other source of income to live from.)
        – Artist do get royalties….from prints, from books, from clip art, etc, etc. An artist can work through other companies or sell the art themselves.
        – In Europe there is a law that artists get a commission every time the art is resold.
        One of the things a Union could do is promote the owning of art.

        1. The conflict around fairly valuing and remunerating artists in society, since time immemorial.

  1. Until art schools begin teaching the history of artists along with the history of art and the nomenclature ‘Artist’ is included as one’s cultural identity we will remain woefully ignorant of our own worth and prone to a life of reticent exploitation.

  2. It’s about time. There was a try at such an organization in the US more than twenty years ago, but it didn’t work. Good luck!

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