This is a guest blog by Martin Daws. Martin is a Spoken Word Poet and Community Artist. Full-time freelance since 1999. Young People's Laureate for Wales 2013-2016. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter.
Martin came up with the idea of paying artists to work with communities instead of "investing" millions of pounds in "capital projects" such as arts centres. We chatted about it back in 2016 a bit and he came up with some figures back then. My take is similar but different to Martin's. I favour a simple system based upon replacing infrastructure projects with 10 year funding for community artists based on a scaled system proportionate to the size of each city, town or village. I recently tweeted this question: "Instead of a £50m art venue, a city could pay 200 artists £25k a year for 10 years to work with communities; do what they want. What do you think?" That's sort of my starting point. Martin has kindly agreed to lay out his first draft in a guest blog to hopefully stimulate more discussion and debate about this brilliantly simple, yet potentially life changing shift in how we think about arts funding and how it is distributed more equitably. I will respond in a blog post soon...
Arts Funding Model draft 1 by Martin Daws
I was in the queue for coffee at The National Museums Association Annual Conference. That year it was in Cardiff, and in celebration of our great poetic tradition in Wales I was invited to write a poem during the conference that would I would perform at the end to close it. It was a networking event and I had my extrovert head on, so I started talking to the woman next to me in the queue. She was from Arts Council England and we soon got onto the subject of how to best fund the arts.
She: we need a new model of arts funding.
Me: I’ve got a new model for you. We have a selection process to identify committed, socially engaged, artists and we put them on three year contracts. The artists take on responsibility for delivering their agreed targets, and we hire in coordination and administration on short term contracts as required.
She (folding her arms): that would never work?
Me: why not?
She: it would be chaos. How would we make sure things get done?
Me: you don’t make sure things get done, the artists do. The Arts Councils would have a skeleton staff that set targets with the artists and sends them their pay. If they don’t meet the targets in review they get support. I’ve been a freelance artist for 15 years. To survive at this you have be resourceful. The artists will be able to manage the projects and this is the important thing, work to their own agenda.
She: there’s no guarantee that would work. What would you do you if the project doesn’t meet the targets?
Me: Quarterly review. No product no pay. It’s not like we’ve got any workers rights to give up anyway.
I won’t carry on, but it ended up with her feeling a little defensive and me feeling more than a little patronised. The point of the conversation is this – when we invest in the arts who are we funding? The answer is a whole load of people, from executives (£70k-£90k) and their PAs (£25k) to project coordinators (£30k-£40k) and office cleaners (minimum wage). It’s an industry. The actual artists are a small part of the machine. Perhaps 15-20% of a project cost might go in artist fees. Now, I don’t want to put people out of work, but let’s make the primary investment in the actual artists themselves. When budgets get reduced, most commonly it is the offers to artists (short term contracts, no lengthy commitment to buy out of) that gets cut. We have an institutional commitment to the arts. But not to the actual artists themselves.
The best way to support cultural creation is to pay artists to take the time to create stuff. Give them some clear targets, say in a 12 month period, 1 x solid piece of their own work to be produced for public consumption (a book, script, exhibition, film, performance etc), 2 x lengthy community engagements (school projects, working in community groups, specialist support groups), 1 x piece of self development (training, mentoring, travel) and 1 x mentoring for a newer artist. The key here is that the artist chooses how to meet those targets. They decide if they work in a local school or an old people’s home, or both. For this to happen the Arts Councils would need to put their agenda in the hands of the artists. The people who actually produce the culture. It would offer a much higher return on cost as well.
The current model of socially engaged cultural production by organisations has a centralised office, with a project coordinator trying to facilitate projects from the outside of communities. Typically communities that are marginalised in some degree as funding can he drawn down to help combat that marginalisation. The model I’m proposing will employ an arts practitioner local (geographically, demographically) to that community and utilise their direct relevance to make the cultural production relevant and have legacy. There is potential for empowerment here.
Through many conversations with my fellow community artists, I have come to the conclusion that the hardest thing about maintaining an arts practice is making a living out of it. Particularly managing cash flow, because work can be intermittent but bills are regular. My solution to creating dynamic socially engaged culture is to support the people who will make it. If we value culture, then let’s invest in the people who are prepared to commit to producing it. Lets reward that commitment by treating it like a normal job. We don’t choose to be artists because we want to get rich. We do it because we love it. Give us a wage and let us spread the love.