Artists offered NO PAY for 5 months of 'Art workshops for people with learning disabilities'!

We all know times are tough for everyone and this includes artists.  We all know the ideology of austerity is a lie (I hope!)  It's becoming increasingly difficult for artists to be paid the very reasonable £260 per day for an artist with more than 5 years experience recommended by Artists' Union England.  Why?  Not because commissioning institutions can't afford to pay artists adequately for their work; rather they choose not to pay artists properly.  Arts organisations make budgetary decisions that do not value the essential role artists play in creating arts and culture.  For some organisations (dot to dot active arts included), paying artists properly is always the first line on our budget for projects and commissions; for others paying artists comes very low down on the list of 'costs'.  As Bev Adams wrote earlier this year, '... artists always seem to end up at the bottom of the food chain with consortia and governmental organisations snaffling up the cash, leaving artists to scrabble over poorly conceived and poorly paid commissions.'  So when I was alerted to an 'opportunity' that offered a very low 'fee' indeed for what appeared to be a challenging commission backed by some very big arts institutions by the ever vigilant Aidan Moesby a couple of weeks ago, I was appalled at what I read.  I decided to stay quiet but, after speaking to a number of fellow artists, I decided I needed to say something.  This blog post attempts to explain why, as artists in precarious positions, we must remember that we have a right to ask questions of institutions, a right to critique their practices, a right to say NO!

Before I begin I must make clear this post is in no way related to my PhD research at Northumbria University but reflects my views as an artist, activist for social justice, and member of Artists' Union England.

Ok.  Now back on track.

The 'Artists Callout' comes from Venture Arts who have received funding from Arts Council England to lead on a partnership with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, Castlefield Gallery and the Contemporary Visual Arts Network which they describe in their callout as 'an exciting, experimental, collaborative visual arts project that will bring together learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists to develop shared ideas and new contemporary work.'  The trouble is that the callout originally suggested the artist's fee would be £1,000 (plus a 'free studio space') for 5 months working for between one and two days per week with a learning disabled person.  We quickly pointed out that at best this equated to a day rate of £50 for one day per week or £25 for two days.  The free studio offer is not a real on-cost to the organisations and many artists may already have a studio space anyway.  Clearly, this fee is terribly low.  Or should I say, was terribly low because, after artist and fellow founding director of dot to dot active arts Yvette Hawkins enquired about the commission, Venture Arts changed the wording of their callout to say (as it does now):

All successful artists will receive £1000 artist bursary and given a free studio space for five months (February – July 2016) coming together for 1-2 day(s) per week to share their studio with a learning disabled artist involved in the project. The bursary is intended for artists to use in the production of their own work.

So, the 'fee' became a 'bursary' to be used towards the costs of producing the project.  Yvette and many other artists became even more angry.  They wanted artists to express interest in a five month commitment for NO PAY!  Nothing.  ZERO!

This would be understandable perhaps if advertised by a struggling local community organisation looking for artists to volunteer to help support them (which often happens), but this is a partnership of big arts organisations funded by Arts Council England!  I would like to be clear at this point that I respect the rights of artists and arts institutions and recognise the various roles institutions play in creating certain forms of cultural value.  But I do wonder whether they sometimes forget to consider the rights of artists to be paid for their work.

To me, the OutsiderXchangeS project could have been a great opportunity to develop artists whether classified as 'learning disabled' or not and to pay all the artists no matter of categorisation a fair and recognised minimum day rate for the project as well as offering reasonable expenses for materials required during the collaborative making process.  A really good example of institutional practice that Emma Thomas (BALTIC Head of Learning and Engagement) describes in the project press release as being at 'the heart of our approach to the Creative Case.'  As it stands, it would appear that this high-profile partnership project does not the labour value of any of the artists who will take part in and c0-produce this project.  It is unclear whether the lead project artist will be paid or not but I would imagine she (rightly) will be paid adequately.  I also wonder about the other project overhead costs and how these are apportioned between the various partner organisations.

Nonetheless, I am concerned that 'opportunities' can be conceived of, funded and advertised without any consideration of the rights of artists to receive adequate payment for their labour.  I hope that common sense prevails in the near future and arts institutions begin respecting artists in the same way as we respect your position within our common field of work.

I am not alone in venting my frustration, there has been a healthy discussion on Twitter and Yvette Hawkins wrote a brilliant response on her Facebook page that was widely shared and commented upon.

Finally, I am pleased to say that Artists' Union England are taking up the matter early in the New Year...